“A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” It was Thomas Mann to say that, but every good writer knows exactly what he means.
A writer’s aim is to create from scratch a parallel world (that should be at least as interesting as the real one). For screenwriters, it can get even more complicated. Most good films show the audience something deeply true about human beings. In other words, the writer profoundly understands his/her own feelings and weaknesses. Not many people can do that.
That’s why screenwriting rules and guidelines are very appreciated. After thousands years of storytelling, writers can providentially rely on a very effective narrative structure and a bunch of successful rules. My last article has shown why avoiding these basic screenwriting principles affected three very famous films.
In this article, however, you are going to see three famous films that don’t give a damn about structure and rules. Can you do that too? Of course you can. If your name is Quentin Tarantino, Ingmar Bergman or Federico Fellini.
Broken Rule: Three act structure.
Three act structure is the first thing you need to know as storyteller. Act one, the set up. Act two, the confrontation (rising action – stakes get higher). Act three, the resolution (crisis – falling action). It simply works. Why? Because it emulates life.
We can feel that story is naturally made up of three parts. Even the most common kind of storytelling, jokes, requires a three act structure: “This telling is composed, as for stories, of three serially ordered and adjacently placed types of sequences. The preface [framing], the telling, and the response sequences” (Harvey Sacks).
Well, Quentin Tarantino just blows up all this. I dare you to find any structure in his stunning masterpiece ‘Reservoir Dogs’. There is no setup or introduction, nor confrontation where action rises and stakes get higher. We can feel high tension throughout the entire film. The first 10-minutes scene is a cold open (before the title sequence) and it is just presenting all characters while drinking coffee and chatting together. There isn’t any particular crisis. The resolution comes at the final minute of the film, while it normally takes about 15 minutes before the end. Every ten minutes, a flashback or a new character or a turning point comes up.
The narrative is compelling and engaging for the viewer because it doesn’t even let him breath. And on top of that, a coup de theatre pops up to shock us at minute 1:01:21. Amazing actors and breathless narrative like these can definitely live without three-act structure, don’t you think?
Scenes from a Marriage
Broken Rule: Show, don’t tell.
Ingrid Bergman’s Scene from a marriage is a never-ending dialogue. Yet, it is still one of the most powerful and touching films about love of all time. It blows up the gospel show-don’t-tell rule: don’t write a dialogue when you can illustrate something with characters’ actions instead. In the frame you can see above, Johan and Marianne are saying:
J. Sit down and take it easy. This will take quite a while.
M. Fine. So what do you want to say?
J. Nothing. I want to look at you.
We need to wait more than two hours to get the main characters to realise that they don’t want to speak anymore. They keep doing it until the end, though. Indeed, here is the very final line of the film, pronounced by Marianne: ‘Good night, my darling. It was good talking to you’.
So, why should you as a writer generally show instead of telling, unless your name is Ingrid Bergman? The cinematographic language is made up of images, sound, music and speech. Why should you favour just one of these tools? Moreover, speech gets boring very easily. In my opinion, this is exactly one reason why Bergman stuffs the film with this huge amount of dialogue. He shows us how boring can married life get. But, overall, he tells us that ‘we live our lives in confusion’. Words are confusing because they are detached from our true feelings. Words are our conscious thoughts about life, while the meaning of life often hides in the shadows of our unconscious.
Broken Rule: The protagonist of the story should always have a goal.
This is the golden rule. If your main character strongly wants something, the audience will root for them. The challenges they will find on their journey will certainly be consistent and engaging, as they are precisely made up to stop them from reaching his goal. The entire story will consist in the protagonist’s struggle to achieve their heart’s desire. That’s the key of empathy. As screenwriter, you could get rid of anything but this. Unless your name is Federico Fellini.
In 8 ½ , Guido is the director of a hopeless film. Everybody is ready to shoot, except from Guido himself. The film’s big production has even built a space shuttle to indulge the disjointed director’s wishes. Famous actresses came from foreign countries to take part in his story. But the truth is that there is no story at all. So, why doesn’t Guido give up on the whole act? Because he cannot understand if he actually wants to do this film. He does want to be surrounded by all those people asking for his provisions, even if he gets more and more stressed about it. He makes his wife come, then he arranges her to sleep in a separate bed. That’s when Luisa asks him desperately: ‘But what do you want? Why did you want me here? What good am I to you? What are you trying to get from me? What is it you want?’.
This is exactly the main question of the film. As viewers we are delighted by this amazing masterpiece for many reasons (stunning directing, lovely characters, magic and fear overall). Therefore we never suffer the lack of a goal for the protagonist. We don’t need it. I am not even sure that we want Guido to get out of his confusion. That’s our confusion too, but it’s much more enchanting.
Screenwriting rules are nearly 100% effective. The trick is to master them enough to intuitively apply them to script. Films that don’t follow screenwriting principles are either destined to become masterpieces or to be forgotten. Are you taking this risk?