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.