Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting

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Sequence Beats build scenes. Scenes then build the next largest movement of story design, the Sequence. The capping scene of a sequence, however, delivers a more powerful, determinant change. She is one of six finalists. The corporate heads realize that this position has a vital public dimension to it, so they want to see these applicants on their feet in an informal setting before making the final decision.

Fear knots her middle as she paces the room, telling herself she was a fool to come East, these New Yorkers will eat her alive. She flings clothes out of her suitcase, trying on this, trying on that, but each outfit looks worse than the one before. Her hair is an uncombable tangle of frizz. As she grapples with her clothes and hair, she decides to pack it in and save herself the humiliation. Suddenly, the phone rings. Barbara hangs up, realizing that the piranhas of Manhattan are no match for the great white shark at home. She needs this job! Her hair falls magically into place.

She plants herself in front of the mirror, looking great, eyes bright, glowing with confidence positive. Scene Two: Under the hotel marquee. Besides, when it rains in New York there are no cabs. So she decides to do what they warn never, ever to do—to run through Central Park at night. She covers her hair with a newspaper and darts into the night, daring death negative.

Scene Three: Mirrored lobby—Park Avenue apartment building. Her self-confidence plummets past doubt and fear until she bows in personal defeat negative , crushed by her social disaster negative. Taxis pull up with the other applicants. All found cabs; all get out looking New York chic. They take pity on the poor loser from the Midwest and usher her into an elevator. Because she knows she has lost anyway, she relaxes into her natural self and from deep within comes a chutzpah she never knew she had; she not only tells them about her batde in the park but makes jokes about it.

Mouths go slack with awe or wide with laughter. At end of the evening, all the executives know exactly who they want for the job: Anyone who can go through that terror in the park and display this kind of cool is clearly the person for them. The evening ends on her personal and social triumphs as she is given the job doubly positive. Each scene turns on its own value or values. Scene Two: death to life; self-confidence to defeat. Scene Three: social disaster to social triumph.

It could have been accomplished in a single scene with a personnel officer. An ACT is a series of sequences that peaks in a climactic scene which causes a major reversal of values, more powerful in its impact than any previous sequence or scene. Story A series of acts builds the largest structure of all: the Story. A story is simply one huge master event. When you look at the value-charged situation in the life of the character at the beginning of the story, then compare it to the value-charge at the end of the story, you should see the arc of the film, the great sweep of change that takes life from one condition at the opening to a changed condition at the end.

This final condition, this end change, must be absolute and irreversible. A sequence could be reversed: The Midwest businesswoman could win her job only to discover that she reports to a boss she hates and wishes she were back in Terre Haute. An act climax could be reversed: A character could die, as in the Act Two climax of E. In a modern hospital, reviving the dead is commonplace. So, scene by sequence by act, the writer creates minor, moderate, and major change, but conceivably, each of those changes could be reversed.

This is not, however, the case in the climax of the last act. If you make the smallest element do its job, the deep purpose of the telling will be served. Let every phrase of dialogue or line of description either turn behavior and action or set up the conditions for change. Make your beats build scenes, scenes build sequences, sequences build acts, acts build story to its climax.

Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting

This Act One climax sets up an Act Two in which internecine corporate wars lead to her betrayal by friends and associates. This major reversal sends her to a rival corporation where, armed with business secrets gleaned while she was president, she quickly reaches the top again so she can enjoy destroying her previous employers. While no fine film was ever written without flashes of fortuitous inspiration, a screenplay is not an accident. Material that pops up willy-nilly cannot remain willy-nilly. Plot is the writer's choice of events and their design in time.

Again, what to include? Put before and after what? Event choices must be made; the writer chooses either well or ill; the result is plot. For the novelist such stories are natural and facile. For the screenwriter such stories are by far the most fragile and difficult. He is committing slow suicide with alcohol because he no longer believes in anything—neither family, nor work, nor this world, nor the hereafter. Instead he shows us a man weaving together a simple yet meaningful life from the many delicate threads of love, music, and spirit.

At last Sledge undergoes a quiet transformation and finds a life worth living. We can only imagine the sweat and pains Horton Foote invested in plotting this precarious film. Plot, therefore, doesn't mean ham-handed twists and turns, or high-pressure suspense and shocking surprise. In this sense of composition or design, all stories are plotted. Archplot, Miniplot, Antiplot Although the variations of event design are innumerable, they are not without limits.

The far corners of the art create a triangle of formal possibilities that maps the universe of stories. At the top of the story triangle are the principles that constitute Classical Design. In the left comer, I place all examples of minimalism. I call this set of minimalist variations Miniplot. Miniplot does not mean no plot, for its story must be as beautifully executed as an Archplot.

Dan Harmon Story Circle: 8 Proven Steps to Better Stories

The Archplot is the meat, potatoes, pasta, rice, and couscous of world cinema. For the past one hundred years it has informed the vast majority of films that have found an international audience. Miniplot, on the other hand, often leaves the ending somewhat open. Most of the questions raised by the telling are answered, but an unanswered question or two may trail out of the film, leaving the audience to supply it subsequent to the viewing. Most of the emotion evoked by the film will be satisfied, but an emotional residue may be left for the audience to satisfy. The question must be answerable, the emotion resolvable.

All that has gone before leads to clear and limited alternatives that make a degree of closure possible. If so, what kind of future will it be? If you can convince yourself that they will live happily ever after, you walk out pleased. In Miniplot, to the contrary, the protagonist may have strong external conflicts with family, society, and environment, but emphasis will fall on the battles within his own thoughts and feelings, conscious or unconscious.

Single Versus Multiple Protagonists The classically told story usually places a single protagonist—man, woman, or child—at the heart of the telling. But because these family battles draw our feelings in so many directions and because each story receives a brief fifteen or twenty minutes of screentime, their multiple design softens the telling. Active Versus Passive Protagonist The single protagonist of an Archplot tends to be active and dynamic, willfully pursuing desire through ever-escalating conflict and change. The protagonist of a Miniplot design, although not inert, is relatively reactive and passive.

The design softens or minimalizes what could have been melodramatic, even distasteful. An antiplot, on the other hand, is often disjunctive, scrambling or fragmenting time to make it difficult, if not impossible, to sort what happened into any linear sequence. Godard once remarked that in his aesthetic a film must have a beginning, middle, and end The film ends on an act of necrophilia. The moment this couple met they stepped on a bullet train to their grotesque fate.

Causality Versus Coincidence The Archplot stresses how things happen in the world, how a cause creates an effect, how this effect becomes a cause that triggers yet another effect. It lays bare the network of chain-linked causalities that, when understood, gives life meaning. The Antiplot, on the other hand, often substitutes coincidence for causality, putting emphasis on the random collisions of things in the universe that break the chains of causality and lead to fragmentation, meaninglessness, and absurdity.

CAUSALITY drives a story in which motivated actions cause effects that in turn become the causes of yet other effects, thereby interlinking the various levels of conflict in a chain reaction of episodes to the Story Climax, expressing the interconnectedness of reality. He then seems to find his money stapled to a bizarre statue-in-progress in her loft. His date suddenly commits a well-planned suicide. Consistent Versus Inconsistent Realities Story is a metaphor for life. It takes us beyond the factual to the essential. The worlds we create obey their own internal rules of causality.

An Archplot unfolds within a consistent reality. Each fictional reality uniquely establishes how things happen within it. In an Archplot these rules cannot be broken— even if they are bizarre. Suddenly Roger flattens into two dimensions, slides under the sill, and escapes. The human slams into the door. Consistent Reality, therefore, means an internally consistent world, true to itself. Later, as the couple trudges on foot down a lovely shaded lane, Emily Bronte suddenly appears, plucked out of nineteenth-century England and dropped onto a twentieth-century French path, reading her novel Wuthering Heights.

The Parisians hate Emily on sight, whip out a Zippo lighter, set her crinoline skirts on fire, burn her to a crisp. A slap in the face for classical literature? Perhaps, but it doesn't happen again. Nobody else shows up out of the past or future; just Emily; just once. A rule made to be broken. The desire to turn the Archplot on its head began early in this century.

Burroughs felt the need to sever the links between the artist and external reality, and with it, between the artist and the greater part of the audience. Neither sane nor insane, they are either deliberately inconsistent or overtly symbolic. This sense of a single perception, no matter how incoherent, holds the work together for audiences willing to venture into its distortions.

All storytelling possibilities are distributed inside the story design triangle, but very few films are of such purity of form that they settle at its extreme corners. Each side of the triangle is a spectrum of structural choices, and writers slide their stories along these lines, blending or borrowing from each extreme. The works of Robert Altman, a master of this form, span a spectrum of possibilities.

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A film could be quasi-Antiplot. The documentary-styled interviews of older couples looking back on how they met are in fact delightfully scripted scenes with actors working in a documentary style. These false realities sandwiched inside an otherwise conventional love story pushed the film toward the inconsistent reality of antistructure and self-reflexive satire.

It begins as the story of a young New York playwright single protagonist who's trying to make his mark in Hollywood active conflict with external forces — Archplot. Change Versus Stasis Above the line drawn between Miniplot and Antiplot are stories in which life clearly changes. But in both cases stories arc and life changes for better or worse. Below this line stories remain in stasis and do not arc.

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I term these films Nonplot. Although they inform us, touch us, and have their own rhetorical or formal structures, they do not tell story. In SHORT CUTS, individual lives are altered within its many story lines, but a soulless malaise bookends the film and permeates everything, until murder and suicide seem a natural part of the landscape.

Although nothing changes within the universe of a Nonplot, we gain a sobering insight and hopefully something changes within us. Antistructured Nonplots also trace a circular pattern but turn it with absurdity and satire done in an supra-unnaturalistic style. In reality they can't keep their hands off each other. And as in all things political, the distortion of truth is greatest at the extremes. But hiding inside these debates are two diametrically opposed visions of life. These films, and many more like them, are acclaimed international successes produced by Hollywood studios. Non- Hollywood filmmakers tend to be overly some would say chicly pessimistic about change, professing that the more life changes, the more it stays the same, or, worse, that change brings suffering.

These are tendencies, of course, with exceptions on both sides of the Atlantic, but the dichotomy is real and deeper than the seas that separate the Old World from the New. Americans are escapees from prisons of stagnant culture and rigid class who crave change. We change and change again, trying to find what, if anything, works.

After weaving the trillion-dollar safety net of the Great Society, we're now shredding it. The Old World, on the other hand, has learned through centuries of hard experience to fear such change, that social transformations inevitably bring war, famine, chaos. Too often Hollywood films force an up-ending for reasons more commercial than truthful; too often non-Hollywood films cling to the dark side for reasons more fashionable than truthful.

The truth, as always, sits somewhere in the middle. In the same vein, because story is often thin or absent in the art film, again, directors must compensate. In this case, with one of two possibilities: information or sensory stimulation. From story to story the writer may move anywhere within the triangle, but most of us feel more at home in one place or another. As you do, let me offer these points for you to weigh: The Writer Must Earn His Living Writing Writing while holding down a forty-hour-a-week job is possible. Thousands have done it. Before you do, you must find a way to earn your living from your writing.

This atrophy has nothing to do with quality or a lack of it. All three corners of the story triangle gleam with masterworks that the world treasures, pieces of perfection for our imperfect world. Classical design is a mirror of the human mind. Classical design is a model of memory and anticipation. We collect and shape memories around an Archplot to bring the past back vividly. No, we mold our fantasies and hopes into an Archplot.

Classical design displays the temporal, spatial, and causal patterns of human perception, outside which the mind rebels. Classical design is not a Western view of life. For thousands of years, from the Levant to Java to Japan, the storytellers of Asia have framed their works within the Archplot, spinning yarns of high adventure and great passion.

As the rise of Asian film has shown, Eastern screenwriters draw on the same principles of classical design used in the West, enriching their tellings with a unique wit and irony. The Archplot is neither ancient nor modern, Western nor Eastern; it is human.

This is true of intelligent, sensitive people of all incomes and backgrounds. As story reaches the bottom of the triangle the audience has shrunk to those loyal, cinephile intellectuals who like to have their realities twisted once in a while. This is an enthusiastic, challenging audience If the audience shrinks, the budget must shrink. This is the law. His audience was faithful but meager.

Robbe-Grillet was both visionary and pragmatic. If, like Robbe-Grillet, you wish to write Miniplot or Antiplot, and can find a non-Hollywood producer to work at low budget, and are happy with relatively little money for yourself, good. Do it. But when you write for Hollywood, a low-budget script is no asset. Even modest Hollywood budgets run into the tens of millions of dollars, and each film must find an audience large enough to repay its cost at a profit greater than the same money would have earned in a secured investment. In other words, a film that leans toward the Archplot.

Miniplot and Antiplot were born out of the Archplot—one shrinks it, the other contradicts it. The serious use of Antiplot devices not only has gone out of fashion but has become a joke. Respecting these cycles, great storytellers have always known that, regardless of background or education, everyone, consciously or instinctively, enters the story ritual with Classical anticipation.

But how can a writer creatively reduce or reverse that which he does not understand? First, the masters mastered the Archplot. But the dream of joining the avant-garde must wait while, like the artists before you, you too gain mastery of Classical form. The writer works at his skills until knowledge shifts from the left side of the brain to the right, until intellectual awareness becomes living craft. You too must examine your motives for wanting to write the way you write.

Why do your screenplays find their way to one corner of the triangle or the other? What is your vision? If you write minimalism, do you believe in the meanings of this form? If your ambition is anticlassicism, are you convinced of the random meaninglessness of life?

If your answer is a passionate yes, then write your Miniplot or Antiplot and do everything possible to see it made. For the vast majority, however, the honest answer to these questions is no. Yet antistructure and, in particular, minimalism still attract young writers like a Pied Piper. In other words, politics. The young are taught that Hollywood and art are antithetical.

He avoids closure, active characters, chronology, and causality to avoid the taint of commercialism. When you work with one eye on your script and the other on Hollywood, making eccentric choices to avoid the taint of commercialism, you produce the literary equivalent of a temper tantrum.

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Difference for the sake of difference is as empty an achievement as slavishly following the commercial imperative. Write only what you believe. Compare the story-saturated audience of today to that of centuries past. In a era of huge families and no automatic dishwashers, how much time did they have for fiction? In a typical week our great- great-grandparents may have read or seen five or six hours of story—what many of us now consume per day. Where will you find a truly original story? How will you win the war on cliche?

Cliche is at the root of audience dissatisfaction, and like a plague spread through ignorance, it now infects all story media. The cause of this worldwide epidemic is simple and clear; the source of all cliches can be traced to one thing and one thing alone: The writer does not know the world of his story. As they reach into their minds for material, they come up empty.

So where do they run? To films and TV, novels and plays with similar settings. Knowledge of and insight into the world of your story is fundamental to the achievement of originality and excellence. The first dimension of time is Period. In history? A hypothetical future? Duration is the second dimension of time. How much time does the story span within the lives of your characters? Onscreen the terror expands to five times this length. In what town? On what streets? What rooms inside those buildings? Up what mountain? Across what desert? A voyage to what planet? Level of Conflict is the human dimension.

A setting includes not only itsphysical and temporal domain, but social as well. This dimension becomes vertical in this sense: At what Level of Conflict do you pitch your telling? No matter how externalized in institutions or internalized in individuals, the political, economic, ideological, biological, and psychological forces of society shape events as much as period, landscape, or costume. Does your story focus on the inner, even unconscious conflicts within your characters?

Or coming up a level, on personal conflicts? Or higher and wider, on battles with institutions in society? Wider still, on struggles against forces of the environment? Although your setting is a fiction, not everything that comes to mind may be allowed to happen in it. Within any world, no matter how imaginary, only certain events are possible or probable. If your drama is set among the gated estates of West L. The event choices of the writer, therefore, are limited to the possibilities and probabilities within the world he creates. No matter how realistic or bizarre the setting, once its causal principles are established, they cannot change.

In fact,- of all genres Fantasy is the most rigid and structurally conventional. On the other hand, a gritty realism often allows leaps in logic. Stories do not materialize from a void but grow out of materials already in history and human experience. From its first glimpse of the first image, the audience inspects your fictional universe, sorting the possible from the impossible, the likely from the unlikely. You create these possibilities and limitations through your personal choice of setting and the way you work within it. For once the audience grasps the laws of your reality, it feels violated if you break them and rejects your work as illogical and unconvincing.

Got any particular neighborhood in mind? It's about divorce. What could be more American? We can set it in Louisiana, New York, or Idaho. There is no such thing as a portable story. An honest story is at home in one, and only one, place and time. The first step toward a well-told story is to create a small, knowable world. All fine stories take place within a limited, knowable world. It climaxes in planetary nuclear annihilation, but the telling is limited to three sets and eight principal characters. The world of a story must be small enough that the mind of a single artist can surround the fictional universe it creates and come to know it in the same depth and detail that God knows the one He created.

Art consists of separating one tiny piece from the rest of the universe and holding it up in such a way that it appears to be the most important, fascinating thing of this moment. This may seem an impossible ideal, but the best writers attain it every day. Great writers know. A vast, populous world stretches the mind so thinly that knowledge must be superficial. A limited world and restricted cast offer the possibility of knowledge in depth and breadth. The irony of setting versus story is this: The larger the world, the more diluted the knowledge of the writer, therefore the fewer his creative choices and the more cliched the story.

The smaller the world, the more complete the knowledge of the writer, therefore the greater his creative choices. Result: a fully original story and victory in the war on cliche. I suggest these specific methods: research of memory, research of imagination, research of fact. Generally, a story needs all three.

How does fear feel? Bring back those long, fright-filled hours when the dark smothered you. If so, vividly describe your day and night in the closet. Research is not daydreaming. Explore your past, relive it, then write it down. Now with the bile of fear in your belly, write an honest, one-of-a-kind scene. While memory gives us whole chunks of life, imagination takes fragments, slivers of dream, and chips of experience that seem unrelated, then seeks their hidden connections and merges them into a whole.

Having found these links and envisioned the scenes, write them down. A working imagination is research. Days drag by and nothing gets written. Cleaning the garage looks like fun. Talent must be stimulated by facts and ideas. Do research. Feed your talent. Research not only wins the war on cliche, it's the key to victory over fear and its cousin, depression. Suppose, for example, you're writing in the genre of Domestic Drama.

But if you were go to the library and read respected works on the dynamics of family life, two very important things would happen: 1. Everything life has taught you would be powerfully confirmed. This discovery, that your personal experience is universal, is critical. You'll write in a singular way, but audiences everywhere will understand because the patterns of family are ubiquitous. As you express emotions you feel are yours and yours alone, each member of the audience will recognize them as his and his alone.

No matter how many families you live in, how many you observe, or how vivid your imagination, your knowledge of the nature of family is limited to the finite circle of your experience. But as you take notes in the library, your solid, factual research will expand that circle globally. Research from memory, imagination, and fact is often followed by a phenomenon that authors love to describe in mystical terms: Characters suddenly spring to life and of their own free will make choices and take actions that create Turning Points that twist, build, and turn again until the writer can hardly type fast enough to keep up with the outpourings.

Be warned, however. While research provides material, it's no substitute for creativity. A story is not an accumulation of information strung into a narrative, but a design of events to carry us to a meaningful climax. Too many insecure talents spend years in study and never actually write anything.

Research is meat to feed the beasts of imagination and invention, never an end in itself. Nor is there a necessary sequence to research. Creativity is rarely so rational. Origination and exploration go on alternatively. Imagine writing a Psycho-Thriller. Intrigued, you wonder, Who is this doctor? Why does she fall for him? Could your patient be one of these?

Creation and investigation go back and forth, making demands on each other, pushing and pulling this way or that until the story shakes itself out, complete and alive. Creativity is five to one, perhaps ten or twenty to one. The craft demands the invention of far more material than you can possibly use, then the astute selection from this quantity of quality events, moments of originality that are true to character and true to world. The same is true for us. Imagine writing a romantic comedy set on the East Side of Manhattan. Your thoughts meander back and forth between the separate lives of your characters, searching for that perfect moment when the lovers meet.

They meet at P. Given the affluent New Yorkers of your imagining, meeting in a singles bar is certainly possible. Because experienced writers never trust so-called inspiration. True inspiration comes from a deeper source, so let loose your imagination and experiment: 1. Singles Bar. Cliche, but a choice. Park Avenue. A tire blows out on his BMW. He stands at the curb, helpless in his three-piece suit. She comes along on her motorcycle and takes pity on him.

She gets out the spare, and as she doctors the car, he plays nurse, handing her jack handle, lug nuts, wheel cover. Quickly, before others enter, he locks the stall door and helps her through her illness. When the coast is clear he sneaks her out, saving her embarrassment. On and on the list grows. Truest to their world? And has never been on the screen quite this way before? This is the one you write into the screenplay. Suppose, however, as you question the meeting-cute scenes on your list, deep in your gut you realize that, while all have their virtues, your first impression was right.

Cliche or not, these lovers would meet in a singles bar; nothing could be more expressive of their natures and milieu. Now what do you do? Follow your instincts and start a new list: a dozen different ways to meet in a singles bar. Research this world, hang out, observe the crowd, get involved, until you know the singles bar scene like no writer before you.

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Scanning your new list you ask the same questions: Which variation is truest to character and world? Read any good books lately? That's the truth. No matter our talent, we all know in the midnight of our souls that 90 percent of what we do is less than our best. No one has to see your failures unless you add vanity to folly and exhibit them. Genius consists not only of the power to create expressive beats and scenes, but of the taste, judgment, and will to weed out and destroy banalities, conceits, false notes, and lies.

To make sense of this outpouring, various systems have been devised to sort stories according to shared elements, classifying them by genre. Aristotle gave us the first genres by dividing dramas according to the value-charge of their ending versus their story design. A story, he noted, could end on either a positive or a negative charge. Over the centuries, however, the lucidity of Aristotle was lost as genre systems became more and more blurred and bloated. Goethe listed seven types by subject matter—love, revenge, and so on.

While scholars dispute definitions and systems, the audience is already a genre expert. It enters each film armed with a complex set of anticipations learned through a lifetime of moviegoing. Pro-war versus Antiwar are its primary subgenres. Contemporary films generally oppose war, but for decades the majority covertly glorified it, even in its most grisly form.

A deep change of worldview from the positive to the negative: MRS. It has a number of sharply focused subgenres: Domestic Drama problems within the family , the Woman's Film dilemmas such as career versus family, lover versus children , Political Drama corruption in politics , Eco- Drama battles to save the environment , Medical Drama struggles with physical illness , and Psycho-Drama struggles with mental illness.

This often borrows aspects from other genres such as War or Political Drama to use as motivation for explosive action and derring-do. History is an inexhaustible source of story material and embraces every type of story imaginable. The treasure chest of history, however, is sealed with this warning: What is past must be present. About This Item We aim to show you accurate product information. Manufacturers, suppliers and others provide what you see here, and we have not verified it.

See our disclaimer. Books : Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting Methuen Film Story deciphers the guiding structural principles that animate every classical and award-winning film, ranging from Citizen Kane through to modern acclaimed works like The English Patient. Specifications Series Title Methuen Film. Customer Reviews. See all reviews.

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