I've been thinking a lot lately about Joseph Mankiewicz Letter to Three Wives (1949)--and about what screenwriters call "form" or "structure."
It's often said that screenwriters pay too little attention to form or structure. Meaning: they blurt out a bunch of scenes with no outer shape. But words like "form" and "structure" have too many meanings. If we separate off a few, we get a clearer view of the kind of work that artists do.
On the one hand, beginning screenwriters pay too little attention to things like cross-cutting, which can do a lot of work for you as a writer. Cross-cutting builds up comparisons.
- It makes contrasts stand out.
- It brings similarities to light.
- It builds up expectations: what will happen when these people being cross-cut meet--as we assume they do in movies, based on the supposition of relevance.
On the other hand, that kind of form is something like technique: how the pieces fit together which shapes their meanings.
And there are other kinds of form. The one most screenwriters know best is: three-act structure. That is:
- inciting incident,
- mounting complications,
- final resolution,
- likable protagonist
- who is wrongly harmed and
- has a problem to solve, etc.
This is a form, not form; a pattern, not structure. It's an ideal, a model.
This form may embody principles--injury creates sympathy, unsolved problems elicit interest and attention, etc. But it's just one way to shape a film--as one can shape dough into a stick or a loaf or a braid.
This is cookie-cutter form. This is pleasing-the-audience form--which can also be boring-the-audience form.
What makes movies similar is often less interesting than what makes them different. What makes movies different is something else. Specifically, there are two kinds of form that are very important for the artist's work--and this is true across media--and the realistic dimension of the content of the story is very much a bridge or mediation between these two kinds of form.
A realistic work of art like a movie has two key formal dimensions. One is outside and one is inside. In a very powerful sense, what the writer is doing is filling in a gap between these two dimensions.
- The outer form is the box and boxes that make up the work: the frames, the sections. These could be filled with different content.
For instance, Letter to Three Wives has a voiceover narration that discloses inside it a story of the main characters--people who live in an East Coast suburb, go here and there, do this and that. Within the story of the main characters, each of the titular three wives has a flashback disclosing a part of her story.
So Letter to Three Wives has a box inside a box, and inside that three more boxes which are sequential rather than embedded. Indeed "embedded" and "sequential" are the main kinds of 'boxes' I'm talking about. Maybe there are other types of boxes: flashbacks, musical numbers, times of year, kinds of books, crimes--whatever. I doubt there are many limits to the kinds of boxes a good writer could create.
What happens inside these boxes in Letter to Three Wives could be different: the characters could do this or that, live here or there, say this or that. But the 'boxes' would be the same.
But inside the work, there's another formal element: a nucleus of meanings or signifiers. In Letter to Three Wives, the central meanings have to do with marriage, being a wife, and social status in the suburbs.
For instance, the voiceover contains an essayistic reflection on social class in an east coast suburb. The town has a main street and a department store: the department store owner becomes a character. There's also a well-to-do street, a poor street (near the railroad tracks) and a middle-class street--where people are either moving up or down or staying put.
This narration then structures the story elements: the department store owner and workers, a woman rising from the poor to the rich without going in between; another wife has risen to the middle-class street; one couple is climbing through the wife's efforts to rise to the better end of the middle.
In short, social class in the town is a set of boxes that get filled in with characters and actions. The train tracks even become a sort of 'character.'
Another cluster of the 'realistic' elements have to do with marriage and the wifely role.
- Who's a good wife?
- Who's not a good wife?
- Is a wife a partner or a leader?
- Is a marriage a business arrangement or a meeting of minds?
All the realistic elements fill out the meanings of "marriage" and "wife" with different possible images, different possible meanings. There is similarity--they're a cluster--but there's also contrast. And since it's a drama, there will be choice and decision.
The film is also about a letter. The letter correlates with the voiceover narration, the outermost 'box.' And the voiceover and the letter spark the flashbacks within it, each of which is constructed clearly by the film as one woman's memory. So if we take "letter" and "voice" and "memory" as a constellation around speaking and narration, the film is strongly unified. It's no accident that the title of the film really contains the key meanings of the film. You could do it differently, but this is a very clear way to do it.
Thus the realistic content of the film--the stories of the wives, what each of them does, where they live, etc., expand a core set of meanings about social class, marriage, wives and storytelling. This is a very self-aware film, so the meanings cluster around what the film itself does--tell the story of a number of marriages in a way that's very aware of the role of storytelling and memory (which Mankiewicz of course loved).
In short, Letter to Three Wives has some outer boxes and some inner meanings, and all the realistic details of the story 'expand' the inner meanings and 'fill out' and embody the outer boxes, the outer and the inner being correlated.
In somewhat Hegelian terms, the realistic content of a work of art mediates between its external formal properties and its internal semantic core--which is itself just a set of signifiers or meanings which are organized like a concentric cluster, a constellation that fits together like the words in a crossword puzzle. The movie is a puzzle, and the realistic elements are somewhat like the clues: 'handles' which allow us to read the elements of the puzzle as having meaning.
The same could be said for a painting--even a nonrealistic one. The painter conceives the outer form--the surface's size and shape, the limits of the color scheme, the general segments of the surface, the foreground and background, etc.
Any number of formal elements can be organized or not, depending on the artist's purpose.
Within the painting, then the realistic elements must fill in the scheme the artist has devised, while also expanding on some set of meanings--which may be life in a bar, drunkenness, the Virgin's relationship to the infant Christ, life in the countryside, flowers in a garden as an embodiment of light and nature, etc.
Even a nonrealistic painting mediates between outer form and inner meaning, though the inner meaning is usually something about the technique and medium itself, hence about the artist's power. Drips or splotches may fill out the design of a surface and a color scheme while expressing freedom through action and the balance of chaos and order, as in the work of Pollock, to name only an obvious example.
The artist gives herself a problem to solve.
Art is rigorous. Today, despite decades of modernist formalism, we still tend to be romantic or capitalist: we either see artworks as external expressions of internal feelings, embodiments of semi-divine inspiration, the magical appearance of thought, or we see artworks as efficient tools for giving specific pleasures--fun action, touching tears, dreamy romantic machinations.
A better picture would be: the artist sets a problem of mediating between outer form and inner meaning using interesting techniques. Some commercial work is merely: lovely technique. Some 'experimental' work is merely: 'look at this formal pattern.' In works that involve people deeply, the conception is sometimes more important than the execution. And without the conception, the execution is either inert or merely killing time.
Writing teachers often tell us: have something to say, and choose an appropriate design. I'm merely saying: what appears to the audience is the relationship between the two.
--Edward R. O'Neill