Friday, June 21, 2013

Plotting by Expectation vs. Result: On Robert McKee and Albert Camus

This is Robert McKee’s STORY, first published in 1997. Many of you have read it. Though I do not agree with every idea McKee offers in this book, I have generally considered McKee superior to his competition in one particular area. This would be his approach to plotting. While most other “gurus” seem to treat plotting as a simple linear activity, putting scenes down one at a time, brick by brick, piece by piece, inevitably moving the story towards certain pre-set structural guideposts, McKee envisions plot as the interplay between character psychology and the reality of the character’s world. To McKee, plot is all about expectation versus result.
In an explanation similar to the one I use in Screenwriting Down to the Atoms, McKee’s protagonist begins his or her story intent to reach a far-off story goal. To reach this goal, the protagonist must start with a series of small, conservative steps that he or she believes will influence the outside world in such a way that will allow him or her to get closer to what he or she needs. In the character’s mind, these steps have every reason to succeed. However, things do not go as the protagonist plans. Rather than bend to the protagonist’s will, the outside world resists in an unexpected way. To hear it in McKee’s own words:

The moment he takes this action, the objective realm of his inner life, personal relationships, or extra-personal world, or a combination of these, react in a way that’s more powerful or different than he expected. This reaction from his world blocks his desire, thwarting him and bending him further from his desire than he was before he took this action. Rather than evoking cooperation from his world, his action provokes forces of antagonism that open up the gap between his subjective expectation and the objective result...”

The outside world refuses to fall in line with the character’s personal expectations. According to McKee, whenever this happens there opens up what he calls the GAP. A metaphorical chasm splits open between the character and the result he or she wished to achieve. “On one side is the world as we expect it to be, on the other is reality as it actually is.” So to McKee, story conflict is all about thwarted desires and the characters’ inevitable reactions.

When the protagonist encounters this gap, this metaphorical canyon that separates him or her from a necessary desire, the protagonist faces a choice. He or she can quit out of disappointment or frustration, or the protagonist can choose to alter his or her approach with a new set of actions the protagonist believes will overcome the gap and allow him or her to continue. So the protagonist, armed with the wisdom acquired from the defeat of his or her first set of foolish expectations, chooses a new course of actions. With these new actions come a new set of expectations. The protagonist is certain that this time the world will conform to his or her desire and he or she will meet success. However, the world once again does not react as the protagonist wishes. Expectations again conflict with result, creating another gap. The protagonist must rise above again, and find way to get around this new gap so he or she may continue the character’s quest. But the world continues to reacts in a negative, hostile way, opening up gaps again and again. Using this pattern, McKee offers this diagram to illustrate the course of a plot:

In this way, McKee’s approach to plot seems to emulate the “Fool’s Journey” structure commonly found in folktales where a naïve young man leaves home for the first time to encounter a series of unexpected troubles and opportunities. These force the fool to become stronger and wiser, eventually allowing him to find success by understanding the world for what it is, not what he originally thought it to be.

If, as I propose, this approach to plotting is indeed better-suited to great dramatic stories than those taught by McKee’s predecessors, one must consider why. It is my assertion that plotting from an expectation/result frame of mind creates more engaging, more authentic stories because it is far closer to the way which we experience conflict our own lives. I realized this by noting right away the parallels between McKee’s approach to story and the ideas of a very different author writing on a very different and far more significant subject.

This is Albert Camus (1913-1960). Camus was the author of such esteemed works of 20th century fiction as The Stranger, The Plague, and The Fall. (The Fall is a mind-blowing piece of literature if read correctly. I highly recommend it.)

Camus was also a philosopher. Once considered a strong proponent of Existentialism, Camus grew dissatisfied with that school of thought and pursued a philosophy of his own, eventually known as Absurdism. (Do not let the name fool you. Here, “absurd” does not mean “silly.” In fact, the absurd is a very serious matter.) Published in his book The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus’s views on the nature of the universe and the condition of the human beings who must live within it, simplified for the purposes of this article, are as follows:

  1. Human beings have the instinctive urge to seek out systems of order and meaning in the universe. They want to believe that everything happens for a reason and that the world makes sense. Because of this desire, people construct systems of belief that place humanity at the center of the universe. We then create expectations based off of those beliefs and assume that reality will conform to our systems of order.
  2. Unfortunately, these expectations usually turn out to be little more than wishful thinking. The universe does not obey our rules. It is cold and indifferent, at times random and chaotic. It cares as little for individual human beings as an elephant would fleas on its back. Like the elephant, the world can shake us off at any time it pleases without even recognizing our existence. Humans are therefore at the mercy of the chaos of the universe, despite all their attempts to believe they are not.
  3. The most soul-shattering moments of a person’s life arise when events force the individual to face this contradiction head-on. The unexpected medical diagnosis, the sudden disaster, the abrupt death of a loved one causes one to wonder whether the system of order and meaning they have put their faith in might be a lie. The dissonance between one’s ordered and meaningful expectations of the universe and its actual cold and indifferent results causes a disturbing abyss to open up in the individual’s psyche that Camus calls the ABSURD.
  4. With their expectations shattered, human beings can react to the absurd in one of three ways. 1. Dispair (which often ends in suicide). 2. A Leap of Faith (in which one continues to trust in a system of meaning despite there being no objective evidence to support it). 3. Acceptance (by accepting a more accurate view of reality, the person abandons harmful illusions and comes to realize what means truly exist that will allow him or her to find happiness and success within reality’s bounds.)

Here we see that McKee’s views on plot development mirror Camus’s views on human existence. Human beings, both real and story-based, take action after goals they believe will bring happiness or success. However, much like an ant crawling its way across the kitchen floor, they have no way of truly understanding the true scale and magnitude of the world around them. They can only proceed based on personal expectations conceived by way of their very limited personal views. However, more often than not, these expectations are short-sighted or false. The world does not react the way they wish, and instead of yielding the way, it throws roadblocks in their path. When expectations are denied, people have three options: a. quit, b. keep their faith, lower their heads and try to plow through the resistance, or c. learn from the experience, adopt a new perspective of reality, and then find a new course of actions more likely to succeed.

I do have one major issue with McKee’s approach, however. His discussion on the subject leans far more to the metaphysical than the practical. He does little to create a systematic method by which writers can apply these concepts directly to their own scripts in a way that will provide effective narrative drive and structure. This is why I teach the concept of story sequences. As frequent readers of this blog know, I consider the Story Spine to be the unifying element of all successful storytelling. In long-form stories such as feature-length films, the Story Spine must be structured by means of story sequences. You can read a brief overview of story sequences in this article or a far more detailed explanation in Chapter 5 of Screenwriting Down to the Atoms. By replacing “expectation/result” and “the gap” with the concepts of sequence spines, obstacles, and turning points, the story sequence method maintains the spirit of McKee’s argument while executing it through a dramatic, easy to execute structure that has found success in great films for decades.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

"Atoms" FREE on Amazon for this weekend only (Super secret! Tell no one!)

Just kidding. Tell everyone you want. I have chosen to dub this coming Saturday and Sunday "Atomic Weekend." This Saturday June 8, Screenwriting Down to the Atoms will be available for download in eBook form its 270-page entirety for FREE on The following Sunday June 9, it will be available for only 99 cents. If you have not yet given yourself the chance to get a copy of Atoms, with its fresh ideas and unique approaches to the craft of cinematic storytelling, there will never be a better time than this weekend.

Follow this Amazon link to get Screenwriting Down to the Atoms right now.

Don't own a Kindle? No problem. There are a number of free e-reader programs that allow you to read Kindle books on any laptop. Mobipocket is one of the most popular.

If you like what you read, but not the eyestrain while reading it, paperback copies are currently available at an Amazon price of only $12.59 (that's discounted from $17.99!)

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Reality and the Cinematic Narrative

Hugo Münsterberg: Maverick psychologist
and lord of the umlaut.
Ninety-seven years ago, German-American psychologist Hugo Münsterberg published what would be one of the first ever analytical studies of the emerging art of cinema, “The Film: A Psychological Study.” Though movies at Münsterberg’s time were still quite primitive, Münsterberg arrives at a very bold conclusion when comparing drama written for the stage to that intended for the screen: The further away an art form’s methods of expression are from the realities of the physical world (time, space, and concrete physicality), the more potential it has to impact the viewer’s mental world, (the realms of thought, memory, and emotion). Movies present completely artificial worlds that present drama through a discourse inconsistent with the rules of physical existence. Cinema tells its stories through peculiar qualities not found in the theatre – or any of the other arts for that matter. Though these qualities run counter to the experiences of life as we know it, they work to give the audience the illusion of a heightened un-reality which requires and elicits much greater mental and emotional involvement. A wise screenwriter will not only be aware of these peculiar qualities, but makes use of them to absorb the audience into their fictional worlds and create the most emotionally stimulating experience.

Belief & Plausibility
For a large part, films create their heightened state of un-reality automatically by way of the physical properties of cinema. In theater, a paradox exists where the physical presence of dramatic actions and the performers portraying them make its drama feel less real to an audience. In theater, the backdrop and performers stand in the same plane of existence as the audience. The audience could reach out and touch them if they wish. However, this causes the audience to remain fully aware of the story’s artificiality. They know the stage is not really 19th century London, only a depiction of it. They know the persons on the stage are not really Sherlock Holmes or Jack the Ripper, but only performers making pretend. To become mentally involved in drama, and audience must “suspend their disbelief” in the drama’s artificiality. The physical presence of the stage prevents the theatre audience from ever accomplishing this in full. They can only choose to play along with the story, but never fully surrender to its reality.

This is not so with cinema. Though a film presents its drama through far more artificial means than the theatre (an incongruent series of highly-manipulated two-dimensional images rather than the presence of flesh and blood human beings) cinema has the ability to immerse its audience in a world that not only looks like 19th century London, but leads the audience to temporarily accept the illusion that it is indeed 19th century London, even though the audience knows it is impossible to travel to such a time. Such immersion encourages the audience to no longer see the actors as mere imitators of Holmes or the Ripper, but as the real McCoy themselves. Thus, when well-handled, the physical properties of cinematic discourse cause the audience to fully suspend their disbelief and accept the illusion.

Once this illusion has been formed, the storyteller’s job is to simply avoid screwing things up by breaking the illusion. Anything that should sabotage the fantasy by pointing out its artificiality will pull the audience out of the un-reality and cause them to cease their mental participation. I do not mean that a cinematic story cannot contain things the audience knows cannot exist in reality, such as the fantastic, the supernatural, or the unreal. In fact, such things are what the cinema is more successful than any other art at portraying. What I mean is that a cinematic story’s characters and events must maintain the illusion of reality by following and internal logic that parallels the logic found in the real world. A film’s artificial world continues to feel real when events follow the same logic by which events occur in real life. The cinematic story is not enslaved to the possible, but to what is plausibile.

Aristotle wrote “Plausible impossibilities are preferable to implausible possibilities.” This means anything can happen in a story as long as events make reasonable sense based upon what has occurred before them. Any way the story wold is different from the real world must be established at the story’s start. Anything not established as different will be expected to behave as normal. These become the story’s “rules.” If a story should break its established rules, if an event should occur without reasonable explanation, if a person should suddenly behave out of character, or act without understandable motivation, the viewer becomes suddenly aware that he or she is watching a poorly-constructed lie. Like a dreamer becoming conscious of the fact that he or she is asleep, viewers will snap out of the illusion, re-engage their disbelief, and refuse continued participation.

Point of View
In the theatre, the audience's point of view never changes. No matter what occurs on stage, the viewer can only observe the action from whatever angle he or she sits amongst the audience. This far-off position distances the viewer emotionally from the story’s action. Events can only be perceived through the eyes of an uninvolved observer, like a voyeur spying into the story’s world through a keyhole.

Cinema, on the other hand, has the ability to put the audience right in the middle of the action. The viewer is allowed to experience story action as a controlled stream of consciousness, created by the constant refocusing of the viewer’s perspective to deliberately chosen points of view. Point of view does not only have the effect of immersing the audience into the story’s reality, but also shapes and informs the perception of that reality. Its skilled use does not only allow the audience to become mentally involved in the story’s events, but feel an emotional bond to the story’s character, since point of view also allows the audience to see events as close as possible to the characters’ own eyes. The audience sees this world as the character sees it, forging a connection between the two impossible to achieve in the theatre.

Though a scene’s visual points of view are ultimately chosen by the director and editor, screenwriters should not write scenes as if they were sitting in a theatre audience casually transcribing the events on stage. Point of view is the writer’s responsibility as well. Have some conception as to the scene’s point of view before writing begins. A writer should communicate the action of a scene in a way that leads the reader’s imagination the same way camera and editing lead the eye. Good writing does not explicitly express how a scene should be shot, but will to imply shots through well-chosen language to indicate where the dramatic focus should be. All of a scene’s contents are not equal. What in the scene demands the audience's attention? What is important to communicate? The character’s reactions and emotions? The physical action being performed? A dirty spot on the wall? Construct the scene to connote when and how actions will be perceived.

Time & Space
In theatre, the action of a scene is beholden to the natural rules of time and space. The location cannot abruptly change, and time must move forward at its standard pace. Cinema, on the other hand, has no such limitations. It can go from place to place as it pleases. Time can leap forward or backward at will. Time can also freeze, slow down, or move in reverse. A savvy screenwriter knows how to use the freedom of time and space to deliver drama in its most effective and mentally stimulating form.

Hitchcock famously said, “Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.” So cut them out! Give the audience only the most essential, most dramatic, most emotionally evocative slices of time with none of the dead space in between. In this regard, the work of the screenwriter is much like that of the film editor. In real life, time unspools in one long seamless thread, capturing every moment, meaningful or insignificant, like frames preserved onto an endless reel of celluloid. In life as in art, few things have meaning in isolation. The meaning of events can often only be acquired in relation to other events. Unfortunately, it is difficult to identify the true significance of an individual real-life event as it occurs since its causal relationships to other events is diluted or completely washed away by the tedious slow-drip of time with its chaotic clutter of minutia separating them. The realities of linear time then cause events in life to often seem isolated rather than connected as a whole.

The cinematic storyteller has been given the power to overcome this. The storyteller takes the hypothetical spool of time that exists in a fictional story world and surgically removes all portions except those which serve authorial intentions. All excess is removed until only the significant remains. The storyteller then transposes the order of events to occur in an explicitly chosen succession (this is so whether the storyteller chooses to obey temporal linearity or not). Due to this manipulation, the audience is able to see clear connections between the story’s events, and thus a sense of constantly-developing meaning between them.

This time-editing refers to not only the storyteller’s removal of unimportant events between scenes, but the whittling away of all unnecessary moments within the scenes themselves. The old saw is that scenes should “start late, end early.” Taking this advice ensures that each contains only meaningful moments that move the story forward without unnecessary filler that slows down the narrative. Cinematic worlds are time-accelerated worlds that contain only moments which have dramatic significance. This time-acceleration keeps the viewer mentally involved. He or she must pay attention or be left behind. At the same time, the viewer becomes creatively involved as he or she is expected to use cognitive imagination to fill in the gaps and form mental connections between events. Accelerated time creates heightened awareness, which leads to greater mental and emotional involvement on the part of the viewer.

As the cinematic form flouts reality’s physical rules, it must invent its own rules to keep its internal microcosm from collapsing. The theatre remains somewhat stable in its discourse by being grounded in the here and now. The cinema on the other hand, with the unreality of its discourse, has no choice but to replace the rules of reality with the rules of narrative. With narrative structure, the viewer receives a stable and still plausible illusion of reality that will actually function at a higher level than the world in which we live.

As stated in my book Screenwriting Down to the Atoms, stories are not reflections of reality. They are analogues of reality. Stories are pleasurable because they present worlds which seem to function in the way we wish our world would operate. One reason life can be so frustrating is that real life lacks structure. Events in life seem to occur randomly. Problems invade without provocation. Actions taken often fail to provide results. Things seem to move in multiple directions at once – or not move at all – leaving us anxious and confused over whether life has a purpose or goal. Stories, in contrast, present worlds where everything happens for a reason. Every event is connected and designed to lead to a logical end. Stories comfort audiences with worlds where everything has order and meaning.

This cannot be accomplished without narrative structure. On this subject Münsterberg likens the work of a screenwriter to that of a composer. No matter how bold or innovative a composer may be, each melody must still obey some sort of internal structure to unify the piece, or else the music becomes chaotic and aesthetically displeasing. Like music the structure of music, narrative structure provides a rhythm and flow the gives a sensation of order and control to its events.

As Münsterberg also points out, cinematic structure must begin with a simple of unity of action. Like a musical work, a cinematic narrative is isolated and self-contained. It has a beginning and an end. Everything in between must follow a single linear thread that grows and develops as time progresses, orientated around the singular premise established at the story’s start. Unlike how events occur in real life, the course of a narrative should be free of any distracting elements which do not relate to the premise. Unrelated material will damage a story’s unity the way the inclusion of random errant notes would weaken a musical piece. By focusing the narrative upon one tightly-structured line of action, the storyteller leads the audience to find meaning and emotional fulfillment in events that would be impossible in the distracting chaos of real life.

If anything should be taken away from all of this, it is that a good cinematic story does not provide the audience with reality. Rather, it uses its abilities to defy reality to create a heightened illusion of existence with the capability to trigger the viewers’ thoughts, emotions, and imaginations, absorbing them in a world where they are mental participants, rather than uninvolved observers. This is the magic of cinema. This is what allows its stories more emotional impact than any other dramatic form. This is what the storyteller must use his or her skills to do.