The Three Dimensions of Story
Posted by Jennine Lanouette on Wednesday, February 27th, 2013
Adapted from How Do You Know If a “Good” Script Is a Good Story? published on slated.com, August 2012
In screenwriting circles, there is a prevalent definition of “story” that goes like this: First you chase your character up a tree; then you throw rocks at him; then you get him down. My screenwriting professor in graduate school had a different one: Somebody wants something badly and is having difficulty getting it. Both have their uses. But I have distilled down the fundamentals of story to a definition of my own: You have to go from A to B.
It is the potential for a story to take us truly somewhere different from where we started that distinguishes it from simply a chronicle of events. That different place can be the triumph over an enemy, the solving of a mystery, the inner transformation of a main character, or a greater understanding about the nature of things. In the case of tragedy, it can be the demise of the main character or the devolution of society. We just need to know we have progressed somewhere, accomplished something or that a change has occurred.
To illustrate, if I asked you to tell me about your average day, you would likely give me a typical chronicle of events. I would then have a static, but perhaps useful, picture of what your life is like. This is going from A to A. You have described your day. But if I asked you to tell me about the highpoint of your day today, you would probably pick a moment in which you accomplished something or gained an insight or experienced something new. Then, to help me fully understand its significance to you, you would give me the events leading up for context and an event or two following for aftermath, and I would come away with that satisfying feeling of having heard an interesting story.
Not that there is anything inherently wrong with going from A to A. If it is your intention, for example, to present a rumination on the unchanging reptilian nature of human behavior – The Grifters being my favorite example – or to give an unvarnished exposure of a corrupt or tragic situation – most often found in social issue documentaries, such as An Inconvenient Truth – that can be a valid purpose. And, in the process, your audience can learn something important about the static situation you have described. But going from A to A is difficult to do well, and you’d be wise to have a good reason for it. If what you really want, on the other hand, is to tell a good story, you’d better get to B.
So how exactly does one do that?
In truth, the possibilities are endless, but saying so does not offer much of a road map. Happily, some reliable parameters do exist. The first among these is that most screen stories get to B via at least one of three different story types:
The plot-driven story: based in external action, where we see the main character play out his or her relationship with an immediate other (the “antagonist”). In this story, the B we are heading towards is the triumph over an enemy, the solving of a problem or the unraveling of a mystery. These are the action/adventure films, thrillers, detective films, war films, disaster films, etc.
The character-driven story: focused on individual human nature, in which we see the main character grappling with his or her internal obstacles (“the inner journey”). Here, the B we arrive at is a change within the main character. Mostly we find this in the serious dramas, although romance and comedy are also fertile ground for character transformation.
The theme-driven story: based in metaphor, which deals with the main character’s relationship to the world around him. Here the B we arrive at is a new understanding of the big picture – human nature, society, even the universe. A thematic progression can show up in any film, but the genre that is tailor made for it is science fiction and also social comment fare such as anti-war films.
But none of these need exist in isolation.
Quite the contrary. You want to mix them up — an action film containing a character dilemma, a character film in which something actually happens, a science fiction film that does more than create a metaphorically rich alternate universe. In fact, when skillfully interwoven, plot, character and theme stories naturally inform and enrich each other.
Consider how an action-packed plot can become infused with greater meaning when the external events also challenge the main character to grow in some way. Conversely, character transformation in drama is utterly dependent on the plot to make it happen. Likewise with theme. While a big picture idea is entirely dependent on the plot and characters to embody a metaphor, those same plot and characters will resonate more if together they add up to a new insight on human nature or life conditions. I like to think of it this way: Whereas character adds meaning that connects to my own experience, theme adds meaning that connects to the world around me.
So how do you know if you have a plot, character and/or theme story at work in your screenplay or film? You look for the A to B progressions.
Let’s take a familiar example: Chinatown, directed by Roman Polanski and written by Robert Towne. Just looking at the plot, we have a story about a detective, Jake Gittes, investigating a series of unfolding mysteries. At the beginning (A), he learns he has been set up in a scheme to discredit Hollis Mulwray, a public official in the Water Department. By the end (B), he has uncovered a plot hatched by Mulwray’s former partner, Noah Cross, to drive down land values by diverting water from orange groves so he can buy it up cheap and then build a damn to control the water supply. As is requisite in a detective story, the mystery has been solved. But for what? Nobody’s going to jail at the end of this story.
Now tracking the character progression, when we meet Jake Gittes, he is a cool, confident and calculating private eye, whose “métier” is matrimonial work (A). By the end, he is unsure, exposed, personally invested, traumatized and way out of his league, professionally (B). The character story consists of all the events that have brought him to this other emotional and psychological place.
Taking a step back to examine the thematic arc, we see the story of a small-time detective who, since dropping out of the police force to get away from corruption, has carved out a comfortable niche as a private investigator serving predictable but reliable cases (A) until his latest case leads him to a level of deep rooted political corruption, sexual deviance and unchecked power he never imagined possible (B). His understanding of the world has changed, and ours, too.
The theme story is made up of all the points along the way that take him deeper and deeper into the malevolence. In so doing, we are given a metaphor for all the unthinkable depravity committed throughout history. Thus, our overall sense of having arrived at B in this film is in the fact that something we know exists but would prefer not to face has finally been spoken of out loud in a way we can assimilate.
Notice that, within all this, we also have an A to A story. As we learn more about Jake, we see that, at the beginning, he is a former police detective who left the force after making a terrible mistake that caused a woman he had become involved with to be killed (A). By the end, despite all his effort to keep an impartial distance from his current client, he has become involved with her, which leads him to make a terrible mistake that causes her to be killed (A). Tragedy is a natural context for describing an unchanging circumstance.
To sum up: Pure plot can tell a story all by itself and, when done well, can create a highly effective diversion. But add a character story to the mix and you provide insights into human nature along with the thrills and chills, and, thus, increase your chances of making a film that rises to the level of a good story.
Put the two together to create a metaphor and you have the potential for concrete embodiment of larger ideas, which is what human beings crave when they eventually tire of superficial diversion. This is why films with strong metaphorical underpinnings are the ones that continue to absorb and fascinate us. Just as Jake Gittes will never forget Chinatown, nor can we, almost 40 years later.