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 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.)