Friday, April 13, 2012

Seven Stories That Rule The World

As some of you know, I've been dabbling in screenwriting throughout the past months. I'm really enjoying what I'm learning, through taking a 2-day workshop, joining a small bi-weekly writers group, and reading a book called Save The Cat! One thing that has been fascinating for me is the principle of Archetype: the pattern of storytelling. Although the Jungian archetypes are limited to five, the amount of archetypal transformations are innumerable. British literary critic Christopher Booker famously limited the variety of stories of the world to only seven. In the film medium, these are synonymous to movie plots, for which there are arguably ten. Yes, that's right, you have only ever seen ten stories told in a movie theatre.
Of course it's the same old story. Truth usually is the same old story.
-Margaret Thatcher
The reason I find this so fascinating is because stories themselves are the one thing that can penetrate our souls and give our lives meaning; and ironically, our connection points are limited to a handful. Storytelling is the art of giving meaning. This is why Jesus told stories. For filmmakers, a screenplay is the set of instructions on how to tell that story.

This is the reason why personal testimony trumps science, logic, and reason every time. As Christians, this is the best we have at our disposal for describing our experiences with God. This is the only thing that centres me when I'm in a crisis of faith. This is what I wish I had every time I meet someone else in a crisis.

There are few things in this world more satisfying to me than to see the following words appear on a cinema screen: Based on a true story. Honestly, it's not even because the events actually happened; it's because I know I'm in for something primal. I know that the substance of whatever the film, at its core it will grip me by my basic instincts and make me feel something. Biographies do, however—though they resonate with our beings—often need to be embellished for one simple reason: humans are detestable. Would you watch the rest of Pursuit of Happyness if it opened with the affair Chris Gardner had with a dental student that brought his son into the world? Or that he was still married to the first woman while he was living on the streets? Perhaps, but it would be harder to not think he's an asshole.
It's the scene where we meet the hero and the hero does something — like saving a cat — that defines who he is and makes us, the audience, like him.
-Blake Snyder
Truth is, it's hard to tell a good redemption story without a redemptive quality in your main character. And for this reason, Christians have a particularly hard time making good films. Theologically, we don't believe anyone has a redemptive bone in their body, and to show a full, true transformation of repentance, it makes sense to highlight this. Fortunately (and unfortunately), God cares for the person nobody else would care about (not even an audience), if we truly knew their private life. However, I don't believe you have to break your conscience by making your character likeable; transparency does not necessarily need to be exposed in the same order as transformation. In fact, I think there is a much better time to reveal the deep darkness of the soul.
If you love only those people who love you, ...what’s so great about that? Don’t even unbelievers do that?
-Matthew 5:46-47
The biggest problem in portraying your character/self as completely detestable is that nobody relates to or cares what happens to this person. In a feature-length commercial (sellable spec) screenplay, a good protagonist generally has about six things that need fixing. I think a good testimony follows suit; generally, a concise oral parable only revolves around one or two problems.

There is a basic pattern in storytelling called The Hero's Journey, given name by Joseph Campbell in the 1940s. This charts the transformation process of any given archetype, as told in myths and folklore. The journey is divided into eight steps:
  1. Miraculous conception and birth
  2. Initiation of the hero-child
  3. Withdrawal from family or community for meditation and preparation
  4. Trial and Quest
  5. Death
  6. Descent into the underworld
  7. Resurrection and rebirth
  8. Ascension, apotheosis, and atonement
Incidentally, when this transformation process gets translated into film, one archetype is not enough to keep an audience engaged. Therein lies the purpose of a B Story or subplot. To demarcate this visually, every great screenplay follows a structure called a beat sheet. It's a preliminary blueprint for screenwriters that guarantees writing credit. Instead of writing out chapter four from Save The Cat!, I'll just list the steps here:
  1. Opening Image (first impression of tone, mood, type and scope of film)
  2. Theme Stated (say what A Story is about)
  3. Set-up (what is the world of the protagonist)
  4. Catalyst (world gets knocked down)
  5. Debate (what's the hero supposed to do?)
  6. Break into Two (something big happens, antithesis)
  7. B Story (the "love" story, breather from A Story)
  8. Fun and Games (promise of the premise)
  9. Midpoint (false peak or false collapse)
  10. Bad Guys Close In (everything is in perfect sync, but trouble abounds)
  11. All is Lost (whiff of death)
  12. Dark Night of the Soul (hero pulls out best idea to save himself)
  13. Break into Three (hazaah! the solution)
  14. Finale (lessons learned are applied, A&B Stories end in triumph)
  15. Final Image (opposite of opening image)
Note the similarities between the two structures. If you can fill in the blanks for the first structure, you can tell a story effectively. If you can fill in the blanks for the second structure, well, you probably have the makings of a decent film. If not, why not? Every life is a story worth telling, especially the ones of failure.
I really haven't had that exciting of a life. There are a lot of things I wish I would have done, instead of just sitting around and complaining about having a boring life. So I pretty much like to make it up. I'd rather tell a story about somebody else.
-Kurt Cobain

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