“So if I’m not black enough, and if I’m not white enough, and if I’m not man enough, then tell me, Tony, what am I?!”
Screenplay by Nick Vallelonga,Brian Currie & Peter Farrely
“So if I’m not black enough, and if I’m not white enough, and if I’m not man enough, then tell me, Tony, what am I?!”
Screenplay by Nick Vallelonga,Brian Currie & Peter Farrely
A bigoted night club bouncer is hired to be the driver of an African-American pianist on a tour of the segregated deep south of the early 1960’s.
In what would turn out to be one of the more controversial winners in years, Green Book took home the Academy’s highest honor. Based on a true story, it’s a movie that, on its surface, appears to be a story of overcoming prejudice and learning to appreciate people as individuals and treating them with empathy became embroiled in controversy over its production, the misbehavior of some of the talent involved and disagreements over the portrayal of the real-life characters.
All of the controversy will serve as a backdrop for what will ultimately be this film’s story. It is forever relegated to the long line of “controversial” winners, which is a long and storied line in Oscar history, and dates all the way back the Oscar’s earliest years (I’m looking at you, The Broadway Melody). This debate will likely rage on for some time, and for my part, I’ll add to it by saying that I liked the film very much. I watched it before hearing anything of the controversy surrounding it, and on its merits, I considered it one of the top five films of the year. The acting was terrific, the screenplay was well structured and well-written, proven out by the fact that it won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. I felt the direction was subtle and nuanced in a way that captured the emotion of the film without being heavy-handed.
One of the criticisms of Green Book is that it’s essentially Driving Miss Daisy redux, and that point needs to be addressed. You can see my review of Driving Miss Daisy here, but in a nutshell, I was not a fan of that film. Sure, it was a feel-good movie, and it helped catapult Morgan Freeman’s career to levels it previously hadn’t seen, but it was not the best picture of the 1989, and if we’re being honest, it wasn’t a very good film over all. There were plenty of examples throughout the film where screenwriter Alfred Uhry and Director Bruce Beresford had opportunities to inject serious drama and tension in to the story and they always, always, and without exception failed to do so. As I pointed out in that blog post, it was almost as though Uhry and Beresford loved their characters too much to put them in uncomfortable positions. However, Green Book Director Peter Farrelly and co-writers Nick Vallelonga and Brian Currie had no such inhibitions.
Here’s a perfect example of the differing dynamics between the two films. There is a sequence in Driving Miss Daisy where Hoke has to drive Daisy to some relations in Mississippi. On the way, they’re pulled over by two state troopers, and after some initial back and forth where the officers chide Hoke for driving this car and ask where he got it from, despite the fact the Daisy is clearly sitting in the back seat, it’s determined that the car is Daisy’s and Hoke is driving her and the officers let them go before lamenting the fact privately between each other that a black man is allowed to drive a Jewish woman around without repercussions. That’s all. That’s it. There’s nothing more to it. Now, there’s a similar scene in Green Book where Tony (Viggo Mortensen) and Dr. Shirley (Mahershala Ali) are driving through Alabama and get pulled over by police on a rainy night. Since Dr. Shirley is African-American, he’s not allowed to be out after dark, and that’s why they’ve been pulled over. The lead trooper instructs his partner to pull Dr. Shirley from the car and some very tense moments ensue. The scene builds to a crescendo when the lead trooper insults Tony’s Italian heritage and Tony punches the cop out, leading to both of them being arrested. If you’re a screenwriter and you’ve taken David Freeman’s excellent course, Beyond Structure, then you know that the cop was “slamming” Tony. He was verbally attacking the very weakness that Tony has, leading Tony to react in the worst way possible.
So here we have two films that have similar circumstances and put their characters in similar situations, but handled those situations in wildly divergent manners. Driving Miss Daisy simply let its characters off the hook after a few tense moments, practically telegraphing to the audience not to worry because Hoke and Daisy are going to be just fine. Neither one of them needed to do anything extraordinary. The police, realizing Hoke and Daisy weren’t doing anything wrong, simply let them go. There was nothing proactive that Hoke or Daisy did that got them out of the situation. On the other hand, in Green Book, a similar encounter with police yielded vastly different, and much more dramatic results. The police were much more aggressive in this encounter. They were almost looking for trouble and they provoked Tony into being proactive. In fact, they provoked him into the most flawed trait of his character; the one that resorts to violence to solve his problems. In so doing, they put them into an even worse situation than he and Dr. Shirley were already in. Instead of allowing Tony and Dr. Shirley to go along their merry way, the stakes were raised. The next time we see them, they’re sitting in a jail cell with no reasonable expectation of getting out until Dr. Shirley uses his guile and his brain to get them out of the situation that Tony’s muscle could not, and had in fact made worse. The latter is a much better example of good story telling because it built the drama and the tension whereas the former diffused it.
Another reason that Green Book’s approach to this situation was better is because it forces the story to build in the next scene. Now Dr. Shirley and Tony have to figure out a way to get out of jail so that Dr. Shirley can make it on time to his next and final performance of the tour. In Driving Miss Daisy, Hoke and Daisy were simply on to her relatives’ home as though nothing else had happened. In Green Book, the stakes have been raised and now there is real concern on the part of the audience that they’re going to be stuck. Here’s where Green Book showed its superior depth by having Dr. Shirley chastise Tony for only resorting to violence and implores him to never lose his dignity. This line of the story will manifest itself during the climax when Tony has an opportunity to resort to violence, but that time Dr, Shirley is able to stop him.
This leads me to one of the controversies surrounding this film and that is its take on race relations. One of the criticisms is that Dr. Shirley needed a “white savior” and by focusing on Tony as the main character, we lose the full impact that southern segregation had on Shirley.
In fact, I found the opposite to be true, and I feel that point of view is short-sighted and misses some important context in this film. Certainly, there are a couple of moments throughout Act II where Tony has to come to Shirley’s rescue. Forgetting for a moment that one of the points that Shirley made when he first hired Tony to the job was that he’d need someone with Tony’s particular talents, meaning he needed his muscle in order to navigate the South, we have a symbiotic relationship between these two characters. Yes, Tony’s muscle is able to save Dr. Shirley a couple of times, a-la a knight in shining armor. But let’s not forget that the case could be made that Dr. Shirley saves Tony’s soul. Tony starts the film as a bigoted muscle head who is only marginally present for his wife and children. His simple background has stunted his intellectual and emotional growth, so he doesn’t know how to communicate with his wife and he’s reluctant to openly show her affection. After going on this journey with Dr. Shirley, and in true Hero’s Journey fashion, Tony returns to his Ordinary World a changed person with new knowledge and a broader point of view of the world. That notion has also been criticized as using Dr. Shirley as nothing more than a trope to assist Tony in his character growth. That is another short-sighted point of view because Dr. Shirley grows and changes as well. He goes through his own personal journey where Tony teaches him to be more comfortable in his own skin. Whereas Tony’s inner journey required him to accept a changing world and to be worldlier, Dr. Shirley’s was a journey of self-discovery and one where he needs to find his place in the world. He doesn’t need to shun his ethnicity, as he’s been trying to do his whole life. He doesn’t need to shun his sexuality, as he’s been doing his whole life. He just needs to be comfortable with who he is and to appreciate how he got here, and he wouldn’t have been able to do that if not for going on this journey with Tony. Dr. Shirly is not here just to motivate the change in Tony. Dr. Shirley goes through his own metamorphosis and is a different character at the end of the story than he was at the beginning. Ultimately, they end the story as equals, and equality is what we should be striving for.
With all of the controversy surrounding the film, it’s hard to say that they did. Spike Lee was apparently so angry at the announcement that he got up and attempted to leave the theater before the acceptance speeches had been completed. Others have called into question the film’s accuracy in portraying these events, as it was based on a true story. There were other controversies surrounding the production that I’ll not get into now, but I will say this. Green Book is a wonderful film, and compared to the other films that were nominated against it, it is at least as worthy of being recognized as the best film of the year as any of them. Spike Lee’s BlackkKlansman was a very good film that was also based on a true story. It was a tense, riveting and unbelievable, yet true story about a black man who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan. What keeps it a notch below Green Book for me is that John Stallworth, the main character, ends the film in much the same way he began it. There was little to no growth in his character and he had very few noticeable flaws. But it was an important film to be made and Spike Lee was the only director who could have made it. I understand why Black Panther was nominated, but I didn’t agree with the nomination. In fact, Black Panther wasn’t even the best Marvel movie to come out in 2018. The Avengers: Infinity War was more emotional, had better actions, more interesting characters, and was all around a better made movie. Vice tried to do too much and I believe Director Adam McKay tried to get a little too cute and tried to draw too much attention to himself, which was ultimately to the detriment of a fascinating story that included a sublime performance from Christian Bale as Vice President Dick Cheney. I was very disappointed with Roma, and found it to be underwhelming. Similarly to Driving Miss Daisy, it fell into the trap of approaching drama, but rarely paying it off. It was a year in the life of these people, and the character work was nice. It had beautiful cinematography and wonderful editing, but story-wise it was a mess. I loved The Favourite, and felt that Director Yorgos Lanthimos effectively channeled his inner Stanley Kubrick to give us a thoughtful tale with the hard lessons of being careful what you wish for. I was mildly surprised that Bohemian Rhapsody didn’t win. I’ve always been a fan of the music of Queen and I thought the film did a good job of dramatizing Freddie Mercury, who remains one of the great frontmen in the history of Rock music. A Star is Born was my personal favorite film of the year. From a pure production standpoint, it had everything that it needed. It had deep and compelling characters and it had a story that was both riveting and entertaining and ended up being emotionally satisfying, and it would have received my vote, had I had one. That said, I’m happy Green Book won. I liked it just a tick less than A Star is Born and the acting and storytelling in it made for terrific cinema.
Only if you love great acting, emotional storytelling and thoughtful narratives. Another criticism of this film is that it was clearly Oscar-bait. Well, if that means they tried to make a good movie, then they succeeded. This film is worth your time. It might not be for everyone, but it’s a rich story with characters that you can fall in love with and root for. Based on that alone, it’s worth your time.
“You see. This is where you belong. Above them all.”
Screenplay by Alejandro Inarritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, & Armando Bo
It’s not often that I critique documentaries on this blog. In fact, I’m hardly an expert on that style or type of film making, but Harold & Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story holds a special place in my heart. Lillian Michelson has been both a professional mentor to me as well as a close, personal friend, and Oscar-nominated Filmmaker Daniel Raim wrote and directed a fascinating film that alternates between a tender love story and a walk through 50 years of Hollywood history.
Full disclosure here. I met Lillian after Harold passed away, and I am honored to call her my friend and mentor. I often refer to her as my third grandmother, so I do have a personal interest in people seeing this documentary. However, that doesn’t take away from the fact that this is a superb documentary about two people who not only deserve to have their story be heard, but are also two people who earned the love and respect of some of the most powerful players in Hollywood. As the documentary points out, they were two of Hollywood’s secret weapons, but much of their work went uncredited. In this documentary, Daniel Raim attempts to provide Harold and Lillian with that long overdue credit. It’s not hyperbole to say that these two individuals, even as anonymous as they are, are two of the most influential people to ever work in the movie business. They worked behind the scenes, but as Raim shows in the documentary, their fingerprints can easily be detected covering hundreds of films.
However, if that was all that the documentary was about, it wouldn’t be all that compelling. What Raim did that made this documentary so compelling is that he added an emotional component in the narrative of the touching love story between Harold and Lillian. He showed how their budding romance that started in Miami traversed across a continent to Hollywood where it blossomed into a relationship that forged a family and inspired an art form. That emotional component makes this more than a documentary. This is an emotional experience from beginning to end, and it elicits emotional reactions throughout.
Another thing that I appreciate about this documentary, and another reason I think it works so well is that Raim weaved these two story lines together over the course of the documentary. They weren’t just two people in love who happened to work in the movie business. Their relationship inspired them to do great things. Whether it was Harold feeling the pressure to be successful because he was a new father and he needed to effectively provide for his family, or if it was Lillian fighting against the sexism of the time by becoming the most respected researcher in the business, Raim showed us who these people were as people, and not just as an artist or a researcher or a husband or a wife or a father or a mother, but as all of those things. We also saw not only how much they loved each other, but we saw how much love they received from the people that worked with them and knew them. It truly is emotionally touching to hear how Danny DeVito and Mel Brooks and Francis Ford Coppola, among many others, feel about these remarkable people.
But Raim also effectively showed the struggles that Harold and Lillian overcame, and we see that their lives were not just played out as a “Hollywood Romance”, but as a real marriage between two people whose lifetime of joy also had intermittent periods of sadness, heartbreak and other challenges. Their oldest son was born with autism, and Lillian had to figure out how to raise him in the 1940’s and 50’s when no one even knew what autism was, let alone how to treat it or deal with it in a compassionate way. We were also given insight into how the extra attention they had to give their eldest son negatively impacted their younger boys who felt like they were being neglected due to the amount of attention and care that their oldest son required.
We were given insight into a dark period of their lives after Harold broke his leg in an accident on the set of a film, and he wasn’t able to work for over a year. The depression that ensued was followed by a bout of excessive drinking, and forced both of them to make hard decisions about where their relationship was going to go. It clearly wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows for these two people, but they were able to overcome it because of the love they felt for each other, and that really makes this an inspirational story. They weren’t super heroes. They were just ordinary people who happened to be in love and that love was strong enough to persevere through a life time of challenges. That two such ordinary people could accomplish such an extraordinary thing should be as inspirational as anything can be in showing all of us that we too can have that kind of love in our lives and treat those we love with the same compassion and respect.
That is what makes this such an inspirational film. Harold and Lillian may have been among the best at what they did in an industry filled with some of the most talented people in the world. They were extraordinarily talented, but the most extraordinary thing about them was their humanity towards each other and to those that came in contact with them. As person who can be counted among them, I can say that my life is better for having known them.
So, if you’re interested in love stories and if you’re interested in cinema history, this is a documentary for you.
Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story is streaming on Netflix.
“…rest well and dream of large women.”
Screenplay & Book by William Goodman
RIP to you, sir.
“If a man is fool enough to get into business with a woman, she ain’t going to think much of him.”
Screenplay by Robert Altman & Brian McKay
I’m going to give you some hard truths about story structure, and try to impress upon you that, while everything you’ve ever been told about story structure is not necessarily wrong, there is a different way to look at story structure that makes sense both from a macro and a micro point of view. If you read this blog with any regularity, you know that I am an advocate of solid story structure, especially for unknown writers who are trying to break in to the business.
In order to avoid controversy, I’ve stuck to the 3-Act mantra, and you can go back through all of my blogs on the subject, and I always refer to it as 3-Act structure, except for one random blog I posted a little over a year ago. Then I taught a class on story structure for Stage 32, and I decided that I needed to speak the truth. As much as we want to believe what we’ve always been told, it’s time to accept the fact that stories are more often than not told in four acts, not three.
We’ve always been taught that the proper way to write a screenplay is to write it in three acts with the first act being 25-30 pages, the second act being 50-60 pages and the third act being anther 25-30 pages. The reason for that is because of the power of 3. Everything should have a beginning, a middle and an end. That makes total sense, and while there are exceptions to that rule, it’s easy to look at almost any mainstream American film of the last 90 years and see that basic beginning, middle and end structure.
However, there is a different way to look at it. I, too, had been told about 3-act structure in my early days of learning about screenwriting. Then, one day I started taking intermediate screenwriting at USC, and the instructor opened by talking about 4-act structure. He didn’t make a big deal out of it. He just started talking about writing your screenplay in 4 acts. “He’s gotta be misspeaking,” I told myself. Everyone knows it’s 3 acts. I had friends who asked me about his class after I’d been in it for a few weeks, because everyone knew that he was pushing this 4-act idea which felt very controversial to them, again, because everyone had always been told, “3 acts, 3 acts, 3 acts.”
Being an open-minded, non-confrontational, go-with-the-flow kind of guy, I thought to myself, let’s split the difference. It can still be 3 acts, but I’ve seen plenty of graphs and charts that show Act IIA and Act IIB, so it’s really no big deal. Then I graduated from USC and I got a job at Disney working on the feature, Atlantis: The Lost Empire. Now, Atlantis will never be mistaken for the greatest Disney feature ever, but it did show me that yes, movies can be told in 4 distinct acts, because Atlantis, whether directors Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale or screenwriter Tab Murphy, or anyone from the story team intended it, Atlantis is told in four acts. The Set Up. The Conflict / Adventure. The Consequences / Adventure. And the Resolution / Climax.
Milo Thatch is the Hero of the story and his outer goal is to find Atlantis. Well, he and his friends find Atlantis half way through the picture. In Act I, Milo is trying to convince the members of the board of the Smithsonian to fund an expedition to find Atlantis and is laughed out of the building. He then finds an eccentric billionaire who was friends with his grandfather and knows about the Shepherd’s Journal, which has clues that Milo is able to put together to determine Atlantis’ final resting place, and this billionaire has already put the team together. They just need Milo’s expertise. So at the end of Act I, the story changes direction as the adventure begins when they all board the submarine to find Atlantis. Then, at the midpoint of the film, they find it. The story changes direction again at the end of Act IIA (really Act II) as Milo now wants to learn as much about Atlantis as he can. That’s the definition of changing the Act. The story changes direction. Then Milo discovers that Rourke, the leader of the expedition has a much darker purpose for wanting to find Atlantis, the story changes direction again at the end of Act IIB (really Act III), as Milo now wants to save Atlantis, and we move into the Resolution / Climax of the story, which is Act III (really Act IV).
That got me to thinking about movies that I had seen and scripts that I had read, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that most screenplays really are told in four acts. I am a disciple of Christopher Vogler, and I have studied the Hero’s Journey extensively. In fact, when I read scripts for coverage, I often use the Hero’s Journey as a means of evaluating, and as a means of offering up suggestions for improvement. Looking at this Hero’s Journey graph at the top, if you were to extend the vertical lines, we would see that the structure of the story is actually broken up into quadrants. Quad obviously being four. The first act starts in the Ordinary World. It sets up the problem that the hero will have to face, and usually introduces us to most of the important characters. We also learn what problem or problems the hero will need to overcome. The second act is where the adventure begins, and the hero is facing that problem. The midpoint of the story, referred to in the Hero’s Journey as the Ordeal, is often where the original problem is either solved or some other problem arises. Another common refrain for the portion of the story is that this is where the stakes are raised. In Atlantis, the stakes are raised when they discover Atlantis. It isn’t the end of the adventure; it’ the beginning of a new one. As we’ll see shortly, in Raiders of the Lost Ark, they discover the Ark half way through the movie. If the movie was just about finding the Ark, it should have ended at that point, but now the stakes are being raised, because they have to keep it away from the Nazis. That is when we move in to Act III, where we have to deal with the consequences of those stakes being raised. This generally leads to the moment where the hero loses everything, or has some comparable low point, and we transition from Act III in to Act IV. Act IV is where we have our resolution and climax.
Raiders of the Lost Ark is clearly a film that is told in four acts. Act I, Indy learns about the Ark, and that the Nazis are searching for it. In Act II, Indy searches for the Ark, and discovers it at the half-way point of the film. Act III is all about Indy attempting to get the Ark safely into the hands of the Allies and out of the hands of the Nazis, however the act ends with the Nazis getting the Ark from him, but also kidnapping Marion. Act IV shows Indy as a changed man, who was previously willing to sacrifice Marion for the Ark, but now would prefer to rescue her over getting the Ark back from the Nazis. However, overcoming that character flaw allows him to do both, and the movie ends with him losing the Ark to the Washington, D.C. bureaucracy, but gaining Marion back into his life.
Another great example is Casablanca. A four-act feature in which each act shows a different aspect of Rick’s personality. Not only that, but Act’s I and II are transposed via one of the great flash backs in the history of cinema.
Casablanca actually starts in Act II. We have already entered into the Special World of Casablanca, and we start out the film being introduced to all of the wild and fantastical characters that live there. The Tests, Allies and Enemies portion of the Hero’s Journey starts the movie. We meet Ugarte, Renault, Major Strasser, Ferrari, but most important of all, we meet Rick, who famously will stick his neck out for no one. We learn that he used to be a warrior for justice and underdogs, but those days are past. He’s now a cynical loner, apparently bereft of feelings or emotion.
Ilsa’s arrival marks the Approach. Rick is now inevitably heading to a confrontation with Ilsa, and that confrontation will be the Ordeal, but we don’t yet know why there is tension between them or where it came from.
The Supreme Ordeal is wrapped around the flashback that takes us to Act I, Rick’s Ordinary World, which was Paris. We see his loving nature and good humor. He loves Ilsa, and he loves Paris. He seems to be a lover of life. However, all of that changes when the Nazis march into Paris and Rick thinks that Ilsa will leave on the last train out with him. However, all that he gets is a note from her, telling him that she can never see him again. With that note, the young, loving and idealistic Rick dies and is replaced by the cynical, hard-boiled Rick who only looks out for himself.
Part 2 of the Supreme Ordeal shows Ilsa giving Rick a second call to adventure by asking for the letters of transit that he’d gotten from Ugarte. Rick provides a second refusal. Now we’re in Act III as Rick starts to grow as a character. He still loves Ilsa, but his bitterness doesn’t allow him to forgive her just yet.
Act IV shows Rick back as the selfless person he once was. He chooses the path that’s best for others rather than himself, but is finally comfortable in his own skin.
One final example of 4-Act structure is A Clockwork Orange. That movie clearly is told in three acts with Alex’s Ordinary World being the one in which he spends his nights doing the old ultra-violence with his droogs. Act II begins when Alex is arrested for murder, and he’s sent to the Special World of Prison. Act III begins when Alex is selected to receive the Ludivico treatment to make him good. Act IV shows Alex, a new man entirely, returning home only to find that he’s not wanted by his family and friends, and the people that he wronged in the past are lusting for revenge. This leads to a powerful climax and poses moral questions that can only be answered individually by anyone who watches the film.
On a macro level, thinking of your story from this point of view should make it easier to write an entire script. Rather than thinking of Act 2 as a 60 page monster, you really should be thinking of it as two sections of the story, with each one having to change the direction of the story. Instead of 2 equal acts bookending a larger act in the middle, the story should be thought of as being broken down into 4 equal sections.
Not only should the overall story be broken down like that, but so should your scenes. Each scene or sequence is its own story with someone trying to accomplish something, and some person or thing or force of nature is trying to stop that from happening.
And if you were to analyze most films, you’ll find that they match this story structure. Are there exceptions? Of course, there are. However, the vast majority of scripts are written in four acts, and the most compelling and most interesting stories are told with that structure.
“Excuse me while I whip this out!”
Screenplay by Mel Brooks, Norman Steinberg, Andrew Bergman, Richard Prior, & Alan Uger
Anyone who has spent any time around my blog knows that I am an advocate for proper dramatic structure in a screenplay. This is especially true if you’re an unknown talent trying to break into the industry. Agents and executives are going to first want to know that you know the rules before they’ll trust you to properly break them. But there is a different and less arbitrary reason for making sure that your script is properly structured. That reason is that the script will just be better. You will have a better sense of the story while you’re writing it. Your characters will have clearly defined goals and needs, which will more actively engage the audience. And most importantly, the narrative will have a natural flow, which will turn your plot into a story.
That was a title of a recent blog post and you can read that one here. I’m harping on this because I’ve been reading a lot of scripts lately and almost to a man, the most common problem with all of them is that they either have no structure at all, or they have structure that is incomplete. The most common mistake is that there’s a clear break between Act I and II, but no break between Act II and III. The reason for that is often because the writer didn’t give the hero a clear flaw that caused her to hit a low point and lose everything then have to grow and change in order to truly win in the third act. A story feels incomplete if it doesn’t have an ending. All scripts end, but not all of them have endings.
With that in mind, here are four reasons why your script needs a strong dramatic structure.
How many times have you been watching a movie and you start realizing that the story isn’t going anywhere? There are things happening, but it doesn’t seem like there’s going to be an end to any of these means. The reason for that is probably because the hero doesn’t have a clearly defined goal, or even worse, there’s no clearly defined hero in the script. Doing a fusion of the Hero’s Journey as adapted by Christopher Vogler and Syd Field’s 3-act structure notion, along with my own thoughts on how the best scripts are told in four acts, look at the various stages of where a character should be in relation to the story. Act I is the Ordinary World and is generally where the hero gets her Call to Adventure. The hero’s world, which had been in balance until some inciting incident knocks it out of balance, must decide whether or not to do whatever needs to be done to get her world back into balance.
Act II begins when the hero Crosses the First Threshold into the Special World of the adventure. Most people get this right and generally get it to happen in the correct point of the script. It’s what happens after it that messes people up. The first half of the second act is a series of tests for the hero to go through, and that culminates with a midpoint of the story where the hero experiences the biggest test to date. Quite often, this is where the hero attains the initial goal. Indiana Jones finds the Ark of the Covenant. Luke Skywalker rescues Princess Leia. There are many examples of this, and the second half of Act II is generally the repercussions of that. Indiana Jones now needs to keep the Ark out of the hands of the Nazis. Luke and Leia have to get the Death Star plans to the rebels. Then Act III begins, usually with the failure of the hero to accomplish what he needed to in Act II. The Nazis get the Ark. Luke and Leia didn’t get the Death Star plans to the rebels in time and now the Death Star is threatening to destroy them.
Then in Act III, the hero overcomes that failure based on new things that she’s learned and she restores balance to her world, even though it will never be the same (for good or for bad) as it was before.
The consistent thing about that breakdown, was that in those examples, we know where the hero is in the story. We know that he’s working towards accomplishing his goals, and there is dramatic tension as the forces that are against him are trying to stop him.
What the above outline also does is it creates pacing and flow to the story. The natural flow of dramatic story structure, and particularly the Hero’s Journey, allows for ebbs and flows in the pacing so that there are moments of excitement and tension followed by moments where the story slows down so the audience can catch their breath.
When a story lacks structure, it also lacks pacing. The structure provides a clearly marked path for the story to follow, and without that path, the story merely meanders through a roughly defined plot. Audiences can sense this and will likely tune out if the story is too fast or too slow. Think about action movies where the plot is simply what happens between explosions. There’s little pacing to that type of scenario. It’s a fun ride, but often not a satisfying story.
Piggybacking on the first two reasons is story arc. This can mean several things, but generally it has to do with the various moods that the story puts you in or the internal thoughts that it inspires. It can be understanding the flow of the story what the hero needs to do to keep the story moving. Whatever it is, you can’t hang an arc on a story that has no structure because without structure, there’s no place to put an arc. Without that arc, it won’t feel like the story is going anywhere, and the feeling for the audience will get pretty stale in short order.
Finally, every good story, and I don’t care what genre it is, has strong thematic components. I don’t care if it’s action, comedy, horror, western, drama, or science fiction. If it has a good story, that means there are thematic components behind it. Generally, the theme is the lesson or moral or idea that they storyteller is trying to get across. A good story structure paces what the writer is trying to say in a way that reveals information and ideas at the proper moments in the story. Without that structure, the story is nothing more than a pool of ideas and there is nowhere to thoughtfully place ideas for people to consider, even subconsciously as they watch the film. There’s just a whole lot of nothing there.
At Monument Script Services, we pride ourselves on being experts at evaluating story structure, pointing out where it could be better and offering up solutions for improvement. If you have a script that you believe has a good story, but just can’t quite fit it in to the proper dramatic structure, we can help. Click here to see the different services we provide, and let us know which one would be best for you.
“Are we going to stand round here all day? Or are we going to fight?
Screenplay by Jane Goldman & Matthew Vaughn