Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Action-Series--and Beyond.

Single Actions in a Screenplay Are Meaningless.

I am increasingly convinced that the basic grammar of screenwriting hangs on what I call the action-series.

Namely:  actions are the basis of screenwriting, and they always take place in and through a series.

There are almost no punctual actions in movies--no actions that take place once and only once.

Consider:  a many picks up grains of sand.

What's happening?  What is the action?

He could be obsessive-compulsive.  Or they could be diamond dust that he has spilled and needs to gather up.

A man fills his car's tank with gas.  

What's happening?  It depends on whether he's on he's way to a date, a wedding, a funeral, or a bank hold-up.

The punctual actions--the picking-up-the-grains, the filling-up-the-tank.  These are not actions in the sense that they are not meaningful actions.  They are only meaningful when they become parts of a series.

Actions are spelled out in screenplays through series:  an action-series.

The Basic Grammar of Screenwriting.

This implies that the basic skill of screenwriting is the ability to spell out meanings through series of actions.  It's something like the equivalent of spelling out words in verbal language.  

A screenwriter should be able to spell out any meanings she wishes through a series of actions:
  • preparing for a surprise party;
  • going on a date;
  • falling in love;
  • robbing a bank;
  • moving to a new town;
  • falling out of love;
  • discovering your spouse is unfaithful;
  • stalking someone;
  • buying a gift for a loved one;
  • buying a gift for a coworker;
  • trying to raise some money;
  • etc.
This would be the most basic kind of thing a developing scriptwriter should practice.  It's like a short film:  you take one such idea (a description of an action, really), and you develop the series that spells it out.  

You try it a few different ways, and you work other changes upon it--the way a jazz musician practices playing melodies and scales in different keys.

Developing, Layering, Building a Story.

The writer then works upon these action-series.  There are three main kinds of operations that can be performed upon the action-series.

Particularize.  You make them particular to:  the characters, the settings, the symbolic meanings you wish to spell out.

One of my stock examples is from Million Dollar Baby, because I've been teaching it in my online screenwriting class.

A common action in movies about athletes is:  training.  At some point in a movie about an athlete, he has to train.  

Training is something that's clearly a series of actions--like the tests the hero in a fairy tale goes through.  You lift the same heavy weight a number of times, and over time, it's not so heavy.

We can see the change in the character through the change in the action.

We all remember the training sequences in Rocky, which are about being poor--hitting sides of beef instead of a punching bag.  

It's a different series of actions for a runner, a jumper, a boxer, etc.

In Million Dollar Baby, the athlete is a woman boxer.  She's poor and lives in LA.  
  • She runs on the beach at dawn.  
  • She takes home a leftover steak from work.  
  • She practices her footwork while putting plates on tables.  
  • She uses change from tips to buy boxing equipment.  
This 'spells out':  poor woman waitress training to be a boxer.  The actions and details are particular to the setting and the character.  

A badly-written series would be the same one that any athlete would undertake in any city.  This one's well-written--which means specific to character and place.  

A nice exercise would be taking the same action-series and setting it in a different place, or giving the actions to a different character.  

Set it in the rural south of the 1920's or 1960's.   A black man training on a plantation after the Civil War, for instance.  

Alternate.  First one action, then another, in alternation.  A very old pattern, one identified with the 'discovery' of cinema, of cinematic editing.  

When two actions alternate, we expect them to collide.

A man gets ready for a date, a woman gets ready for a boxing match.

We fully expect them to meet!  It's part of the logic of cinema.

Or a man gets ready to propose to a woman, and she gets ready to have a cup of coffee after exercising.  These two people have different expectations!  

He gets his good clothes from the dry cleaner, buys flowers, polishes the ring.  She goes to the gym, doesn't shower, brings her smelly gym clothes along, crams an onion-laden hot dog in her mouth.  

You see?  Now you're going from one action to two, and this is creating the specificity and surprise, the expectations and problems, we expect from stories.

Layer.  More than one thing happens at once.  

So let's say a man falls in love--and also loses his job.

Or a man gets ready to rob a bank and he falls in love.  That is:  at the same time he's preparing to rob the bank, he's also falling in love--perhaps with a fellow criminal, perhaps with a woman who works in a bakery on his block.

Again, this is two actions, but the intertwining of them can make something unique.  

It also gives actors the opportunity to act.  Doing two things at once is one hallmark of acting going on:  Hamlet is acting crazy and planning revenge.  He's acting crazy and in love with Ophelia.  A character says one thing but is thinking another.  You can write this, you better write this, because it's something actors in particular can do:  they're expert at it.

And the Story?  Life Is Like That.

To wrap up.

You may want to tell a feature-length story, with a beginning, middle and end.  But it always has to be told through series of actions that are particularized, alternated and layered.

The big question then becomes:  How do you get from the beginning, middle and end of the story to the series?  What's in the middle 'layer' between the two?

But that's another topic.

And I actually think that before one even gets to that level, there's an intervening level:  something we feel about life that series of actions concretize.

These are things like "isn't it always the way?," "what goes around comes around," "anything that can go wrong, will," "you get what you pay for," and "no good deed goes unpunished."

These are generally spelled out through a series of actions that leads to a reversal or twist.  

A guy gets ready for a date:  picks up dry cleaning, changes, buys flowers, chocolates.  He drives everywhere.  He's about to buy gas and he realizes--not so much money left.  So he saves it. Doesn't buy gas.  He picks up the date.  The car runs out of gas.  That's an action-series that leads to a particular sense of 'life is like that.'

This makes the question of the beginning, middle and end of a feature script at a still-higher level than these feelings about life.  Probably in some sense the larger story is a fight or conflict--is life like this or like that?  Is it 'a sucker never gets an even break' or 'every dog has his day'?

But more about all that another time.

--E. R. O'Neill

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


Norman Friedman gets mentioned in at least one book on screenwriting. (How Not To Write a Screenplay by Denny Flinn.)

Friedman is useful in so many ways.
He sketches out some plot types--adventure fiction, classical tragedy, modern drama, the like, and he has a layered theory of story and of our reactions to stories.
For example, he distinguishes formal or aesthetic 'emotions'--e.g., "What will happen next?"--from moral emotions, which involve how we feel about whether a character succeeds or fails, takes action or suffers, is rewarded or punished.

His descriptions often go something like:
a person of moderate social status, through no fault of his own, is subject to terrible misfortune at first, with intermittent hopes of something better, but in the end comes to a sad end. (Think Willy Loman.)
a person of high standing and great talents suffers terrible misfortune through a relatively small or insignificant mistake, and ultimately but nobly perishes.
That is, there's always:

a person,
their social status,
their admirable or regretable moral and other qualities,
(this including whether we admire or detest these),
whether the person acts or is acted upon,
whether he succeeds or fails,
inflicts suffering or suffers, 
whether such sufferings or honors are his own fault or pure chance or choice or accident, etc. (that is: is he responsible or blameless),
what happens in these terms in the short run and over the long run (e.g., at first he succeeds but in the end is routed),
whether his status changes by the end--he becomes Prince or loses his inheritance or dies or whatnot.
Three sisters are of relatively high social status.

They have admirable qualities--being generous, knowing French, being cultured. (But they can also be snobs.)

They experience glimmers of hope--of romantic attachments, for instance.

But ultimately, through no fault of their own, or through their own inability to take positive action, their situations all worsen, they lose things and persons valuable and important to them.

In the end their states are worse then when the play started.

Yet the persist in dreaming of a better world--even a world without them, a future world, though none have children. (Only a social upstart has children, and they are not their legal father's children).
It's a nice approach. You can see how it's kind of proto-structuralist. One feels that Friedman's plot types could eventually be reduced to all the possible variables in a sort of equation--although he's not exhaustive. (Could there be a weak and detestable person who hurts others, and we admire him for it? Then when he's rewarded, we nevertheless feel bad?)  

Even making a game stab at the 'grammar' Friedman detects, we can see how action-based dramatic writing is.
Someone acts or is acted upon, injures other or himself suffers.
And in a really good dramatic analysis, everything can be stated in terms of actions.

The script or play becomes transparent, because everything takes a clear role in relation to actions, to causality, to responsibility, choice and these moral-narrative categories.

Dramatic writing is writing in actions. It can be in words or some other medium. But actions become an expressive, plastic means:
they're selected and arranged (sequenced and compounded) to say something besides themselves, to be a vehicle for meanings.
Friedman's interesting, because he helps flush out the way stories embody what might be called, in a hifallutin' way, moral-ontological intuitions.
That is: stories embody certain feelings we have about the way the universe is, the way it rewards or punishes those who are good or bad.
The "universe" part is ontological.  

The moral part is about virtue and vice (good or bad, strength or weakness) and reward or punishment (justice).
(A lot turns on guilt and innocence, responsibility and the lack of it.)
It's surprising how many stories seem to embody some very global intuitions of this kind. (I've mentioned some before on this blog.) E.g.:
Virtue is rewarded.
No good deed every truly goes unpunished. (E.g., virtue punished.)
Bad things happen to good people.
What goes around comes around.
The universe is amoral.
Everything that can go wrong will.
Bad things happen to good people.
Rewards are proportional to risks.
In for a penny, in for a pound.
Life's a bitch and then you die.
And the like.

These intuitions can be simple or complex.  

But we like and admire dramatic works when they confirm to these intuitions. We think they're 'true to life.'

To be altogether too brief: if you can't conceptualize your story with this kind of clarity, and if it has no such moral intuitions or logic, the chances of anyone being able to follow it or cotton to it are pretty low.  

Or such is my own moral and ontological intuition!

--E. R. O'Neill

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Complexity and Simplicity in The Third Man.

Graham Greene was kind of a clever guy.

The Third Man was on cable the other night, and I shouldn't start, because I'm always sucked in. Looking at the movie a bit, there's little wonder. It's a tidy piece of work strung together from familiar ideas in a nice combination that ratchets up the complexity of the whole and still manages to surprise us at the end--all while preparing those surprises very nicely.

A naive American man (a writer of simplistic popular fiction) goes to morally ambiguous and complex war-torn Vienna to work on a project with an old friend.

The American finds the friend is dead. That pretty much begins Act II.

Notice how little we know. There's very little 'exposition'--because the American must discover everything, and we'll discover it too, but in dribs and drabs.

We know little about the dead friend. We'll hear a lot: this also provides tremendous build-up.

Through odd behavior and inconcistencies, the friend begins to believe something fishy is going on--that the friend did not die in an accident but was rather murdered.

At the same time, American falls in love with his dead friend's girlfriend.

So now we have two things going on: a kind of amateur murder investigation, and a would-be love story, a romantic triangle with a dead man.

About halfway through, the American discovers his dead friend was not so nice. He'd been told this a lot before, but a lot of characters make post-war Vienna seem like a place where nice honest people don't get too far. But the dead friend wasn't just a rascal: he was a really bad person.

All this information was neatly withheld--because if the American were searching for a really terrible, we wouldn't care very much. If the American is "searching for a friend" or "trying to discover who murdered his friend," we kind of understand that.

At this point, the American decides his friend is 'better off' dead: the deserved what he got.

He plans to go back to the U.S. He's wiser now. He confesses his crush to the girl, but nothing can come of it, since she's still pretty much in love with the dead guy, worthy or not.

At this point, the murder investigation is moot--it doesn't matter what happened to the dead friend, he deserved what he got, it wasn't unjust--and the romance is moot, too.

The movie's over. Right? Not quite.

Now--spoiler alert for those who haven't seen the movie--it turns out the dead friend isn't dead. Talk about a twist.

As with most clever movies with a mystery and/or a twist, there is always a false hypothesis. The American doesn't think "I bet my friend is really alive and only pretending to be dead." He thinks "something's fishy--maybe it was murder." He's right about the fishy part, wrong about the murder part.

The logic of the actions is clever, too. This one change changes the actions, flips them all around.

It's now incumbent upon the American to kill his best friend. If not to kill him, at least to cause him to be arrested and punished.

The goal went from find the friend to find what happened to the friend and romance the dead friend's girl to right the friend's wrongs by making him pay.

It's a bit turning on a dime, but it's very powerful.

Notice how little bits of familiar stories are piled on top of each other. Are the individual elements so strange? Innocent American in corrupt old Europe. Friend investigating his friend's murder. Romantic triangle. Woman mourning for her lover, relying on the mercy of strangers. The 'cop' (here a soldier) sick of meddling amateurs. (That one's in just about every detective story.) They're all trite!

But the combination enriches them, and let's face it: you hadn't seen them in post-War occupied Vienna before. (No one had.)

There's more to this reversal. In a strange and somewhat happy coincidence, the American is still nursing a crush on the friend's girlfriend, so we get a more conventional angle: the American would be better off if his friend really were out of the way. If he can kill or lock up his former best friend, the American still might get the girl after all!

The American cooperates--collaborates, one might say--with the police. (They were antagonists all along, not believing his silly theories, finding him hopelessly unwise. So that's another big reversal.) The American tries to rescue the girl he loves, to send her away, but to no avail. (If she left the plot, there would be less emotional complication for the American.)

And he tries to trap the old friend. But the girl shows up--talk about being in the wrong place at the wrong time. That kind of bad luck is necessary in movies.

A chase ensues. The 'friend' would be happy to kill the American (who's now betrayed him). He really isn't so nice!

The friend shoots a nice soldier who liked the American's books. This causes the American to take his gun and go after his former best friend.

The friend is wounded. But an exchange of looks between the American and his wounded friend suggests that the friend asks to be killed.

So even when we might expect the vengeance plot, we get first betrayal and then helping.

The American stops one more time before leaving to try to romance the girl--to no avail.

It's a superb script. It's crammed with delightful, unique details. Most of the characters speak in anti-romantic ironies. (When the American observes that the mourning girl has smiled and asks her to smile again, she replies about that happiness that "there isn't enough for two smiles.")

And of course, the whole thing is beautifully photographed and acted in Vienna.

But the layering of actions, the complications, the reversals, the looping back on itself, and the surprises, the combination of unity and surprise--that is all about fine screenwriting, the kind we can study and learn from.

--E. R. O'Neill

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Emotional Ambivalence.

I've written before about the mysteries of the three-act structure.

I just noticed yet another screenwriting book proposing a 19th-century view of screenplay dramaturgy: incidents in a progressive, 'rising' action leading to a climax.

It's a nice idea, but it doesn't really work for Hollywood movies.

What I've argued instead is that the big, bulky middle of a Hollywood movie constitutes 'another world,' a world that's different from the ordinary problem-filled world of the first act.

The second act has its own problems, but they're problems that are set apart from those recognizable problems of everyday life.

That is: instead of set-up, action, resolution, it's: real problems; more interesting, movie-ish problems, resolution (or pseudo-resolution) to all the problems.

Life is such that we're emotionally ambivalent about it. There are things we'd like to change, but we can't or feel we can't, or we don't want to mess up the parts that we like.

The movie as an art form provides a zone within which we can explore bigger, more intense feelings, issues above and beyond everyday life, where we can act out, be challenged, experiment, do things we can't and probably shouldn't ordinarily do. We thereby stand to gain or lose more.

The characters make a choice that attempts to resolve life's problems. Those choices may succeed or fail. And then the question is how that success or failure carries over back into the realm of the everyday.

The Christopher Vogler hero's journey aficionado's have a sense of this by talking about how the hero goes on a journey, then returns home.

The art form of the feature film lets us go into a special place where we can resolve our emotional ambivalence by making a single strong emotional commitment, an act that threatens to decide the problems of life once and for all in a focused way.

This is an aesthetic quality of the feature film as a whole, and it's mirrored and embodied in the feature film's second act.

We're ambivalent about life, and movies recognize this and give us a space for imaginatively resolving that ambivalence. The issue is especially important to creative writers, who must resolve their ambivalence towards writing, towards what they're creating, in order to finish creating it.

And so it's perhaps no accident that the space in which creativity takes place is so often mirrored within movies. You have to go through that space to get a movie out at the far end, so the movie becomes an allegory of what it took to create it.

Read movies carefully and they contain a record of how they were created--and instructions for creating itself.

As I mentioned before, The Wizard of Oz is a good example of this view of three-act structure, and it's a good illustration of this theory of creativity and the fantasy space for resolving ambivalence that creativity requires.

Dorothy is unhappy at her Kansas home. A mean woman wants to take away her dog. Her aunt and uncle pay her no mind. And she gets insufficient attention from the three male hired hands.

She expresses a desire to go "over the rainbow." She's emotionally ambivalent, frozen in place. She can't do anything to change her world, but she can't leave it.

She does indeed decide to run away. But an astute carnival charlatan convinces her that her family loves and needs her, and so she returns home. She's going back to the same place with little change. Yes, she realizes she should honor her family obligations. But all the same problems still remain--the dog, the inattention, etc.

End of movie.

Not exactly.

Instead, a hurricane strikes and magically transports her to a magical wonderland "over the rainbow" where she meets helpers, has adventures, and tries to get back home to Kansas.

This is the special, more-interesting-than-everyday-life, other world, within which she can resolve her emotional ambivalence towards life in Kansas.

On the one hand, being far from home in a strange place makes her value Kansas more.

On the other hand, she can do things in Oz that are really more interesting and dramatic than anything that was going to happen to her in Kansas.

And these adventures have little to do with the original problems. No sorting out the Toto problem, no increased attention from her aunt and uncle. Yes, the people in Oz mirror some of those in Kansas, so she's symbolically working out her problem. Oz is, after all, a kind of dream space.

But the interesting narrative-structural (as opposed to psychological) feature is: none of the adventures actually cause her to be able to return home. She gets to Oz but isn't helped there. She's sent to get the witch's broom. Which she does, but that doesn't help either.

Not even the balloon someone fashions for her takes her home and resolves the getting-home-problem.

Instead, Dorothy must recognize what she's learned, must recognize something about how her feelings have been clarified by her adventures.

Only this recognition brings about the resolution--the return to Kansas, where, it turns out, no one really believes her. (Things have changed a lot.)

The trick of the movie is: none of the real problems in Kansas have exactly been changed. Sure, people are crowded around her bed ooh-ing and ahhh-ing and fretting over her.

We never find out if Toto has ceased to be canine non grata. Presumably the witch-y neighbor still hates Dorothy's dog. And soon everything will go back to the way it was.

But Dorothy herself has changed in how she views and feels about these things. In losing them and struggling to get them back and seeing them from a different perspective (as fantasy figures), she has a different relationship to her ordinary reality. And she can accept it now, more or less as it is.

This is where movies about making a million dollars or saving the world are foolish: no one can really do that, so that really is a dream in the shallow sense.

We few of us can change the world. But we can resolve our feelings through it by imaginative and dramatic means. And that's what many movies do for us--quite blatantly at that, if you take the time to look.

--E. R. O'Neill

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Folk Whatever.

In psychology they're playing with this idea of "folk psychology."

That is: people, in their heads, have certain ideas, about what other people are like, what's in their heads.

Folk psychology.

Folk psychology is what people think about how people think--unscientifically, so to speak.

And folk psychology is a functional part of psychology: people think and act certain ways based on assumptions about how other people think.

So folk psychology, unscientific as it is, is an object of psychology 'proper.' (Psychologists distinguish themselves from these lay theories, which are their objects--but forget about the hangup's of psychologists, their insistence that they're scientists, and we're not.)

Screenplays, I believe, are informed by folk psychology--and folk sociology and folk metaphysics.

I teach an online course on screenwriting, so I have to develop ideas that help students fill in what's missing in their stuff. And often it's 'perspective' and 'logic': what is this universe like? what do you think of these people?

Writers are often great believers in "this is just how people are." So every screenplay has some implicit sense--often clear very quickly--about: this is what people are like, this is the way they think and reason, these are the kinds of motives they have, this is what happens when they interact, and this is what the universe is like.

These folk theories are embedded in the script. They underwrite it. They don't have to be true for all time. They just have to be convincing.

  • All people care about is sex.
  • Everyone's out for himself.
  • It's a dog eat dog world.
  • People are their own worst enemies.
  • Everyone gets what he deserves.
  • What goes around comes around.
  • If something can go wrong, it will.

These are not very sophisticated ideas. But everyone can vouch they've thought them at one time or another. And we could all probably provide stories that 'bear them out.'

And screenplays don't just set forth any old theories of life, but probably the more dramatic ones. The folk theories I listed are ones that will tend to lead to harsh consequences--because we sense that such more 'dramatic' cases are more worth watching, more consequential, so to speak.

The difference between these ideas and stories are those of the screenwriter, is that the screenwriter's are more 'worked over,' more elaborate. They're subject to more of those Freudian processes like condensation, displacement and secondary revision--the unconscious processes Freud saw in dreams.

Screenplays are like elaborate daydreams, carefully worked out in the conscious mind and subjected to all kinds of logical criteria--commercial viability, formatting on the page, ability to be acted and shot, and the like.

It's vulgar reductionism to say at the end of Nights of Cabiria, 'Gee, I guess she's a survivor' or 'Well, life goes on,' or (more elaborately) 'She thought shes couldn't get any lower, but she was wrong, but she's still okay, so there's hope for all of us.'

But Fellini had some idea like that in the back of his mind. Or at any rate, such verbal inferences can be drawn from the series of images and events on the screen. The writer creates that dramatic series of events and actions, and a good writer leaves it for the audience to work out the inferences. But some of them are fairly clear.

Somehow we need to get some sense from stories of what it's all about, why we bothered watching. (A philosopher named Grice wrote about something called implicature that's related.) It's not exactly a lesson or a moral, and it need not be true. But it must ring true. It must jibe with one of those bits of folk psychology or even metaphysics: the world, or a world, is like that, I can believe that to be the case, for some patch of reality, small or large.

And the writer has to decide: What are people like? What is the world like? And these questions require some conscious articulation and elaboration in order to be consistent.

In Bergman, people even say them out loud: 'men are fools and women put up with them because of their weakness and need to take care of someone, and men should be grateful.' The characters practically say it!

But if the writer doesn't have a folk psychology, sociology, metaphysics somehow worked out, the chances are the results will be incoherent.

I risk the hypothesis that good movies have folk theories you could clearly state, just as good photographs have clear meanings that can be verbally expressed. That is also (backwards) a criterion of value, a definition of 'goodness' and not just an observation about the class of all good movies or photographs.

And so, clumsy as it may seem, working out one's own inmost sense of how people and the world are--well, it's a good idea as part of the screenwriting process.

--E. R. O'Neill

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Mama Mia.

Sloppy as it is, the movie Mama Mia does demonstrate some interesting aspects of the mainstream feature film.

A constantly intriguing question about this form is: what is the relationship amongst the parts? How is the ending for a movie the ending for that beginning?

Bad movies, I'd argue, often go wrong by having the wrong ending--or you could say the right ending for a different movie.

Rather surprisingly, I'll argue that the ending is seldom the resolution of the purported problem with which the film commences. Rather, it's the resolution for another, more fundamental problem.

Indeed, each part of a fiction film often replaces an earlier problem with another, more complicated one. Things seldom get better and better in a feature film: more often, they get worse and worse.

More specifically, one problem isn't "solved": it just morphs into another, worse problem. Or one solution in turn gives rise to other problems.

But I get ahead of myself.

It is common parlance to divide a feature film into three "acts."
  • The first ten to thirty minutes sets up the characters and situation,
  • the next hour or so launches one or more protagonists on a 'journey' that takes them away from their ordinary universe,
  • and the last ten or twenty minutes (the traditional denouement), resolves most everything and returns the characters and their world back to form of stability.
This is all fine. Or it's all rather sloppy, but it's good enough. But is the universe of the second act the same universe?

Generally not.

I've said before that one characterization for a film story is: things are not what they seemed. That is: a film story often begins when a character realizes that the world doesn't work the way she thought it did.

There's a lovely example in Waking Life: the protagonist is told that if you flip a light switch in a dream, it never works. Then of course, the character flips a light switch when he believes he's wide awake--nothing. Is he dreaming?

It's one of the charms and peculiarities of that movie that it oscillates unstably between waking and dreaming--we and the characters are often not entirely sure. Thus, one could say, it's not a very "good" movie--in traditional terms, at least.

To get back to Mama Mia, the film starts almost instantly with a problem and a protagonist. A young woman on the eve of her marriage confesses to her friends that she has found her mother's diary (hoary old plot device), examined the month of her conception own conception, and discovered that her mother had three lovers during that month. She's also invited all three--this is the image that starts the film--to her wedding the next day. When she meets her real dad, she'll know (she thinks), but meanwhile, mom mustn't know.

So we have a protagonist: the daughter. And she has a task she's well on the way to beginning: discovering her real father.

Naturally, we may full well expect that seeing the gentlemen in question will not be enough to decide her own paternity, if anything indeed will.

And we have a new universe--from one with only a mother and a daughter, to a universe with a plethora of fathers, really just broad types gussied up as characters, but fine, good enough, we'll have time to learn about them.

So that's it. The first act is just about over. The gentlemen set out for the wedding (in a clumsy montage) and intersect pretty quickly. It needn't take much more than ten minutes, singing included.

Once the men encounter each other, we could say the second act has begun. But I think a subtler analysis would be that once the daughter sees all three and does not know which her father is--that's when the real problems begin.

In any case, the problem of the ending is: what will be a satisfying ending for a given beginning?

Here's the truly interesting part.

The film starts out with a daughter's problem. Who's her father?

But the fact that the daughter considers her fatherless existence a 'problem' is rather a reproach against the mother.

This has to come out.

The daughter has to say 'you raised me without a father, but I've never felt whole or complete, and I can't get married without knowing this fact.'

But it turns out--spoiler alert for those who haven't seen the film--that what the daughter who's more conventional than her mother (who never married) needs to learn is to be more like her mother, not less, to be less conventional, not to get married, but rather to travel the world in search of herself.

The film isn't about a daughter who needs to find a father, who needs to be different from her mother. It's about a daughter who needs to find herself--her initial purpose in finding her dad--a daughter who needs to be more like her mother.

The wedding--spoilers again--will take place, but it's the mother's wedding the movie turns out to be all about, not the daughter's.

The daughter's actions will end up not cementing her marriage but rather reaching back into the past to provide the marriage and husband her mother never had.

This is extremely socially conservative: damn weirdo mom, raised me as a bastard and now needs to do the 'right' (socially acceptable) thing, to become a conventional little bourgeois wife.

But it's nevertheless a very good ending for this movie and this beginning--because it's not the ending you expect. It's not the ending for the beginning of the film, for the problem set out at the beginning. It's the resolution of a more fundamental problem.

Not that every ending and third act needs to be that.

But feature films are so long. They require variety and surprise. But this mitigate against unity and rationality. So you often need to have characters who don't shape their own destinies, who don't know what they want, who set out on some cockamamie journey, and then find something else, quite despite themselves.

Isn't this what Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz does? She wants to leave home, then doubles back, only to be taken away from home 'against her own will'. The resolution means going back to the home you were so eager to leave--go figure.

--E. R. O'Neill

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Middle May Be a Distraction.

I saw a student recently work on a mystery plot. It was a clever idea, but the student had a lot of problem with--surprise, surprise--the middle.

That's not unusual. Screenwriters often have a great first 30 pages, maybe a killer last ten pages, but the middle is The Beast.

I have an inkling that mysteries in particular require about four or five plots in the middle that hide the answer to the mystery. They're pure distraction or misdirection. (Misdirection is when the magician waves his hands to draw your attention while the assistant is stuffing the rabbit into the hat.)

For example--and don't read this if you've never seen Murder on the Orient Express--let's say lots of people get on a train, they all conspire to kill a Bad Guy. They succeed; the bad guy turns up dead. We don't know or see this, but it's what's going on beneath the surface.

Poirot happens to be on the train. He investigates and finds...many tantalizing backstories and clues that point hither and yon.

(People who haven't seen Murder on the Orient Express can start reading again!)

So the middle is 90% smoke and mirrors to distract from the actual story.

But I'm beginning to suspect that the middle of a feature film (not just a mystery) is largely misdirection from the beginning and end--except insofar as it effects a change in consciousness for the protagonist. The middle is thus not entirely consequential for the ending, only indirectly through the protagonist's motives.

Take True Lies--one of James Cameron's finest films, IMHO.

There's one problem--in True Lies it's the marriage--which is then replaced by another, more interesting, glamorous, dramatic problem--something about spies, I forget what. (I think the spies almost literally fall from the sky to interrupt the marriage-fidelity-trust plot.) When the spy story is resolved, the characters are dumped back at the main problem again, which now looks different to them.

Or take The Wizard of Oz.

Dorothy's dog gets in trouble with Miss Gulch. Also Dorothy is bored in Kansas. No one truly listens to her. So she plans to run away. Now she'll run away or not, return home or not. But that story's immediately cut short.

The device of the hurricane and the dream then fulfills Dorothy's wish--as Freud tells us dreams and phantasies do, and as pop culture stories so often do. Dorothy wanted to run away but backed down. Now she's forced to run away.

That strangely reverses the problem: not how to get away but how to get home.

Thus in The Wizard of Oz, the problem in the middle is precisely the opposite of the problem at the beginning.

This points to a deeper aspect of aesthetic form: everything that leads away from something also leads to it. The part of the story that's distraction and misdirection, that leads away from the actual ending, is also in a sense a preparation.

That is: you can't just stick any plot in the middle. It has to relate in some substantive (and even formal) way to the beginning and ending story.

In The Wizard of Oz, many strange adventures ensue--talking trees, flying monkeys, etc. They have little to do with Kansas. They're mostly contrast. They make Kansas's problems seem desirable by comparison.

Dorothy gets closer and closer to her new goal (getting home) with the help of helpers who themselves will be helped--they'll all get their wishes in the end. But the putative solution (the wizard) in fact demands even more and harder work--attacking the witch in her lair.

With pluck and determination, the team succeeds. The final route home (the balloon) falls through. But it turns out all the adventures were unnecessary--more or less--save the change they effected in Dorothy's consciousness.

Indeed, the adventures mainly serve to give the characters what they wished for--which it famously turns out they had all along. The adventures serve as a kind of pretext for the characters finding out strengths they had in themselves which they might never have found were it not for the challenges presented by the middle of the plot.

Dorothy has been made happy to be in Kansas, unlikely to run away again--in part because all her fantastic adventures were abetted by the farmhands from whom she had been running away.

What I'm underlining is the way the middle is often kind of a dead end. It doesn't directly solve the initial problem, may have little to do with it, or it may be a fantastic reversal or just cover-up, a thicket in which the threads of the main problem are buried, reflected indirectly.

This are questions of story design--how do the parts relate--but also of narrative logic--what forces or causes one thing to lead to another.

But these are the kinds of things one has to think about to understand how the parts of the feature film hang together--which is in part by not hanging together.

--E. R. O'Neill

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Go Figure.

I've been mulling over a couple-few of questions lately.

One has to do with the mystery of the three- (or four-) act structure of the feature film.

Namely, what happens in the middle? How does the middle relate to the beginning and ending?

Second, how do the chunks of the middle cohere? What's their logic? A series of unrelated problems? One problem's solution begets a new one? What?

Finally, these all connect back to the controlling idea, the vision of the universe that's explored, revealed, assumed, yet somehow also confirmed by the story.


Many observers claim that the middle of a feature film consists of a series of 'progressive complications,' efforts of the protagonist to achieve a goal, perhaps getting successively closer or trying a series of different tacks.

Each of these ideas has its problems.

If it's just the protagonist trying to accomplish something, and then doing it, as many claim, then it's more or less just a wish-fulfillment--and thus not very interesting.

More often it's the complication that gets successively deeper, not the protagonist's actions. That is: things tend to get a lot worse before they get any better.

And the logic of those actions in the middle tends not to be just 'more and more,' but one thing happens and that causes a new problem to open up.

The other issue that's been on my mind is the view of the universe one finds in feature films.

I've written before about 'everything that can go wrong does.'

Or another one would be 'God doesn't close a door but he opens a window.' A man tries to overcome a terrible disease. And he does. But he loses a child in a freak accident.

Maybe that's just the type of 'mixed' ending I prefer.

And seeing a number of student films recently, I realized that many films can be typified by the sentence 'the world isn't what you thought.' That is: within ordinary reality, someone discovers that the world follows different laws than she thought.

All these things come together in--of all things--The Incredible Shrinking Man. (I know: go figure.)

Not that it's the greatest movie ever. But as a B-movie, it embodies movie-ness with a certain clarity.

Namely, the protagonist is more or less minding his own business. He's not even doing anything 'wrong.' And some passing radioactive something-or-other causes his strange condition of shrinking.

The world changes. In an unusual and thus watchable sort of way.

This opens up a series of adventures and challenges.

Some flow from the basic problem: he shrinks, so his clothes don't fit. He shrinks, so he's an object of curiosity.

Others follow from each other. He gets trapped in one situation, and the action that rescues him also tumbles him into another, worse situation. He escapes the cat, but only to be pinned down by the spider. That sort of thing.

The resolution is partly overcoming these obstacles. But the basic problem isn't solved at all! He's still tiny, tinier than ever--and getting ever more miniscule.

The 'resolution'--if it can even be called that--is that the new universe is the discovery. The problem is the solution. The positive spin on his terrible situation, the 'silver lining,' as it were, is that he's going to explore a brave new world: he'll become as small as atoms.

So even an old sci-fi B-film, even because of its simplicity and novelty, can show us a few things about how feature films work.

--E. R. O'Neill

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

How Memorable.

In the morning on my way to the office, I read the newspaper.

Yes, it's on actual pieces of paper.

Not a Kindle Reader. (Kindle as in flames? Yipes!) Not an iPhone. Not a laptop.

Actual pieces of paper a human being in a gas-guzzling vehicle flings at my door sometime in the early a.m.

I like it.

I usually finish reading the paper on the train. But then there are articles I'd like to 'clip'--but that I do virtually.

I get to the office, and when I have a moment, I grab the articles from the web site and save them (strictly for my personal use). I figure since I buy the paper, I deserve to keep a copy of an article or two.

But how do I remember which articles?

I use an age-old technique: mnemonics.

Legend has it a visitor to a party walked from room to room, and just after he left, the building collapsed. No one knew who all had died.

So the asked the man to remember. He couldn't. Until he imagined walking from room to room and place to place, and then he could recall all the people he had seen.

This gave the idea of topoi or topics--places (like the rooms of the collapsed house) you associate with different items, so a list, even a random list, becomes memorable.

My technique is similar. I just create a crazy image for each article, and then I link them together in a story.

A woman's cleaning her flooded house, and the fridge pops open, and there's a dead elk in there. The elk comes to life and smokes some Greek tobacco.

That points to three stories in the paper I want to 'clip' today.

All of which made me think of memorability.

In teaching screenwriting online, I've lately noticed that the actions in screenplays have a general and a particular side.

Athletes train. Rocky drank raw eggs and ran up some museum steps. Maggie in Million Dollar Baby is a waitress. So she takes home a leftover steak from work, practices her footwork while waiting tables, and uses the change from her tips to buy a speed bag.

The clever screenwriter made the training specific to the profession.

This also created memorable images.

It's really worth thinking about memorability in writing. Don't we remember certain images from movies very clearly? Certain moments from the story?

There's something about how a movie gets under your skin, into your brain. It's not just efficient--getting from point A to point B--it's memorable.

So taking one's story and then saying 'how would I remember this?' could be a nice way of going down that path.

--E. R. O'Neill

Creative Maieutics.

Maieutics is the Greek term for midwifery.

Socrates used it to describe his dialogical method--by which he could bring forth truth by interrogating an individual to disclose a truth hidden behind the individual's often faulty beliefs.

Not that we have to use Socrates as a model or accept his rather combative procedure. (Everyone else was always wrong, and Socrates could always convert their ideas into his. He asked a lot of loaded questions to trap his interlocutors. In short, Socrates is kind of a terrible examplar for finding truth through discussion--but let that be.)

Creative maieutics would be concerned with the creative process as a process of invention, discovery and shaping.

How does creativity 'give birth' to new things and ideas?

A particular focus here will be on writing in general, screenwriting in particular, and filmmaking as a kind of exemplar.

But almost anything can be an exemplar or emblem of the creative process. Indeed, creative thought can be particularly concerned with exemplars and emblems: what's in image for something, an emblem of it?

As a long-time student of acting I often feel that acting is the best exemplar of the creative process--because it leaves no physical trace or reside (except when filmed or taped).

The actor must always create the performance anew from inside herself. So the creative challenge and task is always foremost on the actor's mind.

--E. R. O'Neill