(this article originally appeared at screenwriting
website Twelvepoint.com, July 2010)
I stepped out of Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace (1999) onto the sidewalk in front of Mann’s Chinese, the second screening of opening day. As I stood there, arranging the debriefing session with my fellowgeeks, an awful thought kept surfacing -like a Dia Nogu’s eyeball. I thought…I thought, well…maybe I hadn’t enjoyed George Lucas’ long-awaited return as much as I should have. I had “a bad feeling”.
But you can’t just say you have “a bad feeling” if you’re serious about studying and making movies. If you don’t like something, you need to find out exactly why. We had looked forward to the return of the Star Wars saga for years, anticipating how wonderful it was going to be. It was not wonderful. Why?
The Phantom Menace is by no means entirely lousy. In fact, despite how universally the film is disparaged, it is not the worst Star Wars movie. The worst Star Wars movie is Episode 2 – Attack of the Clones (2002). Some of the film’s design is superb. Darth Maul – an exquisite cross between a predatory animal and a demonic monk – is one of the best character designs in all of Star Wars, and the final duel between Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan and Darth Maul is one of the best action scenes of the entire saga.
Darth Maul, beautiful & inconsequential
So what is the key failing of The Phantom Menace? It’s not the awful dialogue, which isn’t, on the whole, much worse than in any of the other Star Wars movies, discounting the babblings of the reprehensible Jar Jar Binks. It’s not Jar Jar himself either that destroys the movie. We would like to lay all the blame on Jar Jar: ‘Oh, if it weren’t for Jar Jar, TPM would be pretty good.’ No. No, it wouldn’t. And it’s not the performances either – though, it’s true, most of them are shockingly strangled and lifeless.
The central flaw is, as usual, a script problem, and it’s such a fundamental script problem that no amount of clever, high-tech decoration can disguise it.
In trying to sleuth out exactly why a story doesn’t work, it’s good to put it up next to a story that you know does work. The original Lucas masterpiece, Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977) - which I always call simply “Star Wars”, and so should you – is held up as a paragon of solid script structure, and for good reason. Its simplicity and clarity makes it easy to analyse and understand and, furthermore, it’s a movie everyone has seen, which makes it easy to talk about. It’s also one of the most successful entertainments in history so there ought to be some value in studying it carefully.
When we put the script for The Phantom Menace side by side with the script from Star Wars, one feature distinguishes them from each other more than any other, an element triumphantly strong in one film, almost laughably weak in the other. The stakes. The real difference between the beloved 1977 original film and The Phantom Menace and the reason for latter’s failure is the height of the stakes for the characters.
High stakes are essential to telling a good story. “High stakes” doesn’t have to mean the threat of a bomb exploding in five minutes. A teen’s parents coming home in five minutes is more than enough to put us on the edge of our seats. It isn’t threats of physical torment that determine high stakes either – simply missing a bus can be the most devastating moment in a character’s life.
What determines the height of the stakes is how far apart the poles are of success and failure, as well as the character’s depth of commitment to achieving success. There is little middle ground in the best stories. In the movies we love, a character may strive for great success but the penalties for failure are equally great. The best stories not only have a Devil, they have a Deep Blue Sea.
In the greatest sports movies, for example, the stakes are rarely about whether or not the character will win. The character’s desire to win is usually paired with a penalty for failure that is psychologically catastrophic. In Chariots of Fire (1981), Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell certainly want to win but the tension of the story comes from their utter commitment to their calling, their commitment to their true selves. It goes beyond a desire to win a race. These men have left themselves no room to retreat; they are committed to an idea of themselves and of their futures. The genius of the Chariots of Fire script is that its climax hinges on the characters’ even greater commitment to personal honour and mutual respect, which is far greater than the desire for a medal.
It’s easy to think that death is the worst thing that could happen to a character. In the world of flesh and blood, this may or may not be true, but movies exist in the world of emotion. And an emotional catastrophe – one that is going to be communicated to the audience – can take a million forms and will almost always be more violent than any physical slaughter.
So back to our two Star Wars movies. Let’s take the five main characters from each film and examine the stakes each character faces -what action is asked of each character and what are the penalties of failure?
In Star Wars:
- LUKE must deliver R2D2 safely into the hands of the rebellion. If he fails, the fully-operational Death Star will mean the end of the rebellion – and of galactic freedom.
- DARTH VADER must retrieve the stolen Death Star plans and learn the location of the secret rebel base. If he fails, the rebels could destroy the Death Star and cripple the power of the Empire, and he will have a lot of explaining to do to the Emperor.
- HAN SOLO must pay back Jabba The Hutt. If he fails, he will be a fugitive, fleeing bounty hunters and ruthless gangsters for the rest of his life (wonderfully, he does fail in order that the other characters may succeed).
- PRINCESS LEIA must retrieve the plans for her fellow rebels. If she fails, it will mean the end of the rebellion.
- OBI-WAN KENOBI must get the plans safely to the rebels. If he fails, it will mean the end of the rebellion.
Looking at The Phantom Menace, we see a different picture:
- QUI-GON JINN must negotiate a peace between the Trade Federation and the Naboo. If he fails, the Trade Federation may take over the planet Naboo. Never really clear why this would be a terrible thing.
- QUEEN AMIDALA must stop the Trade Federation from dominating her planet, it would seem. If she fails she will no longer rule – and someone else will, I guess.
- DARTH SIDIOUS must make Queen Amidala sign a treaty with the Trade Federation. If he fails, the status quo will probably continue.
- ANAKIN SKYWALKER must increase his understanding of The Force and return to Tatooine to free his mother and the slaves. If he fails, he will have broken his promise to his mother. (note that he does fail, with no real consequences to anyone, including himself)
- JAR-JAR must do what he can to help Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan. If he fails, it’s doubtful the Jedis’ mission would be negatively affected and the status quo will continue.
The lack of consistent high stakes in The Phantom Menace is the movie’s main flaw. Almost across the board, the price of a character’s failing is simply that the status quo will continue or the slack will be picked up by some other character.
In Star Wars, the few main characters are the only people in the galaxy who can pull off the necessary task to resolve the conflict. In The Phantom Menace, few characters are really essential. We might wonder, for example, if Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan were cut from the story altogether, if anything might have changed? I tend to doubt it. The Trade Federation probably still would have invaded and Amidala would have had to lead some kind of armed resistance in the Third Act with or without their help.
If Anakin – who will become one of the most famous characters in movies – had never appeared in the film, would there have been any alteration in the story? Not likely. Apart from the destruction of the Trade Federation command ship – a lucky accident – Anakin is superfluous to the story. And two Jedi Knights who are supposed to be expert negotiators can certainly drum up spare parts for their ship without resorting to gambling on the life of a child.
The Phantom Villain of the movie, Darth Sidious, who is manipulating the Trade Federation, makes many villainous pronouncements but for no clearly discernible purpose. We have no reason to think he would sleep any worse for not making them.
Compare that to Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin’s predicament in Star Wars, where the Emperor himself is counting on Tarkin and his armoured bulldog to solve the problem – and fast. And it is a big problem. The secret plans for the keystone of the Empire’s new military strategy are flitting around the galaxy somewhere, possibly in the hands of the very people they are trying to crush.
"I'm taking an awful risk, Vader."
It’s been said over and over that if you want to make your hero work better, give him a better villain. Star Wars, with a very few strokes, conveys a great weight of responsibility on the villains. They can’t just decide to focus their energies elsewhere or wait for it all to blow over. If they fail, it’s their careers, their lives and the lives of all their associates that are in danger, not to mention the staggering investment in money, manpower and ideological commitment that the Death Star represents.
Also note how in Star Wars all the characters – protagonists and antagonists – are bound together by the same problem. Whatever the outcome is, every character will be permanently affected. It is simply not possible for any of the principal characters – or minor characters, for that matter – to pass through the story without being changed for the worse or the better. In fact, no one in the entire galaxy will be unaffected by how the story plays out. Those are high stakes.
I’m on my way now to the third and final day of the Transmedia Next Training For Media Professionals, where the Pickfords, Chaplins, Fairbankses and Griffithses of the 21st century are gobbling up inspiration and information from the likes of Lance Weiler, David Beard, Inga von Staden, and Anita Ondine.
Officially, I’m attending the Transmedia Next training as a journalist – but that’s just my avatar. As you know, I create other worlds when I’m not writing about this one – and sometimes even get paid for it. I missed Transmedia Next day one, but yesterday was enough to soak me through with new ideas. My pulse rate literally accelerates when I hear the hows & whys of full spectrum storytelling. Really. I get all flushed and sweaty.
“Transmedia” seems to be the designation we’re going to use for this 21st century storytelling, where the divisions between book and film and game and app and any other media-centric experience you can think of can become almost infinitely blurred. But I do like the expression “full-spectrum media” too. I don’t know where I first heard it. Maybe I just made it up. The US military has openly sought “full-spectrum dominance” of all possible combat spaces. Now, storytellers and artists must stake a claim to their own limitless arena. It’s exciting to recall that a spectrum is absurdly larger than the puny ROYGBIV of visible colors. It extends endlessly to the left and right and contains colors we can, right now, only barely imagine.
One of my key functions now – as a “transmedia storyteller” – is to do my best to push into the infrared and the ultraviolet of our current transmedia spectrum, extending the range of vision so the generation after us – the real transmedia artists – the Jean Renoirs and David Leans and Orson Welleses – will be in a position to see a little further.
(this article originally appeared at screenwriting
website Twelvepoint.com, March 2010)
I always pat myself on the back for having written a great scene, but writing a great scene doesn’t help you tell a great story any more than getting a great shot helps you make a great film. What makes a shot “great” is what’s on either side of it, its relationship to the larger assemblage of shots. What makes a scene great is how it plays against the scenes before and after it. A scene, no matter how I feel about it, is only useful insofar as it contributes to a larger whole, and that whole is its big brother, the ‘sequence’.
If you’ve never heard of sequences and are now feeling a bit disoriented in the story anatomy hierarchy, just remember: shots make up scenes; scenes make up sequences; sequences make up acts and acts, as we all know, make up movies.
Of all those building blocks, I would argue that it’s the sequence, not the scene or the revered act, which is the most important one in the screenwriter’s toolkit, and the one he or she must come to understand completely and intuitively. Yet sequences are not well understood by most writers, beyond a vague sense that a sequence is a few scenes stitched together for some kind of common purpose.
What’s a good definition of a sequence? Here’s mine: A sequence is a unit of story structure composed of a series of scenes with a coherent dramatic spine. It begins when a character is placed in a state of uncertainty or imbalance – i.e., when the hero has a big problem. It ends when that problem is resolved and – and here’s the key – the solution to that problem creates another, further problem that then begins a new sequence.
So a sequence begins when a character is confronted with a crisis – and a crisis is any situation in which you can’t say, ‘Let’s just forget the whole thing’ – and it concludes when that crisis is resolved in favour of a new crisis. When a sequence completely resolves or eliminates the central problem that began the whole story, then the movie is over.
A master storyteller is one who leads us to believe that each sequence will be the one that will finally resolve or defuse the main conflict of the story, that will solve all the character’s problems, and then surprises us, frustrates us, thrills us, by delivering the complete opposite: an even greater complication that draws us into a new sequence.
Each sequence has a beginning, a middle and an end. Or to frame it in writer’s language, an inciting incident, a rising action and a climax. You can even think of each sequence as having its own mini-story arc. LA-based screenwriting teacher, Chris Soth, calls his seminars on sequence structure, the ‘mini-movie method’ and encourages students to treat each sequence as if it were a short movie unto itself – not a bad suggestion if you don’t take it too literally.
Some screenwriters will construct a ‘beat sheet’, a kind of outline, for their scripts and often what they’re doing, though most amateur writers wouldn’t think of it in this way, is flailing around in the dark trying to find what the sequences are.
When there are troubles with a screenplay’s act structure, the real fault can often be found in its sequence structure. In my own writing, when the story feels adrift and vague – or when Act II just isn’t working – the cause is almost always a lack of clarity in the sequences that make up the film. I run into the trap of overconcentrating on individual scenes, stringing them together like a child’s bead project, without noting how they contribute to making up a larger sequence, and time and time again I have to look at the bigger picture.
Many screenwriters who are aware of and consciously manage sequence structure in their work have been influenced by the teachings of Frantisek ‘Frank’ Daniel who was Dean of the School Of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California in the late 1980s. This is where I learned about sequence structure, alongside many other media creatives whose names are more familiar to you than mine. Frank Daniel delighted packed lecture halls with his analyses of a wide range of films in terms of their sequence structures and many of us undergraduates would sneak into the back of his graduate level courses in order to learn something we knew was invaluable for our craft.
Frank insisted that every complete film story has exactly eight sequences, usually two sequences in the first act, four in the second, and two in the third act. Some say the origin of this eight-sequence template is the division of early feature length movies into reels, physical reels of film, usually around ten minutes long. Reels, typically with two projectors operating side by side, would have to be switched during a showing, and writing films in ten-minute, cohesive sequences then helped keep each dramatic beat of the story contained within its own reel. I have my doubts about this. I tend to think it worked the other way around. I think the reason a ten-minute reel was used in the first place was becausse that was – due to some mysterious quirk of the human emotional makeup – a satisfying length for a single dramatic beat to be introduced and progress to a climax. I believe the storytelling element came first and the technology followed.
I do not have the courage to say that every feature film always has eight sequences, although Frank Daniel used to amaze us by somehow making every film fit the structure. Sticking to a strict eight-sequence feature film model though can be very helpful in trouble-shooting. It encourages us to look more deeply when a story appears to have too few sequences, or to compress or cut when confronted by a plethora of sequences. The world is not literally divided into lines of latitude and longitude but it helps to pretend that it is.
Generally speaking, the better written a movie is, the clearer its sequence structure will be, and vice versa, the clearer your sequence structure is, the better your story will probably be. Films dominated by strong physical action, adventure movies and musicals, tend to have a more transparent sequence structure and lend themselves to easier analysis. Both action movies and musicals will often have set pieces at the climax of each sequence.
Solid sequences and the writer’s facility with them are what make some three-hour movies seem to fly by and some 80-minute movies last eons. Dances with Wolves (1990) is the second longest movie to win the Best Picture Oscar yet it flies by largely because of its rock-solid sequences, each with a clearly-defined tension that leads into the next sequence. On the other side of the coin, loose or vague sequence structure is usually to blame in that bizarre, yet frequent, phenomenon of a movie that is packed with action but is utterly boring and exhausting.
Ask a friend to list their favorite movies and you’ll get a diverse set of responses but it’s a good bet that most of the choices will have in common clear, strong sequence structure, and the very best will have sequences that keep surprising us and keep us guessing, and play in contrast or in sympathy with each other like find symphonic music.
I am an on again/off again David Lynch fan. I can never make up my mind whether I love his work or not. One thing that keeps me coming back though is his solid sequence structure. I may not like what he’s doing on the screen all the time but it’s always presented in a structurally rock-solid, coherent way if you look at the skeleton under the strange and fearsome flesh he puts on top of it. Imagine my surprise – lack of surprise, it should be – to learn when researching this article that David Lynch was a devoted student of Frank Daniel.
How a story is dissected into sequences may depend very much on the analyst’s point of view. Like an isolated, non-technical civilisation that doesn’t distinguish yellow from orange, for example, one analyst might see one large sequence where another sees two shorter sequences.
I’ve included below a simplified outline of the sequence structure of Star Wars: Episode IV (1977), indicating the problem that begins each sequence, and the resolution that ends it and launches us into the next sequence. You might disagree with my breakdown, which is good. Do your own analyses of as many films as you can and don’t worry too much about trying to force a movie into eight sequences. The key is to locate exactly where each new dramatic tension begins, note how the character tries to solve that tension, and then to find exactly where that tension is replaced by a new one.
STAR WARS 8 SEQUENCE BREAKDOWN
- Problem: The Empire is about to retrieve the Death Star plans, capture the Princess and send R2D2 and C3PO to the spice mines of Kessel – in short, the movie is about to be over.
- Complicated by: the droids are captured by Jawas.
- Resolution: The droids find safety with Owen Lars and his nephew Luke.
- Problem: Luke find a mysterious message from an important person begging for help from someone he might know.
- Complicated by: R2D2 runs away.
- Resolution: Luke decides to go with Ben Kenobi to Alderaan.
- Problem: Luke and Ben have to find a way to get to Alderaan at Mos Eisley Spaceport.
- Complicated by: Imperial forces are searching the city for them.
- Resolution: The Millennium Falcon escapes Mos Eisley and heads for Alderaan.
- Problem: Fly the droids and the plans safely to Alderaan.
- Complicated by: Alderaan is destroyed.
- Resolution: Our heroes are captured by the Death Star.
- Problem: They discover the Princess is aboard the Death Star.
- Complicated by: The Princess is scheduled to be terminated.
- Resolution: The Princess is rescued.
- Problem: They must take the most important person in the galaxy to safety, starting from the bottom of a garbage masher.
- Complicated by: Legions of single-minded fanatics are trying to kill them.
- Resolution: They escape the Death Star and the Death Star’s sentry ships.
- Problem: The Death star is following the heroes to the Rebel Base.
- Complicated by: Han is abandoning them.
- Resolution: Luke and the rebels fly out to destroy the Death Star.
- Problem: The Death Star is going to destroy the Rebel Base and end the rebellion forever.
- Complicated by: Darth Vader engages the rebel pilots in his own ship.
- Resolution: Luke destroys the Death Star and becomes the hero of the galaxy.
Sequence 8 begins.