Monday, January 26, 2009

Day One

My first day of work is finished.  I took a two-hour lunch and went for a long walk in the sun with Jiyoung.  A guy could really get used to this.

I spent today covering my bedroom wall with Post-it notes, trying to lay out the basic story arc.  Things started off quite well -- I blew through the first half of the story before lunch.  Things started to bog down a bit through the afternoon.  That's at least partly attributable to my getting physically worn out, since I pace in a circle when I'm thinking.  I must have logged at least five tiny, circular miles today.

Jiyoung and I had dinner with our friends Matt and Melinda, both of whom went to USC film school.  I asked them about story structure, and Matt explained how all Western stories since Aristotle have had a four-act structure (or, more precisely, a first act, two middle acts, and a final act), that in films these acts are usually each thirty minutes long, and that the third act is where most screenwriters drop the ball.

That sounds strangely familiar.  Returning home and looking at my wall, I saw that I'd charged through two gangbuster acts and fizzled out on act three.  So it looks like some actual work is going to have to happen now.

I also began reading Story, which is a little blowhardy, but probably still useful.  Perhaps it's so florid because it's trying to be inspirational.  I'm ready for all the frilly stuff to wrap up and for the real under-the-hood explanations to begin.  I have gotten two useful nuggets from it so far:
  • A story becomes flat when characters are never revealed to be more than they seem.
  • What the novice mistakes for craft is simply his unconscious absorption of story elements from every novel, film, or play he's ever encountered... the haphazard groping toward or revolt against the sum of unconsciously ingrained repetitions in not, in any sense, technique, and leads to screenplays clogged with cliches...
That second bullet is a bitter pill.  I hope that the story I'm starting off with isn't just a Frankenstein monster made from all the stories I've admired in the past -- parts of it sure do look familiar (I mean, is there any sci-fi plot development that DOESN'T somehow resemble Star Wars?).

Hey, that's why I've given myself a year.  Tomorrow, it's back up the mountain.


  1. Sounding cool, Nate. Good luck taking your own time to work on a project of such personal interest to you. Look forward to watching your progress! - Marc

  2. One other thing to take away from "Story" is the idea that not all stories need to adhere to the 3- or 4-act structure. Most will, because... well, it works, and it's sort of expected.

    But then you can see something really offbeat like any movie based on a Charlie Kaufman script and see how when it goes off the rails, it can be thrilling. But you have to be really, really good to defy certain expectations and not totally lose your audience.

  3. Yeah, Kaufman is pretty dazzling, isn't he? Adaptation is a straight-up rebuttal to "Story." But even he sort of admits that it's worth knowing about.

    I guess the bigger question is: do I have a strong desire to pursue an avant garde story structure in a gigantic sci-fi movie? I may want to hold out until my next film for that.

    But it is tempting to smoosh every idea you've ever had into something like this, kooky structure included. I'm really having to tighten my belt and choose a couple of my favorite things, and leave the rest for later.

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  5. Yes, the story...I spent a great time on mine and I had the fear of yeah, this sounds so good in my head...but after reading it to my wife, i discovered holes...then I ran into is this a story others will want to venture out an invest time i recycling things I liked in films, video games, etc... you covered some important notes here...the four arcs are crucial and so many films today drop the ending in my opinion another one of my fears....