Sunday, November 8, 2009

An (Epic) Tale of Two Epochs - Part III

Adventures in Storytelling

In the beginning, Aristotle discovered the beginning, the middle, and the end.

In the 'Middle Ages' that we find ourselves in, writers are discovering the end, the beginning, the middle, the end, and the ending after that.

In 'the end', we'll learn that 'the end' is only the beginning for a new 'ending'. Confused?

You see, the basics of storytelling tell us that the 'best' structure for itself, is written within three acts (beginning, middle, and end). And while there is certainly a time and place for this 'modern' approach to storytelling, 'post'-modernism is adding a fourth act and even rearranging the order of those four acts (i.e. X-Files 5x05 (Post-Modern Prometheus), Run Lola Run, Adaptation, The Limey, and LOST).

This extra act is just as valuable as the other three, and the rearranging of the order shows that we are not stuck to an all-or-nothing approach to life, as life doesn't always fit in to nice, neat, cataloged and categorized boxes. What used to be strictly an A-B-C order is giving way to C-A-B-C-D (or C-B-A-D-B-C-A-E), more and more frequently. But let's not digress too much.

Let's start with the basics, as Douglas Beaumont has laid out perfectly in the third chapter of his book, The Message Behind the Movie. Mr. Beaumont begins with the premise that there is a 'right' and 'wrong' way to tell a story. There are 'rules' to follow. But when you understand the rules and their purpose or function, you can then begin to understand how to effectively break those rules.

What separates a rebel from a visionary is that smart, progressive change comes about from those who first know the rules and when or how best they may be 'broken' for improvement. A rebel breaks rules at random, because it looks cool, sounds cool -- whatever -- not really knowing what rules exist. It's the difference between a rebel with a cause and one without a cause.

So, What Are Some of These 'Rules'?? 

1. Three Acts:
    Act One simply introduces us to the world and the characters within that world. It also serves as the informative Act that established the 'rules' and traditions of this world involved in the story (aka: the Setting). In a movie, this usually ends around the 30 minute mark.

      In TV, this ends after the first season (telescopic level) and about 1-4 episodes in to each season, including the first season (microscopic level). The over-arching plot extends over the whole series and has its own three acts to cover, while a season's plot has three acts to cover over 12-24 episodes, and an episode will have its own three act structure covering the plot of that episode alone.

      Act Two is when the Protagonist (The Hero - the person whom the story is about) begins to face the hurdles towards an end goal by which they aim to achieve or must achieve. The Antagonist tries to stop the Hero (aka: the Villain).

      In Warner Brother's new film The Box, the goal is set up that our Protagonists (husband and wife) have a box (given to them by the Antagonist). The Antagonist explains to the Protagonists that they may push the button on this box and receive $1,000,000. The catch is that if they do this, someone, somewhere in the world, will die.

      In shows like LOST, Protagonists and Antagonists come and go. For Seasons 1-4, this 'battle' seemed to be between Jack Shepherd (Protagonist) and John Locke (Antagonist). But now, half of the cast seems to be fighting the other half, with no one, clear Protagonist or Antagonist. Some form alliances, but there are several one to one face-offs going on simultaneously [1].

      Act Three is shortly after a climax has been reached (wondering at the highest point of tension, if the hero will succeed or fail in their mission). This is the shortest act of the three, lasting anywhere from less than a minute to 10 minutes [2].

      In a series (film or TV), the hero usually fails, or discovers a new challenge, several times through the story, so that the story may continue. But with each failure or succeeding challenge, there is almost always a minor conclusion to transition the audience in to the next chapter, episode or sequel.

      In an isolated story, Act Three is also known as the 'Resolution' to the 'Climax'. The problem with this term is that, even in a series, a season break, chapter break, or yes, even a commercial break, will still contain some form of resolution.

      2. Plot and Sub-plot: A Plot is mainly what we just covered. It's what the story is about, the summary that covers the Protagonist, Antagonist, Setting, etc.

      A Sub-plot is a mini-story (a 'story within the story'). While the plot of LOST is about a group of survivors from a plane crash in the South Pacific who must find a way home, an example of one of their sub-plots would include the romantic interactions of two or more characters (ie: the 'love triangle' between Jack, Kate and Sawyer). Another sub-plot example would be the individual elements slowly revealed about the island's mythology.

      3. Elements - Sights and Sounds: Beaumont adds elements as another rule in storytelling -- additional building blocks of story structure. I agree with this assessment.

      Sights include the scenery, computer graphics and animation (CG or CGI), visual effects (VFX), props and costuming.

      Sounds include dialog, sound effects (SFX), and music. Since 90% of a film is created in Post-production, one can see the importance to detail in getting the right look, feel and sound for a visual story in movies and television. Sounds are surprisingly the more important element. You might wonder why, considering movies and TV are visual, but the reason sound is more effective is because it can redirect your eyes to see (or not see) something the filmmaker wishes to point out or conceal with 'slight of hand'; or in this case, 'slight of eyes and ears'.

      4. Elements - Pacing (Timing):

      I wish to include this element with Beaumont's previous two. This is how quickly or slowly a story unfolds. Unbreakable took much longer to reach Act Two than Batman Begins, even though both are technically films of the Action genre. Both films illicit different reactions because of where the storyteller chose to reveal specific plot points.


      Now, having said all this, I think what Mr. Beaumont leaves out is that you may ignore everything that was stated and explore other means of revealing a story. Upon knowing these basics, it is okay to realize that it is only a starting point, not an 'unmovable foundation' that one must never betray.

      Let's take an example from Charles Dickens classic story, A Christmas Carol. The story's first sentence begins, "Jacob Marley was dead." (We're beginning with an ending... and from a story written in the 1800s no less!)

      In the same way, 'An Epic Tale of Two Epochs' (playing off of Mr. Dickens work, "A Tale of Two Cities"), must begin with, "Modernism is dead (or nearly so)." With this proclamation, it truly is 'the best of times' and 'the worst of times' [3].

      Nice, neat formulas are sadly fading, but exciting, mysterious journeys lie before us as well. One era must fade to black, for another to begin. Ecclesiastes tells us that there is a season (or time) for everything, including a time to be born and a time to die (Ecc. 3:1-2). Modernism has served its purpose and now, 'Post'-modernism will have its turn. Story, and Christ, continue on no matter the era. We will simply find new ways of communicating stories, and Christ through stories, that will shape and influence children of the new era.

      I predict as the three-act structure gives way to the Fourth Act, that new structure will one day give way to new ones as well. I know it doesn't sound concrete enough for a Christian who has held security in life being solely absolute for so long; or for someone wanting to learn storytelling, but above all 'rules', I think the only worth holding on to as absolute, would be:

      Nothing ever stays the same. No one season can remain forever. Therefore, constantly look for fresh, innovative ways to tell and re-tell both old and new stories. Remain forever vigilant, and never stay the same! That's as constant as it gets!
      In the next entry, I'll be covering Chapters 4-6 (The style, suppositions, and significance of stories).

      Next Entry: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Harry Potter - Part IV
      Previous Entry: Have You 'Read' Any Good Films Lately? - Part II

      [1] This cyclical 'three-act' structure and rotation of main vs. supporting cast seems to lend support for the Buddhist philosophy in much of the show's plot.

      [2] Unless you're Peter Jackson making Return of the King and decide to bore your audience with over 30 minutes of nothing but conclusion after conclusion, and tricking them in to thinking the film has reached its end about 20 times before the credits start to roll.

      [3] It's the worst of times because we're losing the 'concrete certainty of the Modern structures, but it's the best of times because creativity is no longer confined to the rigidity of those structures or any new 'Post'-modern structures that may follow. The Artist can finally do their job of constantly communicating the world through fresh and new means.

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