John Yorke ‘takes us on a journey to the heart of storytelling, revealing that there truly is a unifying shape to narrative forms…’
So says the burb on the back of John Yorke’s excellent book ‘Into the Woods: A Five Act Journey into Story’. I was on John’s ‘Writers’ Academy’ at the BBC where he introduced me to the five act structure and, as a visiting lecturer in screenwriting, I found myself telling my students about it.
I chose ‘Jaws’ as an example but you can pick virtually any good Hollywood film - although ‘Jaws’ fits the paradigm with sublime ease: in Act 1, the Introduction, we meet Martin Brody, the New York police chief who has re-located to a small island community but is afraid of water; in Act 2, the New World, he has to deal with a community under siege from a marauding man-eating shark; in Act 3, the Mid-Point, he realises that he cannot defeat the shark from the safety of dry land but must follow it into its lair, which is the thing he is most afraid of: the water; Act 4 sees Brody dealing with the consequences of the Mid-point as he, Quint and Hooper try to kill the shark; and finally Act 5, the climax, where Brody faces the shark alone, is triumphant and overcomes his fear of the ocean.
Were Steven Spielberg and his writers Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb aware that they were following the five act structure? Of course they weren’t. They were influenced, just like we all are, be the narrative heritage of the culture in which they grew up. Ours, whether we like it or not, is an Aristotelian/Shakespearean heritage.
But it does not offer us a unifying shape to all narrative forms.
“Their version of storytelling is different and it’s not based on Greek or Shakespearean storytelling,” said Hollywood producer, Bill Borden on the ever excellent ‘The Business’ on KCRW public radio with Kim Masters. He was trying to explain why ‘The Mermaid’, a story he originally pitched in Hollywood but which was eventually made in China, went on to become such a phenomenal success, grossing half a billion dollars – but only in China. The Chinese audience, which will soon become the largest cinema going audience in the world, is brought up on a different set of archetypes and narratives than a Western audience and that is why, Borden explains, most Hollywood studios are struggling to make an impact in there.
Chinese stories are more episodic and more mythic with certain archetypes repeated – the journey to the west, the creation of the gods, the monkey king, Borden says. And you don’t have to travel far from China to come to the biggest film-making country in the world: India. Their culture is different again: a simple Bollywood romantic comedy will stretch over three and a half hours and might become a thriller, an action adventure, or a murder mystery half-way through, because their heritage is vast religious melodramas. And you could go on and on, travelling the world, finding ever smaller communities, with ever more esoteric story structures.
In China, Korean and Japan there is a four act structure known as ‘kishōtenketsu’. Stories that follow this form have no conflict.
Imagine, a story with no conflict.
It would be nice to think there is one unifying mono-structure that all stories follow. But, of course, there isn’t. Every culture has its own way of telling stories, its own narrative heritage.
And this diversity is a good thing.
“What is Superman’s motivation?”
This question pops up now and again in creative writing workshops because knowing what the main character is striving to achieve and why is the backbone of any good story. Superman presents a conundrum: why does this superhuman alien while away his days trying to fix our mess? Two answers are always given to this question:
These answers are both wrong.
The crime genre aficionados amongst you know that every detective from Wilkie Collins’ Sergeant Cuff in ‘Moonstone’ to Sally Wainwright’s Catherine Cawood in ‘Happy Valley’ is fighting for truth and justice (let’s assume ‘the American way’ is to endorse robust democracy and the rule of law so is synonymous with the first two). Whether they do it with a razor sharp intellect like Sherlock Holmes or a dogged tenacity like Columbo they are all trying to catch the bad guys to see them punished for their crimes – just like Superman. But, and you don’t need to be an aficionado to know this, at some point in any good detective story the crime will become personal. Jack Reacher, Hercule Poirot, Sam Spade will all, at some point, stake their reputations, their relationships and even their lives on getting to the truth and they’ll do it for hubris, love and occasionally the greater good – but whatever their reason they’ll have a stake in the outcome.
Which is where, we assume, Lois Lane enters the fray.
In his infamous, unproduced, screenplay ‘Superman Lives’ Kevin Smith sums up Superman’s take on their relationship like this: “Yes, I do it all for the multitude. But when I save lives, or fight for the weak, I’m saving one life, fighting for one person – again, and again, and again. It’s her, don’t you see? She represents all of them - their hopes, their fragility, their passion. And if ever I feel like no matter how much I do, it’s not enough, I think of Lois. And then I’m off, faster than a speeding bullet…”
So really the two answers are one: Superman’s motivation is to fight for truth, justice and the American way because of Lois Lane. But there’s an unfulfilling myopia to this answer that’s borderline racist: we’re an indistinguishable mass to Superman. And it begs the question: if Superman had never met Lois Lane and he came across a child standing in the street with a car hurtling towards it would he let the child die? Of course he wouldn’t – he’s Superman.
In my opinion the puzzle as to what is Superman’s motivation has only been successfully solved once: in 1978 in a story by Mario Puzo, in a screenplay re-written by Tom Mankiewicz, in a film directed by Richard Donner.
Standing over Jonathan Kent’s grave, his arm around his mother, the rolling Kansas countryside bathed in afternoon sunlight around them, a young Clark Kent utters these words: “All of those things I can do, all those powers and I couldn’t even save him.” From that moment until the end of the film his motivation is clear and simple: on the day he first meets Lois he stops a bullet that would have killed her, he catches her when she falls out of a helicopter, he saves Air Force One when an engine is destroyed by lightening, he stops armed robbers and he catches a thief who falls off a building. Superman is doing for others what he couldn’t do for his father: he is stopping death.
But it isn’t enough to cheat death; he must defeat death and this is where Lex Luther comes in. It is a truth universally acknowledged that the antagonist of a story must be the equal to or stronger than the protagonist. Lex Luther is not the antagonist because he will never be stronger than Superman…but he can align himself with something that is: before we know anything about Lex’s fiendish scheme we learn that it involves killing a lot of people - death is coming, in a big way. As the story develops Lex (brilliantly played by Gene Hackman) taunts Superman that no matter how hard he tries he will not save everyone. And, it transpires, Lex is right: alone on a dirt road, Lois’ car gets wedged into a crevice and she is buried alive. Death has won. In a moment of pure rage, Superman defies his father, Jor-El’s edict that he should never interfere with human history and he turns back time. He brings Lois Lane back from the dead.
So the answer to the question what is Superman’s motivation?
Superman’s motivation is to defeat the only force in the universe that is stronger than he is: death.
In 1978 Superman won round one. I’m still waiting for round two.
(this post is about the cinematic interpretations of Superman and does not refer to the comics or the television series ‘Lois and Clark’ and ‘Smallville’ although comments and thoughts about these are welcome.)
“Orphans always make the best agents.”
says Judi Dench’s M to Daniel Craig’s Bond as they look out across the bleak Scottish Highlands to Bond’s family home, Skyfall. ‘Skyfall’ was a phenomenal success: the most successful film ever at the UK box office and (at the time of writing) the 16th most successful film ever made having grossed over $1.1 billion. To understand how extraordinary this is you just need to look at the Bond film that immediately preceded it, ‘Quantum of Solace’, which grossed less than half that sum, and the one that immediately succeeded it, ‘Spectre’, which grossed around $300 million less. And, of course, it is in a completely different league to the James Bond films that didn’t star Daniel Craig.
Some say it was due to the residual good will felt after the 2012 London Olympics, where Craig’s Bond escorted the Queen to Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony and they parachuted into the stadium together. Others that it was because it was Bond's 50th anniversary and some that it was simply the best Bond film with the best Bond.
I think it was because of the story that ‘Skyfall’ tells. The story of ‘Skyfall’ is summed up like this on its IMDB page: ‘Bond's loyalty to M is tested when her past comes back to haunt her. Whilst MI6 comes under attack, 007 must track down and destroy the threat, no matter how personal the cost.’
This is not the story that I saw. The story that I saw has been told many thousands of times in many hundreds of iterations. There are two famous versions of this story in the Western cannon: one in the Old Testament and the other is the foundation myth of Rome.
The one in the Old Testament tells the story of two brothers, Cain and Abel. As they grew up, Abel became a shepherd and Cain tended the land. When the time came Cain presented some of his crops to the Lord and Abel presented the first born of his flock. The Lord preferred Abel’s gift. This drove Cain into a jealous rage and he killed Abel.
The creation myth of Rome also tells the story of two brothers, Romulus and Remus. Abandoned to die on the Tiber River when they were young, they were saved by a she-wolf who suckles them and a woodpecker who fed them. They grow up to be natural leaders but instead of returning to inherit their ancestral home they decided to found a new city. But they argued about the location and in a rage Romulus killed Remus.
Which brings us back to ‘Skyfall’ and “Orphans always make the best agents.” The story that I saw was the story of two brothers vying for their mother’s love. The brother who expresses his love through a feigned indifference, who disappears for months on end, who breaks all the rules, the mother loves him and would do anything to protect him. But the older brother who does exactly what his mother says, who follows her orders slavishly, who would die for her is vilified and she doesn’t love him anywhere near as much as she loves his brother. And this drives him mad. He sets out to possess his mother completely and to do this he must kill his brother.
This is the story that I saw, an archetypal narrative - much like Joseph Campbell’s monomyth - that resonates across cultures because there is a version of it in every culture: the story of sibling rivalry.
“Reading leads to writing.”
So said the novelist Penelope Lively at one of the Folio Academy Sessions at the British Library. It’s an obvious statement: you’d be hard pressed to find any novelist or poet or playwright who didn’t have a long list of favourite books they’d devoured in their formative years. Personally, I read everything: one of my favourite novels is ‘David Copperfield’ by Charles Dickens which has a sublime opening sentence that sums up everything a personal history should be – ‘Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.’; a favourite contemporary playwright is Martin McDonagh whose play ‘The Pillowman’ I can read and re-read because it begs the question: Is this a work of genius or a work of madness? And a favourite poet would have to be Kipling because in his poem ‘If’ he sums up the struggle every artist goes through: ‘If you can make one heap of all your winnings and risk it on one turn of pitch and toss, and lose, and start again at your beginnings and never breathe a word about your loss;’
But this isn’t the case when we think about scriptwriting. We all have favourite films and TV shows that inspired us; films and shows that we watch over and over again because they resonate deep within us. But, as Robert McKee is fond of saying, what we watch is an interpretation of the original creative act – which is, as with novels, poems and plays, a writer typing out words to tell a story. Yet the millions upon millions of words that scriptwriters have produced over the decades have only been read by a few people. But scriptwriters don’t agonise any less than other writers about finding just the right words to evoke an emotion, to set a scene, to draw a reader into their world.
I have many favourite scripts but one that stands out is David Webb Peoples’ ‘Unforgiven (The William Munny Killings)’. One of my students in a script analysis class said it best: it was like reading a novel. So thoroughly and lyrically does Peoples’ draw you into his world that you actually forget it was made into a film starring Clint Eastwood because you start to image your own William Munny. In an interview Eastwood said he tried to play around with the script (that’s the director’s prerogative) but in the end he shot it exactly as Peoples had written it. Essentially it is a simple story well told.