"I am trying to check my habits of seeing, to counter them for the sake of greater freshness. I am trying to be unfamiliar with what I'm doing." - John Cage

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Writing Great Stories: Notes from Chris Millis' Talk at Sierra Nevada College 11/6/15

Chris Millis presented a dynamic and powerful talk on what makes good story and especially a good screenplay.  He played excerpts from movies that model this structure such as Moonstruck, Star Wars, Boogie Nights, Ali, and his own hilarious anti-hero film Small Apartments. Here are my notes from his talk.  I find that rewriting my notes into a post helps me assimilate the knowledge into my own work.  

What follows are Chris' talking points:

Chris started with setting up some context on story by quoting Toni Morrison, my newest hero (as I've just finished reading and teaching The Bluest Eye), from her essay The Site ofMemory.      

Excerpt from The Site of Memory – Toni Morrison:

I consider that my single gravest responsibility (in spite of that magic) is not to lie. When I hear someone say, "Truth is stranger than fiction," I think that old chestnut is truer than we know, because it doesn't say that truth is truer than fiction; just that it's stranger, meaning that it's odd. It may be excessive, it may be more interesting, but the important thing is that it's random - and fiction is not random. Therefore the crucial distinction for me is not the difference between fact and fiction, but the distinction between fact and truth. Because facts can exist without human intelligence, but truth cannot.

Humans need story to reveal the meaning of our existence

Plot is character revealed by action – Aristotle

·         Syd Field – Foundations of Screenwriting
·         Robert McKee –  Story
·         Blake Snyder – Save the Cat
·         Creativity, Inc
·         Andrew Stanton – TED talk on Story
·         The Site of Memory – Toni Morrison essay

Average Screenplay is 110 pages total

Act 1: 9-10 scenes (1-30 pages)
            Presents thesis, Ordinary world

Act 2: (31-84) (page 55 is the midpoint)
            Strange new world, Presents anti-thesis

Act 3: 85-110 pp
            Wisdom, Synthesis

More on Synthesis:
Hegel: The only way a battle could cease between a thesis and an antithesis was through the construction of a synthesis that would include elements from both sides and transcend the opposition, a transcendent “third” that is a new entity in which both are included.

Jung: The individual is faced with the necessity of recognizing and accepting what is different and strange as a part of his own life, as a kind of ‘also-I’.

How the subject has to recognize in the foreign power it fights the misrecognized part of its own substance – reconciliation of the subject with its alienated substance

We must see the character at work/home/play – play includes some special skill that can come to its full flowering – important in the synthesis

Movies as models of this structure:
  • ·         Moonstruck
  • ·         Star Wars
  • ·         Small Apartments
  • ·         Boogie Nights
  • ·         Ali
  • Toy Story (all of 'em)

Act 1:

Significance of opening image: metaphor of thesis

5 minutes into the movie: present a statement of theme, the basis of all decisions and the bigger idea of the movie

“Save the Cat” moments – you have to make people care – they need a problem they have to solve

Catalyst – the inciting incident 12 minutes in

Refusal of the call – individual vs. systemic problem, a period of indecision – character must leave Act 1 of their own accord, a decision is made!
·         Who will be the sounding board?
·         Who will be the mentor, supernatural aid?

Act 2: 25-30 minutes
·         Antithesis is presented (about 10 scenes)
·         B-story line begins (love story?)
·         The promise of the premise is given to the viewer in first half of second act
·         Characters bond and are tested, make friends and enemies
·         Introduce a new character just before the midpoint (p 55) – often there is a reversal of momentum here, tangible vs. spiritual goal conflict

Second half of Act 2: 9-10 scenes
o   Ideas fail, desperation grows
o   Friends abandon the hero
o   Consequences from earlier actions happen
o   Walls close in on hero (trash compactor in Star Wars)
o   All is lost – p 75 – called the Death Beat just before end of Act 2
§  Also death of mentor, loss of sounding board                       
§  Usually a “false” victory or defeat here – rock bottom
·         At 75-78 minutes
·         Visualizing moments – characters stare off into the distance, internal reflection, to go inward

At the end of Act 2 – what am I going to do? Find the courage to be the hammer, not the anvil – once this decision is made, it’s the breakaway from Act 2!

Act 3:
·         desire for wisdom to be achieved
·         To transcend opposition
·         A triumph of integration and wholeness
·         Combine knowledge and mistakes to succeed

One more thing: 5 final steps! Stack the odds against the hero and make the ending surprising as well as inevitable
·         Urgency -  beat the ticking clock
·         Surprise
·         New new plan
·         Crossing return threshold
·         Climax – falling with style

Coda? Denoument – not Deux ex machina!

If you have a problem making your plot have what it takes for the audience to care, go back to the beat right before the midpoint (at p 55) – find something there to be addressed or assimilated or overcome in the climax

Final image – opposite of opening image?

Why write story?
·         Contribute your own myth – make new mythologies!
·         You get a little window to tell your stories – what will be your story?