cageIt is a truism that, "we tell ourselves stories in order to live." But, it is remarkable what a human characteristic the drive for narrative is. What purpose does it serve? No matter, it's pretty much like the opposable thumb at this point, and we've been telling stories since we learned how to communicate; the weirdest thing, perhaps, is that the experiences of everyone who has ever lived and died in the history of the world are both altogether unique and so similar that we can have stories to begin with; to a degree, then, we all must live the same story (that's deep.) And the way we've been telling stories in the West still owes much to the work of Aristotle. We've shared a rundown of the evolution of narrative, its study, and how both can help you become a more successful screenwriter, so continue on to find out more. 

The Greeks

If you're any sort of creative writer, you've no doubt heard the dictum, "Show, don't tell." Familiar as this piece of advice is to the screenwriter, it was, shockingly, not coined by Syd Field. Aristotle, writing about Sophocles and his tragedies in the fourth century B.C.E., (specifically Oedipus Rex, which contained one of drama's most famous twists, and which Aristotle considered a perfect work of drama) put it that:

Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its katharsis of such emotions.

Even before Rome, it was already established that the only acceptable story was one full of dramatization, the acting out of a situation unto its solution, without the situation being explicitly stated (that is, no one can say, "Man, it is sure rough being on this Planet of the Apes." They have to see the Statue of Liberty.) To wit:

Aristotle elucidated the principle that by seeing a tragic situation acted out on stage through, "Plot, Characters, Diction, Thought, Spectacle," and "Melody," the audience would undergo a "purging," the literal meaning of katharsis; seeing a dramatic situation aroused emotions of terror and pity, which, in a successful tragedy, would be relieved by a satisfactory conclusion; therefore, tragedy was beneficial to the audience. To get a little ahead of ourselves, the famous Freytag Triangle of the 19th century is essentially an illustration of these principles:

Beyond a beginning, middle and end, Aristotle required unity of action (that is, a self-contained narrative, with each event leading causally to the next) and no deus ex machina to save the day, hence denying the audience catharsis. The same is true today: think of all the movies you've seen where the ending comes about because of some arbitrary coincidence that is just too easy.


Everything Old is New

With the fall of the Roman empire, the Roman Catholic Church took control gradually in Europe, and they were not big theater fans, opting instead for telling Biblical stories, either didactic tales of the lives of the Saints, or so-called Passion Plays, focusing on the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. In their own way, even these "non-drama dramas" fulfilled the narrative patterns we'll look at in a second. With the Renaissance, Aristotle's ideas were "rediscovered," along with many other Hellenistic works and Roman works, a goodly number of which had been, ironically, preserved by Catholic Monks, who copied out the ancient documents by hand; many of Shakespeare's plays were reimaginings of these stories, and Aristotle's writings became the foundation for modern drama, though around this time there started a trend towards a more "naturalistic" form of storytelling. Today, the goal of a drama, and especially a movie, is to immerse the audience to the point where they forget they're watching a story at all. Doing away with togas was probably a good first step.

Tragedy and Comedy

Today, there are probably millions of pages that have been written just on the subject of narrative, and  roughly 728 of those pages are in The Seven Basic Plots (required reading for any screenwriter, or writer of any narrative form, for that matter). A survey of narrative from around the world, from Gilgamesh to Crocodile Dundee, the British scholar Christopher Booker talks about a pattern that he noticed in every story from nearly every culture around the world. This pattern was, of course, explained by Aristotle, and will also answer anyone who has been asking, "Yeah, yeah. But what about the laffs?"

Well, in Aristotle's view (and for the record, he just happens to be the most famous source that survives; I am in no way implying a superiority in his work, or that I have a poster of him on my wall that I high-five every day), while tragedy is concerned with catastrophe (literally, a "down-stroke"), comedies are about situations where complications increase in the form of misunderstandings, threatening to keep characters apart (generally two well-matched lovers), creating a seemingly insoluble "knot" of complications. Eventually there is the peripeteia, or "reversal of fortune," which leads to what the French came to call the denouement, which means, literally, an "unknotting." And that, in its simplest and most reductive form, is comedy.

Story Structure and Archetypes

Booker holds that the division between these two stories covers more than just comedy and tragedy, but all types of narrative. He discusses the archetypal plot of "overcoming the monster," and how it rules over genres as diverse as Westerns, War stories, and Thrillers. The commonality is that all these stories are governed by a pattern, which Booker illustrates operating in everything from Ian Fleming's Bond novels to H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds, as well as acting as the basic structure of Shakespearean tragedy. The pattern is no doubt familiar to anyone who has read Joseph Campbell, Blake Snyder, Robert McKee, or any of the countless screenwriting gurus (though it should be noted that Campbell wasn't a screenwriting guru, at least not by profession or choice.)

The Pattern:

  • Anticipation: The hero is in some way incomplete or unfulfilled, and when something presents itself, they find their energies focused on a course of action.
  • Dream Stage: The hero becomes committed to their course of action (Booker cites examples like Faust signing a deal with the devil, or Humbert Humbert in Lolita causing the death of the mother of Lolita, allowing him access to the young girl. At this stage, things seem to go improbably well -- the hero can do no wrong, it seems.
  • Frustration Stage: Almost imperceptibly, things begin to go wrong; a sense of dissatisfaction and anxiety emerges, along with a "shadow figure" who may appear; the hero may also be compelled into further acts which get them in deeper to their situation.
  • Nightmare Stage: Events slipping out of control; mounting despair; forces aligning against the hero.
  • Destruction/Death Wish Stage: Either by forces they have aroused, or some final act of apocalyptic violence, the hero is destroyed.

Booker puts it that under this giant umbrella sit all the different varieties of story, and writers are able to endlessly manipulate their stories by beginning at different stages, or using any of the almost infinite permutations possible within this general blueprint. For instance, much modern storytelling tends to begin at the Frustration Stage, though there are plenty of narratives (Star Wars is frequently the example given) that start right at the top of the structure.

It should always be noted, too, that a screenplay is unlike any other type of literature. According to Robert McKee, "Never write a line of dialogue when you can create a visual expression." But a visual expression of, say, disillusionment, is a both subtle and tricky thing to pull off, and part of the reason why excellent screenplays are so few and far between. Make no mistake: it is hard to write a movie, and it is almost impossible to write a good one (as every screenwriter can attest.)

Booker's pattern can be seen, in one form or another, in everything from Syd Field's seminal works, to Blake Snyder's Beat Sheet, and Robert McKee's complex patterns. All these approach story as a problem, a person through whom we experience that problem, its complications which lead to reverberations and an eventual solution, whether happy or sad, or sometimes both.

There is even software, like Dramatica, which, by applying complicated narrative equations, can take a series of questions (a lot of questions, actually) and turn out a story that the creators maintain will contain all of the elements of a successful story. According to Dramatica, and radically simplified here, a successful story is a combination of 4 ways of seeing the story mind, expressed via values found in nearly endless combinations of story values (if you're completely lost, anyone not familiar with Dramatica should be warned that it is rumored to take months of intensive study to fully grasp their system.) For some writers, this is antithetical to creativity, yet others swear by it:

In the end, all roads lead to the screen. Every screenwriter is looking to tell their story, and every story is about a character who needs to overcome obstacles -- whether they are actually successful at doing that in the end is up to the storyteller.

What do you think? Do you subscribe to any theory of narrative, or do you think it's all hogwash? Do any structures help you to plot the events of  your story, or do you rely on your subconscious for inspiration? Finally, we're all here to improve at our craft, so if you have any tips or methods you'd care to share, let us know in the comments!