Sunday, March 26, 2017

SCRIPTMONK's Big, Huge (not so huge) Plot Pattern DVD Bin (part 1)


Six years ago, I stumbled upon the first hints of a cinematic phenomenon I still quite frankly find amazing. Under their surface, wide collections of Hollywood’s most successful and well-loved feature films; despite extreme differences in style, premise, content, or genre; appeared to follow identical patterns of plot. These were not broad or general patterns like the vague and unwieldy 3-Act Restorative Structure, but very specific patterns where films mirrored one another on a sequence-by-sequence, event-by-event basis. Digging into a closer analysis of hundreds of films, I found this was no rare occurrence. Every well-plotted American film (of traditional three-act form) fit snugly into one of these patterns. The faults of mediocre films could be traced to where they strayed from these patterns. On the other hand, poorly-plotted films followed no pattern at all. Soon, every new film had me at some point jumping from my seat, triumphantly shouting “Type 2b!” “Type 8c!” “Type 15a!” Most amazing of all, these plot patterns seem to arise naturally on their own accord, without the knowledge of even the artists who create them. All in all, I have identified thirty-four common plot patterns of American cinema, detailed for the first time in my most recent book Screenwriting & The Unified Theory of Narrative, Part II: Genre, Pattern & The Concept of Total Meaning. Together with the Unified Narrative Structure presented in Screenwriting & The Unified Theory of Narrative, Part I and the contributions of genre, protagonist psychology, and artistic specialization, the plot pattern phenomenon provides a key part to our comprehensive understanding of how cinematic stories function and communicate meaning.


But enough prologue. Over the last few months I have gotten some rare free time to catch up on films I missed in theaters. Needless to say, each new film continues to confirm my findings. Yet still, nearly every one teaches me something new. Considered one at a time, each instance reveals in greater detail the strength and versatility of their pattern (or in some cases, patterns). Plot patterns are not rigid or restrictive, but highly flexible and capable of serving practically any premise. (As I have always said, structure must adapt to the needs of the story, not the other way around.) Every new example gives fresh evidence of how plot patterns can be bent (and the consequences of being broken) or reveals creative alternatives and variations which may be used to match a strong structural foundation to an original premise. Here follows a selection of nine films with an analysis of their use of plot pattern.


Nightcrawler (2014)
Type 5c: The Exploiter. The Exploiter is one of the least common American plot patterns. Luckily, Nightcrawler give another instance to add to the examples There Will Be Blood, The Social Network, and Bowfinger used in UTN Part II. Like these films, Nightcrawler centers upon a morally-dubious protagonist (Louis Bloom, played by Jake Gyllenhaal) selfishly pursuing an opportunity which requires him to continually lie, cheat, and manipulate others for personal gain. Success in this endeavor requires the continued loyalty or unwilling (or unwitting, depending on the case) compliance of two key supporting characters: the Close Comrade and the Dupe. In Nightcrawler, these roles are served by Louis’ “intern” Rick and TV executive Nina. (Though unlike other Exploiters, it is unclear which character serves which specific role. The functions of the two roles seem to be shared between Rick and Nina, as Louis treats them both as the Close Comrade or the Dupe depending on the situation.)

Nightcrawler’s plot however is missing a few common structural events found in other, more successful Exploiters: 1. The loss of the vital Close Comrade/Dupe near the Midpoint; 2. The protagonist’s efforts to replace or regain control over the lost character; and 3. The return of the lost Comrade/Dupe at the end of Act 2B. While Nightcrawler remains a serviceable narrative, these missing complications leave Act 2B one-dimensional. Since Louis’s ambition faces only a singular threat, the conflict seems simpler and far easier to overcome. Thus, the drama does not intensify as greatly as it would otherwise, keeping Nightcrawler’s final sequence from being as powerful a climax as we normally expect.


BoxTrolls (2014)
Type 11a: The Social Reformer. Typified by films like Braveheart or Erin Brockovich, the Social Reformer pits the weak and oppressed against a tyrannical authority; usually to address a social issue or themes on personal rights or freedoms. Boxtrolls shows that the content of such stories need not always be so serious. Despite being a lighthearted Family Adventure, this animated feature follows the Social Reformer pattern to a tee. Act 1 establishes the oppression or unfair treatment of a disempowered group of individuals by a Force of Tyranny (though a rolling setup rather than a single inciting incident). The protagonist takes notice of this, and at the End of Act 1 Turning Point voluntarily chooses to become the group’s champion. In Act 2A, the protagonist promotes this cause by forging alliances with more powerful individuals and encouraging the oppressed peoples to unite under a common front. With success, the protagonist makes his or her first major direct assault upon the Force of Tyranny at the Midpoint. This arouses the wrath of the Force, leading to counter-actions which weaken or completely destroy the protagonist’s alliances by the end of Act 2B. With the pattern’s common theme of “united we stand, divided we fall,” the protagonist can only hope to defeat the Force by reforging these crucial alliances in Act 3.

Boxtrolls however contains two interesting details which help us gain a more flexible understanding of the Social Reformer pattern. First, Social Reformers typically contain a vital character role I call the “OverBoss.” Played by Robert the Bruce in Braveheart and Erin’s employer Ed Masry in Brockovich, the OverBoss is a person of greater social power whose support the protagonist needs to grant his or her cause the necessary strength, resources, or legitimacy. In Boxtrolls, this function is served by the little girl Winnie, daughter of the city’s highest-ranking nobleman. This shows that the OverBoss need not be a character of actual power or authority, but merely a person with the knowhow, social standing, or resources to further the protagonist’s cause in ways the protagonist cannot. (As a result, I may have to rename the “OverBoss” to something more inclusive.)

Second, as explained in UTN, success or failure in Act 3 depends on the protagonist’s will to take the actions necessary to reforge lost or broken alliances, for the powerful Force of Tyranny cannot be defeated without a united front. Yet unlike examples such as Erin Brockovich, Boxtrolls’s alliances do not reform through the protagonist’s direct efforts, but behind the scenes and on their own accord—leading to the hero’s last-second rescue when his fate seems doomed. While this provides the Family Adventure with an equally acceptable conclusion, it may be accused of the dreaded deus ex machina. Thus, such an alternative is dramatically weaker and may be considered implausible in more realistic narratives.


The Big Short (2015)
Despite the aforementioned rarity of the Exploiter, we find another example in The Big Short. Yet Short appears much different than Nightcrawler due to its use of a multi-narrative structure. Short alternates between three separate and independent storylines, each with their or own protagonist (or protagonists). Nevertheless, these narratives all follow the Exploiter pattern; albeit in a simplified manner—simplified because each are allotted only a third of the film’s overall screen time and thus must limit themselves to only the pattern’s key events.

When we disentangle the three storylines and view them individually, the repeated Exploiter pattern becomes plainly obvious. Each begins with the protagonist(s) discovering an opportunity which, if exploited properly, may lead to enormous personal gain (all our heroes separately realize they have a chance to cash in on a mortgage industry on the verge of collapse). Yet the morally-questionable nature of this opportunity demands secrecy and some underhanded double-dealings. Like other Exploiters, the protagonists’ plans require the support of a Close Comrade and the unwitting compliance of a Dupe. In the Mark Baum (Steve Carell) storyline, Mark partners with the Close Comrade Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling). In the Charlie Geller/Jamie Shipley (John Magro/Finn Wittrock) storyline, the dual leads gain the help of Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt). (It should be noted however that the Michael Burry (Christian Bale) line lacks a Close Comrade—yet this thread is granted the least dramatic development as well as the least amount of screen time.) Yet while the Close Comrades are different, all the protagonists seek to exploit the same Dupe – presented in Short not as a singular character, but more abstractly as the entire corrupt mortgage industry as a whole (everyone involved in this industry thus functions like as single collective character). This shared Dupe unifies the storylines (one of the greatest challenges of a multi-narrative film) since every action/reaction from the Dupe mutually affects all three plots.

To return to plot structure, the protagonists’ initial actions culminate in an End of Act 1 Turning Point which marks the exploitative venture’s official launch. (The protagonists invest all their money in their surety the mortgage industry will fail.) This venture appears to advance quite well in Act 2A, only to hit a major roadblock at the Exploiter’s Midpoint (the aforementioned event missing in Nightcrawler)—the loss of control over the Dupe. (The mortgage industry lies to investors to cover-up its failings, blocking the protagonists’ once certain path to success.) This incites the protagonists to desperate actions to save their flailing ventures in Act 2B. Yet (in perfect conformity with the Exploiter pattern) the Dupe “returns” at the End of 2nd Act Turning Point (the mortgage industry is forced to admit it is going down the tubes), sending the protagonists into an exploitative frenzy in order to achieve their goals before time runs out.

As explained in Unified Theory of Narrative, Part I, a multi-narrative film ends with multiple climactic resolutions. This grants the thematic message greater depth and detail, as it allows the audience to compare and contrast the fates of multiple characters (and the choices which led to such fates). In other words, multi-narratives like The Big Short encourage viewers to evaluate the story’s central ideological issue from various angles and draw conclusions between them. Also, Short adds ambiguity to its resolutions (through structural devices also detailed in UTN Part I). Each protagonist achieves only a bittersweet victory at a great physical or ethical cost. Through these combined elements, Short intentionally avoids a clear-cut thematic message, preferring to leave its central issue open for continued reflection and debate.


The Imitation Game (2014)
Type 10b: The Overreacher. This one was a bit tricky to identify (largely due to its nonlinear structure composed of three separate storylines). However, the pattern became obvious once I located the true source of the film’s conflict.

In the Overreacher, an ambitious yet highly-flawed protagonist creates conflict by refusing to abide by the wishes of a far more conservative “Power of Approval.” Instead, the protagonist constantly demands this Power give more than it is willing to allow. (In Unified Theory of Narrative Part II, I used Scarface, 500 Days of Summer, and Patton as examples. In Scarface, Tony Montana both rises and falls by constantly challenging the authority of his superiors in the world cocaine syndicate. In Summer, Tom continually demands more commitment from his dream girl Summer than she is willing to give. In Patton, General Patton creates increasing friction with the military chiefs of command by refusing to follow orders in favor of this own path to glory.) In all three of The Imitation Game’s story threads, protagonist Alan Turing; alienated from others by a combination of his brilliance, social ineptitude, and the taboo of his secret homosexuality; remains a stubborn nonconformist in worlds which demand strict conformity to narrow-minded norms and expectations. In each case, Turing refuses to adapt or fully cooperate, demanding the Power of Approval allow him an absolute freedom of action.

In the first half of the Overreacher pattern, the Power of Approval initially, though quite reluctantly, yields to the protagonist’s determination. Yet the Power eventually feels pushed too far, punishing or rebuking the protagonist at the Midpoint. The Power then grants the protagonist a second chance in Act 2B. How the protagonist responds to this second opportunity will decide his or her fate. If the protagonist learns from the previous downfall and achieves a proper compromise with the Power, he or she is rewarded with a more acceptable level of happiness and success. Yet if the protagonist refuses such personal growth and reverts to his or her flawed ways, the Power of Approval turns on the protagonist once more, handing out a final crushing defeat. The Imitation Game follows the latter path. Turing once again refuses to adapt to expected (albeit close-minded) behavioral norms, ultimately compelling authorities to punish him in spite of his heroic achievements.

Unlike Scarface or Patton, The Imitation Game’s conclusion seems harsh and unfair. This is because Scarface and Patton are constructed as Cautionary narratives while Imitation Game presents a Tragic narrative. In a Cautionary narrative, a protagonist is rightly punished for clinging to a quality the audiences considers harmful or wrong. Yet in a Tragic narrative, the audiences feels sympathy towards—and even approves of—the protagonist’s qualities. However, these supposedly “positive” qualities prove to be the protagonist’s undoing, as he or she exists in an ethically-backwards world which rejects what the audience considers “good” and rewards its opposite. (See UTN, Part I for more information on the Celebratory, Cautionary, Tragic, and Cynical narrative types.) Since Game’s audience is led to feel sympathetic towards Turing and see the good in his “flaw,” his defeat is found unjust. The result is social criticism. What we believe to be good or right is not always rewarded in reality. As a result, Tragic narratives like Imitation Game argue the need to recognize social faults and press for change.

Jane Got a Gun (2015)
A fairly paint-by-the-numbers Type 14b: Coming Together. Because of its predictability, Jane failed to hold my interest and I stopped watching around the 40-minute mark. Granted, this prevents me from giving a genuine critique of the film, as I am unable (and do not care to) to conclude whether Jane’s lackluster success came from its predictability or its failure to stick to the Coming Together pattern from beginning to end. Either way, this film shows that the use of a plot pattern does not by itself guarantee success. Patterned films are most successful when audiences cannot readily perceive their pattern. The old Hollywood saw “Give me something familiar, yet different” definitely applies here. While every film demands a strong structural foundation, a lack of novelty in terms of external elements (such as the story’s premise, characters, and the nature of individual events) will allow the bones of the structure to poke through, causing the audience to compare the film to other obvious examples of the pattern and apply that hated label “formulaic.”

The Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Yes, despite all the hype, it took me over a year to watch the Avengers sequel. And once again my instincts proved to be correct. Plot pattern? None. This, and other reasons, is why Ultron is so cluttered, confused, and fails at times to even make sense. The first Avengers movie (2012) did follow a plot pattern, Type 14b: Coming Together. (Actually, it features a combo pattern; beginning as Type 13: The Big Mission and then making a transition to the Coming Together at the End of Act 1 Turning Point; but that is too technical to get into here.) While not a perfect film, the adherence to an established plot pattern allowed the first Avengers to overcome many of the problems which usually dog such a high-concept tentpole with a huge ensemble cast. Yet Ultron falls into all the traps the first Avengers managed to avoid. Without a plot pattern to guide it, this overstuffed sequel fails to find sufficient direction or clarity in practically every significant area, from story structure to character development to the expression of theme.

Ant-Man (2015)
For the past few decades, Type 2a: The Summoned Hero has been so overused in the comic book, sci-fi, and fantasy genres that it has become a tiresome cliché. I am sure you are all familiar with it: A seemingly unextraordinary protagonist is plucked from obscurity to take on an incredible role; the hero is assigned a mentor, initiated into a fantastic new world, undergoes training; etc, etc, etc (The Matrix, Men in Black, Kung-fu Panda, Wanted all abide by this formula, to name only a few memorable examples (the less said about the many more mediocre examples, the better).) While Ant-Man follows this same old path, it deserves credit for injecting a bit of freshness into the pattern through some artful manipulations in its first act. In a typical Summoned Hero, the plot begins as follows: 1. An outside power selects the protagonist for a heroic role. 2. Upon meeting the mentor, the protagonist is given some form of test. 3. The protagonist proves his or her potential by passing this test, ending Act 1 with an official invitation into the fantastic new world. 4. The mentor fully initiates the fledgling hero into this world. Ant-Man however rearranges some of these sequences and delays the revelation of key information, adding elements of surprise and mystery to an otherwise predictable series of events. First, we are not initially told protagonist Scott Lang has been selected for greatness. Then, Lang’s test (the burglary of Dr. Hank Pym’s home, arranged by Dr. Pym himself) unfolds without Lang or the audience knowing this is indeed a test. Ant-Man then reverses the order of the next two events. Initiation precedes invitation. (As Pym plans, Lang puts on the Ant-Man suit without first knowing its power, throwing Lang into shock and bewilderment.) All this mystery is then resolved at the End of Act 1 when Pym finally reveals himself as to Lang and demands he accept the intended heroic role. Ant-Man then keeps us guessing in its second half with more complications and reversals than typically found in other Summoned Heroes. Through such alterations, Ant-Man surpassed industry expectations; giving us something familiar and yet somewhat different, helping it stand out from the more rote and uninspired films of the same pattern.

The Martian (2015)
Speaking of new twists on familiar patterns, lets talk of The Martian. The Martian fits into Type 9c: The Long Perilous Road (a pattern it shares with the likes of Apocalypse Now, O Brother Where Art Thou?, Finding Nemo, Little Miss Sunshine). The Long Perilous Road fits into a wider family of plot patterns I call “The Literal Journey.” Yet The Martian is the first case of a Literal Journey I have ever encountered which does not actually contain a literal journey! But then again, it kind of does.

In The Martian, Astronaut Mark Watney’s journey is not one over distance, but one over time. Stranded on Mars, Watney must find ways stay alive for four full years before he can find hope of rescue. Just like a physical journey, this temporal journey has a beginning, a destination, and a long stretch of unknown dangers in between. Once we stretch our idea of what a “journey” may mean, we see that The Martian’s plot structure is virtually identical to every other Long Perilous Road. The inciting incident gives the protagonist a pressing reason to take the “journey” (Watney is left stranded on Mars). The end of Act 1 marks the journey’s official launch (Watney refuses to accept his doom and dedicates himself on finding a series of means to stay alive for the next four years). Like the pattern’s other examples, Acts 2A & 2B take on an episodic structure where each sequence begins with an obstacle or challenge which threatens to bring the protagonist’s journey to a premature end. The protagonist overcomes this by the sequence’s end, allowing the journey to continue. Yet as soon as this is accomplished, a new obstacle or challenge incites the next sequence. Step by step, hurdle by hurdle, Watney pushes further down his road, advancing ever closer to his final destination.

The second act of a Long Perilous Road ends with the journey reaching its destination. Focus then shifts in Act 3 to the achieving the goal or objective that first motivated the journey. (In Little Miss Sunshine, the Hoover family reaches the beauty pageant. In Apocalypse Now, Captain Willard arrives and Colonel Kurtz’s compound and must now find a way to kill Kurtz. In Finding Nemo, Marlin finally gets to Sydney and must figure out how to rescue his son.) The Martian again stays true to this form. Act 2B ends with the four years passed and the rescue ship arrived. Act 3 then focuses on the pursuit of the great reward which incited Watney’s long journey: the opportunity to finally leave Mars.

Creed (2015)
Of all films covered in this article, Creed’s use of plot patterns is most complex. Yet complex does not necessarily mean better. In fact, the more complicated a structure, the more difficulties it brings. Fortunately, Creed manages to retain its narrative focus and gets through its structural obstacles relatively unscathed.

You might be wondering what is exactly is so complex about Creed. The first act ends when Rocky Balboa agrees to train Adonis (Johnson) Creed, right? Then, the Midpoint occurs when Rocky collapses halfway through the film. Right? Well, yes and no. These events constitute the major turning points of Rocky’s arc, not the arc of the story’s protagonist Adonis Creed. Though it has the appearance of a single story, Creed actually contains dual narrative arcs: one assigned to Adonis and another to Rocky Balboa. Each of these arcs follows a separate plot pattern. This is fairly unorthodox, and in many cases might court disaster. Luckily, there is enough compatibility between Creed’s two patterns to meld their events together into what seems to be a single cohesive narrative.

Rocky’s arc is the simpler of the two, so this is where we shall begin. When viewed independently from material exclusive to Adonis, Rocky’s arc follows the structure of Type 2c: The Returning Hero. The Returning Hero begins with a character of former greatness who has abandoned this role or faded into irrelevance. Events then compel others to ask the hero to step back into his old shoes. (Adonis begs Rocky to train him. Rocky politely refuses.) The hero relents by the end of Act 1, marking his official return. (Rocky agrees to mentor Adonis.) Yet the hero struggles with this comeback, either due to recently-developed flaws or an inability to adapt to a changed world. (Rocky does not put his whole heart in this venture. He believes he has already lost everything worth living for and the future holds little promise.) At the Midpoint, a major mistake, failure, or complication threatens a premature end to the comeback (Rocky learns he has cancer), forcing or compelling the flawed hero back into his former isolation (Rocky decides he will give up and let the cancer kill him). Yet in this darkest moment, the character finds the will to transform into a new kind of hero, one with the greater strength or virtue to overcome his problems. (Adonis convinces Rocky to reverse course and fight on.) This gives the hero a new lease on life, leading him to victory.

Let us now look at the primary arc belonging to Adonis Creed. To complicate our analysis further, Adonis’s plotline uses a combo pattern (see UTN Part II, Chapter 5). In a combo pattern, the story first follows one plot pattern, but then at some point transitions to the structure of a completely different pattern. Adonis’s story starts in the mold of Type 5b: The Ejected. In The Ejected, a restless protagonist pursues a great personal ambition he or she believes will bring joy or meaning to his or her less than satisfying life. Yet the protagonist fails to recognize certain truths about him or herself or the situation, causing the character to initially pursue this ambition in self-defeating ways. This leads to a crushing failure at the end of Act 1 which “ejects” the protagonist from his or her former world. (In Creed, Adonis rejects his identity as the son of former heavyweight champion Apollo Creed, driving his desire to gain recognition by his own merits. This misplaced pride and anger motivates Adonis to try to prove himself prematurely, embarrassing him in a sparring match against a legitimate heavyweight contender. Humiliated, Adonis decides he must leave the comforts of home to seek a lonely new path in Philadelphia.) Now lost in the wilderness, the ejected protagonist seeks out friends and allies (usually characters just as troubled as the protagonist) to help him find his way (Rocky Balboa and the musician/future girlfriend Bianca). Caught between his still-burning ambitions and a refusal to accept the truths which hold him back, the ups and downs of Act 2A compel the protagonist to make a Great Compromise at the story’s Midpoint. (Adonis is offered a shot to prove himself against the heavyweight champion, but only if he accepts the identity he despises by fighting under his father’s name.)

In a typical Ejected, the Great Compromise leads to failure in Act 2B; either because the choice is foolish or ill-planned, or because the protagonist sabotages this path by reverting back to the flaws suffered in Act 1. Creed however takes Act 2B in a more uplifting direction by making the sudden transition to the structure of Type 1a: The Reluctant Hero. The Reluctant Hero (seen in films as diverse as Star Wars, The Godfather, Donnie Darko, and The 40 Year-Old Virgin) contains a Midpoint where a formerly passive or reactive protagonist finally chooses to take charge of the story situation, thereby seizing control of his or her life. The protagonist must then mature into a more confident and self-reliant hero in Act 2B before meeting the ultimate test which makes up the whole of Act 3. Creed’s second half adopts this same pattern. Adonis has spent his life running from his dead father’s legacy because he secretly fears he is not worthy. Yet by agreeing to fight under Apollo’s name, Adonis seizes control of his destiny, eventually embracing rather than avoiding the ghost which has haunted him for so long. As usual with the Reluctant Hero, the beginning of Creed’s Act 3 marks the launch of an ultimate test (Adonis’s championship fight) through which the protagonist proves his transformation and overcomes all he once feared.

(More to come. Stay tuned.)

Saturday, November 19, 2016

The Hand of the Princess, The Keys to the Kingdom; Or, Why the Romantic Subplot?

It is a common narrative archetype, one that can be found in all forms of story from ancient to modern. A male hero journeys to a foreign land; wins the love of a princess by performing certain valiant deeds; and through their marriage, becomes the land’s future king. Most modern audiences would look at this as nothing more than romantic fantasy. Has this ever literally occurred? Is there any real justification for the idea that a common man could become a king in such a simple manner?

Shrek: A lowly ogre becomes a king through romance with a princess
While modern experience may motivate us to say no, it seems these stories may be based in an actual historical context. Though admittedly it has taken me too long to get to it, I have recently begun reading The Golden Bough, James George Frazer’s 1890 pan-cultural analysis of the developmental connections between superstition, ritual, and religion in early (or “primitive,” as Frazer might put it) human societies. While some sections of Frazer’s work are indeed golden, and others are built on questionable presuppositions that have since been discredited, I find one early chapter extremely interesting in terms of its possible relationship to modern cinematic storytelling. In Chapter 9, “The Succession to the Kingdom” Frazer inverts the common notion regarding how the right to rulership progressed from one generation to the next in early societies. We are all acquainted with monarchical systems where the throne descends down the male bloodline. Upon the death of the king, the crown is given to the king’s eldest son; or if he has no living son, his eldest grandson, brother, or nephew. Indeed, this was the system used by most monarchical societies from the Middle Ages to the present day, not only across Europe but in many regions around the globe. However, using examples from ancient Latium (kingdoms in Italy predating the Roman Republic), Greece, Scandinavia, and Britain, Frazer claims that in far older societies the right to the throne descended down the female line. That is, the crown was not granted to the king’s son, but whomever should marry the king’s daughter. In other words, rulership was given to the king’s son-in-law—an outsider to the royal bloodline. If the king’s own sons wished to be rulers, they were forced to travel to foreign lands in search of their own princesses to marry, thus inheriting a kingdom different from the one in which they were born (thus begetting so many tales of wandering princes). Indeed, the king himself was not of royal parentage (at least not of the kingdom he ruled). He earned the throne only by marriage to the queen—whose parents were the former rulers.

Since kingship was granted through marriage rather than bloodline, this meant hypothetically any man might become king; whether he be a rich man or a slave, a citizen or a foreigner. Yet of course, the future of the kingdom depended upon finding the best possible candidate. For this reason, many of these societies would only grant the princess’s hand in marriage by way of a challenge or contest. Through this, the victor proved himself to be the strongest, most skilled, or most intelligent of the many suitors, and thus the most fit to rule. (Frazer gives several examples where a race was used to select the most worthy candidate, prompting the editor of Bough’s 1994 edition to hint this may be the root of the phrase “running for office.”)

Therefore, stories in which a lowly young man wins the hand of a princess through impressive deeds and thus the right to become king are not far-fetched works of fantasy. In fact, some of the oldest tales of this sort may be based on or inspired by actual events.

Aladdin: From street rat to sultan's son-in-law
Yet to us, this descent of rulership may seem counter-intuitive. Why was the crown passed from father-to-stranger rather than more reliably from father-to-son? Why was the female line so important and an outsider considered most desirable to fulfill future kingly duties? Frazer suggests this system came as an outcome of far more primordial cultural-religious beliefs. Using a plethora of examples, Frazer lays out three dominant themes found in primitive cultural ideologies. The first is apotheosis: the idea that kings and queens are not only representatives of the gods who control nature, but in fact become imbued with these gods to make them earthly embodiments of deities themselves. The second is the association of nature with the female, since both are capable of bearing new life. The third is a perceived magical connection between human procreation and the fertility of nature. Throughout the ages, cultures worldwide engaged in rituals in the spring or summer where sexual relations between a man and a woman, or a real or symbolic marriage with a god or goddess, was believed to replenish nature and ensure its continued bounty. By combining these notions, we can conclude that the princess was believed to be a vessel of the life-giving goddess of nature. To ensure that this goddess would be able to continually replenish the earth, she must be paired with the strongest, and therefore most sexually potent mate. Through this union, the most virile seed was continually planted in the womb of the nature goddess, guaranteeing that the earth will remain fruitful. Whether societies followed the system of female descent in explicit obedience to these beliefs or as only the lingering vestige long-forgotten ideas, the justification remained the same. The people believed the welfare of the kingdom depended upon a successful union between the most virile of possible kings and their future queen; regardless of who this potential king may be or from where he might come.

However, marriage to the king’s daughter was not the only way a man might legitimately claim the throne. One could also become king by marrying a widowed queen, killing the current king and taking the queen as his wife, or by convincing the queen to reject the king for himself thereby dethroning her husband. (For some literary examples, this path to the throne can be seen in stories like Oedipus Rex and Shakespeare’s Hamlet.) Once again, the authority to rule resided in the female bloodline, making whoever the queen chose as her husband the legitimate king. Contrary to modern notions, Frazer implies that early societies would not have objected to these usurpers of the throne. In fact, they would have found the transition acceptable and necessary. If a king became too old, weak, or incompetent to fend off his rivals, this meant he was no longer the strongest and most virile ruler. He had lost the capacity to fulfill his duties and could no longer replenish the earth through his union with the goddess of nature. This would appear all the more evident if the kingdom had recently suffered from drought, famine, or unrest. For even though the king was considered a god, early peoples would readily turn on and replace their god-king if his supposed power over nature seemed to grow indifferent to their needs.

Yet aside from fantasy films which literally present the young-man-becomes-king narrative, what might this have to do with modern cinematic storytelling? Well, simple observation shows that this familiar structure; man meets princess, man wins the love of princess through valiant deeds, man gains the power of a king; holds a parallel in the common and at times obligatory use of the romantic subplot in masculine-protagonist Hollywood films. Every moviegoer is accustomed to male hero films which contain a secondary romantic narrative—one often tangential or even unrelated to the main plotline— following a standard structure: First, in his attempts to resolve the problems found in the primary narrative, the protagonist encounters a potential female love interest. But due to his flaws, this love interest often initially shuns, behaves indifferently towards, or fails to connect with the protagonist. Yet as the protagonist grows as an individual and proves himself through praiseworthy achievements; either through actions intended to resolve the main story conflict or those aimed directly at his potential lover; he eventually attains a genuine romantic connection with the female lead. With this bond consummated, something magical occurs. The protagonist gains a strength, authority, or confidence he did not previously possess. Using this, the protagonist overcomes the story’s problems and brings comfort and order to his world, allowing all virtuous parties to live happily ever after.

Dances With Wolves: A white outsider becomes Lakota “royalty” by earning the honor of wedding one of their own
In my book Screenwriting and The Unified Theory of Narrative, Part I (as well as the article found here), I introduced the concept of “The Humility Arc;” a common structure found in the fairy tales of Western Europe which seems to have been adopted with near-universality by Hollywood films. I propose that the romantic subplots found in masculine-protagonist Hollywood films represent a similar holdover from an even older collection of stories. The ancient archetype of kingship gained through a union with a royal female remains alive and well in our modern narratives despite the fact that we have long forgotten its origins and the mystical beliefs once attached to it. In the masculine-centered feature film, the protagonist begins as an illegitimate hero in a corrupted “kingdom.” By eventually winning the love and support of a “princess,” the hero gains the strength and legitimacy he needs to become the land’s new “king.” Through this holy union, the hero is apotheosized into a higher being, one with a power to take the actions necessary to do away with corruption, replenish the earth, and escort the kingdom into a new, more bounteous age.

Rocky: "Kings" and "princesses" come in all forms
Like the evidence cited by James George Frazer, winning the hand of a “princess” is not the only way a male protagonist may gain the power of a “king.” He may also succeed by stealing the love of a queen from the existing king. In many films with romantic subplots, the female love interest is originally the girlfriend, fiancee, or some other romantic partner of the protagonist’s chief rival. This rival is often presented as the “alpha male,” making him the current king of the story world. Yet this is usually a corrupted or unworthy king; exhibiting traits such as greed, arrogance, or cowardice which have a negative effect upon those around him. With opposition from the rival, the hero can only succeed by overthrowing this king. And, like in Frazer’s early societies, the first step to do so is by stealing the king’s source of power—his queen. So, the protagonist makes romantic overtures to the female lead in an attempt to convince her he is far superior to the rival. If successful, a reversal of power occurs. The protagonist is elevated to the position of the alpha male while the rival quickly becomes isolated and impotent, leading to his eventual defeat. 

Scarface: Overthrowing the king entails seducing the queen
Yet as critics may point out, these so-called “heroes” may from a different perspective be considered to be playing the heel. The protagonist is disrupting an existing romantic relationship by encouraging the female lead to be disloyal to her partner. In fact, we may even say the rival is actually the story’s victim. Still, audiences applaud the female lead’s switching of loyalties for the same reason that the societies illustrated by James George Frazer supported the deposition of existing kings. The land’s health and happiness depends upon the fruitful relationship between the queen and king. If the current king becomes weak or corrupt, it is only proper for the queen to abandon him in favor of far better suitor. Therefore, once the protagonist proves his superiority, it is only proper for the female lead to reject the rival for the protagonist, as this will supposedly bring greater joy and comfort to the land.

This structure can also be found in reverse in stories where male protagonists meet failure in the end. Often, the protagonist gains the love and support of the female lead very early, or possesses such a union before the story begins. Yet rather than grow for the better, these protagonists change for the worse. By becoming a less and less worthy “king,” the protagonist strains his life-sustaining bond with his “queen,” often motivating the female lead to abandon him completely. Detached from the queen, the protagonist loses his heroic legitimacy and slowly degrades into a weak or powerless individual; eventually costing him his throne and banishing him from the kingdom.

Citizen Kane: The loss of the queen precedes the king's downfall
I have very little experience in the realm of gender studies, so I lack the grounds to formulate any definite claims on what this frequently repeated narrative structure may say about or do to influence our modern culture or society. However, two areas for debate seem to stand out most clearly. Firstly, an initial analysis may lead critics to conclude the masculine-protagonist romantic subplot presents evidence of institutionalized male chauvinism in Hollywood storytelling. The protagonist’s effort’s to “claim” the female lead may seem to objectify the female character. In terms of narrative structure, she functions not so much like an independent person, but some sort of “macguffin of power,” like King Arthur’s Excalibur or the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark which ambitious males must first seize to reach their personal goals.

Yet this accusation may be countered with a realization that, though she or the audience may not recognize it, the female lead is the only character with any real power in these stories. The male protagonist, despite being the primary focus of the film and leading the narrative through his actions, is actually a disempowered individual. Time and again, he meets little success until he can gain the aid and support of the female lead. Like the kings in Frazer’s female-bloodline societies, the protagonist’s personal power over his world is but an illusion. It is the queen who secretly holds the real authority, as she can give or take away the throne as she pleases. Because of this hidden power, the male protagonists of Hollywood films must routinely subdue their wills to the female lead, changing their behavior and doing away with their flaws to finally gain her full acceptance—and by extension, the strength or legitimacy needed to achieve the ultimate goal. In other words, through the female lead’s power to accept or reject the male protagonist, the Hollywood romantic subplot forces the male to improve as an individual, making him more heroic and thus more worthy for the title of king. Therefore we may say the female lead secretly controls the male protagonist’s transformation of character, and thus the story’s resolution since this personal transformation will decide the hero’s ultimate success or failure.

Yet even if this is all true, the overall social benefit or detriment of this continually repeated narrative structure is open to question. Just because something is common, this does not necessarily mean it is helpful or correct. Thus, this area of storytelling demands further investigation.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Limited Time Return of SCRIPTMONK Services


With Screenwriting and The Unified Theory of Narrative, Part II now finished and on the shelves, I find I have more free time on my hands. Because of this, I have decided to bring back my script analysis services for three months only. See my website page HERE for details.

I am also offering a discount of $15 off basic coverage or $25 off advanced feedback with recent purchase of Screenwriting and The Unified Theory of Narrative, Part I or Part II. (I will honor purchases back as far as October 1.) Usually, a simple screenshot of the Amazon order confirmation screen or email works fine as proof of purchase.

I have one request, however. NO FIRST DRAFTS, PLEASE. It is a universal law of screenwriting. No matter how experienced the writer, first drafts are always embarrassingly poor. It is merely a "vomit" draft, meaning its purpose is for the writer to heave up his or her not yet entirely formed ideas onto paper. I always tell writers to never send their first drafts to anyone. Since the new script needs time to "find itself," you owe it to yourself and your script to shape it into the best work you can before sending it out to be potentially savaged. Otherwise, feedback becomes a painful experience for both the reader and the writer who will receive a mountain of negative comments.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

New SCRIPTMONK article in Creative Screenwriting on the Plot Pattern Phenomenon

 This week I had another article published in Creative Screenwriting online, this one introducing the basic principles and theory behind plot patterns -- a phenomenon by which nearly every successful American film over the past several decades comes to unintentionally conform to one of sixteen (or thirty-four, depending on how specific you wish to be) structural patterns of plot despite extreme differences in premise, genre, style and tone.


Since the subject of plot patterns takes up over 200 pages of Screenwriting and The Unified Theory of Narrative, Part II it was difficult to summarize the entire concept in a mere six-page article. Because of this, I had to take significant effort just to not sound like a crazy person. The shocking regularity of the plot patterns found in Hollywood and American Independent cinema is one of the most incredible discoveries of all my years studying screencraft -- made all the more incredible by the fact that it seems to have gone almost entirely unnoticed until now. Yet with a full background and the heaps of evidence I have found to support it, the plot pattern phenomenon turns out to be just as "crazy" as the idea that the earth revolves around the sun.


Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Official Announcement: Unified Theory of Narrative Part II FINALLY Available!

At long, long last (about six months after my original, and now hilariously optimistic, March 2016 projected completion date), I am happy to announce that Screenwriting and The Unified Theory of Narrative, Part II: Genre, Pattern & The Concept of Total Meaning is finally finished and available for purchase. (Follow this link for the Amazon page.) I would like to thank everyone for their patience. Little did I realize that my final installment would eventually require nearly 400 pages (over twice as long as Part I) to include everything needed to fully complete the Unified Theory model.

Here is the synopsis from the back cover:
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Part II: Genre, Pattern & The Concept of Total Meaning completes the Unified Theory of Narrative by going far beneath the surface to reveal cinematic storytelling’s hidden structures of meaning. No previous book has explored the thematic dimension of screencraft in such depth or detail; using an interdisciplinary approach to explain the psychological, sociological, and cultural constructs which have shaped the feature film into the complex form of narrative we know today.


In Part II you will find:
The properties of myth behind all storytelling
The purpose and origin of cinematic genres
The phenomenon of plot patterns and its connection to cultural belief
The explicit lessons found in protagonist psychology
The ideological nature of dramatic conflict
And, most importantly, the connection between these elements and our most basic psychological and sociological needs.


Part II: Genre, Pattern & The Concept of Total Meaning is about far more than screencraft. It is about the intimate relationship between storytelling and humanity itself. Since its beginnings, humanity has used story to make sense of its world, express its beliefs, and give life a sense of order and meaning. By revealing the cinematic story’s ideological structures, and ultimately unifying them with the physical elements presented in Part I, Genre, Pattern & The Concept of Total Meaning shows how modern cinematic storytelling continues this tradition; resulting in an endless multitude of narratives, each doing their part to serve human society with lessons, arguments, and statements of belief.
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Although I wrote this synopsis myself, I think it fails to do the book full justice. It was incredibly difficult to summarize the work into three simple paragraph because it is about so much. Part II not only completes my “theory of everything,” but is – in a very limited sense – truly about “everything,” and how this everything expresses itself through our use of story. In many ways, this book reveals the connections between art and the social sciences, going great lengths to explain why storytelling always has and always will be so important to humanity’s social and psychological well-being. Yet at the same time, this information is kept practical by detailing the specific structures and dramatic elements found in the feature film which allow it to continually serve these needs.

On this practical side, Part II explains the cinematic narrative’s complex method of communication through a five-layer structure of meaning. In this structure, you will find: how genres and narrative modes create metaphorical arenas to explore social problems; how plot patterns* are used to propose acceptable solutions; how the psychological factors of protagonist suggest ways we may achieve this solution by presenting lessons on human thought and behavior; and finally, how the storyteller delivers his or her personal opinions on all such issues through the choice of thematic resolution** and aesthetic specialization. Part II then reveals how this five-layer structure of meaning connects with the basic unified narrative structure found in Part I to create an ideologically-unified story where the abstract is made physical, proving philosophical arguments through the guise of dramatic action.

(* Originally proposed on this blog in 2011 (and altered significantly since then upon further investigation), the plot pattern phenomenon is definitely the most shocking (and thus sure to be the most controversial) of my discoveries – and will no doubt be the chief draw to most readers. Part II presents the structural details of all sixteen common plot patterns and their thirty-four subtypes for the first time.)

(**Thematic resolution was originally discussed in Part I as a crucial part of the basic unified narrative structure. By serving a role in both models, its elements ultimately act as the nexus point to connect the cinematic story’s external and internal structures, creating a truly unified theory of narrative.)

I admit this may sound like some dense stuff and potentially a lot to handle. But like my previous books, I have striven to keep material in layman’s terms and explain complicated concepts in clear and simple ways – all the while focusing on the individual screenwriter so he or she may better understand his or her medium and create more effective stories. Both Part I and Part II are available in paperback through multiple online retailers. The eBook versions are available exclusively through Amazon.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Update on Screenwriting & The Unified Theory of Narrative Part II

Hello everyone. When I released The Unified Theory of Narrative Part I back in November, I expected Part II to be finished and available by March or April. Yet now it is April 15th and that is clearly not the case. Wrapping up the final revisions of Part II has been a real grind (it is about twice the length of Part I and gets into some pretty heady subject matter), but it is slowly and steadily moving along. Barring some major breakdown or act of God, I now expect it to be available in July or (I hope not) August.

Just to whet your appetites, along with the completion of the Unified Theory of Narrative (a process that connects the basic unified narrative structure found in Part I with the cinematic five-layered structure of meaning to be introduced in Part II), Part II will also contain a full and complete analysis of my theory of the Sixteen Common Plot Patterns of Hollywood and American Independent Cinema, as first introduced years ago in an article on this blog. (Yes, I know I originally believed there to be 20 plot patterns, and then 21, but through the exhaustive analysis of literally hundreds of films I can conclusively declare there to be exactly sixteen common plot patterns, with thirty-four subtypes.) Enough for a book in itself (I expect the chapters on plot patterns to clock in at around 200 pages) the book will go into significant detail to explain exactly what plot patterns are, how they function, and why they have come to exist -- along with detailed breakdowns on all thirty-four subtypes illustrated by diverse collections of popular films. (Would you believe Chinatown and WALL-E follow the same basic underlying plot structure? Or that True Grit and Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy are pretty much the same film? Whodathunkit?)

Meanwhile, you can read an adapted excerpt from Chapter 1-3 of Part I published on Creative Screenwriting Magazine online. It introduces the Thematic Argument, the structure by which the cinematic narrative communicates its theme. It's not exactly advanced stuff (mattering on what your definition of "advanced" is), but lays the groundwork for the more complex material on the connections between theme, plot, and character found later in the book.

Friday, November 13, 2015

OFFICIAL ANNOUNCEMENT: "Screenwriting & The Unified Theory of Narrative, Part I" Finally Officially Exists

This week saw the debut of the first volume of my new book Screenwriting and The Unified Theory of Narrative, the fruit of my last year’s worth labor (and reason why there have been so few new articles on this blog during that time). Part I: The Unified Narrative Structure is now available from Amazon in eBook and paperback. Part II: Genre, Pattern, and the Concept of Total Meaning is expected to follow some time in the first half of 2016.

(You can check out the Amazon page here for Kindle and paperback.)

You may be wondering what exactly is the “unified theory of narrative” and what the book is all about. First off, I have to say this is not a how-to book. It is also not a book for beginners. It is an advanced study of practical narrative theory. “Practical” meaning is not full of useless academic debate and boring critical ramblings. This book was written to be used as an active resource for those who wish to not only understand cinematic storytelling, but use such knowledge to create better and more effective stories of their own. It will not guide you by the hand to create a screenplay by the numbers, but will hopefully give you a complete and comprehensive understanding of how cinematic stories really (REALLY) work in order to elucidate the storytelling process and make putting a script together far easier.

Most works on screencraft overlook the fact that the true purpose of a storytelling is to communicate meaning from artist to an audience. Stories are social tools. They hold cultures and societies together by providing lessons and enforcing shared ideas and beliefs. For this reason, Screenwriting and The Unified Theory of Narrative focuses far more upon theme and ideological communication than anything I have encountered on the subject so far. The emphasis is not only upon theme and meaning itself, but more importantly upon how plot and character express such meanings, whether it is done overtly or hidden deep within subtext.

But I am getting off-track. The title “Unified Theory of Narrative” was inspired by the concept of the unified field theory in physics. From Einstein to Stephen Hawking, physicists have searched for a single theory that would explain all the fundamental forces of the universe, one theory that would unite all other theories and show how everything fits together (something that has yet to be conclusively found). In the same way, in screencraft there are dozens upon dozens of concepts on plot, concepts on character, concepts on theme and genre and so on. Analysts have spent decades disassembled cinematic stories as if they were enormous machines, but with all of this a big question has always remained: How do all of these concepts fit together? I have said before that the field of screencraft is like a child who has taken apart a watch to see how it works, but now cannot figure out to put all the parts back together so the watch will work again. Anyone with any experience watching movies should realize that a great story is not a collection of independent parts, but a holistic experience where where all elements meld together to create a single line of action that ultimately resolves itself to express a single message or meaning. Therefore, a true understanding of the form, function, and power of the cinematic narrative cannot be found by focusing on the parts, but how those parts interact to create a singular experience. A dissected animal is a dead animal. Even if you staple all the parts back together, it is still dead. Therefore, if screencraft is to provide any real help to cinematic storytellers, deconstruction needs to transition into re-construction. In short, we need to find a way to put Humpty-Dumpty back together again.

As the title suggests, Part I: The Unified Narrative Structure focuses upon narrative structure, particularly how the structures of plot, character, and theme work together to create a singular and unified story experience. Starting my study where I left off with Screenwriting Down to the Atoms, I was surprised to discover that my quest for a unified structure was actually somewhat easy as soon as I discovered one simple thing. I will not get too far ahead of myself, but I found that all successful Hollywood and American Independent feature films of traditional form fit into four categories of narrative types based upon the combined outcomes of their Story Spines and Character Arcs (which I have labeled Celebratory, Cautionary, Tragic, and Cynical). After an advanced breakdown of over 300 feature films made over the last fifty years (along with an impressive multi-colored Excel spreadsheet) I found that the interactions between plot, character, and theme were exactly the same in all four types of narrative. The only differences came down to two essential factors; one structural and the other based upon the audience’s perception of story content. Yet from this one basic model comes the endless variety of stories found in Hollywood and American Independent filmmaking; regardless of style, tone, or genre; regardless of whether the film has a happy ending or a sad one; regardless of whether the film be a serious Oscar contender or pure pop entertainment.

Chapter 1-1 recognizes the many errors that have been made in the study of screencraft to date, along with the causes for confusion and frustration felt by many developing screenwriters. It then sets a course by which this may be rectified.

Chapter 1-2 establishes the most basic principles of cinematic storytelling; namely the process of narrative communication through dramatic action, the relationship between narrative rules and the physical limitations of the cinematic medium, and story’s three-dimensional trinity of plot, character, and theme.

Chapter 1-3 introduces the three primary structural components of the unified narrative; namely the structure of plot (the Story Spine), the structure of character (the protagonist’s Character Arc), and the structure of theme (the Thematic Argument).

Chapter 1-4 wades into deeper waters by revealing the basic means by which these three structural dimensions interact; first with the symbiotic relationship between the Story Spine and Character Arc, and then with how this interaction combines with the Thematic Argument to express the story’s basic meaning.

Chapter 1-5 brings it all together to reveal the basic unified narrative structure which unites all traditional Hollywood and American Independent films under a single model, aided by an essential concept called World Alignment.

Chapter 1-6 provides twelve sample films to support this model, three for each narrative type: Back to the Future, Rocky, The Shawshank Redemption, Raging Bull, Amadeus, Citizen Kane, Chinatown, Braveheart, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Godfather, The Silence of the Lambs, and Apocalypse Now.

Chapter 1-7 recognizes causes for deviation from the standard unified structure as well as the existence of alternative structures.

Due to its sole focus on structure, Part I is shorter than my last book. Part II will be twice as long, as it takes a far more macroscopic look at cinematic storytelling beyond its structural superficialities. In it, you will find not only a detailed breakdown of my 16 Plot Patterns* of American film, along with their 33 sub-patterns, but a detailed theory explaining how these patterns combine with the elements of genre and mode, the selection of the story’s protagonist, and other factors, unified by the properties of myth to communicate each cinematic story’s total meaning.

(*Yeah, I know my first article on the subject said there were 20 patterns, but all my subsequent study has narrowed this to only 16 primary categories, most with two or three sub-categories.)