Friday, May 15, 2015

Enough already with the Raiders of the Lost Ark “Story Problem”

Okay, here’s the deal: I’m getting really tired of hearing this idea that the character of Indiana Jones doesn’t matter in the outcome of Raiders of the Lost Ark. If I remember correctly the first time I heard this was in a piece written by Peter David quoting something that MarvWolfman had said to him about how Raiders of the Lost Ark would end the same way even if Indiana Jones did not exist as a character. I’m paraphrasing, but that was basically the idea.

Since then, I guess this idea has come up on the show The Big Bang Theory. And now it is all over the internet.

When I heard it the first time I shrugged it off, but now that it’s become a full-blown meme, I’ve got to get this off my chest. If you are looking for problems in Raiders of the Lost Ark, you are digging in the wrong place.

First, ask yourself what the movie is about. Legendary director Sydney Pollack once said that if you ask a writer what their script is about and they start giving you plot, then you’re in trouble.

What did he mean by that? What he meant was your story isn’t about the plot.

So I ask again, What is Raiders of the Lost Ark about? Some of you will go right back to plot after this question. It’s about an adventuring archaeologist who must find the biblical Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis do. Maybe that’s what most of you would say.

But if you take away the plot, what is the movie about? It’s about a man who does not believe in the supernatural, or the power of God, learning that these things are real. The story is about the change in Indiana Jones.

The structure of the film and the setup of Indiana Jones as a character makes this clear.

When the government men come to enlist  Prof. Jones to help them find the Ark of the Covenant, he tells them all about the history of the Ark and shows them an illustration from an old Bible. When one of the man asks about the beam of light coming off the Ark and striking down soldiers, Indiana explains, “Lightning, fire—the power of God.” He shrugs this off as unimportant.

That scene alone would not be evidence of what Indiana Jones really thought. But in the next scene, Indiana Jones is busy packing (in preparation for his trip to find Marion Ravenwood, who he suspects may have a clue to help him find the Ark), while talking with his colleague Marcus Brody. Brody tries to impress upon Indiana the power of the Ark.

Marion's the least of your worries right now, believe me, Indy.

What do you mean?

Well, I mean that for nearly three thousand years man has been searching for the lost Ark. It's not something to be taken lightly. No one knows its secrets. It's like nothing you've ever gone after before.

INDIANA [laughing]
Oh, Marcus. What are you trying to do, scare me? You sound like my mother. We've known each other for a long time. I don't believe in magic, a lot of superstitious hocus-pocus. I'm going after a find of incredible historical significance, you're talking about the boogie man. Besides, you know what a cautious fellow I am.
[throws his gun into his suitcase]

It is clear that Indiana Jones does not believe in the power of the Ark.  He doesn’t believe anything could be a danger to him that he can’t shoot with a gun.
Through the course of the movie we the audience get small glimpses of the Ark’s power. For instance, it burns off the swastika stenciled on the side of the wooden crate where it is being kept.

At the end of the movie, when the Ark is opened up, Indiana tells Marion not to look, and they both close their eyes as everyone around them is killed. At the end of the movie, Indiana Jones understands that there may be something beyond his physical world. There may be something he can’t shoot with a gun. There may even be, after all, a God.

 If Indiana didn’t believe this he would’ve kept his eyes open to see what was happening. The Indiana Jones at the beginning of the movie would have.

If we want to talk about flaws in the film, I think the one place you might look is here. Knowing now that the movie is about a man going from disbelief in the metaphysical to crediting such things, where do you think that flaw might be?

I’ll tell you what I think it is: It is in the fact that none of the supernatural things that happen before this moment happened for Indy’s benefit. He does not see the Ark burn off the swastika, for instance. There is no place where he actually changes—where he is challenged to change.

But here’s what’s interesting: The power of a character changing is so strong, that if you have just a suggestion of it in the script your audience is likely to accept it.

So, yes, it’s true that if Indiana Jones was not a character chasing the lost Ark, the Nazis may well have still found the Ark, opened it, and all been killed. But as story-master Billy Wilder used to say to his writing partners, “Don’t give me logic, give me emotion.”

Many great stories have logic problems, but they will be invisible to most people as long as they care about the characters, and as long as what’s happening to those characters serves the theme. As I have said before in other places, theme beats logic.

The most important part of Raiders is that Indiana Jones closes his eyes. He has changed.

Raiders of the Lost Ark was released in 1981. It has taken all that time for people to see this “mistake”, while in the meantime the film has become a bona fide classic. Could the mistake really be that big? In fact, this mistake doesn’t matter at all.

I’m going to listen to Billy Wilder on this one, “Don’t give me logic, give me emotion.”

Friday, February 20, 2015

Thoughts on Stewart Stern

91-year-old Stewart Stern dancing as he made his exit from a party
“I taught you to fight and to fly. What more could there be?” ― J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan and Wendy

On February 2 my friend Stewart Stern died. Stewart was the legendary screenwriter of Rebel Without a Cause and the classic television movie Sybil. My guess is that you have read about his passing somewhere by now. News of his passing was covered by several websites and new sources. Because of this I’m not sure I have anything to add. Whenever I sit down to write this post the words do not come. Sometimes there is so much to say about a person it is crippling.

 This paralyzing anxiety about bearing your soul and putting it on a page and getting the words right is something that Stewart would have understood all too well. This is something that he wrestled with throughout his career.

 Stewart won an Emmy Award for his script for Sybil. Sybil was a triumph for television in the 1970s. This movie about a woman struggling with what was then called multiple personality disorder—and is now called dissociative personality disorder—had a huge impact on the culture and introduced many to the existence of this condition. It also allowed actress Sally Field, who had played Gidget and a Flying Nun on syrupy-sweet situation comedies, to graduate to more substantial material.

 On the Emmy telecast, Stewart was presented with his award by Kermit the Frog. Stewart told me that as he was making his acceptance speech he was still doubting his abilities. In fact, he was about to quit a job writing the story of Mary and Joseph for television. Even then, with the award in his hand, he doubted himself.

Stewart was the kind of writer who wanted to get it right. He wanted to do a great job. He wanted to do a perfect job. All of his life he had been surrounded by high achievers. His uncle was Adolph Zukor, who started what became Paramount Pictures. When Stewart was a small boy he met the big silent movie stars of the day, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and probably more that he did not mention to me.

Later, when he started his own film career, his friends were the toast of Hollywood. While sitting around having coffee with Stewart one might hear stories about he and buddy Paul Newman or Joanne Woodward or Marlon Brando or Roddy McDowell or Elizabeth Taylor or Natalie Wood or Sally Field or Rod Sterling or Karl Malden or George Roy Hill or James Dean or Montgomery Clift or Judy Garland or just about anyone you can imagine. Stewart confessed that he was uncomfortable sometimes in the presence of these people, saying he felt out of place at those parties.

Knowing all of these people and being in their company did not bolster Stewart’s confidence in himself. Just the opposite, from what I understand. But I don’t think it was knowing all of these people that was at the heart of Stewart’s fear. It was that Stewart wanted to tell the truth on the page. Stewart put his heart on the page. He bared his soul on the page. I think this is what crippled him. This is what stopped him from writing.

Stewart felt that it was his job to be fully human and flawed on the page for the world to see. He knew that his flaws and his fears and his demons would be familiar to all of us. He knew that if he was specific enough, and honest enough, that we would all recognize ourselves in his work.

And Stewart believed that this was his job, That this was his art, to bare his soul in this way, did not make it easy for him to do. In fact, on his deathbed, talking to a doctor about possible radiation treatments for the lung cancer which had spread to his brain and the unpleasant side effects, Stewart said, “Well, whatever it is, it won’t be as hard as having to write about it.”

Stewart Stern  and I after a long visit at Starbucks
He meant this is a joke and it worked as such: the doctor and vistors in hospital room broke into laughter—not just because it was funny, but also because it was true for Stewart. Having a cancer that he knew was killing him was easier than writing.

It was this self-doubt, this vulnerability, that made those of us who were lucky enough to know him love him so much. He was fully human. He was kind and loving. He was a wise old man with the soul of the child. Like the character in his favorite story Peter Pan, Stewart never quite grew up. His fear of writing was almost a child’s fear. In fact, often it made him beat himself up more: why wasn’t he producing more work? Was he a failure?

I suppose, there was one way that Stewart did grow up—he forgot that he could fly. As we learn in Peter Pan: “The moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease for ever to be able to do it.” It had been decades since he had completed a screenplay.

Ironically, Stewart’s lack of confidence provided confidence for others. If this man, this legend, who wrote Rebel Without a Cause, Sybil, Rachel, Rachel, and The Ugly American and who was nominated for two Academy Awards and won an Emmy can feel that he is not good enough, then we can forgive ourselves for our doubts. As Stewart strove to do in his work he did in his life: we see his demons and his flaws are our demons and flaws.

If we can learn anything from Stewart’s life and work it is that we do not have to be perfect to be great. In other words, he taught us how to fly.

TheFilmSchool faculty. Top row, left to right: Warren Etheredge, Tom Skerritt, Brian McDonald and Larry Estes.
Bottom row, left to right: Diana Dotter, Stewart Stern and graduating student Sydney Soliz from TheFilmSchool graduation ceremony
of what ended up being Stewart's final class.

For my money though, Stewart Stern was as perfect a man as I’ve ever met. I loved him and I will miss him. But I know exactly where to find him—second star to the right and straight on ‘til morning.

Other things about Stewart Stern:

Sunday, December 14, 2014

My Accidental Hiatus

Turns out I took an accidental hiatus. I kept thinking I would get back to posting, but things kept getting in the way. I was teaching and writing my own stories. I wrote a bible for a television show which took up a lot of time. I am working on a graphic novel as well as a couple of other projects. All of those things spread me pretty thin. The other thing is that every time I tried to think of something to post I felt like I had already covered the subject in a previous post. As much of a talker as I am I only have so much to say and sometimes I run out of juice. I do want to get back to this blog, but I don’t want to make, or brake, any promises about how frequent my posts will be. I would like to thank those of you who have followed the Invisible Ink Blog and I can promise to try to do better in the future when it comes to posting. But one thing I can do right now, for those of you who haven’t heard them, is post some links to some recent podcasts where I was a guest. Thanks again for being patient with me. -Brian
A story about The Red Badge Project where I am an instructor
20/20 Podcast Episode 15 :: Brian McDonald’s 5 Best Scripts of 1993

Monday, June 02, 2014

How Stories Work – Everything Old is New Again

A few months ago, I heard a story on NPR about a study that found reading literary fiction, rather than popular fiction, could help people be more empathetic. I have no doubt that this could be true. But I did take issue with ending the story there.
The story seemed to conclude that because literary fiction had the effect of making folks more empathetic it was better than popular fiction. Now, I just don’t believe in the idea of one genre being better than another. I do not believe in story hierarchy. There are well-told stories and there are poorly told stories, that’s it. And empathy is just one thing we can learn from them.
Stories work because of something called theory of mind, which is our ability to put ourselves in the minds of others—real or fictional. A lot of that has to do with this: When we read about, or watch, someone doing something, neurons in our brains fire so that our brain can imagine this activity or event is happening to us. When a person runs, for instance, motor neurons are activated in their brain. The same parts of the brain activate when we simply watch someone run.
If I write, the cool breeze blew gently over my skin causing goose bumps, you can feel that. You are predisposed to feel it; it is the only way to understand what I was feeling.

Literary fiction is all about the subjective experience, getting in the minds and experiencing the feelings of the characters, so it only makes sense that having these areas of one’s brain stimulated would have an effect. But again, as far as I know, the researchers only tested for empathy.
I suspect that if they had had subjects read mystery novels and then tested their memory and puzzle-solving skills they might have seen an improved ability to perform those types of tasks. There are all types of things one can learn from stories; empathy is just one.
For example, what prompted me to finally write about this is a more recent study about how having couples watch and discuss romantic movies is as effective in lowering divorce rates as marriage counseling.
This only makes sense. This is ancient wisdom that modern science is now catching us with. In Ayurvedic medicine, a more-than-3,000-year-old form of medicine from India, using stories is part of the practice. A patient is told a story and instructed to contemplate the hero’s plight. Sounds a lot like the romantic movie study, doesn’t it?

Humans seem to be hardwired not just for enjoying stories, but for imitating and learning from them. People have known this for just about as long as people have been telling stories. And there are many things to be learned from them—empathy being a very important one. But if ever find yourself lost in the woods, cold and hungry, you might find the story you read about someone surviving in the woods more valuable than any piece of highfalutin’ literary fiction.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Movies I Like: Ace in the Hole

final draft script writing screenwriting software screenwriting contests filmmaking books

I am unsure just how many posts of mine mention legendary writer/director Billy Wilder, but here is another to add to the stack. The man made a ton of good films and there is no reason not to mention each one. Very few filmmakers can touch him when it comes to the number of classics he produced. He crafted stories with the care, precision, and elegant simplicity of a Shaker woodworker. His film Ace in the Hole is a great example of this.

Released in 1951, Ace in the Hole, starring Kirk Douglas, is the story of  down-on-his-luck, former New York newspaper reporter, Chuck Tatum, who takes a job on a small paper in Albuquerque, New Mexico, while he waits for that big story that will put him back in the big leagues—back on a big New York paper. And when the right story does come his way, this unscrupulous reporter isn’t above manipulating the situation to make sure it gets lots of attention from the New York papers—even if this means putting a man’s life in jeopardy.

Wilder was a master storyteller and did many things well, but one of the things he did exceptionally well was construct a first act. This is now almost a lost art, but a great first act can make or break a story—it is a story’s foundation. It is the bedrock upon which one builds a solid structure. Ace in the Hole has an amazing first act.

When we meet Chuck Tatum he is reading a newspaper while sitting in the driver’s seat of his car, which is being towed: a very nice opening image that tells us something about the character and his situation. It already doesn’t look like this guy is living the good life.

Tatum has the truck pull over when he notices that they are passing the office of the town newspaper. When Tatum enters the office he addresses a very young man at a typewriter. His very first words to the young man:

TATUM: I’d like to see the boss—what did you say his name is?

YOUNG MAN:  I didn’t say.

TATUM:  Cagey, huh?

[For those of you that don’t know the old slang, cagey means reluctant to give information.]

YOUNG MAN: Mister Boot is the owner and publisher.

TATUM: Okay, tell Mister Boot that Mister Tatum would like to see him. Charles Tatum from New York.

YOUNG MAN:  What about?

[There is a line missing from Tatum here, for the sake of brevity.]

YOUNG MAN: What did you say you were selling? Insurance?

TATUM: I didn’t say.

YOUNG MAN: Cagey, huh?

This exchange matters. Why? Because this young man (Herbie) becomes Tatum’s protégée. During the course of the story, that young man grows to idolize Tatum. And, here, in this very first exchange you can see that dynamic at work—the young man takes on aspects of Tatum’s personality right away. This is a brilliant little exchange that sets up what is to come.

While waiting for Mister Boot, Tatum spies a piece of embroidery framed on the wall. It reads, “Tell the Truth.”

We find out that is something Mister Booth says. He runs an ethical, honest newspaper.

Shortly, in Booth’s office, where Mister Booth also has the framed embroidery saying “Tell the Truth,” Tatum tries to talk himself into a much-needed job on the paper. During his pitch to Booth, Tatum says:

TATUM: I can handle big news and little news. And if there’s no news—I’ll go out and bite a dog.

This line matters. He is saying that if there is no news he will make the news, which is just what he later does. His character is being established here. None of this clever dialogue was written to be snappy patter without a purpose. It all matters.

Tatum offers to cut his rate in order to work for Booth, and Booth wants to know why.
Tatum decides not to lie because he has noticed what Mister Booth is wearing:

TATUM: I’ve done a lot of lying in my time. I’ve lied to men who wear belts. I’ve lied to men who wear suspenders. But I’d never be so stupid as to lie to a man who wears both belt and suspenders. You strike me as a conscientious man, a man who checks and double-checks.

Tatum then goes on to list all of his drinking and philandering, as well as a libel suit, that got him fired from the big papers.

Tatum lands the job. But Booth tells him there is to be no drinking on the premises.

The film then jumps in time to a year later and when we first see Tatum we see he is wearing both a belt and suspenders. He has conformed, so far, to Booth’s way of doing things. It is clear, however, that Tatum is unhappy here. He paces the floor of the newsroom, ranting about the boredom of this little town. This is not New York. Even the news is boring here. His big story has not come and he is restless.

Then Tatum is sent out on an assailment to cover a rattlesnake hunt in a neighboring county. Herbie is to go with him to take pictures. Tatum is not excited about the assignment.

"Bad news sells best. Because good news is no news." -- Chuck Tatum
On the drive, Tatum fantasizes about what a great story it would be to have fifty snakes loose in Albuquerque, with the whole town in a panic, and how the story could go on day after day as each snake is hunted down until there is only one left…somewhere. He asks:

TATUM: Where’s the last rattler? In a kindergarten? In a church? In a crowded elevator? Where?

HERBIE: I give up, where?

TATUM: In my desk drawer, fan. Stashed away only nobody knows it, see. The story’s good for another three days, and when I’m good and ready we come out with a big extra—Sun-Bulletin snags number fifty.

Herbie finds this distasteful.

TATUM: Me, I didn’t go to any college, but I know what makes a good story. Because before I ever worked on a paper I sold them on a street corner. You know the first thing I found out? Bad news sells best. Because good news is no news.

Again, nothing is wasted Wilder tells us just who Tatum is. He is a guy who will do whatever it takes to get a good story even if that means not being completely honest.

When Tatum and Herbie pull into a gas station they discover that there is a man trapped in a cave-in. The man was in the cave dwellings looking for old Native American pottery when the cave collapsed, trapping him.

Because of the danger, no one will enter the cave to check on the trapped man. And the Native Americans won’t enter because this is sacred land to them—The Mountain of the Seven Vultures. They believe that the cave-in was caused by their ancestors.

Tatum figures that this could be the break he’s been looking for, and enters the cave with Herbie to check on the man. It is made clear through what Tatum says to Herbie that Tatum does not care about the man at all, this is just a means to an end—this is Tatum’s change to get back on top.

Tatum wishes out loud that it will take a least a week to get the man out of the cave, that way he could milk the story. Herbie, is again taken aback by Tatum’s callous attitude.

TATUM: I’m not wishing for anything. I don’t make things happen, I just write about them.

When Tatum emerges from the cave he knows he’s got his story. And then comes Act Two, when we see how he finds ways to keep the man in the cave longer while appearing to lead a rescue effort.

It is a flawless first act that sets up everything that is to come. Tatum is also able to get others to help with his scheme: the man’s wife, the crooked sheriff, and the drilling engineer. Herbie knows nothing about the manipulation, but does like being part of a major news story. There is also an insurance salesman and his wife, who start off as the spectators in what becomes a media circus.

These people are all getting something from exploiting the fact that a man is trapped in a cave. Tatum, the sheriff, the engineer, the wife, Herbie, and the couple—that’s seven people. Seven vultures. Wilder does everything for a reason. Doing so helped him become one of the most celebrated directors in the history of the movies.

There is a point in the film when Tatum has given over completely to the dark side, so to speak, where he removes his belt and suspenders and starts drinking again. He’s no longer Booth’s kind of reporter.

I won’t tell you what else happens in the film, but if you like to see a master at work you should take a look at Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Why a deus ex machina doesn’t make a satisfying story.

Before I start this post I want to apologize for the long gap between this post and the last.  I was deep in a project that took up a lot of my time and mental energy. That project is more or less done—more or less. So, now I can take the time to write a post. I hope that I can make them more frequent. Thanks for sticking with me. 

Recently, I have found myself in a couple of email exchanges about the idea of deus ex machina (pronounced like “day-us eks mawk-inna”).

For those unfamiliar, translated from Latin, deus ex machina means “god from the machine”, referring to the special effect of a god arriving on stage machinery, and it has come to mean that a storyteller has pulled the solution of the story out of his…out of nowhere.

In ancient Greece some playwrights (I’m looking at you, Euripides) would use this device to get their heroes out of trouble and end their plays. A god, at the climax, would descend from Olympus and solve everything. The hero of the play did not solve the problem himself, and after a while, audiences found this device tiresome. Why?

Aristotle said, “The resolution of a plot must arise internally, following from the previous action of the play.” Again, why?

To answer that question we have to look at why humans tell stories in the first place. As I talk about at length in my book The Golden Theme, I believe stories are told to pass on survival information. This is why stories are about conflict. Often, when I say this, the first thing some people do is go through a list of stories that they think are not about passing on survival information—but there are all kinds of survival. There’s physical survival, social survival, cultural survival, spiritual and emotional survival. All kinds. If you think you have found a story that is not about some kind of survival, chances are you haven’t looked deeply enough.

Stories provide us with a kind of dress rehearsal for conflicts in real life. It doesn’t matter if the story takes place in the “real” world or a fantasy world of some kind, like sci-fi, sword-and-sorcery, or another era in time. And it doesn’t matter if the story uses animals instead of people as characters, it will contain survival information. At the very least the character usually learns something about herself or the world, and learning is a great assistor when it comes to survival.

Slaves in the American South told stories of a trickster named Br'er(brother) Rabbit. The character was used to pass on information about how the seemingly powerless might use their wits to survive.
The more stories we have in our heads, the more prepared we are for different types of conflict, and just what types of options we might have to overcome the conflicts we encounter in life.

Let’s look at the first Indiana Jones film, Raiders of the Lost Ark. In this story, archeologist Indiana Jones is trying to obtain, and keep out of the hands of the Nazis, the Biblical Ark of the Covenant. The Ark is said to have great power: an army that marches with the ark before it is invincible.

At the story’s climax Indiana Jones and his partner, Marion Ravenwood, are tied up against a pole and the Nazis have the Ark. When the Nazis open the Ark, it is a god from the machine as the power of the Ark is unleashed on the Nazis, killing them all, but leaving Indiana Jones and Marion unharmed. Their ropes have been burnt, setting them free.

Why does this work?  It shouldn’t, but there it is—working. How?

When the story starts Indiana Jones doesn’t not believe in the Ark and its power. Here is an exchange between Indiana Jones and his friend Marcus Brody:

Brody: Well, I mean that for nearly three thousand years man has been searching for the lost Ark. It’s not something to be taken lightly. No one knows its secrets. It’s like nothing you’ve ever gone after before.

Indiana: [laughing] Oh, Marcus. What are you trying to do, scare me? You sound like my mother. We’ve known each other for a long time. I don’t believe in magic, a lot of superstitious hocus-pocus. I’m going after a find of incredible historical significance, you’re talking about the boogieman.

There it is: Indiana Jones doesn’t believe in the supernatural. One way to think about this is that Indiana Jones believes he understands how the world works. But by the story’s end, Jones has changed and does believe in those things he formerly disbelieved. Or maybe he simply realizes he doesn’t know everything. He has grown. He has learned.

The story was not about whether or not Indiana Jones could break free of his ropes. By this point in the story, we have seen him do some amazing things and make incredible escapes. At this point in the story it is about his change, and it is this change that saves him. When the Ark is opened, he believes in its power enough not to gaze on the Ark as its power is unleashed. This is what saves him, not the god from the machine. Being open to changing one’s mind may save your life.

This is not an absolute truth, but it is often true in life that we get stuck in a way of thinking that is detrimental.

It is important in a story that a character can solve her own problems, because the audience is there to learn how to overcome theirs. So, in just about every case if some mysterious force or unlikely coincidence saves the day, the audience feels cheated. And they have been cheated.

You may have a story where a character needs to learn that there is always hope or that miracles can happen. There are people in life who survive car crashes or other accidents that should have killed them. Or maybe they survive an illness that the odds say they should not have.

But in such cases, the story’s lesson had better be proven by a god from the machine event. The lesson ought to be about a character’s state of mind. Maybe a character needs to believe that there is always hope and that helps them to survive.  This is the kind of story that is more about emotional or spiritual survival rather than physical. 

The reason deus ex machina doesn’t work in other instances is because it doesn’t teach us how to solve problems. It doesn’t teach us how to survive. 

P.S. Some things you may have missed:

The Red Badge Project -- Healing Soldiers with Art



Episode 28 :: Screenwriter Brian McDonald's Creative Process :: Pt.1

Episode 30 :: Screenwriter Brian McDonald's Creative Process Pt. 2

The 20/20 Awards 
Episode 32 :: IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE :: Great Directing with ...
Filmmaker Brian McDonald shares his thoughts on one of favorite examples of good directing; Frank Capra's IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE:

What are you talking about?

The Golden Theme by Brian McDonald is the book for writers (a review):

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Yes, Documentaries Also Use Story Structure

One of the questions I get most is about story structure and is, “Is it different for documentaries?” No. In fact one of the best structuralists working in film of any kind is documentarian Ken Burns. I watch his work in awe. If you want to know how stories work, you should become familiar with what he does.

There is something I often urge people to do, but few ever bother: to understand how stories work you must learn to observe them in their natural habitat. You must pay attention to the way people talk in real life to discover when people tell stories, why people tell stories, how people tell stories, and how often.

As I have written before, story structure is natural; we all use it every day and most of us are relatively good at it. Yes, some people are better and others less so, but for the most part we are pretty good at telling stories. It is when we are consciously constructing them that we get confused.

No matter the genre or medium, story construction is basically the same. When you are able to see this clearly, you will have reached another level of storytelling. So many people become confused by the surface of a story—what I call the clothing that a story wears. 

So, I might be lecturing someplace and someone may say when I am making a particular point, “But what about sci-fi, my story is sci-fi. Does this work for sci-fi?”

You can replace the word sci-fi with comedy, drama, western, dramedy, musical, romance, historical fiction, supernatural romance, historical romance, supernatural comedy, docudrama, horror, fantasy, or countless other combinations. For some reason people think that their particular genre will have special structural concerns. (This may be true of your story, but it will not have anything to do with genre.)

I guess that when people ask these questions it means that I have done a poor job of explaining exactly what structure is. Story structure is a way of arranging story events that makes the meaning of those events clear and engaging for one’s audience, to elicit the maximum effect.

In some ways each story has its particular demands, but there are some basic structural forms that work more often than not. Ken Burns uses basic story structure so well that he makes what he does look effortless and his stories could not be more effective. 

At the opening of each series and of each episode of that series he “tells you what he’s gonna tell you.” If the show is about Mark Twain, he lets you know just who Mark Twain was and why he matters—and he does this right up front.

Rather than making you feel like you have already seen the story, it makes you more interested in hearing the story. This is one of the most difficult things to get students to understand, because they often want everything to be a surprise. But what good is a surprise if the audience isn’t interested enough to start listening?

Then Ken Burns will tell you the story in detail, and with emotional truths that give the story resonance. He makes the history relevant by using emotion to connect you to historical events. He makes the story matter because he makes the audience care. 

This is no different than what one would do in a fictional or dramatic narrative piece.  The structure is the same because a story is a story. Period.

Then Ken Burns “tells you what he told you.” He sums up what you have just seen. He tells you again why it matters. And now, because you have an emotional context for the information, it has even more power than it did upon the first hearing.

This is classic structure and Ken Burns, and his team, are masters of it. His latest film THE DUST BOWL does this amazing well. And his film THE WAR, about World War II, moves me in a way that few current filmmakers have.

One of my very favorite films of all time is the landmark documentary by the Maysles brothers, David and Albert, and the brilliant editor Charlotte Zwerin, called SALESMAN. 

This is a film about Bible salesmen in 1969 and their attempt to sell expensive bibles to poor people. There is a humanity to this film that is so powerful that my guess is that David Mamet saw this film before he wrote his Pulitzer Prize-winning play GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS. There are some pretty striking similarities. (This is nothing against David Mamet, I just mention it to say that this film has a real impact on viewers.)

It was one of the early documentaries not to have a narrator talking over the film, telling the audience what was happening and how to feel about it. This film is all structure. As with most documentaries, the structure was found in the editing.

The film might be seen by some as merely a character study. I often don’t like things called character studies because what it almost always means is that the characters are “interesting,” but that there is no story to speak of. SALESMAN is great because it is a story that looks and feels like a character study, proving that one need not sacrifice character for story or vice versa. When these elements work in concert, as in SALESMAN, the result is engaging and moving.

Paul Brennan with the Maysles
The film starts with a shot of the Bible and a man’s arthritic hands. This is the salesman who becomes the main character of the story. In this opening he is in someone’s home and is trying—and failing—to make a sale. This opening scene is a real “tell them what you are going to tell them” moment. This is the story of a salesman desperate to make sales, who in the end wonders if he’s made the right choice with his life. It is amazing.

The first act introduces the main character Paul “The Badger” Brennan and all of his fellow salesmen. These other salesmen are characters that allow us to, by comparison, measure the success or failure of Paul. This is a basic structural technique and works exactly the same no matter if the story is a piece of narrative fiction or a documentary.

My favorite examples that use to explain this technique are the pigs in the story THE THREE LITTLE PIGS. It’s really the story of one pig—the pig who used bricks to build his house. But it is through the failure of the first two pigs, who build their respective houses from straw and sticks, that we can measure the success of the last pig. This is the very same technique used in SALESMAN.

There is a great scene in the first act where the supervisor of these traveling salesmen states that money is being made in the “Bible business.” And, he says, that anyone who is not making money is to blame. This sets up the attitude of Paul’s boss—that if Paul isn’t making sales, it’s his fault. So we know the stakes—Paul could lose his job.

Again, this is basic story structure used brilliantly. Set up a character’s goal—what does the character want?  It also helps to let people know the stakes—what happens if the character doesn’t get what s/he wants? Then let the audience know about the obstacle to the goal—why can’t the character just go get what s/he wants?

This obstacle can be physical, emotional, or a combination. The combination, if you can do it, can hit an audience deeply. In JAWS, the chief of police must kill the shark that is terrorizing his community. The shark is both a goal and an obstacle, as it wants to avoid being killed. This is a physical obstacle. 

But there is another obstacle and it is emotional—the chief is scared out of his mind of the water. He must overcome both the outer and inner obstacle in order to achieve his goal.

In SALESMAN, Paul faces the physical obstacle that his potential buyers are cash-strapped. But we also see that the number of rejections he gets is taking its toll on him, and he is losing confidence, which, in turn, makes selling even harder.  To make his sales, he must overcome this emotional goal as well.

This film uses the elements of structure to great emotional effect and because of this tells a compelling human drama. This is why it is both a classic and a masterpiece.

Remember that a story is a story, and structure works in the telling of any story regardless of form. The films of Ken Burns, and SALESMAN, are stellar examples of this.