The Sticking Place

On Film-Making: An Introduction to the Craft of the Director

Once Upon a Time

One hopes that there are still some mothers and fathers who tell bedtime stories to their children. In the long lost days before television, it was something every parent did. It would be depressing if television had destroyed that ritual of infancy forever.

One hopes, indeed, that storytelling is still alive not only because of its value to listeners. The gifts of the raconteur, the verbal story teller face-to-face with his audience, are of immense value to anyone with ambitions to work in the narrative/dramatic media, cinema or theater. As soon as passages are read aloud and performed, certain important questions are immediately brought to the surface of the storyteller’s mind. “To whom am I addressing this tale? And to what purpose?” I am, frankly, a little uneasy every time I confront the fact that such skills (and also such questions) do not come nearly so easily to CalArts students as I recall they did to young people of my generation. This is one reason why I feel that students of dramatic construction should get as much experience of acting as possible, something that can help develop that essential component of the writer’s imagination: an ear for dialogue.

The face-to-face experience involved in the art of the raconteur is invaluable to an understanding of what a story is. Writing a story down on paper logically ought to involve the same processes as reciting it out loud to an audience, but it doesn’t. Storytelling is, plain and simple, a performing art. Essential is the sense of tension between storyteller and listener, an understanding on the part of the writer of when tension is holding up and when it has slackened, of having a sense of the build towards a crisis and the curious feeling of satisfaction when a promised climax is delivered. The solitary author who is communicating with an imaginary reader is all too apt to fall into the kind of self indulgence that comes from assuming his reader is as interested in the subject as the writer is. The raconteur will discover soon enough that his listeners are likely to be less patient and less interested than he is, that their attention spans are inevitably shorter than he expected.

Storytelling is the knack of swiftly seizing the imagination of the audience and never letting it go. Digressions and elaborations are permissible, but only when the audience is already hooked by the promise of some satisfaction to come. The tension to that hook may be slackened now and again, but the line must be snapped tight at any moment when the dramatist senses the danger of losing his catch. This is why I confess that, in the past, I found it enormously useful during pre-production of a film to select someone whose instincts I respected and, rather than giving them the screenplay to read, would tell it out loud to them, even if only in synopsis. By doing this I could get a palpable sense of just where the momentum was sagging, where the action could be telescoped, and how the climaxes should be timed.

For a listener to attend with genuine interest and appreciation is to provide a powerful control over a performer. Feedback of any kind tells the storyteller where there is a need for moreexposition or (more often) where there should be less. The raconteur will instinctively find himself learning where suspense is strong enough to provide opportunities for expansion, elaboration and restructuring, or where there is a need to accelerate the pace by simplifying and skipping over the inessentials to get to the point faster. Even if the listener is silent there emerges invaluable feedback. In fact, the right kind of attention from listeners is almost always silent, as they will hopefully be so taken with the story being told that they will, at every step of the way, want to know what happens next.

Dramatic structure is, you might say, the craft of keeping an audience excited, of avoiding boredom in your listeners. In fact, you should assume your audience is always bored, that they have something else to do, and somewhere else to go. Assume that as a storyteller you have to keep your audience button-holed by curiosity, expectation and some kind of suspense. With this in mind, I advise you to examine a few of the stock phrases in which the traditional bedtime story uses. As material for illustration, I’ll use one fairy tale (Cinderella), one dramatic classic (Hamlet), and one classic film (Bicycle Thieves).

Once upon a time…
The genre (eg. a Western, spy thriller, historical epic, ghost story). The place and time period, the closed world of the story, the social and/or ideological values in the subject, the conventions belonging to the often imaginary setting.

there lived a…
The protagonist. The central figure in the story, the character through whose eyes we see the events. Sometimes, but not necessarily, the hero. Implied in the choice of the protagonist is often the point of view that the dramatist wants us to take.

The action of the protagonist. We use the word action in the sense of what the character want and does, the will or purpose of the character.

The obstacle, whatever or whoever stands in opposition to the action, the goals of the protagonist. This is often personified in the role of the antagonist (villain). In contemporary drama it is a character (or group of figures) who represents opposition to the goals of the protagonist. Note that if there is to be dramatic tension, a passive or weak protagonist is apt to call for a strong antagonist.

so one day it happened that…
The ‘Point of Attack’ (the initiating incident or the premise). This is the moment at which the action starts. In nineteenth century plays it was common that the dramatic tension didn’t really start to grip until somewhere near the end of the first act, and all that went before was exposition (establishing the backstory). But in tightly knit contemporary story structures it is often preferable to begin the story with some dramatic event and only then retrace its origins through exposition, since exposition is more dramatic as soon as there is something at stake.

so then, as a result of which...
Narrative progression. Most stories that have a strong plot are built on the tension of cause-and-effect. Each incident is like a domino that topples forwards to collide with the next in a sequence that holds the audience in the grip of anticipation. The pattern is likely to be that each scene presents a small crisis that, as it is resolved, produces a new uncertainty (defined in the classic term ‘expectation mingled with uncertainty,’ almost a definition of drama in itself).

But meanwhile…
Simultaneous development: subplot. The tumbling domino can set off a second trail of collisions. Some complication in the plot.

so that unbeknownst to…
Dramatic irony, a common and indeed almost essential ingredient in strong story structure.

until the time came that…
A confrontation scene. There may be several such scenes throughout a suspenseful story, but in stories that provide the simple but intricate satisfactions that popular audiences desire, dramatic structure is often a graph of rising and falling tensions. The progressive high points are the crises, separated by relaxations of tension. Early scenes, often after the initial hook of the premise, are generally less suspenseful than later ones. Conflict or tension starts off as not being so strong, but progressively the oscillations on the graph grow more extreme with the big showdowns usually taking place near the end. Note that a story can become quickly monotonous if tension is constant. During relaxation in tension the basic suspense is still present – latent but still present. The return to the central plot inevitably gains an additional impact because of a temporary respite (the example often quoted from Shakespeare is the farcical interlude in Macbeth with the porter that follows the murder of Duncan and precedes the discovery of the crime).

when suddenly – to the surprise of…
A peripety, the Greek term for a turn of the wheel, used by Aristotle to describe the unexpected shift in relationships, often a form of role reversal that produces a resolution of the drama. It is likely to require a strong element of dramatic irony.

so it turned out that…
The resolution, the denouement, literally the unknotting of all of the tensions in the story.

and for ever after…
Closure, the sense of having come full circle. It need not, obviously, be in the form of a happy ending, but it should provide some level of satisfaction. Classically, the end may be surprising, though in retrospect, it is recognised to be inevitable (it is what ‘had to happen’).

Consider how these stock phrases can be applied to the three wildly different stories of Cinderella, Hamlet and Bicycle Thieves. Observe how, in each case, the period and the location determine the tone: folk-fairy tale in Cinderella, high tragedy and epic poetry in Hamlet, neo-realist documentary in Bicycle Thieves.

Once upon a time…
Cinderella: The place is vaguely Germanic, a country of small kingdoms, princes and townsfolk. The time is the middle ages. But it is also a realm of fantasy in which there are good fairies and magic spells. Characters are simplistic. The stuff of fables, folk stories and childhood. The tone is also of nineteenth century moral tales.
Hamlet: The locality is Denmark, the Castle of Elsinore. The period is the sixteenth century, a time of violence, of wars and murders, and rival claims to thrones. Again the values are feudal, with emphasis on revenge motivations.
Bicycle Thieves: The city of Rome as it was in the aftermath of World War II. A period of great poverty, but also a time of communities struggling to re-establish human values. The city is rife with disillusion, petty crime and the black market. The tone is of a desperate search for decency and dignity after the years of fascism (hence a political dimension).

there lived a…
: A motherless girl, ill-treated by step sisters.
Hamlet: A Prince, in mourning for father recently dead.
Bicycle Thieves: A working class unemployed billposter.

: Is forced by her two stepsisters to slave in the kitchen in soot-stained clothes.
Hamlet: Is unhappy because his father has died and his mother has married his uncle, the dead King’s brother, very soon after.
Bicycle Thieves: Is desperate to get a job to support his young wife and their little boy.
Observe how each character is equipped with the dynamics of character-in-action, a built-in interior struggle.
Cinderella: Dreams of romance and escape from the mistreatment by her stepsisters.
Hamlet: Torn apart by his feelings of indecision and inadequacy, contrasting with the heroism of his warlike father.
Bicycle Thieves: Struggles to maintain his dignity and job which is the basis of his self-respect, as well as the respect of his wife and son.
Note also that the protagonists, as well as the antagonists, and even other characters with whom the central figure is involved in some kind of dramatic conflict, can be seen as personifications of the story’s themes.

Cinderella: Cinderella is left at home by the fire and her stepsisters lived in luxury.
Hamlet: Hamlet mourns his dead father, hates his uncle, and is tortured by the ambivalence of feelings for the Queen (his mother). He also is tormented to the point of suicidal despair by his low self-esteem, his inability to take heroic action.
Bicycle Thieves: The billposter, who has recently pawned his bicycle, waits amongst the other unemployed standing in line every day for the chance of a government job while his wife and children wait at home.
Thus are established the elements of struggle, the circumstances of the characters who personify the forces that stand in the way of the protagonist’s desires or intentions. In effect, the protagonist sets the story in motion, and through interactions with foils will illustrate the story’s root-idea and theme.

so one day it happened that…
Cinderella: Learns of the ball that is to be given by the Prince who is in search of a bride. Cinderella is not invited. Antagonists: the Ugly Sisters and the rest of the snobbish townsfolk.
Hamlet: Is brought by his companions to confront his father’s Ghost. He is told of the murder but has no proof and is not sure that his fears are not the result of his neurotic paranoia. Antagonists: his uncle Claudius (the ‘villain’) and Hamlet’s own insecurities.
Bicycle Thieves: A job offer is announced on the condition that the applicant has to provide his own bicycle. But his bicycle, which he has redeemed from the pawnbrokers, is stolen from him. Antagonists: the callousness, disillusion and cynicism of the period, the sense of hopelessness in the struggle for human dignity.

so then, as a result of which...
Cinderella: With the help of the magic wrought by her Fairy Godmother, Cinderella goes incognito to the ball, but she forgets the condition that she has to leave at midnight and loses her slipper. (Note the element of dramatic irony created by Cinderella’s disguise.)
Hamlet: The play-within-a-play exposes the guilt of Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle. But Hamlet kills Polonius by mistake and Claudius uses this as a pretext for sending Hamlet to England while also arranging to have him killed. Claudius’ conspiracy misfires when Hamlet returns to Denmark, and again Claudius plots to have him killed by poison during the duel.
Bicycle Thieves: In a desperate search for the stolen bicycle, the billposter and his small son explore Rome, going to the police, the trade unions, the church, finally finding the old man who can identify the thief, but losing him again. During this the relationship of the father and the son (the story’s real theme) is further developed.

But meanwhile… and so that unbeknownst to…
Cinderella: The Prince and the Ugly Stepsisters have no idea that Cinderella is the mysterious beauty at the Ball.
Hamlet: Hamlet knows nothing of the plot to have him killed when he lands in England.
Bicycle Thieves: The son is sent away in order that he should not see his father abandon his dignity as he attempts to steal, just as he has been stolen from.

when suddenly – to the surprise of…
Cinderella: Obligatory scene and peripety. Cinderella is revealed to the Prince as the girl at the ball with the glass slipper. The Ugly Sisters lose out, the tables are turned, and the Prince weds Cinderella.
Hamlet: Claudius is killed by Hamlet while Hamlet’s mother accidentally drinks the poison. Hamlet himself perishes. For Hamlet it is also a peripety of character as he finally expresses himself in violent action.
Bicycle Thieves: The billposter, wholly disillusioned in his search for social justice, turns thief and fails even in this. The small boy, witness of the failure of his father’s attempt at crime, takes his father’s hand even as the crowd reviles them both.

The point of this somewhat absurd comparison between a great Elizabethan classic, a childish fairy story, and a well-known Italian film is to underline how basic the nature of the psychological phenomenon we call a story seems to be. Effective stories grip us, whether at a superficial level or a profound and significant way, a feeling perhaps easier to recognize than to explain.

Based on the terminology above, you might experiment with an improvisational game that needs a group of three or more players. Player one begins “Once Upon a Time there was…”, thus inventing the time and place (the genre) and the protagonist. Player Two accepts these and invents the problem and/or the backstory that defines the motivations of the protagonist. Player Three then continues, supplying the figure of an antagonist (“But…”) that provides conflict. Player Four now has to devise the initial point of attack, some incident or event that triggers a narrative that will create suspense, expectations, and the potential for plot developments.

At this stage, those players who are catching on to the knack of dramatic structure will already be thinking ahead: the possibilities of peripeties, some kind of reversal of character relations, a twist to the original premise. Needless to say, this game is very unlikely to produce a work of real creative quality since such a thing must spring from more private, personal and, hopefully, more profound intuitions. But it can sharpen your understanding of the storyteller’s craft. Note that though part of the fun is to present to your neighbor a challenging problem, you should also play fair, meaning you should yourself have in mind a potential structure. And remember that it is not really the final product that matters – this is an exercise in the process of swift and fertile invention.

I am not certain the game works when you are given a lengthy period of time to think. It should probably have a rigid structure within which you should be as impromptu and as spontaneous as possible. Invention, it has been said (by William Archer), is apt to be ‘memory in disguise,’ and invention is often at its most fertile when it comes directly from unconscious associations. The unconscious works at high speed while writing is sufficiently deliberate to allow internal censors to work and inhibit spontaneity (after all, talented raconteurs generally perform best when under the pressure of an audience).

The two great virtues in the game are tension and surprise. The storyteller manipulates an audience that is hopefully always impatient. “So what happens next?” is the question an audience quite understandably wants to be constantly asking itself (and the storyteller). If ‘what happens next’ has been foreseeable, tension will inevitably drop. Narrative momentum hopes to keep its audience off-balance at all times, either through suspense, anxiety, or fear of the next event.

© The Estate of Alexander Mackendrick