As I continually spout the gospel of story structure, the one argument that I keep hearing against it is: You can see the structure so obviously in the big action movies, and it’s boring. Well, as Jeremy Collier said in 1698, “The abuse of a thing is no argument against the use of it.” From structure comes freedom; without structure you simply have a mess. With structure you can begin to conceive and build bigger, taller, more complicated constructs. Simply stated, you cannot move beyond the form until you’ve mastered the form.
A good example of this concept is exemplified by Pablo Picasso. Before he could legitimately begin deconstructing art, he first had to master its structures and forms, which he did. Picasso painted many portraits in a photo-realistic style; he was a first-class craftsman. With this foundation, he was then able to move beyond the form. You cannot begin where it took Picasso ten years to get to.
The revenge story is a good example of a one-level, overused action structure that has been driven into the dirt. Someone is abused in some way, shape, or form and so they then take revenge. This is the basis of my first feature film, Thou Shalt Not Kill . . . Except. This kind of story always ends with the good guy shooting (or stabbing or blowing up) the bad guy. If I never see a film based on this structure again, it will be too soon.
But even in Thou . . . I attempted to take the story to a second level, which was inspired by Virgil in The Aeneid, “They are able because they think they are able.” Given that it had a strong basic structure, plus one level of subtext, I am still moderately pleased with the script. The production left a lot to be desired, but the script was fairly sound, so it’s not impossible to sit through.
For a story to be compelling it must be well structured. It also must be based on the lead character’s need or strong desire. Without these things, your story will be boring. Period. But just because you have them your story won’t necessarily be good or compelling. It’s still got to be a story that’s worth telling.
How do you know what stories are worth telling? Read books. There are a couple of standards around now that I believe are not even really stories but are being used in lieu of having a story. A popular non-story among independent filmmakers these days involves two wannabe filmmakers who come from back east to Hollywood to try to make it in the film business. They either make it, don’t make it, or end up making an independent movie in which everything goes wrong. Who fucking cares? If you have to resort to telling stories about filmmaking, particularly when you have so little experience in the field, you may as well wear a sandwich board that states, “I have no imagination!”
Another popular non-story is a person’s whole life turns out to be a TV show or their life is made into a TV show or they get stuck in a TV show. Basically, anything that has to do with TV shouldn’t be in the movies. I also think this is a reassurance to the masses that we don’t have to do or think anything special to be famous. Well, that’s not true and never will be.
This is simply an extension of what I term the “lottery mentality,” the concept being; I don’t have to work hard my whole life to make money, I’ll just have a fortune dropped on my head. As I heard a mathematician say recently on National Public Radio, “The lottery is an extra tax on the stupid.” He went on to say that one has statistically a better chance of finding a bag of money on the way to buying the lottery ticket than actually winning.
You have to work hard if you want to do good work. A good screenplay is not simply going to occur while you’re sitting in front of the monitor. If you haven’t thought your way through the story, nothing magic will happen in front of the computer. In fact, the sitting-in-front-of-the-computer part of screenwriting is one of the more minor aspects of the craft. I absolutely assure you that no subtext or thematic material will find its way into your script in front of the computer. If you haven’t thought the ideas up and figured out where they go in advance, they’re not there. If you do not know how to make a cake or don’t have a decent recipe at hand, ingredients will not magically appear in your mixing bowl. You must first decide that you need them then procure them. If you’re depending on them appearing of their own accord, you’re living in a dreamworld.
Writing is very difficult, more difficult, I dare say, than directing. While directing, there are numerous people around to bail you out if you’re screwing up: the Director of Photography, the First Assistant Director, the actors, the script supervisor. While you’re writing, it’s just you. Have you got the ability, or haven’t you?
The more I write the more clearly I see my own limitations. Being a film fanatic, I am very aware of just how far a writer can go with the screenplay form. If your lottery mentality goal is to make a million dollars, then you’d best stick to good guys versus bad guys, since this is what the knuckle-headed executives in the film business comprehend best. But, if you want to write a really good story, then you’d better get past white hats and black hats, and you’d also better move beyond the simple-minded concept of plot.
I’ve got shocking news for everyone in Hollywood: the plot is not the most important part of a story. It’s necessary, but not the primary consideration. Lajos Egri, in his highly useful book The Art of Dramatic Writing, defines plot as: “Something leads to something.” It took me many years to realize that this was not properly stated. Leads to isn’t strong enough; it must cause it. Something causes something.
As Lajos Egri, Syd Field, or Robert McKee (the screenwriting gurus who are all worth reading) will tell you, however, that story always comes out of the character. As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said twenty-five hundred years ago, “Character is fate.”
A friend of mine wrote a script where a long-haired hippy freak was transported to the land of dragons and wizards. “Why,” I asked, “is he a long-haired hippy freak?” My friend’s response was, “Why not?” Why not, indeed. Obviously, in the beginning it could be anybody. Then it’s the writer’s job to begin narrowing it down. Who would be the right person to be in this situation?
This concept was explained to me very clearly twenty-five years ago by my friend’s father, Inigo DeMartino Sr., a director and screenwriter in Mexico City throughout the 1940s and 1950s who wrote thirty-five pictures and directed seven of them. He said, “Big Bad Bart pulls out his six-shooter, slams it on the bar, and proclaims, ‘The next son of a bitch who walks through that door is a dead man!’ Now, whoever walks through the door is the story. If it’s Clint Eastwood, we have a shootout. If it’s Woody Allen, we have a comedy.” Who the character is, is the story. Even if you don’t have a plot.
I love the movie Barfly and it has no plot. But it certainly has an interesting lead character. The closest thing Barfly has to a plot is that, if you insult a bartender often enough, he’ll eventually want to kick the shit out of you. And, if you eat some kind of solid food before picking a fight with the bartender, you might actually win. Other than that, Charles Bukowski’s script is a “character study,” and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that if the character is interesting. An interesting character is one that is constantly developing. If you know exactly who someone is and exactly how they’ll respond, they’re boring. No, Henry Chinaski (Mickey Rourke) in Barfly doesn’t learn to stop drinking, but he does learn to eat before a fight and, because of that development, he wins. The next day, the beaten bartender (Frank Stallone) says to Chinaski, “You were just lucky.” Chinaski replies, “Yeah, but that counts, too.”
As a good example, I would imagine General George Patton thought he had himself pretty well figured out by World War 2. He was in his sixties and was one of the highest-ranked officers in the American military. You can damn well bet that he felt he had the right to slap a corporal without the slightest problem. He was wrong. So, in his final years as a soldier he got to learn yet one more big lesson, humility. Or how to eat crow. Just because a character is old and stubborn and tough doesn’t mean he gets to stop developing. And that’s what makes Patton such a good character. Then you add the Don Quixote subtext of him tilting at windmills, then the next layer of him believing he’s in a different time period than everyone else, and you have a great screenplay (by Francis Coppola and Edmund H. North). Does Patton have a ripping plot? Well, we needed to win the war, but he didn’t have to knock out the guns of Navarone. Patton is a character study, also with a darn good character.
The Guns of Navarone, on the other hand, is a plot-driven story and to me much less interesting because of it. The fact is, it has pretty good characters for a plot-driven action movie. Nevertheless, once you know whether or not they blow up the guns, you know it. Patton driving in a Jeep to the battlefront and suddenly pointing and saying, “The battle is over there,” when it’s clearly in the other direction, then ending up on an ancient battleground where the Carthaginians fought the Romans two thousand years ago will remain fascinating to me forever.
But, if you’re not going to depend on the plot, then your characters have to be good. A decent plot is not a bad thing to have, since deep, well-drawn characters are extremely difficult to create. Let’s face it, George Pattons and Charles Bukowskis aren’t lurking around every corner (thank God). When you start creating a character from scratch, you don’t have all of that history to fall back on. You have a blank page with nothing more than a name floating at the center of it.
More often than not, it’s a juggling act between plot and character. By having a plot, you automatically don’t have to create brilliant characters, hopefully just interesting ones, and it will do. That’s what The Guns of Navarone is, reasonably good characters with a snappy plot and the result is a pretty good movie. I personally think that is a hell of a lot to achieve, and it’s miles ahead of Die Hard or Lethal Weapon.
I’m not an elitist by any means. I don’t think everyone should be making thoughtful dramas and in-depth character studies. Somebody ought to be, but that’s a different issue. But we’re not even getting minimally acceptable straight entertainment anymore.
I watch a movie like the first Airport film with Burt Lancaster and Dean Martin in pure nostalgic joy. It’s not a minute too long, it has a great cast, snappy direction (by one of my heroes, George Seaton), and every single character is believable and interesting (except Dana Wynter as Lancaster’s shrewish society wife, who is there purely for plot purposes and kept to a tolerable minimum). We arrive at the main plot problem within sixty seconds of the front titles ending — a jet lands on a snowy runway, cuts the corner, and gets stuck blocking the main runway of a huge airport. Now on whom would this problem have the greatest impact? The general manager of the airport, of course, portrayed in a completely believable fashion by the great Burt Lancaster. It is not a haphazard decision who the lead character is nor any of the supporting characters, for that matter. In this case, however, it’s not the story coming out of the character, but the characters coming out of the story. In a plot-driven story that’s how it generally tends to be.
If you begin with the marines versus the Manson family, as I did with Thou Shalt Not Kill . . . Except, that’s a plot — Something (the marines) versus (or causes to come into conflict with) the Manson family. Since I decided very quickly that I wasn’t going to make Charles Manson or any of his family my lead character, it was then going to be one of the marines. Which one? Well, the toughest one, the one most ready to take command. Okay, it’s not Shakespeare, but I had reasons for doing what I did and fifteen years later they still make sense to me.
To say that the story always comes out of the character is to deny how the idea process usually works. Most people, myself included, tend to begin conceiving a story with, “What if . . . ,” which is a lead-in to a plot, not a character. If you’re trying to get to the store and you end up circling the block six times before you find it, you still found the store. It doesn’t matter how you managed to get to where you’re going as long as you get there. Lajos Egri, Syd Field, and Robert McKee may state emphatically that the story must come out of the character, but, since none these guys ever wrote a script that sold or got made into a film — let alone a good film — who cares what they say? I’ll stick my neck out and say that for most screenwriters in most instances, the character comes out of the story.
Either way, this can be the end or just the beginning. What if the marines took on the Manson family? There’s the plot. And the lead character is the toughest marine with a lot of battle experience. There’s the character. However, what if this tough marine ought to have taken command back in Vietnam but wasn’t allowed to and due to that everything went wrong — he got wounded and subsequently discharged? We now have a basis for the lead character to take command of something. We also happen to know that the Manson family is brutally killing innocent people and hasn’t been caught yet. Plus, we also know that three of the tough marine’s service buddies are coming to see him. I have thus set up a confluence of events that lead to an inevitable conclusion — the tough marine and his cohorts must take on the Manson family. If the story is indeed compelling in any way, it’s because it feels like it’s naturally compelled toward its inevitable denouement.
To personify the tough marine’s need to take command, I included the officer who had previously taken his chance to lead away from him. There’s also a love story and a separate, civilian buddy story, both of which tie back into the Manson story — the love interest ends up as a hostage, and the civilian buddy ends up as a victim. All of the loose ends get tied up.
The fact that I shot the film with almost no money didn’t help it much, but the script holds up. Sadly, however, this story could have been a metaphor for a bigger issue — the end of an era, when the dreams of the 1960s died, or some such thing. I could have also woven this take-command theme through other characters, but I wasn’t prepared to look that deeply at the time. Nevertheless, you can’t begin searching for metaphors or extensions of your theme until the basic story and character elements are worked out.
Since most contemporary action movies are entirely plot-driven and the characters mean nothing, the basic story structure — if it’s there — frequently sticks out like a sore thumb. The obvious story structure, however, is not the culprit for it being a bad movie. It’s probably a story that wasn’t worth telling to begin with combined with dull, unmemorable characters.
Story structure is not the answer; it’s more like a series of questions. It is simply a method for entering a formless place — the blank page. It’s like a flashlight in a dark cave — the light itself won’t get you out of the cave, nor is it any kind of assurance that you’ll in fact ever get out, but it will most certainly make trying to find your way out a whole lot easier.
”Every artist knows that there is no such thing as ‘freedom’ in art. The first thing an artist does when he begins a new work is to lay down the barriers and limitations; he decides upon a certain composition, a certain key, a certain relation of creatures and objects to each other. He is never free, and the more splendid his imagination, the more intense his feeling, the farther he goes from general truth and general emotion. Nobody can paint the sun, or sunlight. He can only paint the tricks that shadows play with it, or what it does to forms. He cannot even paint those relations of light and shade — he can only paint some emotion they give him, some man-made arrangement of them that happens to give him personal delight — a conception of clouds over distant mesas (or over the towers of St. Sulpice) that makes one nerve in him thrill and tremble. At bottom all he can give you is the thrill of his own poor little nerve — the projection in paint of a fleeting pleasure in a certain combination of form and colour, as temporary and almost as physical as a taste on the tongue. This oft-repeated pleasure in a painter becomes of course ‘a style,’ a way of seeing and feeling things, a favourite mood. What could be more different than Leonardo’s treatment of daylight, and Velasquez’? Light is pretty much the same in Italy and Spain — southern light. Each man painted what he got out of light — what it did to him.” —Willa Cather, Light on Adobe Walls