THE SHORT FILM & RE-CONTEXTUALIZING THE PROBLEM
This diagram illustrates the basic form of an effective short film. What it does is set up an expectation by providing and contextualizing a pattern that we assume possesses a meaning (the pattern, in this case, being the number sequence). The sequence becomes our first default position in that we look in trying to answer the "dramatic" problem posed by the sentence at the top. We make an assumption that the resolution of the question resides in the configuration of numbers - we even count through them to make sure.
In a successful short drama, we are led to make an assumption about the information, assigning meaning or importance to some piece of action, only to have the rug pulled out from under us at the end, by virtue of the fact that our assumption about the problem - or the source of the problem, or whatever - resided within the whatever in the film is analogous to number sequence in the diagram, when in fact it resided some where else.
This is what I call "the re-contextualisation" of the (dramatic problem). Essential for the success of this is that the "real" problem be already fully present within the story world, but its significance is over-looked owing to the fact that something occurs within the story that seems important, and which we elevate to the level of dramatic relevance. We make assumptions about what we are seeing all the time, and when we do we draw inaccurate conclusions about the meaning/s behind what we are witnessing. Short films that work draw us in to making false judgements abut wat we are seeing and hearing, and then at the end show us how our prejudices contributed to our misapprehension of the action. This twist - this re-contextualisation - is found in every short film that knows what its doing grammatically.
However, not any old twist will do. Tropfest films, for example, usually fail because the twist is imposed from outside the story world - it comes in from left field. If one were to make an analogy between a bad Tropfest film and the diagram - it would be like having the diagram read:
"Can you find the mistake?
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10"
And when the audience says no, you add the word "THMINK!" under the diagram.
Here are two more examples of the same principle:
STORY AND THE WORLD OF TROPES
Story is not automatically story, especially when dealing with genre and its tropes. Trope is a rather difficult concept to grasp, seeing as it includes so many different elements in literature, let us start with a definition:
In literature, a trope is a familiar and repeated symbol, meme, theme, motif, style, character or thing that permeates a particular type of literature. They are usually tied heavily to genre. For example, tropes in horror literature and film include the mad scientist or a dark and stormy night. Tropes can also be plots or events, such as the science fiction trope of an alien invasion that is deterred at the last minute.
The transmissibility of story is dependent on an understanding of (and, we would argue, an interest in) the themes, motifs, props, and characters of the genre in question, from the wise old wizard of fantasy, to the plucky gal of chick-lit, to the foreign planets of science fiction. But dramatic, screen stories are not free of tropes either: the gut-spilling, angst-ridden, cop, boxer, cowboy, and greedy starlet are the stuff of which cinematic dreams are made.
When familiar tropes are missing or unfamiliar tropes present, you run the risk of alienating your audience, or making them reject a story outright. Within our field, witness the endless skirmishes between the old guard of Silver Age science fiction and the various innovations which have proliferated since the New Wave arrived. Buck Rogers to Avatar. The devices and storytelling conventions that separate one from the other and that lend each its authenticity of emotionally viable logic - their TROPES, in short - are fundamental to the effective transmissibility of every screen story.
For a more detailed exploration of TROPES, be sure to check out TVTROPES, a thoroughly obsessive, mesmerizing & illuminating online resource that explores the ecology of vivid, potent and dramatic screen stories.
FORMS OF SUSPENSE
There are at least two types of suspense, maybe three. The more common form, which I will call "contextual", occurs whenever an audience becomes aware of something that a character in the story is not aware of, and which clearly has the potential of severely impacting the character's life or well-being. The less common form, which, for convenience sake, I will call "situational", comes in two varieties. The first occurs when characters knowingly insert themselves into a situation where there is a clear and present danger that is perceivable to both the characters and the audience (as in the Mt Rushmore sequence in North By Northwest). The other happens when there is a situation in which there in no specific, perceivable threat, but which - due to a confluence of image and sound - nevertheless promote the anticipation of threat, even when that threat is not in evidence to either the characters or the audience (as in the opening title sequence of Kubrick's The Shining, for example.) Unlike "contextual" suspense, in which a character is impacted or affected by specific actions that the character has had no part in choosing, but whose presence has the potential to seriously affect their lives, situational suspense occurs when a character chooses to insert himself/herself in a situation or an environment whose potential threat is implied by not directly perceivable.
MAKING YOUR AUDIENCE GIVE A DAMN
8 POINTS FOR DIVINE PENCIL SHARPENERS
1. Get the first ten pages RIGHT
Several years ago, when I was working at AFTRS, I was challenged by the Director and the head of content creation for advocating what they deemed a rather odd approach to the writing of feature screenplays. Rather than asking the writer to hand over a finished script, my approach required that the writer only give me the first ten pages along with a general outline (one page) of the story. Such an approach is founded on my conviction that the finding of a cogent and surprising screen story is an evolutionary process in which the writer evolves an understanding of the action by tracking the emotional logic of the characters’ actions scene by scene. In my view – and my experiences as both a writer and a script editor confirm this - one should construct a screenplay in much the same way one builds a house, laying the foundations of the story and making sure those foundations are secure before moving on the to the next phase of the process. I have worked this way with many writers, and with great success (Chopper being a case in point). It is worth noting that the Director and the head of content creation had little sympathy for my point of view, and that neither of them were writers.
What they had based their prejudices on was never made clear to me, but I went away from the experience of institutionalised filmmaking with the distinct impression that if they had had a greater passion and understanding of screen storytelling – as a written form (i.e.: as a screenplay) - they would’ve been more aware of and responsive to the grammar of drama and the way in which a story evolves in concert with the evolving awareness of the storyteller. They’re apparent inability or unwillingness to grasp this most basic tenet of the story-finding process speaks volumes about most of the film schools with which I have been associated.
It is absolutely essential that screen storytellers, whether they be writers or producers, directors or editors, cultivate a fine appreciation and dramatic understanding of the extreme importance of the first 10 pages – or 10 minutes - of any story, whether it be read or watched.
In Pulp Fiction, for example, the first ten pages of the script feature a restaurant robbery and the prophetic musings of two unforgettable hit men. The dialogue is fresh, imaginative, and unrelenting in its pace and originality. If you are a reader perusing the screenplay, you undoubtedly want to continue turning the page. This is the desire that EVERY reader of your screenplay should have. And when you consider that most prospective producers don’t need to read more than two or three pages to “know” whether or not you have what it takes, the need to grab your reader as quickly and as persuasively as possible is all the more acute. Make sure the first 10 pages are hot, and then – and only then - make the next 10 even hotter, and so on. Try it out on your audience – the one person that you believe NEEDS the experience that your story offers. Hand the script to him or her - the first ten pages only - and when they are finished ask them: “Do you want to read more?”
2. Write for an audience that is your adversary
No one would write an email to nobody, so why would you write a screenplay for nobody? You NEED an audience. But an audience must not be on your side. Your audience – the best audience you can have creatively – is decidedly against you. That is their job – to play the part of the antagonist. Their catch call is “Okay, Show Me!” They are the disbelievers, the cynics, the doubters. They want hard evidence, or else. And for whatever reason they are singularly hostile to your story’s premise. You’re job is to move them to another vantage point that will afford them a contrasting view to the one they hold. Your catch cry is “C’mon, Open up!” But it is not something that you can do by way of explanation. Art never explains! What you must work with is the emotional logic as it is enacted and expressed in the word and actions of the characters IN the story. When this is handled with some degree of technical mastery, insight, originality and inspiration, it is possible to effect a change in your audience‘s perceptions and prejudices, at least temporarily. But in order to reach your audience, you must start with the assumption that they aren’t terribly interested in you or what you are writing. In fact, most of them don’t give a damn about you OR your story, Your job is to make them give a damn.
One could argue that there are a range of factors contributing to the diminishing attention spans of contemporary audiences (MTV, video games, text messaging, IM, and the Internet to name a few), but it is safe to say that the attentiveness (or lack thereof) of the audience is directly related to YOUR ability to make a successful emotional connection – and that connection must be made quickly, or you will lose your audience even more quickly. Readers, like moviegoers, need to be entertained very quickly… if you can’t get them in the first ten pages you’ve probably lost them forever, unless they happen to be in love with you.
3. Write economically
Throughout my years of writing and reading screenplays, one of the most common mistakes I have experienced is “overwriting.” This phenomenon often falls into two categories:
1) verbose stage direction; and
2) “on the nose” dialogue.
Verbose Stage Direction - Keep your stage directions short (blocks of less than five lines) and to the point. Never forget you are writing a piece of entertainment, and stage direction should entertain as much as it informs us as to the comings and goings of your characters.
“On the Nose” Dialogue
Several years ago, I sent a script to my manager and received notes including quite a few pieces of dialogue circled with the comment, “OTN.” I was perplexed and asked him to explain. He said these were several instances where my dialogue was too “on the nose.” The point is to make the audience work a bit for the information – not too much (we don’t want to frustrate them) – but enough for them to feel emotionally involved in your story.
4. It’s the characters, STUPID!
Film stories – both fictional and factional - work best when they are populated with characters that are unique, and present compelling contrasts. Think of the Atlanta businessmen on their weekend canoe trip; think of the crew of the Starship Enterprise; think of the husband and wife in Scenes from a Marriage… Memorable stories are always surprising, fresh and thoroughly credible; they allow for the experience of discovery and realisation. They eschew predictability. In the television series, Minder, it is the relationship of Terry and Arthur that sucks us in and keeps us watching… there is something about their pairing that is unusual, unexpected, and yet believable. Think of the films that you love and what you’ll remember are the characters and their relationships. And the quality of any story you find will be directly related to the quality of the relationship you have with each of the characters. Hence, you should…
One of the problems I see over and over again with new writers is the depiction of characters that feel familiar and stereotypical. One must work with character until the characters are able to defend themselves against the wilfulness and fear of the writer. Arthur Miller once said that he couldn’t write a character until he could hear the character. Don’t settle for explanation – dramatise your character’s inner life based on an intimate understanding of your character origins, and an awareness of your own. Where your origins intersect with your characters origins, originality is possible.
Surprise us with quirks and unusual traits
Every once in a while, I’ll be sitting in a movie theatre and suddenly I’ll discover something fresh and unusual about one of the main characters. It is that feeling of surprise we all desire and unfortunately, those moments are few and far between.
Create someone an actor will love to play
One can only imagine Julie Roberts’ reaction when she read the script for Erin Brockovich. It is simply not the typical role afforded to actresses in Hollywood. The hero of the film is a quintessentially strong character any actress would love to play. She is confident, bold, sympathetic, and has plenty of memorable monologues. It is a classic underdog story resulting in Roberts winning the Oscar in 2000.
Transform him/her over your story
Rick Blaine in Casablanca is a great example of a hero transforming over the course of the story. At the beginning of the film he confidently states his mantra, “I stick my neck out for nobody.” But, at the end of the film, he does just that – sticking his neck out for the woman he loves.
Make everything about his/her journey difficult
We love watching our heroes struggle. What would Raiders of the Lost Ark be if Indiana Jones immediately stumbled upon the Ark of the Covenant and brought it back to America? What if John McClane burst into the Nakatomi Christmas party and took out Hans Gruber and all of his henchmen in one momentous moment? And, what if Ellen Ripley easily discovered the Alien’s whereabouts as well as a sure-fire way to destroy the monster? Boring!
5. Go on the journey
Every narrative is a journey founded upon a PROBLEM or an OPPORTUNITY, fueled by an OBJECTIVE or GOAL and materialised in a PLAN OF ACTION, which is what the characters actually do in order to overcome their problem/s and/or to seize the opportunity at hand.
Like it or not, there is a form – or logic – to DRAMATIC STORYTELLING. In broad terms it involves the following:
1. By page ten or fifteen at the latest, your audience needs to be introduced to your hero, and needs to know what s/he wants (the goal), and the sort of story world (genre) in which the action is set.
2. By page twenty-five or so, the audience needs to know exactly where the story is going, including the stakes (What happens if the hero does not achieve his goal?) and the villain (The person, place, or thing preventing the hero from achieving his goal).
3. By the page fifty-five or so), the audience needs to feel that the stakes for the hero have been raised in some fashion. Maybe a new character has been introduced. Maybe a new obstacle or villain has reared its head. Maybe the hero has experienced a distinct character transformation.
4. By the end of Act Two (page ninety or so), the threat has become so extreme the audience begins to feel that the odds facing the main character may be insurmountable. Up until now, the hero may have been steadily moving toward achieving his/her goal, but at the end of Act Two, things have changed. S/he has suddenly been put in a corner and the audience is asking itself, “How in the world is he going to get out of this one?”
5. From page ninety to the end of the screenplay (approximately), your audience needs to see the hero devise a new plan and escape from the mess that has presented itself at the end of Act Two (if it’s a happy ending), or see one last, mighty attempt to breakthrough, something with enough guts and passion that lends nobility to the character even though he/she fails (e.g. Chinatown). This is the big finish.
When looked at organically – rather than prescriptively – one readily grasps the fundamental notion that if you are going to find the story and participate in the emotional life of the characters with whom you are working, you must go on the journey with them – ALL of the them – without playing favourites or resorting to playing the role of the passive spectator or puppeteer that merely pulls the strings according to some preconceived formula. Their dangers are your dangers; their hopes, your hopes. Go on the journey.
6. Know what your story is about. What does it MEAN?
Theme is a tough nut to crack. When I ask my students the theme of Die Hard, they often restate the film’s core concept (or, in Hollywood terms, the “logline”), saying something like, “It’s about a cop thwarting a group of international terrorists while saving his wife and a bunch of innocent people.” While this is true, it doesn’t touch on theme. Die Hard is really about a man trying to reconnect with his wife. True, this reconnection takes place amidst the backdrop of an action-packed heist, but at its core, this is a story about John McClane discovering the importance of family and the love and appreciation he has for his wife, Holly. It is, in short, reconciliation story. It is personal, and therefore emotional.
7. Never lose sight of the characters’ objectives
Dramatic characters are dramatic because they are fighting for something. If you get lost in the writing of your screenplay, if you arrive at a point where you can no longer grasp what is going on, it is probably due to the fact that you have lost sight of the character’s objectives and have written too many scenes in which nothing is happening to advance the dramatic causes of the characters.
Every story worthy of the tag “dramatic” contains characters that are striving earnestly for a goal. In Toy Story 2, Buzz Lightyear is the primary hero whose goal is to lead a group of toys to save Woody from being sent to a museum in Japan. The primary villain of the story is Al (of “Al’s Toy Barn” fame) and the stakes are simple: If our hero and his team do not achieve their goal, they will never see Woody again. Jaws is another movie that quickly answers our burning questions. By the end of Act One, we know Police Chief Martin Brody (with the support of Quint and Hooper) is our hero, his goal is to kill the shark, the villain is the shark itself, and the stakes are: If Brody does not achieve his goal, more residents of Amity will die. In The Verdict, the protagonist/lawyer, Frank Galvin is fighting for his client, but the larger fight is to redeem himself from the desultory nothingness into which he has fallen.
8. Leave them wanting more
A principle as old as showbiz itself, yet as relevant today as ever. It suggests the crafting of a memorable, climactic ending that will forever be satisfying to your audience. An outstanding ending can often save a mediocre film while a mediocre ending can often ruin an otherwise outstanding story.
So, does your climax:
1. Feel like a big, fulfilling finish?
2. Reveal a significant character trait of your hero or villain?
3. Resolve the central problem established in Act One?
4. Contain a satisfying surprise?
5. Appear five to twenty minutes or so before the end of the film?
If your story accomplishes all of the above, you are on your way… and while the writing may not be entirely happy, it will certainly have a good chance of being dramatic.
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF PLOT WITHOUT CONFLICT
In the West, plot is commonly thought to progress by way of a sequence of conflicting actions, or the actions of natural or supernatural forces that oppose the best interests of the characters. In the ensuing and on-going confrontation, one character or another ultimately dominates or is beaten by another character, or by fate or nature. The standard three- and five-act plot structures—which permeate Western media—have erected conflict at the center of the conventional, dramatic story forms. A “problem” appears at the beginning, which leads to a crisis near the end of the first act; and, in the second act, the conflict generated by this evolving crisis takes center stage. Conflict is used to create audience involvement even by many post-modern writers, whose work otherwise defies traditional structure.
The necessity of conflict is preached as a kind of dogma by most contemporary screenwriters’ workshops and Internet “guides” to screenwriting. A plot without conflict is considered dull; some even go so far as to call it impossible. This has so influenced mainstream film-making that it has crystallised into templates or formulas that every screenwriter worth his or her salt must follow if they are to create a successful screen story. Yet, is there any ultimate merit in this belief? Does plot necessarily hinge on conflict?
Not so long ago, I might’ve answered in the affirmative, but to do so is to overlook or even negate the very powerful contribution that mystery, suspense and re-contexualisation contribute to our interest in character actions and motives. The simple-minded claim that conflict is essential to a great story says more about the West’s prejudices and insularity than it does about the scope and variety of cogent and emotionally compelling narratives.
For countless centuries, Chinese and Japanese storytellers have used a plot structure that does not have conflict “built in”, so to speak. Rather, it relies on exposition, contrast, mystery and suspense to generate interest. This structure is known as kishōtenketsu.
Kishōtenketsu contains four acts: introduction, development, twist (or re-contextualisation) and reconciliation. The basics of the story—characters, setting (given circumstances), etc.— are established in the first act and developed in the second. No major changes occur until the third act, in which a new, often surprising element is introduced. In the best stories this element is “planted” or in some way foreshadowed in one of the previous acts, though its ultimate significance is not at first recognised. When this element appears (or re-appears) in the third act - which is the core, quasi-dramatic event of this type of plot - it manifests as a kind of structural non sequitur. The fourth act - if it even occurs - draws a conclusion from the contrast between the first two “straight” acts and the disconnected third, thereby reconciling them into a coherent whole. In the short-form drama, this manifests as an idea that the audience takes away after the film has finished, upsetting the audience's assumptions and expectations and as a result forcing the audience to reconsider its judgements about the story and what it actually means. As a result, the audience goes away from the experience altered or changed in some way.
Kishōtenketsu is probably best known to Westerners as the structure of Japanese yonkoma (four-panel) manga. In its simplest form it might be illustrated as follows:
Each panel represents one of the four acts. The resulting plot — and it is a plot — contains no conflict. No problem impedes the protagonist; nothing is pitted against anything else. Despite this, the twist in panel three imparts a dynamism — a chaos, perhaps — that keeps the comic from depicting merely a series of events. Panel four reinstates order by showing us how the first two panels connect to the third, which allows for a satisfactory ending without the need for a quasi-gladiatorial victory.
Many short-form films - at least the most successful ones - employ this kind of storytelling. Sejong Park’s Oscar-nominated short, Birthday Boy, is a case in point.
The Western structure, on the other hand, is a face-off—involving character, theme, setting—in which one element must prevail over another. If one were to re-conceptualise the first comic (above) into the formulistic three-act structure of conventional Western screen storytelling, it might look like this:
The first panel gives the reader a “default position” with which to compare later events; and the second panel depicts a conflict-generating problem with the vending machine. The third panel represents the climax of the story: the dramatic high point in which the heroine’s second attempt ”defeats” the machine and allows the can to drop. The story concludes by depicting the aftermath, wherein we find that something from the first act has changed as a result of the climax. In this case, our heroine sans beverage has become a heroine avec beverage.
What this shows is that the three-act plot, unlike kishōtenketsu, is fundamentally confrontational. It necessarily involves one thing winning out over another, even in a minor case like the one above. This conclusion has wide-ranging implications, since both formats are applied not just to narratives, but to all types of writing. Both may be found under the hood of everything from essays and arguments to paragraphs and single sentences. As an example, the reader might re-examine the first two paragraphs of this article, in which a “default position” is set up and then interrupted by a “problem” (namely, the existence of kishōtenketsu). The following paragraphs deal with the conflict between the two formats. This paragraph, which escalates that conflict by explaining the culture-wide influence of each system, is the beginning of the climax.
As this writer is already making self-referential, meta-textual remarks, it is only appropriate that the article’s climax take us into the realm of post-modern philosophy. It is a worldview obsessed with narrative and, perhaps unconsciously, with the central thesis of the three-act structure. Jacques Derrida, probably the best known post-modern philosopher, infamously declared that all of reality was a text—a series of narratives that could only be understood by appealing to other narratives, ad infinitum. What kinds of narratives, though? Perhaps a benign, kishōtenketsu-esque play between disconnection and reconnection, chaos and order? No; for Derrida, the only narrative was one of violence. As a Nietzschean, he believed that reality consisted, invariably, of one thing dominating and imposing on another, in a selfish exercise of its will to power. The “worst violence”, he thought, was when something was completely silenced and absorbed by another, its difference erased. Apparently, Derrida was discontent with the three-act structure’s nearly complete control over Western writing: he had to project it onto the entire world. Eurocentrism has rarely had a more shining moment.
EXAMPLE OF SUSPENSE FROM THE FILM, TARGETSKishōtenketsu contains no such violence. The events of the first, second and third acts need not harm one another. They can stand separately, with Derrida’s beloved difference intact. Although the fourth act unifies the work, by no means must it do violence to the first three acts; rather, it is free merely to draw - or allow the audience to draw - an inference or conclusion from their juxtaposition, as Derrida does when he interprets one narrative through the lens of another. A world understood from the kishōtenketsu perspective need never contain the worst violence that Derrida fears, which would make his call for deconstruction—the prevention of silence through the annihilation of structure — unnecessary. Is it possible that deconstruction could never have been conceived in a world governed by kishōtenketsu, rather than by the three-act plot? Is the three-act structure one of the elements behind the very worldview that calls for its deconstruction? Can the Western narrative of the will to power remain coherent in the face of a rival narrative from the East? This writer would prefer to ask rather than to answer these questions… and whatever answers that may be offered, now or in the future, are probably best expressed in stories.
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