Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Mythology Structure - Part 1

(SPOILERS:  Star Wars)

I’ve discussed three act structure frequently in this blog.  I find it incredibly useful, and it’s the language of the industry so if you want to work in Hollywood you better learn it.  But there’s another approach to structure I find equally useful:  The Mythology Structure.

The mythology structure is based on the work of Joseph Cambell who identified an archetypal myth that seemed to cross cultures and times.  I was introduced to the concept through the book “The Writer’s Journey” by Christopher Vogler who put Cambell’s ideas into a practical methodology for writers.  If you like what I say here, I highly recommend the book. 

There are other books and classes that cover the structure in their own way, some good, some less so.  I’m going to describe the concepts I find most useful and describe how I apply them in screenwriting, using Vogler’s book as my jumping off point.  Because the discussion is long, I’m going to break it up into several posts.  I’ll use Star Wars (written by George Lucas) as an example film.  Other films that clearly follow the mythology structure are The Matrix and Wizard of Oz.

I liked mythology structure because it’s a character based way to approach plot.  In fact, the structure is also called “the hero’s journey.”  It is really a structure based on character arc.

The mythology structure is a little different than three act structure.  It’s more flexible, for one.  Some of the stages can be left out or done out of order or repeated, for example.  Also, the journey the hero goes on does not always have to be physical.  It can often be a journey of the mind.  For example, in a romantic comedy this might be an emotional journey.  The stages are often more metaphorical than literal.  It’s important not to feel constrained by the mythology structure.

With all of that in mind, I’ll start with the stages of the hero’s journey that generally fall within Act I of a screenplay. 

Inciting Incident – Something happens that sets the story in motion.  In Star Wars it’s Luke seeing the hologram of Leia.

Call to Adventure – The hero is asked to undertake the journey.  In Star Wars Obi Wan tells Luke he should come with him to Alderaan to return R2D2.  In a romantic comedy it might be the main character meeting the love interest.

Refusing the Call – The hero’s initial reaction is often to refuse the adventure.  In Star Wars, Luke tells Obi Wan he can’t leave – there’s too much to do on the farm.  This beat of reluctance can show us what’s influencing the character not to change.  Often screenwriters will leave this stage out of their initial story development (and sometimes this stage is left out of the final movie).  I always at least consider what impact having the character refuse the initial call to adventure will have on my stories.

Acceptance of the Call – If the hero has resisted, something happens which changes the situation.  In Star Wars this is Luke discovering that his aunt and uncle have been murdered by Storm Troopers.  The hero can’t avoid it anymore… he is going to have to go on this adventure.

Entering the Special World – I think the special world concept is the most important idea of the mythology structure.  The hero is going to enter an environment that is unfamiliar.  It can be an actual location, an emotional state, or an ideological situation.  Whatever it is, it is going to change the character.  In Star Wars the special world is the adventure of outer space.  Luke enters it when he goes to Mos Eisley, which is a sort of outpost of outer space adventure on Tatooine.  In a romantic comedy it might be when the loner embarks on a relationship.  Identifying the special world in your script is crucial to understanding the adventure your hero is going on.

Meeting the Mentor – The hero meets someone who teaches him about the special world.  This stage often shifts position.  In Star Wars it comes before the call to adventure when Luke meets Obi Wan (the mentor who teaches him about the Force and the politics of the galaxy).  It can also come after the acceptance of the call or even after entering the special world.  In a romantic comedy, a mentor might be a best friend who is wiser in the ways of love than our hero.

Next post I’ll cover the stages of the journey that usually fall in Act II.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Structural Breakdown of "The Terminator"

(Spoilers:  The Terminator)

In anticipation of the upcoming sequel, here's a breakdown of the three act structure of the first Terminator movie, written by James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd.

Main Character:  This is a little bit tricky.  On the one hand, Kyle Reese is introduced first, he has a strong goal, and he is the more physically active character through much of the movie.  However it is really Sarah who has the biggest problem and ultimately it is her decisions that drive the story forward.  Furthermore our hope and fear is centered around Sarah's survival.  This makes her the main character.

Catalyst:  When the Terminator kills the first Sarah Connor.  This is the moment when the danger to our hero is crystalized for the audience, though Sarah doesn't yet know about it.  This sets up...

The Main Tension:  Will Sarah survive the Terminator?

Act I Break:  When Sarah learns of the second killing and then spots Reese following her.  She now realizes the danger she's in and begins looking for a way out - initially by seeking shelter in a night club and calling the police.  (Very quickly she discovers that Reese is not the one she has to be afraid of.)

Midpoint:  When Sarah and Reese escape the attack in the police station.  This is a crucial moment because it is when Sarah finally decides to trust Reese.  She went along with him earlier, but she didn't really have any other good options then.  It is here where she becomes convinced he's telling the truth... and that he's the only one who can help her.  This is demonstrated when she's hiding under the desk, hears his voice and identifies herself to him.

Act II Break:  When the Terminator locates them at the hotel.  Arguably you could point to the earlier moment when Sarah gives her "mother" her location because that is when the Terminator gets the information he needs to track them.  But there is some time where the threat does not seem imminent - in fact we get the big love scene after this point.  It still seems possible Sarah and Reese can avoid detection until the Terminator actually arrives.

Twist/Epiphany:  This one is tough.  It has to do with Sarah taking charge of the action.  I would put it at the moment when Kyle collapses and she yells at him:  "on your feet, soldier!"  You could also make a strong case for the moment he dies.

Resolution:  Sarah destroys the Terminator with the compactor.  The main tension is resolved - our character has succeeded.

So what makes this movie such a standout in the action genre that 25 years later a third sequel is coming out and a show based on it aired last season?  I think it's the strong dramatic components at its core.  Sarah's goal is as primal as it gets - survival.  And her obstacles are huge - the villain is called a Terminator and certainly lives up to its name.  She's facing a nearly indestructible killing machine.

And perhaps most important, Sarah is someone we care about.  Don't under value the scenes in the beginning of the movie where we see her at work as a poor put-upon waitress and at home with her roommate and pet.  Sarah's a sweet person, one who isn't having much luck right now.  She even gets stood up for a date.

The visual effects were stunning in their day and Arnold is certainly iconic, but it is our identification with Sarah and the threat to her life that makes the movie a classic in the action genre that still thrills today.

Thursday, May 14, 2009


(SPOILERS: No Country for Old Men, Spider-Man, The Sixth Sense, Casablanca)

I have to admit, this is a big concept that I’m still wrestling with. It’s obviously unsatisfying in a movie when you can figure out what’s going to happen before it happens.

But on the other hand don’t we actually know how most movies are going to end when we walk into the theater? In an action movie we know the good guy will win and the bad guy will lose. In a romantic comedy we know the movie stars will end up together.  Does anybody really think the Green Goblin will beat Spider-Man when they buy their ticket?

And the truth is, we want it that way. How many people would enjoy a movie where the Green Goblin DOES beat Spider-Man? A few, I’m sure, but not many.

So here are some thoughts on the unpredictability paradox.

First of all, let’s acknowledge that there are a few movies where the ending is actually a surprise (Usual Suspects, The Sixth Sense). That’s great when it grows organically out of the concept of the movie. But anyone who’s witnessed M. Night Shyamalan’s attempts to repeat the surprise element of The Sixth Sense knows that trying to force that kind of ending on a story is usually a recipe for disaster. And of course many of the greatest movies of all time end with the good guy winning and the lovers together so obviously surprise does not equate to quality.

Let’s also acknowledge, though, that not all good movies have happy endings. However I would suggest those that don’t aren’t always that unpredictable either. Take No Country for Old Men. Is it really a surprise that Josh Brolin’s character doesn’t get away with the money? How many movies have we seen where someone stumbles across mob or drug dealer money, tries to take it, and ends up dead? It’s actually the expected ending for a parable about greed and hubris that would sound familiar to Aristotle.

So how does the poor screenwriter deliver the ending the audience wants without being predictable?

The most common technique is to make the audience wonder HOW the hero is going to succeed (as opposed to WHETHER they are going to succeed). Typically at the end of Act Two you want the audience to be subconsciously thinking something like, “I know Spider-Man’s going to beat the Green Goblin but I sure can’t figure out how!”

You do this by putting your hero in an apparent no-win situation and then having him or her figure out an unexpected but plausible way out (and no deus ex machinas allowed!*) The more you can make it seem like all is lost, the more the audience will be on the edge of their seat – even if they know in their hearts that the hero will ultimately win.

In a romance story this is typically the moment where the love interest commits to the rival suitor or tells the hero that it’s finally over between them for good. In a horror movie it’s where the hero is trapped and defenseless with the monster closing in. In a movie that’s going to end badly for the main character, such as the prototypical gangster movie, the opposite happens: their success seems assured at the end of Act Two.

Somehow this is the most common – and often most satisfying – way for stories to work for the audience.

Another way to build unpredictability is to create a question in the audience’s mind around something besides success or failure. Spider-Man builds unpredictability through the sub-plot: will Peter Parker get the girl? And the ending in that regard is ultimately unhappy – yet we leave the theater satisfied because Spider-Man still beat the Green Goblin.

In every mystery the question isn't "will the detective solve the crime," it's "what's the solution to the crime?"  Can you imagine the outrage of an audience who went to a mystery movie and didn't learn whodunit?

That’s actually how Usual Suspects and Sixth Sense work. In Usual Suspects we see in the very beginning that Kaiser Sose will kill the hero, Dean Keaton – what we don’t know is who Kaiser Sose is. In The Sixth Sense the surprise isn’t the outcome of the main tension – can Dr. Crowe help Cole deal with the ghosts – it’s that Crowe himself is a ghost.

Now let’s consider Casablanca. I’ve heard it said that if Rick and Ilsa ended up together that movie would have long ago been forgotten. Perhaps, though there’s so much other good stuff in there I find that a little hard to believe.  So, is the ending truly unpredictable?

First of all, there is a robust genre of romantic tragedy where the lovers don’t end up together – Romeo and Juliet anyone? So it’s not actually that much of a surprise.

Secondly, if you look at the structure of the movie, it’s really about Rick’s redemption. And on that score the movie has a happy ending. The most important thing in the movie is that Rick does the right thing, not whether Ilsa gets on the plane. Would Casablanca be a classic if Rick had sold the letters of transit and let Ilsa’s husband be captured by the Germans (regardless of whether Rick and Ilsa ended up together)?

Of course a lot of the time when a movie feels predictable it’s not so much knowing the ultimate outcome that’s frustrating us, it’s that we can see each plot point leading up to it coming a mile away. I believe this is one of the key elements of the art of writing: controlling when the audience gets information.

You have to give them enough information that twists don’t seem capricious but not so much that they can figure the twists out ahead of time. You can’t underestimate or talk down to your audience but at the same time you have to make sure they can follow the story. It’s a balancing act for which there are no rules… just your talent.

One final topic that maybe deserves its own post: the difference between ambiguity and confusion.

Ambiguity in a movie is not bad. It can give your story moral complexity and a desirable unpredictability. Confusion, on the other hand, is bad. That’s when the audience can’t figure out what’s going on. You’ll lose them quickly that way.

In The Sixth Sense it’s ambiguous through much of the movie whether the ghosts need help or whether they are simply evil souls trapped on Earth. That ambiguity provides some delicious suspense when Cole first tries out Dr. Crowe’s plan for him to help the ghosts. Remember the scene when Cole goes into the blanket fort? Terrifying. We have no idea how that’s going to come out. Yet there’s never a point in the movie where we feel lost or have difficulty following the plot. We never once get confused.

Unpredictability, ambiguity, confusion. Difficult concepts to master, if anyone ever really can. But crucial things to think about if you want to be a good writer.

*Deus ex Machina is an old Aristotelian concept that describes a story where the main character doesn’t solve his own problem. It literally means “God in the Machine” because some bad Greek plays would have Zeus lowered in a basket at the climax to set everything right. We’ve known for thousands of years that that’s unsatisfying!