I’m sitting here at Mick’s Café in Pacific Palisades waiting for a poetry reading by a friend of mine, John FitzGerald, at Village Books down the street. Since I stirred my consciousness about multiple ways to structure a movie story, my mind has been flooded with ideas I want to relate. What better time than the present.
I wish to preface my thoughts with the caution that all of these ideas should be attempted only after becoming supremely adept at single perspective, beginning-middle-end story-telling. Ninety-eight percent of the books on screenwriting talk about basic structure. People who complain about “the formula” are either people who watch only studio-produced movies, or writers who haven’t yet mastered the form.
A word about form. Form creates boundaries. Without boundaries, a story can become unruly, tedious, and without focus. Any art form has certain rules – rules that can be “broken” only by those who understand the rules… with few exceptions. A master, then, doesn’t ignorantly break the rules, but transcends them and creates his/her own form with awareness. A craftsman fills a form over and over until the work begins to dictate an expansion or alteration of those boundaries.
On my website, http://www.raineyscriptconsulting.com/, I expound upon the fundamentals of screenwriting with my unique take on the construction of basic screen-story structure. I explain how theme and plot have a symbiotic relationship through the main character to create a single spine. Consider the spine of the human body. The vertebrae give you an overt structure, like a plot, and the spinal cord connects all parts of the body to each other as well as the psyche, like a theme. The key component of this plot/theme relationship and the controlling factor that drives the story forward and builds the character arc is the escalating succession of emotionally-challenging decisions that the main character makes throughout act two.
Once you have embodied the above practice so that it unfolds for you intuitively, you are ready to play with structural variations. The first variation to attempt is a dual-perspective story, or a story that has two main characters. In order to go there, I think it’s important, first of all to understand the difference between main character and protagonist.
Melanie Anne Phillips, creator of Dramatica: A Theory of Story, is the first that I know of to put forth this separation. Everyone in the Hollywood story factory talks about protagonist as the perspective character of a story. However, that is not necessarily the case in many movies. So, what is the difference?
The word ‘protagonist’ is a Greek word that implies a story function that drives a story. This is an objective element of a story that is represented by a leading character. Any story archetype is a story function – good guy, bad guy, sidekick, mentor, tempter, skeptic, herald, trickster, threshold guardian, shape-shifter, love interest, etc., all are story functions.
A Perspective Character, on the other hand, is a character through whose subjective eye we see the story. In most studio films, the Protagonist function is performed by the Perspective Character. The ‘check list’ that readers use to qualify your script demands that this be the case.
There are many award-winning films, however, where the protagonist does not carry the subjective perspective of the story. For example, review the following movies: TO KILL A MOCKING BIRD, PRIMARY COLORS, MILLION DOLLAR BABY, AMERICAN BEAUTY, THE BIG CHILL, GRAND CANYON, etc.
Then, there are movies that have multiple protagonists, such as TRAFFIC, CRASH, LOVE ACTUALLY, PULP FICTION, NASHVILLE, WELCOME TO LA, SHORT CUTS, SYRIANA, BABEL, etc. In the case of these multiple protagonist movies, the underlying theme of each becomes the ephemeral idea that unites the multiple stories.
In each of theses movies, who drives the story? Then ask, from whose perspective is the story told? As you will see, the character that drives the story is not always the character that carries the story’s point of view. I think that it is important to make this distinction when considering the construction of plot and theme. The Protagonist of your story will drive the plot; the Perspective Character will reveal the theme by virtue of his/her emotional arc and changing values.
Time to go to my poetry reading. More later…