Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Story structure in about ten minutes

I originally posted this on my myspace page.

Every film, creative writing, and theatre student at some point has groaned their way through Aristotle’s Poetics, usually in their first year of study. Like it or not, Poetics has been the storytelling model in the Western World for centuries. In a nutshell, Aristotle says this:

1. Poetry (or for our purposes, cinema) is divided into three main genres: tragedy, comedy, and epic.
2. Every poem has a beginning, middle, and end.
3. Tragedy (the genre Poetics focuses on) has six main components: ethos (character), mythos (plot), lexis (language), dianoia (thought or theme), melos (melody), and opsis (spectacle).
4. The most important component is mythos.
5. A successful tragedy has a pathos or emotional appeal that the main character should endure, either successfully or unsuccessfully.

So, what can we learn from this little lesson on classic rhetoric? We can apply Aristotle’s methods of storytelling to modern language:

1. All stories are made of characters, plot, and settings. All stories also have a purpose, whether it is to teach or entertain.
2. Stories by nature have audiences.
3. The most important element of ANY script or film is the PLOT. Without a plot, there is no story.
4. The next most important element is character.
5. For a story to be successful, something has to happen to our character, a conflict.
6. Stories have an introduction, build-up, a climax, and a resolution, as well as smaller plot points. This is usually called the Three-Act Structure. A diagram is below.

The largest portion of your story will be the build-up to the climax. Usually the character will face more obstacles, making his/her ultimate goal less obtainable. Other subtexts may occur (which would be the thought and theme part).

Many screenwriters and filmmakers focus too much on character, usually believing that their interesting characters will make up for their lack of plot. Usually this concept is false. While there is a thing such as a “character-driven story,” we are reminded that Aristotle says something has to happen to that character in order to hold the audience’s interest. It is more successful to have a thrilling plot and almost no characters, than vise versa.

The best examples I can give are the films of one of the great cinema masters: Sergei Eisenstein. Soviet films are usually devoid of individual characters (kind of a Communist aesthetic). My favorite Eisenstein film is Strike!

Strike! has an excellent plot and almost no individual characters. The “characters” are the striking factory workers and the proletariat (as a unit) and the bourgeois ruling class (as a unit). The factory workers meet in secret about forming unions and striking for better working conditions. They are move to strike when one of their own is accused of stealing factory equipment. He is told the missing equipment will come out of his salary—which he cannot afford—and he hangs himself in grief. Check it out when you can.

Happy filmmaking!

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