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.


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