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I have been reading for screenplay competitions for more than ten years now. But over the past few years, I’ve been coming across a somewhat familiar familiarity and formulaic formality to more and more of said screenplays when it comes to how a story is written.
I’m not sure why. When I first started out reading, and for quite a few years after that, I would encounter some of the most amazing screenplays, screenplays that took chances, strived to be original, had a personal vision, and experimented, with glorious success, when it came to storytelling.
Much of this quite possibly was due to the rise of indie film in the 1990’s by people like Steven Soderbergh, Kevin Smith, the Coen Brothers and Quentin Tarantino. The cinema they created brought a breath of fresh air to the somewhat stale movie going experience that many felt was being produced at the time.
I’m not sure why things have changed since them. Or at least, there’s probably not any one reason for it. But at the same time, in talking to screenwriters and producers and agents and reading what they have to say on social media, I feel that a much bigger deal has been made over the past few years as to how a screenplay has to be structured and a story has to be told.
Note that I said “has to be”, not could be or might be, but “has to”, as in, this is the way you’ve got to do it or you might as well turn off your laptop and go home to the city you grew up in.
I find that this is usually summed up with the idea that a story must have three acts, with certain things happening in each act, even at specific times within said act, with a central character who goes on a journey, that is likeable in some way, and is more active than reactive, has a clear goal, and is different at the coda than at the fade in.
But I’m not convinced that this has been to the benefit of the art of screenwriting, or even the business of screenwriting (whichever one you think is more important or compels you to write).
In fact, I think this has more and more compelled writers into coming up with somewhat formulaic and bland screenplays that are more often than not predictable, and predictable from the moment the elements of the formula can be discerned.
But ever since film began, various writers, directors, producers and other sorts of filmmakers have experimented with different ways of telling a story, of structuring a film, of creating central characters.
And I thought I would share some of these in an effort to suggest to writers out there that there is more than one way to skin a cat.
Now, I know that many of you will find a way to take each example and demonstrate how it really fits into the traditional structure described above.
Well, here I’m going to be perfectly frank, or speak the truth and shame the devil as they say where I am from.
To quote Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive, “I don’t care”.
I don’t. I don’t really care whether in the end you come to the conclusion that there are alternative structures to be used in creating films that go against prevailing wisdom in the literature, or whether you come to the conclusion that the traditional structure outlined above is really much more malleable that one might have thought at first and that there are numerous variations to the original.
Either way is fine. I’m not going to argue it.
My point is that I think it’s time for writers to start thinking outside the box. And however you have to justify it to yourself in order to do it is fine….as long as for god’s sakes, you do it.
So with all that being finally said, following are a selection of films with different approaches to storytelling that are worthy of being studied.
I’ve tried to divide them into different categories, though there is some bleeding over and not all will fit comfortably where I’ve tried to place them. So if you feel I’ve put a movie in an incorrect category, it’s quite possible that I have.
MULTIPLE STORY LINES:
Basically, these are films that have more than one through line in some way, some of which connect, and some that don’t.
INTOLERANCE: LOVE’S STRUGGLE THROUGHOUT THE AGES: released in 1916 and directed by legendary director D.W. Griffith with credits for six or more writers (both credited and uncredited), Intolerance four different stories that are intercut; the movie jumps from story to story as each moves toward its own singular climax.
What makes it different is that the stories have no real connection. They all take place in different time periods; have different characters; different actors for each section; each through line is even a bit different stylistically.
The only common thread they have is theme, stories about man’s intolerance to man (it is believed one of the reasons why Griffith made the film is the accusations of racism in his film The Birth of a Nation).
So here we have a film with four different stories that are intercut, but have no connection plot wise.
As I said, this is an approach that has rarely been used since. Some films that have employed a structure with some elements of this are Cloud Atlas; The Great New Wonderful; and Melinda and Melinda.
CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS: This is a variation on Intolerance in that there are two separate through lines that have no plot connection. Woody Allen’s meditation on morality is in one through line about a married ophthalmologist who ends up getting his mistress murdered, while a second is about a documentary filmmaker who can’t understand why the women he loves is instead in love with a narcissistic, near sociopathic TV producer.
The two stories never really intersect until the final scene where both characters are at the same function and the two have a talk. However, their only connection is thematic, two pathetic characters who don’t understand why the world seems so morally neutral. From a plot standpoint, their stories remain completely separate.
Amores Perros; Three Colors: Blue, White, Red (in taking all three films together); Gomorrah; and The Great New Wonderful have some similarities with this structure. Mrs. Dalloway takes this a bit further in that the two characters never meet (Mrs. Dalloway hears about the death of the other character, but never really meets him).
FARGO/HEAT: These two movies are a variation of the above. In the Coen Brothers’ Fargo, a man has his wife kidnapped. Meanwhile, a local police chief investigates a murder that really has nothing immediate to do with the kidnapping, but it does lead her to the husband. In Michael Mann’s Heat, the head of a gang planning a robbery is pursued by a police lieutenant.
Here, though the two separate characters have their own equal through lines, the characters only meet once or twice during the story. The difference from films like Crimes and Misdemeanors is that each character’s though line in Fargo and Heat very much informs the other characters’ through line.
Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator also utilizes a structure like this. The two characters (Hinkel and the Jewish Barber) have separate through lines until one becomes mistaken for the other and takes the other’s place.
LONE STAR: In John Sayles’ story of a group of characters from a Texas town, the story is intercut between the past and the present. Each through line is different, but they do end up informing each other by the end of the story.
Mrs. Dalloway and The English Patient also has a similar structure. The Road, Aloy Adlawan and Yam Laranas’ Filipino horror film, covers three different time periods, and is told in reverse time order.
The Godfather, Part II, with it’s one story line in the present and the second in the past that dramatizes how Don Corleone got started is one of the greatest examples of this.
PULP FICTION: This is what I call a jigsaw puzzle picture. Like Intolerance and Crimes and Misdemeanors, it has more than one story line running through it at the same time, all intercut. The main difference is that each story at some point in the movie essentially intersects and impacts the other stories such that one is dependent on the others, more so than in the others listed above.
In other words, the stories and scenes are pieces to a jigsaw puzzle that when the last piece is finally put into place, you get a mosaic whole.
Other films that arguably have a structure similar to this is Go; Dr. Strangelove; No Country for Old Men and Babel.
GRAND HOTEL/ DINNER AT EIGHT: This is what is called an ensemble piece, stories in which there is no one central character, but a group of characters, each with their own through line, who constantly interact and whose stories often impact the others, though in varying degrees.
In the first, Vera Baum’s adaptation of a play by William A. Drake, a group of disparate characters meet at a lavish hotel, while Dinner at Eight, the 1932 version of George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s play, is a character study of a group of people who will all have dinner together.
This is actually a structure still used in movies quite a bit (though I rarely see it in spec screenplays). Other examples include Dormant Beauty; American Graffiti; The Rules of the Game; The Contract (1980); Crash; Love, Actually; Magnolia; and many Robert Altman films like Nashville and Gosford Park.
IF I HAD A MILLION/ DEAD OF NIGHT: This is a structure that has many different names: anthology film, omnibus film, package film. Lately, though, for some reason I’m unsure of, I hear the phrase portmanteau film, named after a piece of luggage that has many compartments.
This is basically a film that is like a book of short stories, each story usually complete in itself, connected in some way, sometimes concrete, sometimes vague. Appropriately enough, each usually has several authors. However, the stories are not intercut, but are presented one after the other.
If I Had a Million (the basis for the television show The Millionaire) is a series of stories about people chosen at random who are given a million dollars by a wealthy man (with the best stories being the ones with Charles Laughton and W.C. Fields).
Dead of Night is one of the most famous and influential, a series of supernatural stories told by the guests at a remote cottage with a wrap around story about a man who swears he’s been through all of this before.
Other examples of this include New York Stories (three films by three filmmakers: Woody Allen, Martin Scorcese—whose section is the best—and Francis Ford Coppola—whose section is almost unwatchable); Quartet; Trio; Lydia; Nine Lives; and Enormous Changes at the Last Minute.
In this story, a man is driven around Paris in a limousine. As he goes through the day, he applies make up and costumes and becomes a different person, enacting out several different scenarios (an old woman begging on the street; a violent crime drama; a boulevard melodrama; a tragic musical). He does this because he is being paid to do so by an audience that is never seen.
THE PHANTOM OF LIBERTY/ SLACKER: Both of these films (The Phantom…, written by Jean-Claude Carriere and directed by Louis Bunuel, and Richard Linklater’s Slacker) are structured such that one segment ends when someone else is introduced, whereupon the story then follows the new person. Each segment may or may not be a complete story in itself.
LA RONDE: Similar to The Phantom… and Slacker, in La Ronde, one of the many adaptations of Arthur Schnitzler’s play, the first scene is between Character A and Character B, the second between Character B and Character C, the third between Character C and Character D, until it comes first circle and the last character interacts with Character A.
This is one of those structures so unique to its origin that when anyone else does it, it’s referred to as a La Ronde structure.
In Tom Twyker’s Run, Lola, Run, a young woman rushes to help her boyfriend who has misplaced some drug money, but what happens to her is repeated three times, with a variation depending on how fast she leaves her apartment.
In Krzysztof Kieslowski’s earlier Blind Chance, a young man races to catch a train. The movie shows what happens if he misses it, if he makes it and if he misses it, but in doing so gets in trouble with the police.
This is a structure that has rarely been used in movies. Sliding Doors is an English remake of Blind Chance.
NEXT: Movies that employ Flashbacks