Saturday, September 28, 2013

Story Structure: The ABSOLUTE Essentials (and the ONLY Absolutes) -- Part 2

(If you're reading this part first, you're doing it backwards! Click HERE for Part 1.

Otherwise, on to Part 2!)

2. The story must have a SPINE.

The Story Spine is one big secret I reveal in Screenwriting Down to the Atoms. The Story Spine is not a recent invention. It is not some trick or tool like a “beat sheet” formulated as a cheap and lazy shortcut. The Story Spine is something that has been present in all good storytelling since the beginning of time. Whether it be by instinct or trial and error, great storytellers have always realized that certain fundamental components must be contained in a story if the audience is to care about it and stick with it to the end.

The Story Spine is the basic structure of all storytelling, whether that story be in the form of a film, a novel, a folktale, an anecdote, or even a dirty joke. It fulfills the four qualifications of a story in a manner that gives the narrative focus, direction, and drive. It is the lifeblood of drama. Without a Spine, a story will fail to come together in anything but the weakest, most ineffectual way. But sadly, no “gurus” teach this concept. Few developing writers understand the Story Spine or even know of its existence. This is unfortunate, since an overwhelming majority of the flawed screenplays I have ever read can trace their most glaring problems back to a simple ignorance of the Story Spine.

The Story Spine is a five-component structure that can be visualized as so:

The Spine's five components are:
A. The protagonist’s STORY PROBLEM. This problem is what incites the protagonist to act and originates the story premise. This starts the story journey.
B. The protagonist’s STORY GOAL. The protagonist chooses this goal out the the belief that reaching it will solve the Story Problem and resolve the situation. Reaching it will end the story journey.
C. The protagonist’s PATH OF ACTION. This path is composed of all actions the protagonist takes in his or her efforts to get to the Story Goal. This makes up the bulk of the story action.
D. The MAIN STORY CONFLICT. This is a force that resists the protagonist's efforts to reach the Story Goal.
E. The MAIN STORY STAKES. This is a counter-force that compels the protagonist onward, despite the Main Conflict’s resistance.

All five components must be present for the Story Spine to exist. If any component is missing, the Spine will not function, just as an engine will not function if one of its vital components were removed. This matter deserves further explanation, but rather than take up space here, I invite you to read the original article I wrote on the subject back in 2009. It behooves you to take time to learn this. If a writer should know only one thing about storytelling, it should be this.

3. Longer stories require some form of ADDITIONAL STRUCTURE

Very short forms of story, such as anecdotes and folktales, need only a simple Story Spine to function. The main character encounters a problem, takes a single set of actions towards a goal, and then either reaches that goal or meets failure. The telling of these stories take no longer than a few minutes. However, as storytellers moves on to longer story forms; such as novels, stageplays, or feature films; one must deal with the issue of the audience’s attention span. Even when strongly engaged, attentions will wane with time. Often this time frame is as short as five to ten minutes. Unless the storyteller finds a way to continually renew attention, he or she will not be able to retain the audience’s interest until the story's end.

Take another look at the Story Spine diagram and you should notice that the Path of Action takes up the majority of any narrative. While an anecdote or folktale's Path of Action can be kept simple since it lasts only a few minutes, a novel or feature film's Path may need to stretch on for hours without end. How then does the storyteller keep an easily-distracted audience engaged and attentive over such a long period of time? The answer to create structure within the existing story structure.

Long narratives must be broken up into STORY SEQUENCES. Story sequences can be thought of as sub-narratives that directly relate to and develop the main Story Spine. In them, the character deals with some smaller issue directly related to the Main Story Problem. If the character successfully manages this smaller yet related issue, he or she moves one step closer to reaching the Main Story Goal. In other words, the protagonist handles the story's narrative issue in pieces; like a long journey taken one “leg” at a time. Rather than asking the audience to swallow the entire long-form narrative as a whole, story sequences deliver it to them one short yet interesting sub-story at a time, managing the limits of human memory and attention while keeping them engaged in the over-arching narrative. The story is not a marathon, but a series of sprints.

Novels and stageplays have obvious methods to break up their narratives for easier ingestion. Novels have chapters that suggest points where readers can start and stop. Plays close the curtain at the end of each act or scene. However, since the action of a feature film is continuous and expected to be enjoyed in one sitting, its demarcations between sequences can seem invisible without a trained eye. But whether you are currently able to notice them or not, trust me, this structure exists in every competent film ever made. The average feature film consists of nine to fourteen story sequences, each running a consistent pace of eight to twelve minutes apiece (though I have seen films with a pace as short as six minutes or as long as sixteen). Each sequence focuses character behavior upon a single, smaller objective that manages to advance the story situation and move the protagonist closer to his or her Main Story Goal. Story sequences are brought to an end with story events known as TURNING POINTS. As the name suggests, turning points literally turn the course of the story in a new direction by providing some occurrence that brings the action of the current sequence to an end and launches the action of the next. Turning points are also essential for necessities of good storytelling such as development, momentum, and escalation. Once again, this is a topic that requires more explanation than can be provided here. For more, you may check out this previous article or this one, or even better, Chapter 5 of Screenwriting Down to the Atoms.

Why is sequence structure an absolute of cinematic storytelling? Read some amateur screenplays that do not contain this structure and you will see why. So many aspiring screenwriters struggle, falter, and fail between inciting incident and climax because they do not know how to keep narrative momentum or provide the proper development and escalation that comes naturally with sequence structure. These long, structureless scripts then become lost, confused, lethargic, chaotic, or simply boring as hell. Like the Story Spine, sequence structure is a fundamental of good storytelling that most never teach and many fail to learn. Why? Because most “gurus” have the nasty habit of skipping over structural Steps #1 and #2, and blindly leaping straight to Step #3. Gurus love Step #3. But it is not exactly the magic pill some make it out to be. Of course, I am talking about the beloved 3-Act Structure.

What about 3-Act Structure?

Contrary to what some teach, the 3-Act Structure is not a method of story creation. Nor is it the primary level of cinematic story structure. If anything, it is the tertiary level – that is, the third level (“tertiary” is just much more fun word to say). There is a certain folly to the fact that 3-Act Structure is what most beginning writers are first taught. Equally foolish is how many begin a new screenplay by focusing upon it. As the tertiary level of narrative structure, this this is like constructing a building by starting with the third floor.

The 3-Act model is nothing more than a specialization of the sequence structure, specifically adapted to the feature-length narrative film. Its discovery came about through simple observation and analysis. Narrative arts like literature and theater have used sequence structure for centuries, producing tens of thousands of works. Narrative cinema, on the other hand, is a young enough art that its evolution could be observed from its beginnings to the present day. In addition, there are few enough feature films produced each year that one can come close to something resembling a comprehensive analysis. Through historical observation of successes and failures, especially cinema’s rocky trial-and-error period from 1910-1950, dramatists noticed that a large number of films found more success when certain sequences and turning points performed certain special duties according to where they occurred in the narrative. Modern films that emulated this pattern seemed to corroborate this. All this evidence led those working in the industry to believe they had discovered a roadmap to success, and to a certain degree they were right.

However, what was originally perceived as simply smart business has grown over the course of the last few decades to be thought of as some sort of screenplay law, and then into unquestionable dogma. Because if there is a natural formula to write a money-maker every time, why not use it, right? Right? But audiences have caught on. 3-Act Structure has gone from being a natural execution of the story’s Spine to something forced upon any and every narrative whether it fits its story's requirements or not. Remember from Part 1 of this article how each story has its own needs to which the structure must adapt, not the other way around. The 3-Act model is not a narrative absolute, yet many treat it as if it is. This is the cause of much frustration and confusion amongst developing writers. They are given valuable information, but the context in which it is given is often false.

Is 3-Act Structure an absolute? Certainly not. One can create a perfectly effective cinematic story with nothing but the Story Spine and sequence structure. Is the use of 3-Act Structure a good idea? In most cases, yes. Don’t reject something useful just for the sake of rebellion. That is a false absolute of its own. The 3-Act model may be exactly what your particular story needs. But don't force it upon your story just because you think it is mandatory. No matter your intentions or how you see yourself as a writer, Semper Gumby.

So in conclusion, the only absolutes in cinematic storytelling are the same as those in any narrative. A story must exist. The story must have a Spine. The long-form narrative must contain additional structure. The rest is simply good advice that is often relevant to your particular story, but may not always be so. Instructors on the craft may give you the tools, but it is up to you as an intelligent and flexible-minded storyteller to figure out when and how to use them.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Story Structure: The ABSOLUTE Essentials (and the ONLY Absolutes) -- part 1

Here is the problem many people have with “script gurus.” They tend to speak in absolutes. Some suggestion is either implied by the writing or inferred by the reader that there is only one way to do certain things or else the writer’s work will end in failure. This then causes confusion, arguments, even anger amongst communities of cinematic storytellers, especially after the discovery of examples that fail to conform to such rigid preconceptions.

One thing that must be understood is that the gurus’ absolutes are rarely universalities. They do not apply to cinematic storytelling in its entirety. If there is any truth in the guru’s absolutes, it is only in reference to an exclusive group found within narrative cinema, one that may make up the majority of what the author considers traditional, commercial-oriented narrative filmmaking (roughly 75-90% of the films available to the paying public), but certainly does not represent all of it. Whether it be for convenience, clarity, or simple short-sightedness, many “gurus” choose to treat the minorities that fall outside of this group as if they simply do not exist. If challenged to explain one of these films, the offending work is frequently brushed off as a fluke, freak accident, a film that should not or in fact does not work, or my personal favorite, the guru hides behind that old William Goldman saw “nobody knows anything” – even when there is a perfectly viable explanation as to why these outliers work despite failing to conform. This causes a surprising amount of indignation from beginning or developing writers which can be seen on practically any internet message board. They see a piece that does not fit into so-called “absolutes” and are offered no reasonable explanation. This even seems to compel some to throw out the baby with the bathwater out of disgust, rejecting all instruction on narrative structure even though a great portion may still hold truth and value.

There are true absolutes within cinematic storytelling. However, they number very few. The rest is simply good advice. However, advice is only good when it applies to the specifics of the situation at hand. For instance, the best advice on how to survive a shark attack does me little good if I am being attacked by a bear. Each story is different, and therefore has its own particular needs. Even within the exclusive group which gurus tend to focus, the “absolutes” are rarely universals. Every story has unique content and form to which its craft is required to adjust and adapt. If the battle cry of the Marine Corp is Semper Fidelis (“Always Faithful”), then the cry of the cinematic storyteller must be SEMPER GUMBY (“Always Flexible.”)

But like I said, there are certain absolutes to cinematic storytelling, as few as they may be – absolutes that for a large part hold true for all storytelling in general. Without these fundamental basics, a “story” will not adequately form, and the narrative will be unable to gain and hold an audience’s attention. The rest of this article is dedicated to these absolutes.

(But first, lest I leave my underbelly exposed to ravenous critics, I must make a caveat of my own. The content of this article (as well as all the articles on this blog) refers to only traditional narrative cinematic storytelling – and primarily Western-style cinema at that. It is not meant to apply to anything than could be labeled as “art cinema.” The very nature of art cinema is to experiment and explore. Rules do not apply to it since its very purpose is to break or redefine rules. In fact, much of art cinema, in sharp contrast to commercial cinema, does not even consider narrative its primary concern. It rather concerns itself with the creative use of the entire audio-visual medium of which narrative is often only a small or nonexistent part.)

1. The story must be a STORY.

The first absolute is that a cinematic narrative must contain a story. Well, no sh*t Sherlock, I hear you say. However, anyone who has spent a lot of time reading amateur screenplays will tell you it is never a given that a script will contain anything remotely resembling a real “story.” Just because stuff happens, that doesn’t mean a story exists. In my book Screenwriting Down to the Atoms, I point out the great difference between a simple “narrative” and anything we can actually consider a “story.” A narrative is merely a series of events arranged in some sort of temporal order: “I woke up. I washed my face. The mail came. A plane landed in Portugal. I went to bed.” A disconnected series of events is not interesting to hear or read, yet I have encountered dozens of amateur screenplays that contain nothing more than this from beginning to end. To make things clear, these writers were not trying to be the next Michelangelo Antonioni. They simply had no clue as to what makes a story a STORY.

To be a story, and thus become capable of attracting an audience’s interest, a narrative must at bare minimum meet four qualifications (each qualification is expanded upon in greater detail in my book). A STORY must be a series of events –
  1. about CHARACTERS
  2. dealing with a PROBLEM,
  3. unified by a PREMISE,
  4. told in some sort of STRUCTURED ORDER.

Now the first qualification is obvious. You can’t make a story with an empty room. There must be some animate object capable of taking actions and causing events to occur. The second qualification is also obvious, though most people never realize it. Every story ever told, from The Three Little Pigs to Gone With the Wind to “How I Found my Car Keys” is about a problem and the efforts made to deal with that problem. Something must give characters a reason to act. I am not going to grant myself permission to go into a tangent to explain, but problems’ central importance to storytelling relates to the social and psychological reasons stories exist. People create stories to make sense of the world. They tell us that things happen for a reason. Each story is a lesson on how problems can be dealt with and overcome.

The premise is the unifying focus of a story. Story events cannot be chosen randomly. They must all somehow relate. The premise decides what the story “is about.” It is the umbrella that decides what is relevant and what is not. “How I Found my Car Keys” should only contain events that have something to do with the search for the keys. The Three Little Pigs only contains material on the Pigs and the Wolf who wishes to devour them.

Though events may be unified under a premise, the audience must still be able to make sense of them. This is why a story’s events must be arranged in a structured order. This happens because of that, which is then followed by that. A structured order gives a narrative a logic that connects each dot in a way the audience can easily comprehend. Sometimes chronological order is enough: “A happens, and then B happens,” but in most cases events will lack logical interconnection unless they have a causal (cause-and-effect) order: “A happens, which causes B to happen, which results in C.”

These four qualifications are the most basic of absolutes. Without all four, a narrative will not be a story and will be incapable of gaining or holding an audience’s interest.

2. The story must have a SPINE.