Partial re-post of the interview from The Writers Store, click to read the full interview
How much thought do you think writers should invest in terms of tracking the broad strokes of the protagonist’s emotional journey when structuring the story?
In all my screenwriting courses and workshops around the world, I’ve read thousands and thousands of screenplays. Exactly how many, I really don’t know. I lost count many years ago. But no matter what country or city I happen to be in, I am usually asked the same question over and over again: what do I find to be the biggest and most common problem of screenwriters?
1. Make sure your characters and story are set up within the first ten pages. Did you introduce your main character(s), establish the dramatic premise, and indicate the dramatic situation, the circumstances surrounding the main character?
Make no mistake; pitching is an art. Every screenplay begins with an idea and if you want to write a screenplay based on your idea, then the chances are you’re going to have to pitch it to someone; it could be a producer, a director, a production executive, an agent or anyone in the business.
A few weeks ago, during one of my screenwriting workshops, a student turned in pages from her screenplay with a worried and concerned expression on her face. I didn’t say anything. I simply took the pages and read them.
The scene she had written took place at the beginning of the second act, as the main character, a lawyer, is investigating the mysterious and unexpected death of her mother who had died while recovering from a simple surgical procedure in the hospital.
Stunned and grieving, she is trying to find out why her mother had suddenly died, but no one has any answers, and no one is talking. The doctors placate her, the nurses know nothing, and the hospital administrator is concerned and suggests that she join a grieving group. Her grief turns to anger, and she’s determined to find out what happened. Pursuing one lead after another, she manages to locate one of the nurses who had taken care of her mother right before she died. The nurse had mysteriously quit the hospital a few days after the mother’s death and had changed her address and literally disappeared. But through persistence, and her lawyer friends, she manages to track the nurse down. And now, she’s going to talk to her.
Listen to “The Paradigm: A Brief Introduction”
“Screenplays are structure.”
— William Goldman
Dramatic structure is the foundation of screenwriting.
The word itself means “to build, or put together,” and understanding how it works is essential to the craft of screenwriting. Simply put, structure holds the story together; there is a beginning, middle and end, (not necessarily in that order), and a point at which the beginning turns into the middle, and the middle turns into the end.
That point is called a Plot Point. It is any incident, episode or event that hooks into the action and spins it around into another direction; in this case, either Act II or Act III.
There are many plot points in a screenplay, but in the creation of the story line, the most important are Plot Point I and Plot Point II. The four elements of structure, beginning, Plot Point I, Plot Point II and the ending, will always hold your story in place.
This is illustrated on the Paradigm, a model of what a screenplay is if you look at it like a painting hanging on the wall. The Paradigm of The Shawshank Redemption shows you how it works.Simply download the blank Paradigm and use the few brief exercises as an opportunity of practicing the craft of dramatic structure.
PDF Worksheets & Exercises (Acrobat Reader Required)
“The Paradigm Worksheet” – The Blank Form
“The Paradigm Worksheet” – The Shawshank Redemption
“The Paradigm Worksheet” – Exercise #1
“The Paradigm Worksheet” – Exercise #2
“The Paradigm Worksheet” – Exercise #3
“The Paradigm Worksheet” – Exercise #4
A few weeks ago, I happened to see Annie Hall on television. I still think it’s one of the funniest movies I have ever seen. The structure itself is unique; from the first minute of the opening monologue, when Woody Allen wonders what went wrong in his relationship with Annie Hall, I was totally hooked. While the film begins in present time with Alvy whining for his lost relationship, we see the relationship in bits and pieces.
The story begins in present time, then shows us some hysterical scenes of Alvy’s early childhood. He grew up under a rollercoaster, he says, which is why he tends to be a little nervous. The film flashes back to his two marriages, based, we see, on sex rather than love. We share some of his memories with Annie, then we flash back to Alvy’s first encounter with Annie when they first meet on the tennis court.
When I first saw the film many years ago, I had tried to analyze the structure in relation to the paradigm, but I saw very quickly it wouldn’t work.
I didn’t understand how Annie Hall was put together. I had to approach my analysis from a different perspective. I wondered if you could structure a story around the growth and change of a character? Alvy is a person who refuses to change, whereas Annie Hall is a person who changes and grows constantly. Can a screenplay told mostly in flashback be structured around the dramatic need of the character?
Woody Allen sets up his character’s point of view immediately from page one, word one, in Alvy’s monologue. I saw that Act I sets up Alvy’s present situation and past relationships. Everything Alvy refers to relates back to the time when he and Annie were together.
Alvy’s character, as set up in Act I, goes from present time to past time. Act II deals with Alvy and Annie’s relationship, from recreating their first stirrings of passion (including that glorious subtext scene on the balcony) to their final separation. The last part of the movie is played out as Alvy unsuccessfully tries to recreate his relationship with Annie with other women.
Woody Allen is brilliant at setting up characters, then getting inside their heads. Alvy explains his point of view, how he sees life in the opening monologue: “A lot of suffering, pain, anxiety and problems – and it’s all over much too quickly.” He tells a joke, attributed to Groucho Marx, sharing how he feels about himself: “I would never belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member. That’s the key joke of my adult life in terms of my relationships with women.” And that’s what the film shows us; his relationship with women, focusing on Annie Hall.
The movie unfolds from Alvy’s point of view. In the dictionary, “point of view” is defined as “the way a person sees the world.” And Alvy certainly “sees” his world in a bizarre and unusual way.
In all my reading and analyzing movies, I was aware that most good films focus on the unfolding of a specific incident or event; and that incident becomes the engine that powers the story to its completion.
In Annie Hall, the key incident that drives the story forward is Alvy’s relationship with Annie Hall. That’s a no-brainer. In the opening monologue, within the first two minutes of the film, Alvy says, “I keep sifting the pieces of the relationship through my mind and examining my life and trying to figure out where the screw-up came.” Since the film is told in an odd structural dynamic, the incident, the relationship with Annie, provides the “pieces” that tell the story.
The first act, after the monologue, shows us Alvy’s childhood, his early school years growing up under the roller coaster on Coney Island, his tendency toward anxiety and depression. It not only shows us his dysfunctional childhood, but also illustrates his relationship with women, starting with his mother who’s always trying to change his father. It illustrates Alvy’s early obsession with sex and his belief that sex is the predominant drive in a relationship, the fantasy source and wellspring of all happiness.
And that, for me, is the key to the film: Alvy’s search for happiness. Alvy believes Annie Hall will be the key that unlocks the happiness he knows is inside of him. He thinks that the source of happiness is found outside himself, through another person, or having a lot of money, a powerful job or career, or through drugs and alcohol, or eating great food, anything, in short, that will fill up the empty hole of loneliness and unhappiness that so many people feel inside. Alvy’s search for a woman becomes a mirror of his own quest for happiness. What gets in the way is his unrealistic idealism, which becomes the source of his breakup with Annie Hall. You know, “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change.” Alvy’s quest to make Annie into his own image is the very reason the relationship fails. Alvy is not able to accept Annie for who she is, because he wants her to conform to his image of who she is and what she should be. Unconditional love it, it ain’t.
In Act II, we watch the relationship begin to unravel when Alvy suggests that Annie take adult education classes, then criticizes her when she quotes her teacher. He sulks when she expresses herself by singing in a night club, and is totally jealous when Tony Lacy (Paul Simon) takes an interest in her and invites them to a little gathering after the show. Alvy, of course, declines. We know where this relationship is going – down the tubes.
Near the end of Act II, almost at the end of their relationship, there’s a marvelous scene, among many, done in split scene, where Annie and Alvy are both seen in therapy sessions; Alvy lies on a couch, Annie sits in a chair. Both lament the fact their feelings have changed toward each other, but it’s how they see the same thing that brings the humor out. Both psychiatrists ask “do you have sex often?” and Alvy replies “Hardly ever. Maybe three times a week.” And Annie replies: “Constantly! I’d say three times a week.” It’s a perfect illustration of “The world is as you see it” as the ancient scriptures say.
Just before Plot Point II, when Alvy is invited to give an award on a TV show in LA, they fly out but Alvy gets sick, naturally, and can’t give out the award. Later, they end up at a party at Tony Lacy’s house where he renews his interest in Annie. Alvy sees just how different they are; he’s the one who has given her the opportunity to grow and change, and he can’t deal with it. On the flight home, the two of them are immersed in their own thoughts, each knowing the relationship is over. Annie turns to him and says, “You know, I don’t think our relationship is working.” And Alvy replies, “A relationship, I think. is like a shark.it has to constantly move forward or it dies.. And I think what we’ve got on our hands.is a dead shark.” The truth at last.
The relationship ends not with a bang, but with a whimper. When they return to New York, Annie moves to LA to be with Tony Lacy, and Alvy tries to recreate some of his experiences with Annie with other women, but it’s not the same. It doesn’t work because no one can step into the same river twice. Their break up, Plot Point II, “spins” the action into Act III, the Resolution.
Once I analyzed the film from the perspective of character I understood Alvy’s dramatic need, and only then did the structure ring true. It didn’t matter that the film is told in flashback, the structure was still clear. Alvy sets up what’s going through his mind in the opening monologue. He sets up his disjointed childhood, how he relates to women with visual “excerpts” of his two brief marriages. At that point he cuts to the flashback of his first meeting with Annie at the tennis club. That incident sets up the relationship and leads us into Act II.
It showed me once again that there is a definite relationship between story, character and structure. They are part and parcel of the same thing. There is no way to really separate them. That’s when I learned that good structure does not create a good story, a good story is what creates structure.
On September 29th, the great Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni celebrates his 90th birthday. His universally acclaimed films, L’Avventura, La Notte, Red Desert, L’Eclisse, Blow Up, Zabriski Point, and others, have been praised and dammed by film critics around the world. But everyone agrees that Antonioni is a film genius, an artist who has influenced filmmakers and the contemporary cinema around the world. I thought it would be appropriate to pay homage to Antonioni during this wonderful celebration of his life. To me, he is the Maestro of contemporary cinema.
Back in the 60’s, I had read about Michaelangelo Antonioni, heard about him, but had never seen a film of his until I saw La Notte. As I sat in the theater and watched those images unfolding in front of me, I had an amazing and deep-seated emotional response. It just hit me in the gut. For days, certain images from the film haunted me, always a sure sign, I knew, that there was something important for me to learn.
As I went back over the film in my mind, I began to understand that it worked on two different levels. One level is the ordinary, visual surface level, which portrayed those seemingly ordinary events that make up our day to day existence. The other level, deeper and far richer, occurs below the surface details, and deals with the emotional action and interaction between the two main characters. It was this second level, the emotional state, that revealed the true nature of what the characters are thinking and feeling. In that regards, I saw that what was left unsaid became far more important that what was said.
At the first viewing of La Notte, I only sensed this emotional state; I had no words to express it, only these vague, lingering images. Seeing it a second time, I felt that maybe Antonioni had uncovered some kind of new visual language, and used his images to create an emotional response, something felt, not spoken. Later, I would discover this subterranean emotional level would be known as subtext, something I had known and practiced during my acting career.
In the film, Giovanni (Marcello Mastroianni) and Lidia (Jeanne Moreau) have lived in Milan during their ten years of marriage. Giovanni is a successful novelist whose new book has just been published, but emotionally, he is in a crisis. He feels his best years are behind him, and he”™s stuck in the meaninglessness of writing a new novel. Lidia feels empty, telling Giovanni that she no longer feels the same toward him.
It took me several viewings to understand that one of Antonioni’s greatest achievements in illustrating characters is that they see themselves in each other. Visiting their dying friend in the hospital they ride in the elevator, and carefully avoid looking at each other. Two people, separate, but together, without emotional bonds of sympathy or support. Their dying friend tells Giovanni and Lidia that being in the hospital has given him time to think and it’s only now that he understands that he is a person who “lacks the courage to get to the bottom of things.” In a way, he could be speaking for Giovanni as both sense they are seeing a reflection of their own lives.
Antonioni demonstrates the power of silence in film, and shows how it can be much more effective than words. The chasm in their marriage is shown visually, through their behavior.
When Giovanni and Lidia leave the hospital and take a long drive to a party celebrating the publication of his new book, we sense the emotional distance between them. They drive in absolute silence. Once again, I saw that Antonioni uses this little scene of driving in the car to illustrate their isolation from each other.
At the publication party, Lidia, looking and feeling like the outsider, leaves and wanders through the city. We see what she sees, and sense her alienation from her husband and herself. The simple stroll reveals the emotional state of the character and I saw that the empty landscapes of the city reveals her state of mind. So simple, yet so rich, I responded on both an emotional and intellectual level.
Many critics and reviewers did not understand this long walk. To me, it represents another aspect of the journey into insight and clarity. Everything in La Notte is part of a journey: a journey to hope, a journey to despair, a journey of fulfillment, a journey seeking an emotional connection to other people, a journey to freedom, a journey to isolation, the journey from night to day. After all, the journey from night to day, from darkness to light, from ignorance to knowledge, is all part of the journey of life.
Later, at an evening party given in honor of Giovanni by a wealthy industrialist, Lidia is tempted by a rich playboy, while Giovanni is tempted by Valentina (Monica Vitti), the daughter of their host. When it begins to rain, many of the partygoers seek a diversion by leaping into the pool. Giovanni and Valentina share some pleasant moments together, and like many strangers, share their most intimate thoughts. He tells her “I believe now that I’m no longer capable of writing. I know what to write but not how to write it.” Like many of Antonioni’s characters, Giovanni’s personal life is reflected in his inability to work; he is what he does. It’s not his ideas and convictions that have been lost, but the force, the energy, and the inner fire to create a work of art, which has been lost. Ideas are part of his make-up; they may change, evolve, come and go, but they are never lost. It’s in the physical act of producing his work that Giovanni has become powerless.
Lidia telephones the hospital to find out how their friend is doing, only to learn he has just died. When she goes to tell Giovanni, she sees him kissing Valentina, and turns away.
They leave the party in silence, and walk out into the cold, gray light of dawn, and that’s when she tells him of their friend’s death. She says that “if I want to die, it’s because I no longer love you. That’s the reason for my despair. I would like to be old already, to have devoted my whole life to you. I don’t want to exist any more because I can’t love you.” And, he replies:”I have given you nothing, I amount to nothing. I have wasted and I’m still wasting my life, like an idiot, taking without giving anything or giving too little in exchange. It’s strange that only today did I realize that what we give to others comes back to ourselves.”
At the end of the film, sitting in the gray light of dawn at a deserted golf course, she reads him an old love letter, moving, poetic, from the heart. When he asks, “who wrote it,” she looks at him for a long moment, then confides “you did.” A little overstated, true, but it allows us to realize the depth of his despair. He turns to her, and tries to force his love upon her, trying to recapture their lost passion. As day breaks, the script reads, “A sort of animal passion, a memory of that which was and which will never be again, grips them.” Fade out.
I had no words, or language, about what I felt at the time I first saw La Notte, but as I studied the film over and over again, I grasped that something new was at work here, something profound, a different way of telling stories in pictures. Antonioni seemed to tell his stories internally, revealing the language of the heart through visual images.
A lot of people did not like La Notte because they claimed “nothing really happens;” there is no plot, no action and it’s way too long. Some critics asserted the film is simply an “empty testament of modern life,” not even a “slice of life,” and they viewed Antonioni as a filmmaker who is too internal, focusing on what does not happen, rather than on what could happen. Whatever that means. Like Rashomon, everyone saw something different.
My response to the film had been so powerful that I kept dreaming about it, jotting notes down in my journal. Looking back, I think what I responded to the most was how I identified with the characters and their search for meaning in life.
Seeing La Notte, I discovered a visual metaphor about the search for love. As I became more familiar with some of Antonioni’s later films I saw that many of his movies deal with this theme. The questions he raises are simple, yet profound; how does a person live in the modern world, in a world of change, cynicism and technology, with integrity, values, faith and love.
The emotional landscape that Antonioni explores, whether in L’Avventura, La Notte, Red Desert, Eclipse, Zabriskie Point, or his last film, Beyond the Clouds, all deal with this same theme. F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that we only write one or two stories during our lives; it doesn’t matter how many books we write, or how many movies we make, we end up exploring the same themes over and over again.
Screenwriting is a craft that occasionally rises to the level of an art. An art because there are times when it taps directly into the human heart, transcending time, place, language and culture. A craft because it depends upon form, concept, character and structure.
Magnolia pushes the form of the screenplay to another level. Why and how were the questions I wanted to ask. How did he structure the film and what were the elements that made it work? I hadn’t seen Magnolia when it was first released, and I hadn’t seen Boogie Nights or Hard Eight either, so I literally knew nothing about the work of Paul Thomas Anderson other than what I had heard or read about him. When I did finally get to see it, it was late in the afternoon and a light drizzle was falling. I jumped into my car, drove to the theater, walked inside, got my popcorn, found a seat and waited for the film to begin.
As the movie unfolded, I saw there were ideas here, ideas of death, of reconciliation and forgiveness, relationships between fathers and sons and fathers and daughters, relationships between chance, destiny and fate, and the interconnectedness of all things. Anderson’s style of filmmaking seemed more like poetry than a series of staged dramatic actions. As “unconventional” as it may seem, Magnolia has it’s own unique style and works incredibly well.
When I talk about Magnolia in my seminars and workshops, some people object and tell me it’s too long. They say it’s too melodramatic. They tell me it pushes the boundaries of reality. Yes, thank God. It’s the brilliance of Anderson’s vision, the intelligence of the emotional tapestry that he weaves into his fluid style of filmmaking that makes it so powerful.
Many people insist that Magnolia is an excellent example of an “unconventional” film because it doesn’t follow the “conventional” guidelines of structure, whatever that means. I confess that after all these years of studying and thinking and teaching thousands and thousands of people about the movies, I still don’t know what the phrase “conventional structure” really means. When people insist on telling me how unconventional it is, and ask if I think it still follows structure, I reply definitely, pointing out that “form follows structure;” structure is only the start point, not the end point.
It may seem that Magnolia is a fragmented, nonlinear story experience but that’s not the case at all. The nine stories told in Magnolia are all connected and related to each other. The actions of each character are superimposed, one on the other, and the film’s structure begins at the beginning of the day and ends with Earl’s death, at the end of the day.
The more I studied the film, the more I saw that it revolves around the dying Earl Partridge. On this, the very last day of his life, Earl wants Phil, his nurse, to find his son, Frank T.J. Mackey. Earl, as seen on the background credits on the always playing TV, is the owner/producer of the What Do Kid’s Know show, where Stanley is a key contestant. Linda is Earl’s wife. Jimmy Gator works for Earl, and, as we’ll learn later, Jimmy molested his daughter, Claudia.
As I began to see the connections of the individual stories I had the image of an old wagon wheel, where the hub at the center connects all nine spokes to the outer rim. That image stayed with me as I began analyzing the film; Earl is the hub of the story and his past actions are the glue that holds the story together in terms of the present. Earl’s guilt at leaving his wife so many years before, letting his 14 year old son, Frank, take care of his dying mother, has paid a heavy price on Earl’s conscience. The dying man has hidden that fact, and only now, as the cancer eats away at him, riddled with pain and memory, does he seek forgiveness.
It’s pretty clear Magnolia deals with the themes of reconciliation and forgiveness, revealing what the parent’s past actions have wrought upon their children. Ibsen’s great play, Ghosts, deals with this same theme, the sins of the father passed onto the son. Certainly, this is the subject of Earl’s incredible death bed monologue as he confesses his “sins” to Phil, telling him he walked out on his wife and son, leaving Frank to tend to his dying mother. “It’s the biggest regret of my life,” he says.
When Phil drops the liquid morphine into his mouth, it’s the end, but as it turns out, Earl’s death is really a new beginning because it’s the catalyst that brings everyone together. As the rain thunders down, we see the nine characters singing about their pain and guilt and lack of self-worth, knowing it’s just not going to stop “til you wise up.”Now that you’ve met me, would you object to never seeing me again?” Claudia asks Jim Kurring. Until they can accept themselves for who they are, until they can forgive themselves and accept their own sense of self-worth, until they can let somebody love them for who they are and let the past go, it’s not going to stop. Just “wise up.”
When I first saw this scene, I was taken aback. To have the characters break into song, expressing their pain and discomfort in a musical lyric, is an extraordinary accomplishment. I remember James Brooks tried to do this in “I’ll Do Anything,” and it didn’t work. Finally, after several different approaches in cutting the movie, Brooks had to drop the songs and tried to structure the film in a different way. But it never really worked. Paul Anderson makes it work.
Then, there are the frogs. I didn’t know quite what to make of this when I first saw it. But I love this collision of reality and unreality. I learned this while working with one of my students, the brilliant Mexican screenwriter, Laura Esquivel; Laura taught me about the heritage of the Mexican literary tradition known as “magic realism.” Working with her on the screenplay of Like Water For Chocolate, I was introduced to this concept of “exaggerated reality,” where the clash of reality and unreality blends into the framework of the story line.
The falling of the frogs is taken from the Bible, Exodus, Book 8, where the plague of frogs descends from the sky punishing the Pharaoh for betraying Moses and the Hebrews in the land of Egypt. As I began exploring the backgrounds of the scenes in the film, I kept seeing references to “8:2” in the audience at the TV show, or on outdoor signs on Magnolia Blvd. in the San Fernando Valley.
In the end, as Jim Kurring tells us in his voice over narration “Sometimes people need a little help. Sometimes people need to be forgiven.” In the very last scene, Jim Kurring’s voice-over narration takes us to Claudia, and she has a long, vacant look into the camera. And then, she smiles. So simple, so bright, so elegant; I had not seen her smile once during the entire film. I was so moved to see that smile, after all the pain she’s lived in and been through, and reflects such a positive ending, that it brought tears to my eyes.
The voice over narrator sums it all up: “There are stories of coincidence and chance and intersections and strange things told and which is which who only knows.and we generally say, ‘Well if that was in a movie I wouldn’t believe it.’ And it is in the humble opinion of this narrator that these strange things happen all the time.and so it goes and so it goes and the book says, ‘We may be through with the past, but the past is not through with us.”
And so it goes and so it goes.
Shortly after the publication of my book, Four Screenplays in the mid-nineties, I was invited to speak at a screenwriting seminar at the Mill Valley Film Festival. Mill Valley is a dedicated, intimate, and avant-garde film festival, screening a variety of films, individual in taste, style and vision. During my talk I casually mentioned that from my perspective we were in the middle of a revolution. At which point someone raised their hand and asked if I included Pulp Fiction as a part of that revolution.
Personally, I had a lot of mixed feelings about Pulp Fiction. When I had first seen it a few months earlier, it was storming across the country, creating an avalanche of opinion. People either loved it or hated it. When I walked out of the screening, I was one of those who “hated it.” I felt it was way too long, had too much gratuitous violence and was much too talky. Basically, it was a “B” movie, shallow, exploitative, the epitome of everything I don’t like in the movies. Influential maybe, significant maybe, but in no way revolutionary, as I was defining the term.
After it first came out several people had confronted me with the film’s structure and “dared” me to analyze it in terms of the paradigm. As far as everybody was concerned, Pulp Fiction was it, innovative in thought, concept and execution, everything a revolutionary film should be. I had only seen it once and I simply said it didn’t fit my construct of a revolutionary film.
I finished speaking and was preparing to leave when I was approached by a man who was intrigued by my evaluation of Pulp Fiction. We chatted for a few moments and then he invited me to be a guest on the local NPR radio station. So I went to the station the next day, sat down, and the first question he asked me was what kind of an impact did I think Pulp Fiction might have on the young, emerging filmmakers. Was it a landmark film?
It was a huge topic, to be sure, and I tried to answer it by saying that Pulp Fiction seemed to spark a new awareness in the filmgoer’s consciousness. Yes, I added, we were riding a wave of change, and while technology would definitely affect the movies, the real “revolution” was going to manifest itself more in terms of form than content. That is, what you show and how you show it. Pulp Fiction is definitely a part of that.
“Why?” the interviewer asked. I explained that Hollywood was in a period of change, comparable to the late 20s when sound was first introduced. At that time, through the desire to hear the actors “speak,” the camera was imprisoned inside a refrigerator and we lost the movement and fluidity of the camera we had attained during the Silent Era. All scenes had to be staged around the microphone. The actors entered the camera’s frame, spoke their lines and exited from the camera’s frame; the actors, the writers, the cameramen, were literally the prisoners of sound.
The screenwriters of the silent era did not know much about writing dialogue; their forte was telling stories with pictures, so Hollywood brought in Broadway playwrights to help them tell their stories in words, not pictures. That’s a theme F. Scott Fitzgerald touches on in his last novel, The Last Tycoon. Since that time, we’ve remained in a state of technological flux; black and white to Technicolor, standard screen size to Cinemascope, 35mm to 70mm, and now, computer graphics and digital technology. It’s the screenwriter who has really become the artisan of change because he or she must learn to use and adapt this new hi-tech awareness into their scripts.
“What do you think makes Pulp Fiction so influential?” the interviewer asked. I told him I had been confronted with that same question many times before and I still had no real answer. I concluded by saying that Pulp Fiction is definitely an influential film, may even be revolutionary and left it at that. Because it was such a hot topic of conversation, I thought I needed to look at it more closely.
When I returned home from Mill Valley, I got hold of the screenplay. When I opened it, I read on the title page that Pulp Fiction was really “three stories…about one story.” I turned the page and read two dictionary definitions of Pulp: “a soft, moist, shapeless mass of matter” and “a magazine or book containing lurid subject matter and being characteristically printed on rough, unfinished paper.” That’s certainly an accurate description of the film. But on the third page, I was surprised to find a Table of Contents.
That was odd, I thought; who writes a Table of Contents for a screenplay? I saw the film was broken down into five individual parts: Part I, was the Prologue; Part II, Vincent Vega and Marcellus Wallace’s Wife; Part III, The Gold Watch; Part IV, The Bonnie Situation, and Part V, the Epilogue.
As I studied the script, I saw that all three stories bounce off the inciting incident, the scene when Jules and Vinnie retrieve Marcellus Wallace’s briefcase from the four kids. I saw this one incident as the hub of all three stories, and noticed that each story is structured as a whole, in linear fashion; it starts at the beginning of the action, goes into the middle, then proceeds to the end. Each section is like a short story, presented from a different character’s point of view.
I remembered Henry James’ literary question: “What is character but the determination of incident? And, what is incident but the illumination of character?” If this key incident is the hub of the story, as I now understood it, then all things, whether actions, reactions, thoughts, memories, or flashbacks, are tethered to this one incident.
Suddenly, it all made sense. Understanding “three stories about one story” allowed me to see the film as one unified whole. Pulp Fiction is really three stories surrounded by a prologue and epilogue; what screenwriters call the “bookend” technique. Like The Bridges of Madison County (Richard LaGravenese), Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett), or Saving Private Ryan (Robert Rodat).
Now, I began to see how the film was put together. The Prologue sets-up Pumpkin and Honey Bunny (Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer) in a coffee shop discussing various types of small time robbery. When they finish their meal, they pull their guns and rob the place. The film freezes and we cut to the main titles. Then we cut into the middle of a conversation between Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vinnie (John Travolta) driving, having an enlightening discussion about the relative merits of a Big Mac, both here and abroad.
This sets-up the entire film and tells us everything we need to know; the two men are killers working for Marcellus Wallace; their job, their dramatic need, is to retrieve the briefcase. That’s the true beginning of the story. In Part I, Jules and Vinnie arrive, state their position, kill the three guys, and it’s only by the grace of God they’re not killed. Vinnie takes Mia (Uma Thurman) out to dinner, and after her accidental overdose and rescue, they say good night. Part II is about Butch and his Gold Watch and what happens when he wins the fight instead of losing it like he had agreed to do. Part III deals with cleaning up Marvin’s remains splattered all over the car, a continuation of Part I. That’s followed by the Epilogue where Jules talks about his transformation and the significance of Divine Intervention and then Pumpkin and Honey Bunny resume the holdup that began the film in the Prologue.
It became clear to me that no matter what the form of the film, whether linear or non-linear, there is always going to be a beginning, a middle and an end. A film like Courage Under Fire (Patrick Shane Duncan) for example, or Groundhog Day (Danny Rubin, Harold Ramis), or The Usual Suspects (Chrisopher McQuarrie), or The English Patient (Anthony Minghella), or Momento (Chris Nolan), are all structured around a specific, inciting incident; only when that incident is shown does the story line split off into different directions. To build a non-linear movie means defining the parts, then structuring each part from beginning to end, at which point the screenwriter can put them into any order he or she desires.
I saw that Pulp Fiction was indeed, a new departure, a kind of beacon leading us into the future, like Jay Gatsby’s green light, because it presents a new way of looking at things, another step forward along the path of creative innovation in the movies.