The Lost Language of Story

Posted by Chris Soth on

Acts or Reels?

If you're like me, from your genesis as a screenwriter, from the very first screenwriting book you read, you were exposed to three-act structure - or from your first playwriting book, if you come from the theater. And if you're even more like me, you felt even then that something was lacking. And if you are me, you've always had a nagging feeling there must be a better approach to story out there.

Three acts? The first thirty or so pages in length, what your screenwriting book called Act One, is a long way to go without a landmark to guide you. And your reward for having completed that first part? Sixty more pages until you can come up for air again! After that marathon of Act Two, Act Three should be a breeze, just another 30 pages, like Act One!

And what is an act? Why is the second act twice as long as the first and the third? And if page length or count isn't the defining aspect of an act, then what is? That hardly seems like a standard unit of measure. Yes, it corresponds roughly to "beginning, middle and end," but how useful is it in guiding us in the completion of our story?

If you asked me directions for your trip from Los Angeles to New York and I said, "Take a left on the 10 Freeway, then bear right onto the Pennsylvania Turnpike," I'm guessing most of you would get lost. I think you'd make it to the 10, and if you did make it to the Pennsylvania Turnpike by some miracle, then you'd probably have a pretty good chance to finally see the Big Apple - but I think the odds would be stacked against you unless you have a phenomenal, freakish, savant-like sense of direction and navigation. In all probability, you're not going to make it. You'll probably end up stranded. Where? Somewhere in the vast expanse of middle.

There has to be an easier way, right? MapQuest wouldn't leave you hanging like that - there'd be many more steps and landmarks to guide you on your way.

Is crafting a story like taking a drive cross country? No, it's harder. It would only follow that you will need more guidance and landmarks along the way, that you will only benefit from breaking your trip or your story into smaller, discrete, more manageable pieces. Pieces that were not as overwhelming as the entire story, sections you could hold in your mind, stretches of road you could drive from point A to point B, that by virtue of their size were smaller and more comprehensible. And when you added them all up?
Your whole story is a living, breathing entity, greater than the sum of its parts.

Novelists have been doing this for years. One of my favorite writers is Cornell Woolrich, who started writing short detective and pulp fiction for The Black Mask, Detective and other pulp magazines of the 1930's and 40's, before becoming a published novelist. His most famous story is Rear Window, on which Hitchcock based his movie. Many of his longer works involve serial killers, and if you look at Woorlich's best novels, each chapter reads like a short story ending with a really cool and horrifying murder. Eventually, they're interspersed with chapters about the detective tracking the killer - until the two story lines inevitably intertwine.

So a novel's story could be viewed as series of chapters, or short stories, featuring the same characters in different phases of the same evolving situation.

And so could a movie.

Since the advent of film, movies have been shot, edited onto, and ultimately projected on reels. Each reel holds 10 to 15 minutes of film, and, you guessed it, 10 to 15 minutes of story. Filmmakers have always found it beneficial to think of each reel as a discrete portion of the narrative, a chapter in the story - on which the outcome of the larger story relies. The earliest films were only one reel long - most famously The Great Train Robbery, and later, there were serials like Buck Rogers, Rocket Man, Flash Gordon and Tarzan, when only one reel of a story line of several episodes was shown each week. In fact, some of the first feature-length films featuring these characters were these very same serial "chapter plays" strung together to complete a full narrative arc. And then, film began to want to tell longer stories.

And just like Cornell Woolrich and countless other short-story writers before him who wanted to work in long-form fiction, but were only acquainted with short form narrative, filmmakers used the same solution: just keep adding reels until you have a feature length movie, just put in more chapters featuring the same characters in the same evolving situation on which the main narrative relies. Six to eight of these reels featuring the same characters add up to a 90 to 120-minute movie!

This is how filmmakers - directors, their cameramen and editors - this is how they relate to narrative. They think of story in reels. And so did the old-school writers, the ones in The Writer's Building on the lot, kept on salary by the studios, writers like Ben Hecht and Frances Marion, toiling into the night, pounding away at their Underwood typewriters. But somewhere along the line, this approach to story was lost. The studios stopped employing writers, writers became independent contractors, and except for writer-directors, and some writer-producers, screenwriters were outside the system.

And this language of reels didn't leave the studios with the writers - it stayed inside the studio walls with the directors and film editors. There was no "apprenticeship program." Those who couldn't afford film school were forced to autodidactically seek information from books.

But the first books written on screenwriting were not written by screenwriters. And they unfortunately weren't written by these editors, directors or producers either. The first books on screenwriting were written to fill this commercial need and merely modeled on the only books on structure available - previously published books on playwriting. Do you see the significance here? The first books about screenplay structure were not actually about screenplay structure!

The writers of these books were encouraging screenwriters to think like playwrights, not filmmakers. It's as if a book on photography were actually teaching painting. Pictures are pictures, and yes, story is story, but eventually, to be a photographer, you've got to pick up a camera, and to be a screenwriter, you've got to think like a filmmaker. Not just think visually, but think of story the same way a filmmaker thinks of story.

And because these books didn't include this information, what do we have? A generation of screenwriters who do not know how to think of story as filmmakers.

There is a better approach. The eight-reel method of story was kept alive by Frank Daniel and the screenwriting programs he founded at Columbia and USC. Eight reels, sequences or Mini-Movies as I call them, adding up to the entirety of the story can still be learned and still help you in your journey from FADE IN to FADE OUT, and more importantly -- all along the way in between.

If I gave you eight landmarks along the way of your trip from Los Angeles to New York, do you think you'd have a better chance of getting there? Simple math says about a four times better chance!

What if instead of beginning, middle, end there were eight distinct steps, and even better, a unifying tension that got you from one point to the next in each of these sequences? And, once added together, these steps comprised the ebb and flow of story, the pattern that will help you not with one, not with two, not with specific genres and story types, but with every story, every time? The universal template of story, but worked out in more and more helpful detail.

If I told you that you would never be more than 10 to 15 pages away from a major plot beat or story-turning point again, would that stop you from getting lost in the middle? If you could tame the monster of Act Two by first breaking it into three or four little pieces, if I said you don't have to write an entire massive screenplay, but just 6 to 8 small chapters, would that change your life as a writer forever?

Could you be a filmmaker then?

This is the way filmmakers tell stories. This is the way movies changed story forever. The unique ingredient film gave to story after all that story has given to film. This is the lost language of story. It's waiting for you.

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