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.)

Friday, September 25, 2015

Screenwriting & the Unified Theory of Narrative update

No new updates to provide per say, other than Part I of the new book is still on track to be finished and available within a week of November 1st despite my chronic bouts of insomnia. As for now, here is a preview of the cover design for Parts I & II.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

"A Brief History of SCREENCRAFT and its Current Problems"

(The following article has been adapted from a section omitted from an early draft of my new book, Screenwriting and the Unified Theory of Narrative. Originally intended to occupy “Chapter 1: The Failure of Screencraft,” the section has been edited and reprinted here.)

Much of the confusion found in the investigation of screencraft arises from the fact that its history has been a short one. Though narrative cinema has existed for about one hundred and twenty years, serious academic analysis of its form and structure only began in earnest roughly four decades ago. The growth of the cinematic narrative from its birth to its current position as the world’s most dominant mode of storytelling did not begin under close academic scrutiny. In its early stages, the cinema was ignored by all but a handful of critics for reason that moving pictures were widely considered little more than low-brow entertainment and thus unworthy of serious artistic evaluation. In fact, it took several decades for cinema's proponents to convince the world that cinema was indeed an “art.” Yet even among the academic minds who supported the medium, the storytelling component of cinema was paid little attention. Rather, the critics preferred debating aesthetic concepts, leaving narrative study as a neglected child. Instead, the process by which cinematic storytelling found its form was largely motivated by economic concerns.

From its beginnings, the cinema was recognized not so much for its potential as art, but its potential as popular entertainment. The earliest of film producers were businessmen, many with backgrounds in the management and promotion of live entertainment. These men recognized that this new invention could have the same appeal as the traveling troupes of actors, musicians, and comedians common at the time, yet could be distributed far and wide at fraction of the cost. Yet the business of entertainment is still a business, and businesses requires consistent profit. So, to ensure a predictable return on investment, early producers created films with content they had already seen crowds enjoy. This led to films based on certain narrative “formulas.” Audiences may complain that the movies of today are formulaic, but early narrative films of the silent era were so repetitive that they often presented the identical story again and again, the only difference being changes in actors or setting. This may sound like anything but an artistic process, but what few if any realized was that these early attempts to engender a consistently-positive audience response began the process by which cinema would sort out what types of storytelling were well-suited for its medium and which were not. Cinema became subject to a Darwinean survival of the the fittest where the successes spawned innumerable offspring while the failures were discarded and forgotten.

These films seem extremely rickety by today's standards because the medium had not yet found the ideal ways to tell its stories though montage and the moving image. Some early films were simply filmed stage plays. Others tried to imitate literature. But neither of these older methods of execution were a successful match for the cinematic form. The motion picture possessed certain qualities found in no other forms of storytelling. This gave the cinema unique advantages as well as limitations. With the help of such innovators as D.W. Griffith, Edmund Porter, and later the likes of V.I. Pudovkin and Sergei Eisenstein, the cinematic narrative eventually found its own language, one which accentuated its advantages and avoided its disadvantages, allowing cinema to come into its own as an unique method of storytelling with it own particular rules and structures.

In such a way, the cinematic narrative form eventually “found itself,” much like how an animal species eventually evolves into perfect adaptation to its environment through natural selection. This was not done by plan, but through trial and error. With time and technical advancements, the feature film became standardized to a certain length and presentational style. After decades of hits and misses, trial and error, innovation and imitation, the cinematic narrative found a vague form which provided consistent success.

The remarkable thing about this process was that by pursuing economic concerns, the cinema grasped in the dark and unwittingly found the principles by which it might become an art. By responding to the positive or negative reactions of the audience, filmmaking stumbled upon the rules of viewership and the techniques which could be used to garner a desired response. Screencraft “learned” proper structure and technique in the same way as one trains a dog. With every reward or rebuke, the cinema eventually learned to keep its behaviors within proper and effective parameters.

By overviewing the Darwin-esque process by which narrative cinema evolved from its childish beginnings to a sophisticated art form, we may conclude that the “rules” that determine an individual narrative film’s success or failure are predicated on two things:
  1. How well the story's form, structure, and content fit the specific technical requirements of the feature film's required length and audio/visual form (the physical factors of the cinematic medium).
  2. The story's ability to elicit a satisfactory intellectual, emotional, and visceral response from its viewer via the execution of that story's content (the psychological factors of viewership).
Once cinematic storytelling had learned to adapt itself to these factors (settling into the the proper groove, if you will), the evolution of cinematic storytelling became somewhat stable for a number of decades. In America, this is critically known as the “Classic Hollywood” period or the “Golden Age of Filmmaking.” Though there were hits and misses, bad films and good ones, nearly every film managed to achieve somewhat consistent results. 

Though the 1960s were known as a time of great upheaval in the world of cinema; a decade of furious academic debate and experimentation, beginning in Europe and eventually spreading across the world; this influence was once more largely limited to the realm of aesthetics. The narrative component of cinema was again a neglected child and, as far as Hollywood was concerned, remained relatively unchanged.

It was not until the initial excitement of this “New Wave” began to subside in the early-to-mid 1970s that the film industry met its next crucial turning point, one which finally pushed the narrative component of filmmaking to the forefront of critical interest. This period is known for the rise of the first generation of entirely film school educated filmmakers, including the likes of Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, and Francis Ford Coppola. Educated in both the traditional styles of classic Hollywood and the experimentation of the New Wave, this generation set itself apart in that they did not seem to view themselves as engineers of spectacle or experimentative artists, but rather embraced the role of master storytellers. With their emphasis on story, this generation initiated the “blockbuster era” of Hollywood, creating films which achieved both critical praise and enormous commercial success. It was with this that Hollywood finally woke up to the preeminent place that storytelling held in the creation of successful feature films.

It was in this same environment that an academic interest arose in the realm of screenwriting. Strongly influenced by Aristotle’s Poetics (the first known work of dramatic theory, written circa 335 BC), writer-analysts attempted to apply the Aristotelian method of inquiry to the cinematic narrative, just as Aristotle had done with Greek tragedy, in an attempt to discover just what made a good cinematic narrative, what made a bad one, and why. The Aristotelian method is marked by the use of categorization in order to organize complex systems based upon observable similarities. The analyst then attempts to isolate “invariants” – traits consistently repeated from one instance to the next. If enough invariants are found, this may suggest a logical pattern. With over seventy years of evidence now in front of them, the analysts of cinema could reflect intellectually upon the cinema's past successes and failures, and through comparison and contrast seek out the previously unnamed factors that separated the “good” films from the “bad.” Essentially, these dramatists wished to find a way to do by intentional design what cinematic storytelling had previously found success doing by accident or intuition. In this way, the modern field of screencraft was born.

It should be noted however that like the early producers of the silent era, this study was once again motivated more so by commercial and economic reasons than the artistic or academic. The film industry remained as it had always been; a business. A successful business demanded consistent profits, which in this case meant a consistent supply of blockbuster films. At the time, studios still tried to predict success by old fashioned formulas based on superficial elements, such as the story's setting, genre, premise, or star cast. These methods did not prove entirely reliable, producing just as many bad films as good ones. Aware of this, the dramatists of this period hoped to identify some magic formula that if imitated could produced successful results every time. If this sorcerer's stone could be found, it would theoretically mean everyone involved could win. Better-written films meant a larger number of successful films. This meant more profit for the studios, more successful careers for the writers and directors, and more enjoyable experiences for audiences. Theoretically, this narrative alchemy could provide the best for everyone.

Through their study, these dramatists reached the same conclusion as Aristotle before them: the key was structure, structure, structure. Early books on this subject cobbled together crude cave paintings of what story events ought to happen when, how characters should behave, and what actions they should take at given moments. They quickly labeled this vague form as a universal pattern all cinematic narratives must follow. While these “script gurus” would later expand upon this original structure and add their own interpretations, the basic paradigm remained generally the same since its beginnings.

One cannot overlook the effect this new school of thought eventually had upon Hollywood. In the effort to produce consistent successes, many writers, producers, and even executives took these methods to heart. This achieved positive results, but found drawbacks as well. First, the cinema's newfound emphasis on structure had a stabilizing and normalizing effect on the narrative content of Hollywood films. This indeed brought more consistent audience success. But it also had a homogenizing effect on narrative output. Hollywood storytelling transitioned from a reliance on formulas to one on patterns. While the producers of earlier eras sought to imitate superficial content which had seen previous success, this new era aspired to provide fresh and original content which nevertheless followed the same basic structural patterns, creating stories which felt familiar, yet were superficially different. This ultimately gave rise to the oft-repeated studio request, “Give me something the same, but different.”

Unfortunately, there were also great flaws in Hollywood's new narrative religion. Certain difficulties arise when the Aristotelian method of inquiry is applied to the art of storytelling. Firstly, the method assumes that everything in a given system can be separated into clearly distinct categories where every instance is either this or that, fish or foul, with nothing in between. However, artists and audiences alike tend to value originality and avoid such obvious genericism. Secondly, in most fields of investigative study, the rules this method seeks to uncover are eternal and unchanging. Fields such as physics, mathematics, geology, and even biology all seek principles outside of man's control which have always remained the same and always will. However, unless it is viewed from a strictly historical standpoint, storytelling is very much a living and constantly evolving thing. New stories are created every day and the societies and cultures that both create and consume them exist under a constant state of change.
Furthermore, the “script gurus” behind these new paradigms made the mistake of evaluating success or failure from the same narrow mindset as the producers of the early silent era. They saw only WHAT was successful, but rarely considered WHY. Their methods only copied what seemed to be successful structures while overlooking the physical and psychological factors which acted as the underlying determinants of that particular structure's success. They understood the result, but not the cause. The form, but not the function. With only such superficial knowledge, the structures taught by the gurus were too stubborn and inflexible. The methods were unable to explain and often ignored successful films which did not match the pattern and were unable to adapt themselves to unique or nontraditional story concepts which did not fit Hollywood's usual mold. By understanding the what, but not the why, scripts created in strict adherence to the gurus' patterns often rang hollow with audiences despite technically being what was considered structurally sound. Many writers reacted to screencraft like schoolchildern who memorized their lesson word for word, but made no effort to understand what the lesson meant.

In addition, the evaluative methods used by the “gurus” were often highly suspect. First, the pool of evidence from which they drew their conclusions was far too shallow, often consisting of only a few dozen mega-hit films, chosen based on the author's personal taste or ease with which their principles could be related. This did not provide a wide enough data set to prove anything “universal.” Therefore, the reasoning found in these methods remained highly selective and contained massive blindspots. Second, the majority of early investigation sought only similarities and ignored differences. Rarely in these texts does one find an attempt to explain a critically or commercially successful film which does not fit the pattern. In an effort to defend the hypothesis, aberrant successes were usually overlooked, intentionally ignored, or written off as flukes. Finally, the conclusions drawn from these small selections were quite often educated guesses or personal opinions passed off as fact. Yet still, many accepted these notions as truth despite the lack of anything resembling a scientific method based on evidence and experimentation considered necessary in every other serious field of inquiry.

As such, Hollywood’s narrative “religion” indeed currently remains much more like a religion than any serious field of investigation. Nevertheless, many writers and producers accepted its tenets as iron-clad truths, regardless of the fact that later analysts found cause to regard many early conclusions as inaccurate, incomplete, or in some cases false. As critical voices have pointed out with increasing frequency in recent years, these flaws have grown to have a stultifying effect on Hollywood films. Out of a desire to guarantee consistent commercial success, many on the creative end have embraced this strict and unresponsive “one road” approach to narrative, causing audiences to complain that films have become stale, repetitive and formulaic. Ironically, the economic concerns which once fueled the expansion and refinement of the cinematic narrative have now caused the industry to reverse course. The desire for consistency and predictability now acts to limit the possibilities of cinematic storytelling. This is primarily because the inflexible application of the current teachings of screencraft is built on a fallacy. The “universal” formulas, as they have been preached to developing writers and producers, are not in fact or in any way universal, and are not ideally-suited to every story told.

If any further progress is to be made in the study of screencraft, analysts must question previous claims, test existing presumptions, and abandon the outdated Aristotelian method of inquiry. We must no longer look solely at what is successful, but seek to understand why. By understanding the causes of success or failure in relation to the intellectual, emotional, and sociological needs to the audience, we may reach a more flexible and accurate method to understand the field of cinematic storytelling and its proper execution.

Monday, July 6, 2015


It has been in the works for almost a year now (and has been the reason for my serious neglect of this blog), so I believe the time has come to make the announcement official. Since August of last year I have been pouring every free hour into the creation of my follow-up to Screenwriting Down to the Atoms and by far my most ambitious project to date. The new book, currently titled Screenwriting and the Unified Theory of Narrative is expected to be finished and available in two installments, starting this Fall.

Screenwriting and the Unified Theory of Narrative is not a how-to book. It is an advanced guide on cinematic narrative theory for experienced readers containing nothing but new and original material found nowhere else and taught by no one else.

What is the Unified Theory of Narrative? As far as screencraft goes, it is a theory of everything. It is a theory meant to explain all existing theories. It is a structure which take into account all other structures. It attempts to answer all current questions on the cinematic narrative and come as close as possible to providing a truly universal model to explain the form, purpose, and execution of story as found in the Hollywood and American Independent film. In other words, if I were a mad scientist, this would be my doomsday device.

But the book is about far more than form and structure. It is more so about how the cinematic story communicates meaning. It examines the personal, cultural, and social dimensions of storytelling and explains how the feature-length film uses its unique physical and narrative properties to communicate its message to an audience.

The first installment, Part I: The Unified Cinematic Structure should be available in both ebook and paperback in October or November 2015. The second installment, Part II: Genre, Pattern & the Concept of Total Meaning should follow in three to four months, and soon after a full edition containing both sections in one volume.

Updates to follow.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

New SCRIPTMONK article in Creative Screenwriting Magazine

Once again, you can find my latest theory & craft article not here on scribbler, but published in Creative Screenwriting Magazine (their site design is much nicer, anyway).

The follow-up to my last article, this one delves even deeper into the cinematic audience's three levels of psychological need (the intellectual, the emotional, and the visceral) by showing how great storytellers manage to drive audiences nuts with fear, anxiety, and pleasure by creating conflicts between those needs. Films studied are Alien (the visceral vs. the intellectual), Rocky (the visceral vs. the emotional), and The Godfather (conflict between all three). Plus, you get to see my insanely handsome picture. You know you want to see it.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

SCRIPTMONK Goes to the Movies: WHIPLASH -- An Intimate "Small Man Rises"

I admit I'm a little late to the party on this film. Whiplash was released in theaters way back in January and has since collected three Oscars, but it can still be seen in select theaters and is now available on video, so I highly recommend checking it out if you have not already.

Whiplash, by all traditional measurements was a sleeper hit. A small-budget independent film, no A-list actors in the cast, and a premise which does anything but scream high-concept. Though a lot of credit it owed to its great performances and the amazing on-screen musical skill of its star Miles Teller, the secret to the film's success as a work of storytelling originates from the fact that it takes a tried-and-true (and due to its constant overuse in Hollywood, all-too-familiar) narrative Plot Pattern and renders it almost unrecognizable to the viewer into something which seems altogether fresh and new. Whiplash manages to nail what often seems to be a contradictory demand made of writers and filmmakers, to “give something new, yet familiar.” Though the film's surface content may seem to be material which seems rarely if ever explored in a major feature film, under that surface Whiplash follows a specific and distinctive Plot Pattern (also known on this blog as a “Story Type”) which we have all seen and enjoyed many times before.

I am referring specifically to the “Small Man (or Woman) Rises” story type, the second of my 20 Common Plot Patterns as found in Hollywood and American Independent feature films. This pattern is defined as such:

A more or less unremarkable protagonist is selected by an outside power to fulfill a role through which he or she is expected to achieve greatness. Unprepared and often unwilling to fill this role, the protagonist first requires the guidance and nurturance of supporting characters to expose and eliminate the flawed attitudes or behaviors that block the hero's path to greatness. Later developments present a series of tests which force the hero to recognize and then prove his or her great potential value, usually failing before finding success.

The key defining traits of this plot pattern are first that the hero is chosen by an outside power to participate in the story's quest. Second, the hero's strongest obstacle is not physical, but internal; usually a flaw in the hero's sense of self-worth, value to the world, or personal identity.

This plot pattern can be further broken down into two subtypes:

The Summoned Hero
An inexperienced hero is plucked from obscurity by a higher power to fill a role of great importance. Mentors and other supporting characters nurture the hero in preparation for a final confrontation with a force of antagonism in which the hero must finally prove his or her worth. (Examples: The Matrix, Men in Black, Silence of the Lambs, Kung-Fu Panda)

The Breakaway Hero
A hero is ushered into a system or given an opportunity through which he or she is promised fame, glory, or great personal achievement. However, the protagonist comes to realizes this system is not acting in his or her best interests, often using him or her for their own questionable purposes. The hero then breaks away from that system (often inciting open conflict between the two) whereafter he or she transforms into an independent hero fighting for his or her own personal cause. (Examples: Batman Begins, Rocky, 12 Monkeys)

The most obvious difference between these two subtypes is that is in the Summoned Hero, the protagonist has a positive relationship with those who have chosen him or her for the role, while in the Breakaway Hero, the protagonist develops an antagonistic relationship, ultimately standing against it in direct conflict.

Plotwise, Whiplash belongs to the second subtype. Its protagonist Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), an ambitious young drummer at the Shaffer Conservatory of Music is plucked from obscurity by revered instructor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) to join the Studio Band, Shaffer's elite group of musicians. However, Andrew soon realizes that Fletcher is not a benevolent, nurturing mentor, but an ogre and a tyrant who, (much like Ra's Al Ghul in Batman Begins) uses harsh methods to mold and warp Andrew into the type of person Andrew did not formerly wish to become. (See this previous article for more information on mentor-antagonist relationships.) Due to the love-hate relationship found between protagonists and such mentor-antagonists, Andrew tries to meet all of Fletcher's unreasonable expectations, but eventually rebels against this treatment, turning into Fletcher's enemy, ultimately defeating Fletcher to become an independent hero living on his own terms based on his own personal standards of greatness.

As seen in the other examples of Small Man/Woman Rises narratives listed above, this plot pattern usually lends itself to stories with fantastic premises or those with protagonists put into extraordinary situations. Whiplash however is noteworthy for adapting this form to a premise which is much smaller and more personal, one which the audience can better relate to and identify with their own struggles for worth and accomplishment. Whiplash gains its dramatic impact by taking a superhero-type narrative and placing it into the far more accessible context of the everyday, into a coming-of-age tale of growth and maturity with which the audience can directly identify.

Essential to the Small Man/Woman Rises is how the greatest obstacle standing in the protagonist's path to victory comes not so much the force of antagonism, but the protagonist's own Fatal Flaw. The “Fatal Flaw” is a concept often misunderstood amongst developing storytellers due to the fact that it is often address with much vaguery. The Fatal Flaw is always psychological. All of the protagonist's negative or self-defeating traits arise from a warped or incorrect paradigm – that is, a system of beliefs the protagonist has developed which negatively influence how the character sees him or herself, others, or the world in general. Andrew's Fatal Flaw is that he suffers from what psychologists refer to as an “external locus of self-worth.” This means Andrew views his personal value not on his own terms, but based on approval received from someone or something outside of him over which he has no control. Namely, Andrew judges his value insofar as he can receive Fletcher's approval. Because of this, Andrew willingly puts up with all of Fletcher's abuse because it is only by gaining Fletcher's approval that Andrew senses any personal value. This however proves to be an absurd quest as Fletcher will never, ever give Andrew praise no matter how hard he works or how much he is willing to give. But Andrew does not realize this, and like a hamster on wheel keeps charging harder and harder after what he cannot receive, becoming miserable and destroying himself in the process. If Andrew is ever to find any success or happiness, he must abandon this flawed paradigm in favor of one which is healthier, more productive and more accurately reflects the truth of the world in which he lives (a process known in screencraft as conversion or value realignment). Andrew must shift away from an external locus of self-worth to an internal one, one where his sense of personal value is based on his own standards rather than any imposed from outside.

Conflict is always the key to character change. Conversely, character change is always the key to overcoming that conflict. They are two problems which solve each other. Andrew's external locus of self-worth drives him in reckless and obsessive pursuit of Fletcher's impossible standards. But by following his flaw, Andrew is pursuing his goals the wrong way. His actions do nothing to solve the conflict, rather they only make it worse. Continually denied what he desires, Andrew eventually snaps, attacks his mentor and in the process loses everything he has so far struggled to achieve. Fortunately, these mounting failures provide Andrew with a mountain of evidence that once reflected upon lead Andrew to a moment of self-revelation. He comes to realize that it is foolish and self-defeating to bank his sense of personal worth on the approval of someone who is too cruel and indifferent to give it. True self-worth can only come from oneself. To be at peace with one's own value, one must set their own standards of accomplishment and then pursue those standards for no one's approval but one's own. So, like the title character of Rocky, another Breakaway Hero narrative, Andrew reevaluates his goals and sets new objectives by which he can achieve a sense of worth on his own terms. By shifting from an external locus of worth to an internal one, Andrew finds the strength of will to finally stand up to and ultimately defeat his oppressor, by no longer playing by Fletcher's rules, but by his own. In the end, like in other Breakaway Hero narratives, Andrew stands on his own two feet as an independent hero who find greatness by acting according to his own personal values and beliefs.

“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than 'good job'.” This is the philosophy that Fletcher lives by. Though this may sound cruel, Fletcher does make a good point. By withholding praise, Fletcher tries to push Andrew to become the best he can possibly be. But as the narrative plainly shows, this has both a positive and negative impact upon Andrew's struggle for accomplishment. By combining Fletcher's philosophy with Andrew's absurd quest for approval, the whole of Whiplash is unified by a thematic message on the damage an external locus of self-worth can cause an individual, even when the attention received from the external locus is positive. As long as someone lives their life by another person's standards, their life will be limited by those standards. If those outside standards are too low, the individual will stop once they are reached and may never realize their full potential. If on the other hand, the standards are impossible to reach, the individual will live in constant misery. Through the pressures of the story conflict, Andrew is makes a change in his character and in the process learns (along with the audience) an eternally-valuable lesson about leading a healthy and productive human existence. Though its story may be small and intimate, though its content may seem very different, Whiplash brings the same emotional impact as such films as Rocky, Batman Begins, or other similar narratives by following the same structure and delivering the same basic message: true heroes first accomplish greatness by finding the will to stand on their own and base their actions on their own personal high standards, values, and beliefs.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

James Bond and the God Narrative

(The following articles was adapted from a rough excerpt of my upcoming new book Screenwriting and the Unified Theory of Narrative from a section entitled "Alternative Structures.")

It never fails. Whether it be online or in person, in the classroom or elsewhere, whenever someone well-versed in the basic principles of screencraft tries to express certain seemingly-unbreakable axioms of traditional narrative structure, particularly those of the protagonist's character arc, someone inevitably challenges those statements with the same dreaded question: What about James Bond? The “Bond Conundrum” has plagued dramatists for decades. James Bond is inarguably one of the most successful movie heroes of all time, yet the portrayal of the character seems to ignore many of the rules and qualifications usually deemed mandatory for a successful cinematic protagonist. As anyone familiar with screencraft should know, the protagonist's character arc is an essential component of the cinematic story's overall narrative structure, one which the other components interrelate and rely upon for the sake of development and completion. Yet in the Bond films, the protagonist does not seem to possess any identifiable character arc. He does not undergo a process of internal change in reaction to the plot's events. He does not seem to have any clear fatal flaw nor does he pursue an Internal Need. This by large holds true for the supporting characters in these films as well. (This analysis excludes the more recent incarnations of the Bond franchise, starting with 2006's Casino Royale which attempt to humanize the Bond character by putting him in a more traditional mold. For this reason, these films do not pertain this discussion.)

The commonly-offered explanation is that the Bond films have stood apart in the industry by existing from their start as an intentionally-serialized franchise, each instance acting more like episodes in an ongoing television series rather than the individual stand-alone and self-contained narratives we see in other films. This requires the Bond franchise to contain a stable, unchanging cast of characters that can be placed in one adventure after another and always return in the end to the status quo so that, like in television, the episodes can be enjoyed in any order without confusion. Unfortunately, this argument does not explain why the very first appearances of Bond in the films Dr. No (1962) and its follow-up From Russia With Love (1963) were originally successful as stand-alone narratives. Without the individual audience approval of these first installments, the serialized franchise would have never launched in the first place. This seems to suggest that the secret of Bond's success in spite of its infractions upon the standard rules of cinematic storytelling lies elsewhere, presumably in the structure of the individual films themselves.

To find the answer, it is important to note that as a character, James Bond does not in any way seem to be a common mortal man, nor is he even the exaggerated or figurative depiction of a mortal man as those often found in stories with highly fantastic settings or premises. James Bond is super-human. He is even more super-human than the likes of Superman or Hercules, as these heroes still struggle with “human issues” such as internal flaws, ethical dilemmas, or their own personal limitations. James Bond struggles with none of these. Bond is endlessly capable and endlessly self-confident. He never shows fear, never shows doubt, and never loses control of his emotions. Bond does not think, he simply acts – without a moment wasted debating the correctness of those actions. 

No sweat. Just an average day here.
In consideration of all of this, my chain of thought, for reasons I cannot remember, led me to the ancient Greek, Roman, and Scandinavian myths I read in my youth. These myths are generally of two types (with the exception of creation or cosmological myths). The first are the hero myths, stories of a mortal man or woman who dares in some way to challenge the gods. This, by various stretches of the imagination, can be considered the form that the vast majority of cinematic stories follow today. The second type are the myths about the gods themselves, in which mortal men play a minimal or nonexistent part. These myths are typically broad in scope, yet somewhat shallow in meaning, composed of tales of gods conflicting with the fickle whims of other deities, supernatural monsters, or other entities, reaching a conclusion which somehow acts to retain the order and balance of the universe.

The behavior and personality of James Bond is very much like that found in the gods in these myths. Bond himself may be considered as a modernized depiction of a god character for several reasons. The first is the effortless skill with which he achieves all things. Second, like a god, his character is unchanging and eternal (the actors who play him may change, but the character essentially remains the same). Third, unlike most movie heroes, Bond has an implied immortality. In most action sequences, the dramatic tension emerges from the audience's fear that the hero will meet some serious harm. However, this fear is never truly present in the Bond films. The audience is always certain that James Bond will find a way to survive no matter how threatening the situation. Finally, and most importantly, Bond never struggles with any kind of questions, ethical or otherwise, regarding his actions. He seems to instantly know the correct path and takes it as if by supernatural instinct. 

Oh, please. You're only amusing him.
The entire Bond franchise can be likened to an eternal saga of cosmic good versus evil in which one
and monsters...
not men
benevolent god continually maintains the order of the universe by keeping an endless supply of malicious gods bent on mischief or ruin in check. Of course, gods of evil are served by various monsters and minions, thus the Bond films are also filled with grotesque henchmen which the hero must continually fool or defeat. But the gods of myth have helpers too, often gaining aid or precious objects from lesser beings such as fairies, spirits, or soothsayers. Likewise, Bond is assisted in his quests by his own collection of “helper deities” such as Q, Miss Moneypenny, or various field agents or operatives, characters who often seem to have their own immortality or quasi-superhuman skills. This theory is further supported by the minimal or nonexistence of characters representing the common, everyday man or woman. If they do appear, they do so as little more than background players with no influence upon the plot's course of events, often doing nothing but look on in awe or occasionally provide Bond with a night of pleasure (gods are typically very lusty beings). By these similarities, it seems feasible to forward the idea that the Bond films do not follow all the traditional rules of narrative structure because they demonstrate an alternate type of narrative, one already established in lore with its own unique rules and structure.

Of course, a theory requires more than one example to hold any water. God narratives are rare, but others do exist. The 1966 Western The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly follows the samesuch form. Its protagonist (played by Clint Eastwood), a man with no real name and known only by the nickname “Blondie,” is another god-hero. 

He is endlessly capable, endlessly confident, and devoid of strong emotion or moral quandaries. The fact that, unlike Bond, Blondie is a self-serving antihero concerned only with his own wealth does not taint the argument. If one remembers their mythology, it should be recalled that though some gods are benign or hostile towards mankind, most are indifferent to the existence of man and its morality, acting largely to serve their own pleasures. Indeed, Blondie behaves as if he is both outside of and above the world of the common man. Neither their worries, their causes, nor even their law are of any concern to him. His only real struggles comes from the constant tricks and treachery played on him by story's two other larger-than-life beings; the impish trickster Tuco and the shape-shifting devil Angel Eyes – two characters with many mirrors in mythology. Blondie's character does not change. Like a deity, his character is eternal and unchanging. This is principally because he had no need to change. Blondie's physical abilities are already perfect, therefore no flaw could exist to interfere with them. As an “idealized being” of his place and time, he essentially lacks nothing, so unlike a traditional hero, he has no Internal Need which he must pursue to improve as an individual. In times of trouble, Blondie never needs question whether his past behavior is to blame or seek moral guidance in the future. It is all merely another up or down in an eternal battle of good and evil. Even when things are at their worst, Blonde is usually rescued by some random twist of fate, suggesting that there is some cosmic order in which he hold a part.

Like the Bond films, the conclusion of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly does not suggest that the hero's adventures have wrapped up and come to an end as they do in most. This story seems only to have been a brief episode in an endless saga which will continue on for the hero, though most of it we never get to see. The film's end is merely a pause in the existence of its unchanging god-hero.

A god narrative of a far difference character is found in the film Forrest Gump. While The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly only presents a few episodes in a suggested saga, Gump shows the saga of its hero in it near entirety. Gump's narrative presents a very non-traditional structure composed of a series of adventurous episode, one after another. The only thread which holds Gump together into anything suggesting the traditional three-act form is the one story element which never changes: Forrest's continuing desire to find Jenny and make her his love. The rest of the film, in its epic saga form, is really nothing more than the many ways an immortal god-hero like Forrest finds to fill his time while waiting to meet his Jenny again.

It might be difficult to imagine Forrest as a god-hero, however his character demonstrates the same non-traditional qualities as James Bond or Blondie. First, by way of his slow-witted and simple-minded nature, Gump perpetually exists outside of the world of the common man. He walks amongst them, but he is not one of them. Forrest's simple-mindedness actually has the effect of elevating him above others as a virtuous being. He cannot lie, he cannot hate, he cannot understand the petty arguments, prejudices, greed and anger which often consume the common mortal's life. He can almost be considered a being without sin. Second, one cannot deny that Forrest's physical skills border on the supernatural. He has the speed to become a college football All-American with no major effort. He has the strength to carry five Army buddies to safety. He becomes a world-class ping pong player only months after first picking up a paddle. He's the only captain with the skill to keep his shrimp boat from being destroyed in a hurricane. The examples go on and on. Third, he has an implied immortality both in a physical and metaphysical sense. He is not only immortal in body as he survives Vietnam and the hurricane, but immortal in spirit. As the decades pass, Gump's exploits pop up in the national media again and again, as if he were unknowingly some sort of cosmic thread uniting American history. Fourth and most importantly, like Bond and Blondie, Forrest never suffers any ethical dilemma or confusion over what actions to take. Thanks to his simple mind and pure heart, he does not think, he simply does and always comes out in the right. 

Isn't it weird how I keep showing up at these things?
As a character, Forrest Gump does not have any fatal flaw which he must overcome. Though his naivete and childish innocence do pose difficulty in his ability to understand people and situations, this is not a fatal flaw in the traditional sense. First, this is part of Forrest's innate nature, a trait which essentially cannot be changed. Second, this “flaw” is actually Forrest's greatest virtue since his innocent mind is the tool which leads him time and again down the correct paths to overcome conflicts and succeed with hardly any effort.

The Bond franchise, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Forrest Gump. Here we have three examples of highly-successful films of non-traditional structure in which the protagonists all share the same unusual heroic traits. These successes are not freak occurrences in the one-and-only monostructure of cinematic storytelling, but evidence suggesting an alternate form of structure, one with significant parallels found in the existing god narratives of myth – perhaps even providing the modern evolution of these tales. However, any further understanding of this structure and how it functions will require further investigation and hopefully uncover many more examples of its type.