Monthly Archives: November 2012
The Screenplay: A New Paradigm
Gerard J. Hannan
Screenplays are visual. Dialogue is at a minimum. Words are not all that is required to explain the story. Pictures should do all the work. Movies, by definition, are moving pictures. Pictures that move. (Keane, 1998) Writing a treatment accomplishes many goals. Treatments reflect the intricacies of plot and subtext, conflict and resolution as well as character dynamics. They also present the tone of the story; whether ironic, wry humorous, melodramatic, romantic, mysterious, or eerie. (Halperin, 2002)
Treatments are the prose form of a screenplay and usually written in the present tense and, like the screenplay, represent the here and now regardless of the historical context of the piece. Treatments are not written in stone and must allow for the dynamic nature of writing; every project is unique. No hard and fast rules exist in treatment or story development and its development is an exercise in creative discipline.
A Treatment provides one of the best means for creating meaningful characters. The first step is to create a brief character biography containing sufficient information to explain why the characters acts and reacts the way they do. The biography tells us something about the professional, personal, and private life of the character. The biography should be one page long and not go beyond the moment where the story begins. Treatments, like biographies, are blueprints containing the necessary elements of the story but they are also fluid to allow for the creative process.
Creating the story begins with writing a brief outline which gives the story its structure. The classic structure suggests that most stories break down into three parts, three set pieces, or acts. In Act I, the protagonists are called to action; in Act II, protagonists take action (conflicts with antagonists); in Act III, the protagonists overcome adversaries and solve the conflict.
Structure is best defined as a rising line of dramatic action; “a linear development of related dramatic incidents resulting in dramatic resolution. Or, a sequence of accidents, each following inevitably on the heels of the preceding one. Call it a plot.” (Flinn, 1999). In linear art form, there is always a start, middle, finish, and Syd Field’s paradigm (there are others) as the map of how the audience gets from start to end is the structure.
Some stories change direction for no apparent or relevant reason and thus lack structure. Using Field’s paradigm helps avoid such an occurrence and focuses the story. The story must be introduced from the very beginning of the screenplay. The audience has to be grabbed very quickly. The audience must know what the story is about and whom the story is about. The first scenes, the exposition, set up everything that follows. “This entire unit of dramatic action serves to establish three things: who the main character is, what the story is about, and what the dramatic situation is, the circumstances surrounding the action.” (Field, 2005)
Once the basic direction of the story is clear the next step is the development of an outline called ‘beats’ which are defining moments in the story. These beats are also ‘megascenes’ or large blocks of action linking together smaller moments in the story in order to pull the whole structure together. (Halperin, 2002)
Beats provide a grand overview of the whole story indicating direction as well as important plot points. Megascenes become the first stop on the road to screenplay development. Whether a plot point is dramatised, told to the audience in narrative, takes place off screen, or is not in its rightful chronological order, don’t leave it out altogether. (Flinn, 1999)
When the writer is outlining the story, the steps are in the order in which they would progress in reality. A story seems more natural if one event grows out of another and characters are not believable unless their actions are properly motivated. Plot points are the stepping-stones that will carry the writer from start to end and these plot points must be believable in order to make the screenplay convincing. The driving force that makes the reader or viewer jump, along with the writer, from stepping-stone to stepping-stone is suspense.
The identity of a character cannot be revealed unless he or she reacts to a particular incident; the nature of the drama is to show the universal connection between all humans, regardless of race, colour, gender, or cultural differences. (Field, 2005) The first incident in the journey is called the ‘inciting incident’ because it sets the story in motion; it is the first big revelation and will draw the protagonist into the story. This incident serves two important functions: it starts the story and it grabs the attention of the audience. The ‘inciting incident’ is clearly distinct from the ‘key incident’; the latter affects both the internal and external aspects of the character and story.
Every good story has a problem that the protagonist must solve. In Act I the problem presents itself (Plot Point I); “the incident, episode or event that hooks into the action and spins it around in another direction” (Field, 2005) and the protagonist decides to deal or not deal with it.
Act II raises the excitement, or conflict or confrontation resulting from the protagonist’s decision; the hero faces enemies and by the middle of Act II the hero, reviews the problem and all seems lost (Plot Point II).
In Act III, the solution is discovered and the conflict is resolved. The most critical conflict is the ‘man against himself’, the villain within. (Keane, 1998)
Suspense is present in every successful script. Inevitability and predictability must never be confused. Suspense is created by inevitability being unpredictable. The audience must be surprised by the outcome of each event but must also be convinced that when it does happen it had to; “Inevitable but not predictable”; and in those four words lie the hardest thing to achieve in a plot, and easily the most important. (Flinn, 1999)
“Knowledge and mastery of the plot point is an essential requirement of writing a screenplay. They are the signposts, the goals, the objectives, the destination points of each act – forged links in the chain of dramatic action.” (Field, 2005)
A predictable outcome to any ‘what if’ scenario, facing the protagonist, does not make for an interesting story. Taking the predicted left turn may be the easy route but it is also the most boring. What if the character, accidentally or otherwise, takes an unpredicted right turn; what happens then? The story goes off in a different direction, which makes it even more interesting because new elements have been introduced. These ‘what ifs’ are plot points and they fill in the spaces between the beats or megascenes.
Whammies, high impact moments in the screenplay, are a concept designed for action films, but now applies across all genres. As many of these moments as can be fitted in are desirable. The more the merrier. Each must be larger and more spectacular than the last. (Flinn, 1999)
Plot points arise out of quandaries in which the protagonist finds himself or herself. They strengthen the character of the protagonist. New revelations late in the script are ‘cop outs’ and everything must be interrelated. New revelations can disorientate an audience; they must not be out of place and must resonate with the viewer and be within the context of the story.
Foreshadowing is a critical part of screenplay writing and accomplishes the feat of bringing in new revelations that will resonate. An early clue to a later revelation makes that revelation relevant. A new twist should create surprise but will only do so based on foreknowledge. Nothing satisfies the quality of unpredictability better than a turn in the plot that the audience does not expect. (Flinn, 1999)
Subtext, the unsaid, the underlying theme of the story, moves through the story with quiet determinism (Halperin, 2002) and only becomes apparent in the last part of the third act, which makes the film more satisfying. Screenplays are about something. That ‘something’ is the theme. The theme invokes a conclusion from the audience without lecturing them. The story, not the dialogue, should invoke the theme. “Keep in mind what you are trying to say.” (Flinn, 1999)
The scene is the most important element in the screenplay. It is where something specific happens; it is a specific cell of dramatic action – the place in which you tell the story. (Field, 2005) The purpose of the scene is twofold in that it moves the story forward or it reveals something new about the character. If the scene does not satisfy one or both of these requirements then it does not belong in the screenplay. A scene can be as long or as short as is necessary to relay the required information to advance the story.
Mega scenes and beats develop the intricacies of the story and lay down the foundation to expand the mise-en-scene, attitude of characters and subtext of the story. The treatment is an overview of these essential elements and a total comprehension of this fact makes for a perfect screenplay.
Treatments help to resolve enigmas that can be the downfall of any script. The story demands intricate plot and subtext to give the screenplay texture and substance. A good Treatment presents conflict and resolution as well as the interior and exterior workings of the characters, which becomes the guide through the complexity of creativity.
There is no formula for success but the use of the three-act-structure remains paramount in the development of the story. It is a set of rules that are worth learning. Setup, confrontation, and resolution, developing beats, plot points, and subtext are the primary elements that turn good screenwriting into excellent screenwriting. The treatment is the form that brings all these elements together as a cohesive unit.
Treatments are a most effective tool in the creative process; they provide a map across the creative landscape and are the first major step toward the creation of a screenplay; “the treatment becomes the searchlight cutting through the darkness and highlighting moments of drama and comedy necessary to illuminate the imagination.” (Halperin, 2002)
A screenplay is a story told with pictures, in dialogue and description, and placed within the context of dramatic structure. That is what it is; that is its nature. It is the art of visual storytelling. (Field, 2005) A screenplay has three acts, which are setup, confrontation, and resolution. This elementary paradigm brings the basic idea into existence.
A good screenplay is evident from page one, word one. The style and layout, the way the story is set up, the grasp of dramatic situation, the introduction of the main character, the basic premise, or problem of the screenplay must be all set up in the first few pages of the script. Most film studios demand a definite three-act structure that is no longer than 120 minutes, there are exceptions, and the general rule of thumb is one minute of screen time to one page of script.
The hardest thing about writing a script is knowing what to write but knowing how to do it is a simple straightforward process. It must be remembered that a screenplay is a guide, a sequence strung together with dialogue and description; it is the landscape of the dream. (Field, 2005)
The main character is the one the story is about; In a novel the action takes place inside the character’s head but the nature of the screenplay deals in pictures and is a story told with pictures, dialogue and description, and placed within the context of dramatic structure.
Structure in relation to screenplay is the relationship between the parts of the script and the whole of the script. A good script consists of the combined elements creating a whole script. The relationship between these parts and the whole determines the quality of the final script. Structure is the glue that holds the story in place; it is the skeleton of the piece. It is the paradigm of dramatic structure.
Act I, the beginning or set up, consisting usually of the first thirty pages of the script, the writer sets up the story, establishes character, launches the dramatic premise, illustrates the situation, and creates the relationships between the main character and the other characters that inhabit the landscape of his or her world. The first ten pages of dramatic action is the most important part of the screenplay. The dramatic premise established in these pages is what the screenplay is about; it provides the dramatic thrust that drives the story to its conclusion.
Act II, usually about sixty pages in a standard screenplay, and is held together with the dramatic context known as Confrontation. The main character meets obstacle after obstacle that prevents the ultimate accomplishment of the his or her main goal which is defined as what the character wants to win, gain, get, or achieve during the course of the screenplay. (Field, 2005) Conflict is the main ingredient of drama. All drama is conflict, without conflict there can be no action; without action, there is no character and no character means no story and thus no screenplay.
Act III, twenty to thirty pages long, is held together with the dramatic context known as Resolution. Resolution, in this context, means solution. Act III resolves the story.
Beginning, middle and end, setup, confrontation and resolution are the elements that make up the whole. It is the relationship between these parts that determine the whole. However, a further element comes into play to carry the viewer comfortably from Act I to Act II and on into Act III and the way in which this is done by is by the use of two primary plot points.
A plot point is defined as any incident, episode, or event that hooks the action and spins it around in another direction. The first plot point in a screenplay appears in the latter end of Act I, the second plot point appears in the latter end of Act II, and thus, each plot point carries the viewer naturally into the next act. Plot points do not have to be big, dynamic scenes or sequences; they can be significant moments of dialogue that will move the story forward towards the conclusion.
This paradigm is a form, not a formula for guaranteed screenplay success; it establishes the structure, which is what holds the story together. The quality of the story is dependent on the writer and the idea. Story determines structure but structure does not determine story. (Field, 2005) This paradigm works. It is the foundation of every good screenplay, the foundation of dramatic structure.
Every screenplay starts with an idea and a subject to embody and dramatise that idea. The subject is an action and a character; the action being what the story is about and the character is the one the story is about; it is essential to isolate the generalised idea into a specific dramatic premise, which becomes the starting point of the screenplay. Knowing what you are writing about is essential as you develop action and characters. If you do not know what you are, writing about then you cannot expect others to know. When an idea can be expressed concisely in terms of action and character then the preparation for the screenplay has truly begun.
Developing the idea is accomplished through research. The more you know, the more you can communicate. Once the idea can be expressed in a line or two then the research can begin. The dramatic structure is determined by the character’s dramatic need – what the character needs to win, gain, or achieve. The characters dramatic needs are sacred because it is this that holds the story together. Research gives ideas and when you begin with your subject, you must think action and character. There are two kinds of action and these are emotional and physical. The story is dictated by the type of action one decides is the nature of the story.
All drama is conflict and once the need of the character is created then various obstacles preventing the fulfilment of that need can be created. Keeping the viewer interested using conflict, struggle, and obstacles is the role of the screenwriter. These obstacles must always move the story forward, towards its resolution. Without conflict, there is no action. Without action, there is no character. Action is character. What a person does is what he is, not what he says. (Field, 2005)
A plot is the character in action. Four types of characters generally populate movies; the hero, the villain, the friend and the lover. The hero should be human with strengths and frailties, common imperfections that an audience can identify with. “A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself” (Field, 2005)
The best villains make the audience happy that nothing like this is happening to them. The villain is all-powerful and controls the story until the protagonist regains control. This means that the villain has control for two thirds of the screenplay, he engineers the plot and his desires conflict with those of the hero and this is the central conflict of the story. Characters, good and evil, should be the cause of everything and plot should be the effect, the characters should be in charge; they are the engines running the story. (Keane, 1998) Good characters are the core of good drama. The incidents one creates for the characters are the best way to illuminate who they are. To reveal their true nature can be accomplished only by action and not by words; their essential character. How the character responds to a particular incident or event, how they act and react, what they say and do is what really defines the essence of their character.
The friend is a reflection character and is actually the thought’s of the protagonist. The friend shares the hopes and dreams of the protagonist and allows the audience to know what the hero is thinking if and when necessary.
The romantic interest tugs at the protagonist’s heart and helps to demonstrate the human side of the hero or antihero. Their primary purpose, if not a main character, is to drive the hero forward and act as a “prime motivating force in the creation of believable characters.” (Keane, 1998)
To understand the characters, major or minor, it is necessary and helpful to create a brief biography for each one. Each section of the biography can be dedicated to a decade in the life of the character. The biography should bring the life story of the character from birth to now and use these ‘past lives’ to give substance to the dialogue the character uses in the screenplay. It helps the writer to know the character when it comes to dialogue or dilemma and how the character speaks or reacts to any given situation.
The biography builds the interior life of the character, the emotional life which allows the character to move and evolve in a definite ‘character arc’ through the story. The character will change as the story moves on; thoughts and feelings will have been altered. Creating the interior aspect of the character (what is going on inside) then the exterior portion of his or her story can be developed. This exterior aspect occurs during the actual time of the screenplay from fade-in to fade-out; regardless of the characters life span in-between. To develop the exterior in this way makes the character more real, believable, and multi-dimensional.
The best way to add realism to a character is to separate their lives into three different components – their professional, personal and private life. These areas of their private lives can be dramatised over the course of the screenplay. When composing the biography taking professional, personal, and private life into account it is best to do so without commonality with your own life. You are not your character. The character should remain active throughout the screenplay, he or she should be doing things and your character is what he or she does but, most important of all; know your character.
There are four main things, four essential qualities that go into the making of good characters and these are; dramatic need; point of view; attitude and transformation. The dramatic need drives the character through the storyline; it is their purpose or mission. This dramatic need may change through the course of the story and such changes usually occur at plot point one, the true beginning of the story. The dramatic need is the engine that powers the character through the story line. The main characters drive is the spine of the story. He or she is willing to do absolutely anything to accomplish his or her mission; break the law, kill, find new depths of courage and be willing to go to any lengths until they get what they want. That is the story. (Keane, 1998)
The second element of good character is point of view or the way a person sees, or views the world. This is the characters belief system. All human being’s, even fictional ones, have a point of view and that point of view is acquired through personal experience. The character believes in God or does not believe in God but either way it is his or her point of view. Knowing the characters point of view is a good way to generate conflict. Nothing progresses in a story except through conflict. (Keane, 1998)
The character’s attitude is their manner or opinion and is a way of acting or feeling that reveals a person’s personal opinion. Point of view is separate from attitude. When the basic core of the character is created but the distinction is academic; it does not really matter because the parts and the whole are really the same thing. It is only necessary to separate the concept in one’s own mind as they write the screenplay.
The element of change or transformation in a character is defined in terms of what is commonly referred to as the character arc. This is an articulation of a change in the nature of the character as a result of the events within the script. This transformation seems to be an essential aspect and adds another dimension to the character.
The writing of a screenplay is an adventure; one never really knows what will come out. As the screenplay develops so do the characters and the writer needs to trust his or her own ability to exercise the choice of action and direction during the ‘words on paper’ stage. (Field, 2005)
The dialogue the character uses is a function of the character’s depth as created in the biography. Writing dialogue is difficult and it serves two main purposes; it moves the story forward or it reveals information about the main character. If it fails in any of these functions then it is irrelevant. The result of preparation will be characters who are authentic and believable, real people in real situations.
The war between protagonist and antagonist is a major part of the story. The protagonist (the hero) is the centrepiece of the screenplay. They usually have some good qualities, some bad and usually the audience sees the events from his or her point of view. The audience should empathise not sympathise with the protagonist. The hero will always have helpers who are useful to the writer when the hero wants to express some inner thoughts.
The antagonist can come in all shapes and sizes and is normally, but not always, the binary opposite of the protagonist in every conceivable way. The antagonist helps move the story forward as much the protagonist does. The antagonist must get the same attention to detail as the protagonist. If the antagonist is an institution then it must be personified with an agent of that institution. (Keane, 1998)
In modern film, the device of a character having a single overwhelming characteristic is extremely popular and this is often because there is hardly time to develop a more detailed character. (Flinn, 1999)
Other popular traits include rebels, misfits, fanatics and those with a hidden agenda where the reason remains concealed until the climax. In the protagonist there should be something, buried deep inside that can and will motivate him or her. The character trait makes the character interesting and this trait can be expressed in dialogue.
A character that does not need something is going to be a very boring character. The tragic flaw that is a fundamental part of the protagonists character will give him or her two main conflicts to face. Firstly they must get to the point of revelation and the action of resolution. Both are difficult and painful journeys. The hero’s imperfections make them more human. (Keane, 1998)
The fundamental elements of storytelling are very simple. The events of the story take place at a crucial time in the protagonist’s life. He or she wants to reach their objective, by any means, as quickly and as painlessly as possible. This is the essence of a good story; how a character faces and deals with obstacles and whether or not these obstacles can be overcome.
The antagonists are those who oppose the protagonist’s success and are the creators of the obstacles using physical or emotional conflict. The protagonist must beat back the inner or outer demons otherwise; the story is not worth telling. (Keane, 1998) Originality and familiarity are essential ingredients in good stories; filmmakers are seeking original stories about real situations.
Screenplays are painful to read and nobody reads them for fun. Reading a bad screenplay can be excruciating but nobody really does it; they just get so far and then stop. The reader is usually a moviemaker who loves to make movies and not sit around all day reading scripts, especially bad ones. A screenplay is a blueprint for a film; no more, no less.
Selecting a title for the screenplay is a simple task. There are no good or bad titles. If the script is good, the title will be easily remembered. If the script is bad, the title will be quickly forgotten.
There is a finite number of stories and an infinite number of ways of telling them; “It is not what you write about but how you write about it” (Flinn, 1999).
Drama is conflict and conflict is drama. The screenwriter searches for ways to generate tension in the material. The writer always operates from the position of choice and responsibility. It is imperative to remember that the subject of the screenplay is an action and a character. Building the character, creating context and content, searching for a story are all part of the process. Create a character and a story will emerge.
Before one starts on the start of the story one needs to have an end. This may seem illogical but, in fact, it is perfectly true. Know the ending and work towards it. It may not be the final ending but it must be an ending. A new and perhaps better ending may come during the writing process, but at least have a basic ending before the writing process begins. If the writer is in doubt about how the story ends it is best to think of a positive ending. The purpose of art is to entertain; that does not mean everybody should live happily ever after but that the audience walk away feeling spiritually uplifted, fulfilled and satisfied. Resolve the story any way necessary but it is best to be positive and uplifting.
If the plot points in the story have a power then this power must escalate with each plot point. The drama must build up to the final climax, which must be the most dramatic point of all. His escalation can be anything from drama to character development. Not all endings are happy but all endings should have heart. If at the end of the piece, the viewer or reader is emotionally rewarded or affected then the story instantly becomes most attractive. Executives know that a film has a better chance of success if the story ends happily and the audience walks out of the theatre feeling good. An ending does not have to make you feel good, it just has to make you feel. (Flinn, 1999)
Many screenplays do not start quickly enough. It is very rare for more than ten pages to go by without the reader having a firm idea about the nature of the film. Ten pages are ten minutes and if the story has not started by fifteen minutes, it is already getting too late. (Flinn, 1999)
The first ten pages, also known as the exposition, defined as the information needed to move the story forward (Field, 2005). It is the setting forth of meaning or intent (the part of the play that introduces the theme and chief characters) and consists of delineation of the chief characters traits that are key to his or her motivation, the traits that will drive the character forward in the quest.
The exposition also sets out the theme or moral of the story but not reveal it. Exposition is associated with believability, probably the most important issue in the public acceptance of a movie, and final payoff. It is at this point that subtle seeds are sown. For something to be believable later in the script, it is imperative to sow the seeds of it as quickly as possible and the exposition stage is the best place to sow these seeds. By revealing facts at the early stage about the character or situation when it seems unimportant and using these facts later in the resolution gives more credibility to the plot than revealing facts in Act III for the first time. A simple rule; reveal up front, accept at end. Professional writing is distinguished by how something is disguised at this early stage in the screenplay. (Flinn, 1999) Finally, the exposition should demonstrate the style of the screenplay, no jokes if it is not a comedy.
The best way to open a screenplay is to know the ending. For the screenwriter the ending and the beginning are two sides of the same coin. (Field, 2005) When the writer is starting out he or she should know the resolution of the screenplay. Everybody dies, nobody dies, the bad person gets away, the bad person does not get away; the story moves forward; it follows a path, a direction; the line of development. The screenplay is the story of how the character gets there. The resolution must be clear in the writer’s mind; it is context, it holds the ending in place. To write a strong opening, the ending must be known. The story is a journey to a specific destination.
Most screenwriters have problems with endings. How to make it work effectively, so it is satisfying and fulfilling, so it makes an emotional impact; it does not seem contrived or predictable, so it is real and believable, not forced or fabricated; an ending that resolves all the main story points; an ending that works.
Nothing should be left unresolved unless there is good reason for doing so. In short, endings must satisfy beginnings (Flinn, 1999) and all conflicts introduced in the script must be fully resolved with the story fitting together. The final statement must satisfy the premise, the characters must drive the plot, the plot must be realistic for the characters, and above all coincidences must not be used to get out of a convoluted plot because believability is imperative. (Flinn, 1999)
Keeping this in mind the next question to ponder is what is the opening of the screenplay? How does it begin? What is the opening scene or sequence? The audience must be grabbed by the action very quickly; by page 10 of the screenplay is the general rule of thumb. This event is referred to as the inciting incident, which sets up the rest of the story.
The opening sequence must illustrate the nature of the story. The writer must know four things as he or she starts out; the ending, the beginning, Plot Point 1 and Plot Point 2, and in that order. These four events are the foundation stones of the screenplay. The reader must know three things within the first sequence the character; the premise and the situation or circumstances. The ending comes out of the beginning. Someone or something initiates an action and how that action is resolved becomes the storyline of the film.
Field, S. (2005). Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting. New York: Delta/Bantam Dell.
Flinn, D. M. (1999). How Not To Write A Screenplay. California: Lone Eagle Publishing Company.
Halperin, M. (2002). Writing The Killer Treatment. California: Michael Wiese Productions.
Keane, C. (1998). How To Write A Selling Screenplay. New York: Broadway Books.
“Structure is the prime element of film.” (Miller, 1984) “Screenplays are structure; that’s all they are. They are structure.” (Goldman, 1981) But, while the importance of structure is clear, interpretation is often less so. Syd Field’s ‘three-act-structure’ model is a perfectly natural device; not one that can be avoided by screenwriters. It is no more than a variation on the ‘start, middle and end’ model of all narratives. Using two films, Network (Lumet, 1976) and Magnolia (Anderson, 1999)it can be demonstrated that Field’s three-act structure; set-up, confrontation and resolution, is unavoidable and inevitable regardless of screenwriting and filmmaking techniques.
Network and the vast majority of Hollywood output are films with a classic linear story structure; send hero to battle, fire missiles at him, get him home dead or alive; it is a simple model, logical, chronological and embraced by the majority of film makers. The beginning, middle and end is the trusted template which defines American cinema. However, “a distinctly nonlinear structure has crept into Hollywood’s cinematic repertoire.” (Smith, 1999/2000) The emergence of films such as Pulp Fiction, Lone Star, English Patient and Magnolia do not use linear structure. But the question remains can the three-act formula be avoided?
Screenwriting expert Professor Robert McKee once described a story as a human being living a life that is more or less in balance; then comes the “inciting incident. The protagonist reacts, his life falls out of balance, and he now has had aroused in him a conscious or unconscious desire for whatever it is that will restore balance; “launching him on a quest for his object of desire against the forces of antagonism.” (Parker, 2003) McKee nailed the concept of the three-act structure that was the basis of debate initiated by Syd Field, an American writer and popular screenwriting guru.
Syd Field argues “The nature of the screenplay is as it has always been; a story told with pictures, dialogue and description, and placed within the context of dramatic structure” (Field, 2005). Field’s popular paradigm of three-act structure consists of set up, confrontation and resolution. Act 1, set up, we are introduced to the situation and characters and guided through ‘rising action’ into the main conflict of the story. Act 2, confrontation, is the continued rising action or conflict leading to the act conclusion or second plot point flagging the beginning of the falling action of Act 3, the resolution.
The three-act structure provides a framework to promote the story. Syd Field articulates, if you know the three-act paradigm, “you can simply pour your story into it.” (Field, 1982) Two narrated films demonstrating the paradigm are the linear plot of Network and the non-linear plot of Magnolia. In Network the sole-protagonist, a suicidal manic depressive desires to depose his network and is assassinated as he preaches the insignificance of individuality (Network, 1976). In Magnolia, a montage of several interrelated protagonists with ‘paternal issues’ are in search of happiness (Magnolia, 1999). Both films, with multifaceted plots, are ‘poured’ into Field’s model.
In Network Field’s paradigm functions logically; Act 1’s inciting incident is Beale’s dismissal and threatened on-air suicide resulting in increased ratings. Beale’s reinstatement by exploitative employers is plot point one. In Act 2’s confrontation, individual vs. establishment, rising action remains evident as Beale’s sanity deteriorates. He denounces television and encourages viewers against it; “…I’m not going to take this anymore!” (Chayefsky, 1976) Plot point 2 is Beale’s discovery of UBS’s acquisition whereupon he demands public intervention. Act 3, resolution, falling action, Beale is manipulated into believing in business not individuality. He broadcasts this ‘propaganda’ and is assassinated as a traitor.
Magnolia, a non-linear mixed-genre melodrama using multiple characters, camouflages variations on Field’s model. The fragmented narrative leaps through characters subverting structure expectation. Eight troubled characters have similar goals (restoration of happiness) and occupy the space of the protagonist; “The plot poses questions; what to do and what is outcome?” (Dancyger & Russ, 2007) In Act 1 each character is haunted by their past; “We may be through with the past but the past isn’t through with us” (Magnolia, 1999) the first plot point is a montage of conflict scenarios brought to conclusion in plot point two leading to final resolution.
In both films conflict is an inherent incompatibility between objectives of protagonists and antagonists; “Conflict creates tension by adding doubt about outcome.” (Roberts & Jacobs, 2010) Both films appear opposites which is not the case. Environment’s destructiveness is the target of both films; protagonists are guides through complex antagonistic situations. In Network the antagonist wins and in Magnolia the protagonist(s) win, as with all stories; “One side wins in the end, but the film’s closure reconciles the two” (McBride, 1996). The structures of both narratives are almost indistinguishable and outcomes are inverted. Field’s model works equally well in each scenario.
The elements of Field’s model are evident in both films. The films are bookended with prologue and epilogue. The prologue sets tone, introduces concepts and pulls the audience into the story. True to Field’s model Act 1, in both films, establishing ‘main tension’ sets up characters, dramatic premise and situation. The first plot-point; “anchor of the story line” (Field, 2005), moves narrative forward; in Network when Beale is reinstated his journey begins. All the major plot-points in Magnolia revolve around parents; the first plot-point is a montage of events beginning a series of complex emotional obstacles which characters must overcome.
A classical narrative is structured around scenes; “In a tightly structured script, each scene has a mini goal or plot-point that leads the audience into the next scene” (Garrand, 1997). Although we don’t always know what is going to happen; “the structural patternings set us up for how it is going to happen” (Blumenberg, 1990). The plot-points yield tension and maintain interest in the story. They take place in major or minor form throughout the story with “reversals tending to be major plot-points opening up the story and providing a broader spectrum of options for characters.” (Dancyger & Russ, 2007).
The context of Act two is confrontation; “what the character wants to win, gain, get, or achieve during the course of the screenplay” (Field, 1982). In Network there is relentless confrontation as Beale becomes “the mad prophet of the airwaves” at odds with himself, his audience and ultimately with his superiors; “You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, and you will atone!” (Chayefsky, 1976). In Magnolia conflict occurs as the protagonists attempt to silence their inner demons. Deviating from Field’s model a resolution is achieved in Magnolia in Act 2 climax, the second plot-point, and creates new conflicts.
In Act three paces pick up and no new elements are exposed. Resolution is achieved by story twists. In Network Beale commits suicide but does not pull the trigger. The narrator reappears to explain; “This was the story of Howard Beale…killed because he had lousy ratings.” (Chayefsky, 1976) In Magnolia the protagonists witness and casually accept a ‘frog rainfall’ with one protagonist observing ‘these things happen’. The prologue, a pastiche of ‘chance-events’ makes sense. Happiness is achieved through coincidence and chance. The narrator explains; “In the humble opinion of this narrator these strange things happen all the time….” (Magnolia, 1999).
There are other tensions in both movies. The subplots have tensions that can be mapped in three-act formula and beats; “pauses in dialogue altering how the protagonist pursues a goal” (Decker, 1998) which predict outcome. In Network most beats are unhappy; “I’m going to blow my brains out…on the air…in the middle of the seven o’clock news.” (Chayefsky, 1976) In Magnolia there are happy beats as when one protagonist announces; “I gotta clean my brain of all the shit I’ve done that I shouldn’t have done” (Magnolia, 1999). Within the beats are clues as to the outcome of the goal.
Both films have a complex plots. They interweave characters to demonstrate the strangeness and inexplicableness of life. Events, as depicted, may be strange but they can and do happen; “the events of the plot have to be not only plausible, they also have to echo real life events” (Dancyger & Russ, 2007). In 1974 an American television news reporter, Christine Chubbuck committed suicide during a live television broadcast (New York Times, 1974). Science has offered tornadic explanations for the phenomenon of frog rainfalls. (New York Times, 1901) The implausible becomes plausible by the conceptual scheme of the three act structure.
Both movies remain true to Field’s model; the main tensions are posed in the set-up, embellished in confrontation, and resolved in resolution using appropriate plot-points throughout the journey. The foreground and background stories are fully resolved there are clear winners. In Network victory goes to the antagonist and in Magnolia it belongs to protagonists. To sum up, the two films differ considerably. Network is a plot intensive story and never veers from the three-act structure while Magnolia uses background story over plot, creates believable characters and explores difficult emotional issues using a more complex, less obvious but parallel three-act structure.
Blumenberg, R. M., 1990. Cohesion And Fragmentation In Narrative Screenwriting. Journal Of Film And Video, 42(3), p. 61.
Chayefsky, P., 1976. Screenplays For You. [Online]
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Dancyger, K. & Russ, J., 2007. Alternative Script Writing: Successfully Breaking The Rules. 4th ed. Boston: Elsevier/Focal Press.
Decker, D., 1998. Anatomy Of A Screenplay. 1st ed. New York: Dan Decker Books.
Field, S., 1982. The Foundations of Screenwriting. New York: Delacorte Press.
Field, S., 2005. Screenplay: The Foundations Of Screenwriting. E-Book (9) ed. New York: Delta Books.
Garrand, T., 1997. Scripting Narrative For Interactive Multimedia. Journal Of Film And Video, 49(Spring/Summer), p. 68.
Goldman, W., 1981. Word Into Image: Portraits of American Screenwriters. Santa Monica, California: American Film Institute.
Magnolia. 1999. [Film] Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. USA: Ghoulardi Film Company/New Line Cinema/Magnolia Project.
McBride, S., 1996. A Twist In The Tale. Circa, 77(Autumn), p. 7.
Miller, W., 1984. The Matter Of Screenplay Structure. Journal Of Film And Video, 36(3), p. 35.
Network. 1976. [Film] Directed by Sydney Lumet. USA: Metro Goldwyn Mayer/United Artists.
New York Times, 1901. Rain of Frogs in Village Street.. New York Times, 20th July, p. 2.
New York Times, 1974. Talk Show Hostess Dies After Shooting Self On TV. New York Times, 16th July, p. 23.
Parker, I., 2003. The Real McKee. The New Yorker, 20th October, p. 5.
Roberts, E. V. & Jacobs, H. E., 2010. Literature: An Introduction To Reading And Writing. New York: Longman/Prentice-Hall.
Smith, E., 1999/2000. Thread Structure: Rewriting The Hollywood Formula. Journal of Film And Video, 51(3/4), p. 88.