Saturday, November 19, 2016

The Hand of the Princess, The Keys to the Kingdom; Or, Why the Romantic Subplot?

It is a common narrative archetype, one that can be found in all forms of story from ancient to modern. A male hero journeys to a foreign land; wins the love of a princess by performing certain valiant deeds; and through their marriage, becomes the land’s future king. Most modern audiences would look at this as nothing more than romantic fantasy. Has this ever literally occurred? Is there any real justification for the idea that a common man could become a king in such a simple manner?

Shrek: A lowly ogre becomes a king through romance with a princess
While modern experience may motivate us to say no, it seems these stories may be based in an actual historical context. Though admittedly it has taken me too long to get to it, I have recently begun reading The Golden Bough, James George Frazer’s 1890 pan-cultural analysis of the developmental connections between superstition, ritual, and religion in early (or “primitive,” as Frazer might put it) human societies. While some sections of Frazer’s work are indeed golden, and others are built on questionable presuppositions that have since been discredited, I find one early chapter extremely interesting in terms of its possible relationship to modern cinematic storytelling. In Chapter 9, “The Succession to the Kingdom” Frazer inverts the common notion regarding how the right to rulership progressed from one generation to the next in early societies. We are all acquainted with monarchical systems where the throne descends down the male bloodline. Upon the death of the king, the crown is given to the king’s eldest son; or if he has no living son, his eldest grandson, brother, or nephew. Indeed, this was the system used by most monarchical societies from the Middle Ages to the present day, not only across Europe but in many regions around the globe. However, using examples from ancient Latium (kingdoms in Italy predating the Roman Republic), Greece, Scandinavia, and Britain, Frazer claims that in far older societies the right to the throne descended down the female line. That is, the crown was not granted to the king’s son, but whomever should marry the king’s daughter. In other words, rulership was given to the king’s son-in-law—an outsider to the royal bloodline. If the king’s own sons wished to be rulers, they were forced to travel to foreign lands in search of their own princesses to marry, thus inheriting a kingdom different from the one in which they were born (thus begetting so many tales of wandering princes). Indeed, the king himself was not of royal parentage (at least not of the kingdom he ruled). He earned the throne only by marriage to the queen—whose parents were the former rulers.

Since kingship was granted through marriage rather than bloodline, this meant hypothetically any man might become king; whether he be a rich man or a slave, a citizen or a foreigner. Yet of course, the future of the kingdom depended upon finding the best possible candidate. For this reason, many of these societies would only grant the princess’s hand in marriage by way of a challenge or contest. Through this, the victor proved himself to be the strongest, most skilled, or most intelligent of the many suitors, and thus the most fit to rule. (Frazer gives several examples where a race was used to select the most worthy candidate, prompting the editor of Bough’s 1994 edition to hint this may be the root of the phrase “running for office.”)

Therefore, stories in which a lowly young man wins the hand of a princess through impressive deeds and thus the right to become king are not far-fetched works of fantasy. In fact, some of the oldest tales of this sort may be based on or inspired by actual events.

Aladdin: From street rat to sultan's son-in-law
Yet to us, this descent of rulership may seem counter-intuitive. Why was the crown passed from father-to-stranger rather than more reliably from father-to-son? Why was the female line so important and an outsider considered most desirable to fulfill future kingly duties? Frazer suggests this system came as an outcome of far more primordial cultural-religious beliefs. Using a plethora of examples, Frazer lays out three dominant themes found in primitive cultural ideologies. The first is apotheosis: the idea that kings and queens are not only representatives of the gods who control nature, but in fact become imbued with these gods to make them earthly embodiments of deities themselves. The second is the association of nature with the female, since both are capable of bearing new life. The third is a perceived magical connection between human procreation and the fertility of nature. Throughout the ages, cultures worldwide engaged in rituals in the spring or summer where sexual relations between a man and a woman, or a real or symbolic marriage with a god or goddess, was believed to replenish nature and ensure its continued bounty. By combining these notions, we can conclude that the princess was believed to be a vessel of the life-giving goddess of nature. To ensure that this goddess would be able to continually replenish the earth, she must be paired with the strongest, and therefore most sexually potent mate. Through this union, the most virile seed was continually planted in the womb of the nature goddess, guaranteeing that the earth will remain fruitful. Whether societies followed the system of female descent in explicit obedience to these beliefs or as only the lingering vestige long-forgotten ideas, the justification remained the same. The people believed the welfare of the kingdom depended upon a successful union between the most virile of possible kings and their future queen; regardless of who this potential king may be or from where he might come.

However, marriage to the king’s daughter was not the only way a man might legitimately claim the throne. One could also become king by marrying a widowed queen, killing the current king and taking the queen as his wife, or by convincing the queen to reject the king for himself thereby dethroning her husband. (For some literary examples, this path to the throne can be seen in stories like Oedipus Rex and Shakespeare’s Hamlet.) Once again, the authority to rule resided in the female bloodline, making whoever the queen chose as her husband the legitimate king. Contrary to modern notions, Frazer implies that early societies would not have objected to these usurpers of the throne. In fact, they would have found the transition acceptable and necessary. If a king became too old, weak, or incompetent to fend off his rivals, this meant he was no longer the strongest and most virile ruler. He had lost the capacity to fulfill his duties and could no longer replenish the earth through his union with the goddess of nature. This would appear all the more evident if the kingdom had recently suffered from drought, famine, or unrest. For even though the king was considered a god, early peoples would readily turn on and replace their god-king if his supposed power over nature seemed to grow indifferent to their needs.

Yet aside from fantasy films which literally present the young-man-becomes-king narrative, what might this have to do with modern cinematic storytelling? Well, simple observation shows that this familiar structure; man meets princess, man wins the love of princess through valiant deeds, man gains the power of a king; holds a parallel in the common and at times obligatory use of the romantic subplot in masculine-protagonist Hollywood films. Every moviegoer is accustomed to male hero films which contain a secondary romantic narrative—one often tangential or even unrelated to the main plotline— following a standard structure: First, in his attempts to resolve the problems found in the primary narrative, the protagonist encounters a potential female love interest. But due to his flaws, this love interest often initially shuns, behaves indifferently towards, or fails to connect with the protagonist. Yet as the protagonist grows as an individual and proves himself through praiseworthy achievements; either through actions intended to resolve the main story conflict or those aimed directly at his potential lover; he eventually attains a genuine romantic connection with the female lead. With this bond consummated, something magical occurs. The protagonist gains a strength, authority, or confidence he did not previously possess. Using this, the protagonist overcomes the story’s problems and brings comfort and order to his world, allowing all virtuous parties to live happily ever after.

Dances With Wolves: A white outsider becomes Lakota “royalty” by earning the honor of wedding one of their own
In my book Screenwriting and The Unified Theory of Narrative, Part I (as well as the article found here), I introduced the concept of “The Humility Arc;” a common structure found in the fairy tales of Western Europe which seems to have been adopted with near-universality by Hollywood films. I propose that the romantic subplots found in masculine-protagonist Hollywood films represent a similar holdover from an even older collection of stories. The ancient archetype of kingship gained through a union with a royal female remains alive and well in our modern narratives despite the fact that we have long forgotten its origins and the mystical beliefs once attached to it. In the masculine-centered feature film, the protagonist begins as an illegitimate hero in a corrupted “kingdom.” By eventually winning the love and support of a “princess,” the hero gains the strength and legitimacy he needs to become the land’s new “king.” Through this holy union, the hero is apotheosized into a higher being, one with a power to take the actions necessary to do away with corruption, replenish the earth, and escort the kingdom into a new, more bounteous age.

Rocky: "Kings" and "princesses" come in all forms
Like the evidence cited by James George Frazer, winning the hand of a “princess” is not the only way a male protagonist may gain the power of a “king.” He may also succeed by stealing the love of a queen from the existing king. In many films with romantic subplots, the female love interest is originally the girlfriend, fiancee, or some other romantic partner of the protagonist’s chief rival. This rival is often presented as the “alpha male,” making him the current king of the story world. Yet this is usually a corrupted or unworthy king; exhibiting traits such as greed, arrogance, or cowardice which have a negative effect upon those around him. With opposition from the rival, the hero can only succeed by overthrowing this king. And, like in Frazer’s early societies, the first step to do so is by stealing the king’s source of power—his queen. So, the protagonist makes romantic overtures to the female lead in an attempt to convince her he is far superior to the rival. If successful, a reversal of power occurs. The protagonist is elevated to the position of the alpha male while the rival quickly becomes isolated and impotent, leading to his eventual defeat. 

Scarface: Overthrowing the king entails seducing the queen
Yet as critics may point out, these so-called “heroes” may from a different perspective be considered to be playing the heel. The protagonist is disrupting an existing romantic relationship by encouraging the female lead to be disloyal to her partner. In fact, we may even say the rival is actually the story’s victim. Still, audiences applaud the female lead’s switching of loyalties for the same reason that the societies illustrated by James George Frazer supported the deposition of existing kings. The land’s health and happiness depends upon the fruitful relationship between the queen and king. If the current king becomes weak or corrupt, it is only proper for the queen to abandon him in favor of far better suitor. Therefore, once the protagonist proves his superiority, it is only proper for the female lead to reject the rival for the protagonist, as this will supposedly bring greater joy and comfort to the land.

This structure can also be found in reverse in stories where male protagonists meet failure in the end. Often, the protagonist gains the love and support of the female lead very early, or possesses such a union before the story begins. Yet rather than grow for the better, these protagonists change for the worse. By becoming a less and less worthy “king,” the protagonist strains his life-sustaining bond with his “queen,” often motivating the female lead to abandon him completely. Detached from the queen, the protagonist loses his heroic legitimacy and slowly degrades into a weak or powerless individual; eventually costing him his throne and banishing him from the kingdom.

Citizen Kane: The loss of the queen precedes the king's downfall
I have very little experience in the realm of gender studies, so I lack the grounds to formulate any definite claims on what this frequently repeated narrative structure may say about or do to influence our modern culture or society. However, two areas for debate seem to stand out most clearly. Firstly, an initial analysis may lead critics to conclude the masculine-protagonist romantic subplot presents evidence of institutionalized male chauvinism in Hollywood storytelling. The protagonist’s effort’s to “claim” the female lead may seem to objectify the female character. In terms of narrative structure, she functions not so much like an independent person, but some sort of “macguffin of power,” like King Arthur’s Excalibur or the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark which ambitious males must first seize to reach their personal goals.

Yet this accusation may be countered with a realization that, though she or the audience may not recognize it, the female lead is the only character with any real power in these stories. The male protagonist, despite being the primary focus of the film and leading the narrative through his actions, is actually a disempowered individual. Time and again, he meets little success until he can gain the aid and support of the female lead. Like the kings in Frazer’s female-bloodline societies, the protagonist’s personal power over his world is but an illusion. It is the queen who secretly holds the real authority, as she can give or take away the throne as she pleases. Because of this hidden power, the male protagonists of Hollywood films must routinely subdue their wills to the female lead, changing their behavior and doing away with their flaws to finally gain her full acceptance—and by extension, the strength or legitimacy needed to achieve the ultimate goal. In other words, through the female lead’s power to accept or reject the male protagonist, the Hollywood romantic subplot forces the male to improve as an individual, making him more heroic and thus more worthy for the title of king. Therefore we may say the female lead secretly controls the male protagonist’s transformation of character, and thus the story’s resolution since this personal transformation will decide the hero’s ultimate success or failure.

Yet even if this is all true, the overall social benefit or detriment of this continually repeated narrative structure is open to question. Just because something is common, this does not necessarily mean it is helpful or correct. Thus, this area of storytelling demands further investigation.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Limited Time Return of SCRIPTMONK Services

With Screenwriting and The Unified Theory of Narrative, Part II now finished and on the shelves, I find I have more free time on my hands. Because of this, I have decided to bring back my script analysis services for three months only. See my website page HERE for details.

I am also offering a discount of $15 off basic coverage or $25 off advanced feedback with recent purchase of Screenwriting and The Unified Theory of Narrative, Part I or Part II. (I will honor purchases back as far as October 1.) Usually, a simple screenshot of the Amazon order confirmation screen or email works fine as proof of purchase.

I have one request, however. NO FIRST DRAFTS, PLEASE. It is a universal law of screenwriting. No matter how experienced the writer, first drafts are always embarrassingly poor. It is merely a "vomit" draft, meaning its purpose is for the writer to heave up his or her not yet entirely formed ideas onto paper. I always tell writers to never send their first drafts to anyone. Since the new script needs time to "find itself," you owe it to yourself and your script to shape it into the best work you can before sending it out to be potentially savaged. Otherwise, feedback becomes a painful experience for both the reader and the writer who will receive a mountain of negative comments.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

New SCRIPTMONK article in Creative Screenwriting on the Plot Pattern Phenomenon

 This week I had another article published in Creative Screenwriting online, this one introducing the basic principles and theory behind plot patterns -- a phenomenon by which nearly every successful American film over the past several decades comes to unintentionally conform to one of sixteen (or thirty-four, depending on how specific you wish to be) structural patterns of plot despite extreme differences in premise, genre, style and tone.

Since the subject of plot patterns takes up over 200 pages of Screenwriting and The Unified Theory of Narrative, Part II it was difficult to summarize the entire concept in a mere six-page article. Because of this, I had to take significant effort just to not sound like a crazy person. The shocking regularity of the plot patterns found in Hollywood and American Independent cinema is one of the most incredible discoveries of all my years studying screencraft -- made all the more incredible by the fact that it seems to have gone almost entirely unnoticed until now. Yet with a full background and the heaps of evidence I have found to support it, the plot pattern phenomenon turns out to be just as "crazy" as the idea that the earth revolves around the sun.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Official Announcement: Unified Theory of Narrative Part II FINALLY Available!

At long, long last (about six months after my original, and now hilariously optimistic, March 2016 projected completion date), I am happy to announce that Screenwriting and The Unified Theory of Narrative, Part II: Genre, Pattern & The Concept of Total Meaning is finally finished and available for purchase. (Follow this link for the Amazon page.) I would like to thank everyone for their patience. Little did I realize that my final installment would eventually require nearly 400 pages (over twice as long as Part I) to include everything needed to fully complete the Unified Theory model.

Here is the synopsis from the back cover:
Part II: Genre, Pattern & The Concept of Total Meaning completes the Unified Theory of Narrative by going far beneath the surface to reveal cinematic storytelling’s hidden structures of meaning. No previous book has explored the thematic dimension of screencraft in such depth or detail; using an interdisciplinary approach to explain the psychological, sociological, and cultural constructs which have shaped the feature film into the complex form of narrative we know today.

In Part II you will find:
The properties of myth behind all storytelling
The purpose and origin of cinematic genres
The phenomenon of plot patterns and its connection to cultural belief
The explicit lessons found in protagonist psychology
The ideological nature of dramatic conflict
And, most importantly, the connection between these elements and our most basic psychological and sociological needs.

Part II: Genre, Pattern & The Concept of Total Meaning is about far more than screencraft. It is about the intimate relationship between storytelling and humanity itself. Since its beginnings, humanity has used story to make sense of its world, express its beliefs, and give life a sense of order and meaning. By revealing the cinematic story’s ideological structures, and ultimately unifying them with the physical elements presented in Part I, Genre, Pattern & The Concept of Total Meaning shows how modern cinematic storytelling continues this tradition; resulting in an endless multitude of narratives, each doing their part to serve human society with lessons, arguments, and statements of belief.
Although I wrote this synopsis myself, I think it fails to do the book full justice. It was incredibly difficult to summarize the work into three simple paragraph because it is about so much. Part II not only completes my “theory of everything,” but is – in a very limited sense – truly about “everything,” and how this everything expresses itself through our use of story. In many ways, this book reveals the connections between art and the social sciences, going great lengths to explain why storytelling always has and always will be so important to humanity’s social and psychological well-being. Yet at the same time, this information is kept practical by detailing the specific structures and dramatic elements found in the feature film which allow it to continually serve these needs.

On this practical side, Part II explains the cinematic narrative’s complex method of communication through a five-layer structure of meaning. In this structure, you will find: how genres and narrative modes create metaphorical arenas to explore social problems; how plot patterns* are used to propose acceptable solutions; how the psychological factors of protagonist suggest ways we may achieve this solution by presenting lessons on human thought and behavior; and finally, how the storyteller delivers his or her personal opinions on all such issues through the choice of thematic resolution** and aesthetic specialization. Part II then reveals how this five-layer structure of meaning connects with the basic unified narrative structure found in Part I to create an ideologically-unified story where the abstract is made physical, proving philosophical arguments through the guise of dramatic action.

(* Originally proposed on this blog in 2011 (and altered significantly since then upon further investigation), the plot pattern phenomenon is definitely the most shocking (and thus sure to be the most controversial) of my discoveries – and will no doubt be the chief draw to most readers. Part II presents the structural details of all sixteen common plot patterns and their thirty-four subtypes for the first time.)

(**Thematic resolution was originally discussed in Part I as a crucial part of the basic unified narrative structure. By serving a role in both models, its elements ultimately act as the nexus point to connect the cinematic story’s external and internal structures, creating a truly unified theory of narrative.)

I admit this may sound like some dense stuff and potentially a lot to handle. But like my previous books, I have striven to keep material in layman’s terms and explain complicated concepts in clear and simple ways – all the while focusing on the individual screenwriter so he or she may better understand his or her medium and create more effective stories. Both Part I and Part II are available in paperback through multiple online retailers. The eBook versions are available exclusively through Amazon.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Update on Screenwriting & The Unified Theory of Narrative Part II

Hello everyone. When I released The Unified Theory of Narrative Part I back in November, I expected Part II to be finished and available by March or April. Yet now it is April 15th and that is clearly not the case. Wrapping up the final revisions of Part II has been a real grind (it is about twice the length of Part I and gets into some pretty heady subject matter), but it is slowly and steadily moving along. Barring some major breakdown or act of God, I now expect it to be available in July or (I hope not) August.

Just to whet your appetites, along with the completion of the Unified Theory of Narrative (a process that connects the basic unified narrative structure found in Part I with the cinematic five-layered structure of meaning to be introduced in Part II), Part II will also contain a full and complete analysis of my theory of the Sixteen Common Plot Patterns of Hollywood and American Independent Cinema, as first introduced years ago in an article on this blog. (Yes, I know I originally believed there to be 20 plot patterns, and then 21, but through the exhaustive analysis of literally hundreds of films I can conclusively declare there to be exactly sixteen common plot patterns, with thirty-four subtypes.) Enough for a book in itself (I expect the chapters on plot patterns to clock in at around 200 pages) the book will go into significant detail to explain exactly what plot patterns are, how they function, and why they have come to exist -- along with detailed breakdowns on all thirty-four subtypes illustrated by diverse collections of popular films. (Would you believe Chinatown and WALL-E follow the same basic underlying plot structure? Or that True Grit and Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy are pretty much the same film? Whodathunkit?)

Meanwhile, you can read an adapted excerpt from Chapter 1-3 of Part I published on Creative Screenwriting Magazine online. It introduces the Thematic Argument, the structure by which the cinematic narrative communicates its theme. It's not exactly advanced stuff (mattering on what your definition of "advanced" is), but lays the groundwork for the more complex material on the connections between theme, plot, and character found later in the book.