ENL 420: Creative Writing Workshop: Scriptwriting Structure, Character, Causality, and Action © Perry Glasser STRUCTURE –There are several ways to enter the idea of structure. No matter which vocabulary we employ, structure describes how characters move through time and space. Some vocabularies of structure are: Beginning-Middle-End Act 1-Act 2-Act 3 Act 1-Act 2-Act 3-Act 4-Act 5 (Shakespeare) Exposition – Rising Action – Climax – Denouement - Resolution The observant student will note that “acts” always seem to require odd numbers because we still expect stories to reduce to a Beginning-Middle-End. That’s worth discussing in class, but suffice it to say here that the human psyche seems to respond to triplets. Ask me about the German philosopher Hegel and the dialectic—I dare you. Theater Majors and others will inform us that there are plays may be one-act, three acts or five act, but will find very few two act plays, and four act plays are scarce indeed. Teleplays, sitcoms or drama, usually have their “acts” divided by commercials. Fairy tales present happy characters whose worlds abruptly change at the beginning, who must act or be overwhelmed in act 2 by those changes, and who after acting properly and solving their problems in act 3 live “happily ever after.” How many such stories can you name? Each of the vocabularies of structure may be useful. It follows that we when talk about structure in storytelling, that we will talk about two kinds of structure: Chronological Structure, and Narrative Structure -- we will use “narrative” to mean any story. This concept is closely allied with, but NOT identical to, what we mean by “narrative” in prose, where narrative often means “summary” as opposed to a detailed “scene.” Chronological structure. Chronological structure refers to the events as they happened in time. The most natural narrative structures are chronological. The events of a story are causally connected. Event A precipitates B, which precipitates C, which precipitates D, etc. Do not make the mistake of believing the events of a story must be separated by equal spans of time. An example or three should make these abstract notions instantly comprehensible. 1. Long before the novel (or movie) begins, Ahab is chewed up by Moby Dick. Since that occurred before the narrative begins, we can call it back-story. BECAUSE of that event, and his character, years later he is motivated by his lust for revenge. All the subsequent events of the story are precipitated by that initial event until Ahab and his harpoon are on the great white whale’s back where he can from Hell’s hot center in hate spit his last breath at his antagonist. 2. Khan of Star Trek was exiled to a planet by Captain Kirk in the TV series. In the film, that event is back story and we learn that the planet’s climate was not benign but harsh. Khan escapes and—like Ahab—BECAUSE of his character will seek revenge. That he and Ahab share identical last words and identical motives is no accident. The alert student will note that much sci-fi “space opera” shares the vocabulary, protocols, and military strategies of naval engagement. 3. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was imagined by Mark Twain as a sequel to Tom Sawyer: thus that book is back-story to Huck’s story. Twain dispenses with his narrative problem with the justifiably famous opening. If you have ever tried to summarize your favorite TV show in its third season for a friend who has never seen it, you know how involved that can be—try explaining Lost to a nondevotee. But in Huck Finn, we know that Huck leaves Hannibal BECAUSE his abusive, drunken father is back in town, and BECAUSE of Huck’s character, that rascal fakes his own death and sets off down the Mississippi. As ought to be plain—but if it is not, ASK IN CLASS—the series of events that define a narrative are shaped by the interplay of causality and character. Some English students will think of a few writers who defy the narrative chain of causality by substituting Fate. Accidents happen in their work just as they do in life. Thomas Hardy, George Eliot, and Sophocles come to mind, but for all effective writers, character is paramount, and what their people do with the events of Fate is what matters. The gods may arrange for you to kill your father and sleep with your mother, but how that bad luck plays out is what matters. Knowing Fate and life’s vagaries will not prevent us from disliking a story in which the characters are engaging, the plot taut, the writing faultless, and the story abruptly ends when all the characters are killed by a random runaway bus. No—we still want causality. Let Silas Marner have his fortune restored in the form of a golden-haired child who loves him for his learned kindness, not have him bet on the right horse at the racetrack. Let Dr. Hannibal Lecter spare Clarissa because she has allowed him to intimately probe her psyche and has maintained faith with him, not have her luck out and simply get away. Narrative Structures. Narrative structure refers to the events as the work presents them to an audience. Since we experience life in time, chronological structures are the natural way to tell a story, but for some stories, chronology may not be the best way to recount the tale. Students are well-advised not to vary chronological structure without very good reasons for doing so. Flashbacks, and flashbacks in flashbacks—whole scenes from the past designed to allow the audience to understand the present—are generally the sign of a writer “filling in” what the audience needs to know to comprehend the current action; when handled amateurishly, they are an aesthetic defect. There are alternatives to deliver necessary information to the audience, often in dialog as a more knowledgeable character informs a less knowledgeable character (and us!) of the needed information. Much of the Harry Potter movies is devoted to older folk telling the growing, young Harry what he years to know about his parents, Voldemort, and the world of wizardry. So, while the chronology of a narrative may look like this: 1>2>3>4>5>6>7 (where > means because) The narrative may best be presented to an audience like this: 3>4>5 – 1>2 – 6>7>8 We may see such structural variation in Hitchcocks’s Vertigo and in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, and Kill Bill I and II. What’s best? Well, folks—it’s an art form. There is no answer to that—if there were, everyone would be writers. II. STRUCTURE — a functional definition of structure enables us to talk about the parts of a story and what each part needs to accomplish. No matter what time structure a writer employs, a story has 5 functional parts: Exposition Rising Action (also called “Complications”) Climax Falling Action (also called “Denouement”) Conclusion (or (Resolution”) Diagrammatically, the structure of a story is drawn as “Freitag’s Triangle.” (In the diagram reproduced below, “B—Introduction of conflict,” is a label for a turning point—I am far too lazy to draw our own version) http://www.aliscot.com/ensenanza/1302/freitag.gif The symmetry of this diagram should NOT confuse the student into believing the parts are of equal length. Each part has its function. Exposition—exposes the readers to time, place, initial characterization, and ends with the introduction of conflict. That is to say, a stable state of affairs in which characters had no motive to commence any dramatic action is disrupted. The character now has a motive and acts. The miracle of Hamlet is that as a student, Hamlet does NOT act—he thinks too much. As soon as you are half as good as Shakespeare, you can give that premise a try. NOTE: A conflict is trivial if it does not motivate a character to action. People can argue and discuss problems for hours and usually do in bars and in residence halls, but such a script will bore your audience to tears. Write such a script, and expect to see a crowd of angry people led by your mother carrying torches and pitchforks assembling at your door. What kinds of emotions provoke action? We should discuss this in class, but as a shorthand way to think about it, consider the Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Cardinal Virtues of Catholic theology. This is not a religious construction, but surely we can without contradiction say that the Joker is motivated by Pride while Batman is motivated by Justice. When we watch Pulp Fiction, we will surely need to discuss what Jules (Samuel Jackson) is carrying in that briefcase. Rising Action—causally connected attempts to alleviate the “voltage” or tension of the conflict are frustrated or do not meet with the usual, expected success, and these attempts not only reveal character because the characters are undergoing stress, but they transform the personality of the protagonist. Scarlet O’Hara may be a frivolous southern belle and a flirt, but once she has survived the Civil War she is tough enough to marry Rhett Butler, and then their marriage falls apart. Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy respectively must overcome pride and prejudice before they can find the true love the reader all along know they must share. Jules is sure he has experienced a miracle; he will abandon his life as a murderer and do good deeds. It takes Luke Skywalker three movies, a mentor named Yoda, and a companion like Han Solo to go from boy to man, man enough to confront his father, like him, a Jedi knight. We have stumbled on a definition of “drama.” The stakes have to be high enough that a character changes. Everyone has problems—so what? No one cares about your battle with Athlete’s Foot, but if like Frodo you happen to come into possession of The One Ring of Power, your struggle to cast it into the fires of Mt. Doom matter; should you fail, all the world will fall to Evil. Thus, fellowship, fortitude courage, duty, and persistence overcome human weakness and the seductive Lust for power. Indeed, anyone who wears the ring, risks succumbing to that Lust. Not even Gandalf is immune; it is Frodo’s character that allows him to succeed, though the Ring nearly kills him, too. Remember: without a change in character, a story is by definition trivial—an anecdote; fun to tell at Thanksgiving dinner, but NEVER engrossing enough for anyone to buy a ticket. Climax—At the end of the chain of causally related events, there must come a final inevitable confrontation between the antagonistic forces that generated the voltage of the conflict. That scene is the climax. It is “the most exciting” precisely because all the prior scenes have made it plain that there is no avoiding the confrontation and that the antagonists are equal to each other—as incredible as that may seem. If you are clever, you will make underdogs triumph—not by luck, but by skill and character. If you do this well, audiences will love you. Get puny David to slay Goliath with a mere sling and stone. The art is to have the reader so engaged by the struggle that the illusion that maybe, just maybe, they can suspend disbelief and for a while and believe that Santiago can defy a hostile Universe and get that damned fish to shore, or that Rocky can go the distance, or Odysseus can single-handedly slay all the vile men hanging around his wife, or that the last guy in a tie-fighter can with his last bomb can close his eyes and use the Force to destroy a massive Death Star, or that a streetwalker with a pure heart can have her wealthy john fall in love with her and climb her fire escape with an armful of roses. Any story without a climax leaves a reader with a vague sense of having been abused. “All this—and for what?” We sometimes call a climax a mandatory scene. Falling Action — In story-telling, in modern times, this part of story structure is often brief. The stable situation with which the story began must be reinstated, even if the characters have transformed. If it isn’t, the story is not finished. Readers will ask, “Yeah, but what about…?” Ishmael explains he is the only survivor because Queeg-Queeg’s coffin was watertight and so could float. The mysterious events of the past can now be explicated; In Close Encounter of the Third Kind, dazed, long missing survivors step off the space ship—and maybe a tad melodramatically, mothers are reunited with their missing children. Resolution—Now what? Well, if you are Huck Finn, you let people know you are headed for the territories. If you are Ishmael, you decide to write the story of the Great White Whale. The point is to be sure readers know that “peace” is returned—which may not be the same as a happy ending. Peace may have been gained only through terrible sacrifice; the church bells of Moscow ring not only because Napoleon is defeated, but to honor the dead; the surviving members of the Fellowship of the Ring sail off into myth, perhaps to join King Arthur. Alert students may think of a few exceptions to this Aristotelian-based analysis of structure. Poe simply omitted Exposition and Rising Action and created stories critically interesting—all middle and no end or beginning—but to a student writer seem deceptively easy to emulate. Kafka put characters into situations that had no explicable reason for existence. Causality seems not to matter in Kafka’s worlds. No matter what road you take, you cannot get to the castle, and the bureaucracy is unaffected by any and all effort, so while everyone is sympathetic to K’s dilemma, they are helpless to advise him in his trial, unable to tell him even of what he is accused, until he is executed by apologetic executioners. Kafka’s characters are motivated, their actions are sensible, but the world does not respond. What else could Kafkaesque mean? In class, we will talk about sci-fi, fantasy, and fabulation, forms in which causality follows special rules. Think of Kafka’s Gregor Samsa…perfectly logical story, right?