Monday 6 August 2012

Book review: "Dinosaur Theory"

Dinosaur Theory: Uncovering a New Approach to Screenwriting is one of those 'inevitable' books. It was inevitable that someone would write it one day. The surprise is that it was written by an Adelaide-based screenwriter. [In the interests of full disclosure, I have to tell you that Chris Tugwell was my first ever script editor.]

Even before I'd read it, when all I'd seen was the blurb outline, I knew I would like this book. Chris understands that the old Three-Act Structure Theory is misleading, and, when it comes to creating a story, unhelpful. In this he is neither first, nor alone.

Chris Tugwell
Some witnesses for the prosecution:
  • Paddy ChayefskyDramatic writing is really nothing more than telling a story, and nobody ever tells a story quite like anyone else.
  • Charlie KaufmanThere’s no template for a screenplay, or there shouldn’t be. There are at least as many screenplay possibilities as there are people who write them. We’ve been conned into thinking there is a pre-established form.
  • John Truby Three act structure, albeit a lot easier to understand than Aristotle, is hopelessly simplistic and in many ways just plain wrong. ... Three-act structure is a mechanical device superimposed on the story and has nothing to do with its internal logic—where the story should or should not go.
  • William FrougThe best way to tell your story is the way the story itself dictates. Do not try to contort it into a predetermined form.
  • Daniel PyneI completely eschew the formula of first, second, and third acts. I've run into too many writers who get lost in that old formula. They know where the first act ends, and they know where the second act ends, but their entire script is treading water because they're just writing from point to point.
  • Howard Suber With regard to any specific movie, everyone will agree on where the first act begins and where the third act ends, but there is often no agreement about where the second act begins and ends—even among the people who make the film.  
  • Bill Idelson The rich construction (read, 'structure') experts are not so much instructors as critics. They take a successful movie and dissect what the successful writer did. They remind me of wannabe painters who move a canvas chair into the museum and copy the brush strokes of Whistler's Mother. I only mention these charlatans to save student's time and money.
None of this helps the writer in the creation of their script

In Dinosaur Theory, Chris says this:
  • The trouble with all the graphs and diagrams that supposedly measure our emotional engagement in the script, and on precisely what page your turning point should occur, is that none of this helps the writer in the creation of their script. Worse, I believe it actually gets in the way.
  • I say this as a screenwriter, and as someone who over the past 20 years has edited, read and assessed literally thousands of screenplays by budding as well as highly skilled writers. In that time it has become clear to me that what all the good and great scripts have in common is not this mysterious Three Act structure. It isn't even that they have a great story, though that is pretty vital.
  • What each and every great script has is shape.

Yeah, shape. This might sound weird at first, but give it a chance.
  • I use the term 'shape' to distinguish what I'm talking about from what is described as 'structure,' of the Hollywood-guru-Three-Act variety. The two are fundamentally different.

They are focused on storytelling as an inorganic thing,
rather than part of the natural world

After studying structural theory for years, I went through an exercise whereby I reduced the major schemes—by Syd Field, Linda Seger, Michael Hauge, Christopher Vogler, Viki King, and Blake Snyder—to an overlapping chart, which highlighted the commonalities of their theories, and I submitted that chart to Brian McDonald (author of Invisible Ink) for comment. He approved my analysis, then said:
In the end we all say the same thing in slightly different ways. For each of us, I'm sure, there are subtleties that only matter to us. I think those authors are great, but they are focused on storytelling as an inorganic thing, rather than part of the natural world. They tend not to relate these structures to real life, or at least, to how we relate stories to one another in real life.

... the natural and obvious connection of events in your story ...

Chris Tugwell goes on to say: 
  • I'm talking about the natural and obvious connection of events in your story that draws it into one single, unified and sublime whole. Where everything fits like a jigsaw puzzle, where each piece has its own unique place, and the picture is incomplete without all the parts.
  • The shape provides the support, the skeleton, the bones on which your story hangs.

There are lots of different story 'shapes.' Just think about it. There is the 'Time' shape:
There is a 'Deadline' shape, a 'Task' shape, a 'Place' shape, a 'Journey' shape, 'Another Reality' shape, an 'Event' shape, an 'Anniversary' shape, an 'Object' shape, and so on. I can't reproduce all the information here; you'll have to read the book for yourself.
  • This is not new. The ancient Greeks and Persians knew about it. As did Chaucer and Boccaccio. Shakespeare used a wide variety of shapes in his plays; an island in The Tempest (a place), the Battle of Agincourt in Henry V (an event), the summer solstice in A Midsummer's Night Dream (one day). In Romeo and Juliet it is the length of a relationship from their first meeting to their deaths.
  • Each shape has particular features that make it powerful. Each has a certain character and qualities that make it suitable for particular stories. Although there will always be those writers who break the boundaries and find a way of using a shape in a surprising and unexpected way, whether it is Tarantino breaking a single day into out-of-sequence fragments (Pulp Fiction), or Pinter making time flow backwards (Betrayal). 
  • Genre isn't a lot of help in determining the shape of your film. It doesn't narrow your choices down that much. For this reason using a 'genre' can create as many problems as it solves; it is the ultimate one-size-fits-all approach. And genre doesn't help you explore your character's emotions and their response under stress. 
  • If it's a thriller genre, is it in the shape of a 'place' like the motel in Psycho, or is it in the shape of a 'journey' like Wolf Creek?
  • If it's a romantic comedy is it the Bridget Jones's Diary kind, that lets us into the head of the main character via the diary (relationship) shape, or is it the A Fish Called Wanda kind that is in the shape of a heist (task)?
  • Once the shape of your journey is clear, the way that events unfold will become more and more obvious and large parts of your script will fall into place.
  • And because it is so vital, uncovering the shape must happen before any thought of acts or turning points.

Stories are found things, like fossils in the ground

All of which leads into the theory element of Dinosaur Theory. Very few people ever get a complete idea for a story in a single instant. I usually think of a character in a situation. Then I have to scratch around to work out how that character in that situation translates into a complete story.

The bulk of Dinosaur Theory addresses the question of, How do I get my story fragment out of my subconscious? How do I dig up my complete dinosaur skeleton, without losing any of the vital pieces? It's a question Stephen King touched on briefly in his book On Writing.
  • My basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves. (p.188)
  • Stories are found things, like fossils in the ground. (p.188)
  • Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible. Sometimes the fossil you uncover is small; a seashell. Sometimes it’s enormous, a Tyrannosaurus Rex with all those gigantic ribs and grinning teeth. (p.189)
Whereas Stephen King just mentioned the problem, then moved his focus to what Brian McDonald calls 'wordsmithing,' Chris Tugwell spends a lot of time walking us through the process of discovering our own stories. If you struggle with the how of unearthing a complete story, this book is a good place to go for ideas.

However the breakthrough element in the book, for me, is Chris's idea of 'shape' as the predetermining element in devising the structure of a story. It’s a solid, accessible concept, easy to grasp and explain.

I'm already using it.


Ed Love said...

Interesting stuff, I'll have a look. Thanks!

Kathy said...

I'm not sure that defining a lot of story shapes is much different from defining the structure of a story- one is focusing on the shape or structure rather than the meaning and purpose. Nevertheless Mr Tugwell's approach seems deeply thought out and useful to all us storymakers. Thanks once again Henry for showing us a useful book.