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Stories that don’t fit the Three Act mould

Watch Michael Lengsfield, Molly Naylor, Tom Benn and Christabelle Dilks talk about alternate story structures.
[Michael] So, let’s let’s move on here and let’s talk about what about stories that don’t fit this mould. There are plenty out there some - some are constructed in three acts. There is a clear three act causal structure yet things are different like … [Tom] I mean just - Christabelle made that great point about how, sort of, the opening of the film, sort of, teaches you how to read it, you know! I think like, Rear Window is a great example; there’s all that visual information as the camera’s panning across the apartment. We’re learning so much and there’s no dialogue but we just - we’re just constantly experiencing this, we’re getting it.
And there are films that sort of, make, you know - there are other ways to do it. You can make those kind of promises and then break them and then subvert it and go zig when the audience expects you to zag. I was thinking of again of Ramsey’s Morvern Callar, when we open with Samantha Morton, you know, on the floor apartment with a dead guy and it’s a dead body so we think oh, where are we gonna go from here. There’s going to be consequences for this character, you know, someone’s going come looking for this. Is there going to be a police investigation. And this story’s not interested; it breaks its promises.
And is all the better for it because it has subverted our expectations. [Michael] Yeah, because we know these conventions and we expect them. We expect our story to have a dramatic question inside of a half an hour. Can you think of other ways in which we subvert these? [Molly] So in stories we say, yeah, for example like Shortcuts where we’re using as a unity of place in order to explore these different moments, which is then - it’s going to say something bigger isn’t it?
It’s not going to take us on that same journey, so it’s doing something different and I guess it’s doing that in order to explore a certain group of people, or a certain place, or a certain time so … [Michael] Right. Let me jump in for people that haven’t seen Shortcuts, that’s a film that’s an adaptation of stories by Raymond Carver and it follows ten different stories, putting them together in a format people describe as a mosaic and so we saw a little bits of each. So we have multiple storylines. There are many other examples of that.
They may be joined by a particular theme like Traffic or Crash, but Robert Altman really raised it to the level of high art, I think. [Christabelle] But I think Altman still used cinematic storytelling, the three-act structure in order to generate tension about each of those characters and then pay them off or resolve them in a way that felt satisfying, even though of course, you’re following many strands, and some of them are I know, suspended and not all of them but … [Michael] I don’t know.
I would argue that it doesn’t really happen, some of them are resolved, others are not, and I think, part of the point that Altman makes, at least in his writing about this, is that life isn’t organised that way; sometimes it’s just luck, this happens, then it does happen and there’s no way out, we’re trapped by it. But let’s go back to the three act structure because we’ll talk more about multiple narratives in a second. Other ways in which we can subvert three act structures? [Christabelle] Yeah, I really like Roy Anderson’s Songs from the Second Floor, which is just a series of discrete … [Tom] It’s great! [Christabelle] It’s great.
And fixed camera sort of, tableau-style things happen within the frame that are … And meaning accrues quite gradually, doesn’t it, through watching these characters, often you really don’t know quite what they … well you actually often quite know what they want; you know the guy didn’t lose his job, you know that there’s a pursuit of some kind, but your your position within that three act structure is very, very unusual isn’t it? And it really accrues through the watching of the film, so that you suddenly realise, a-hah! he was, kind of, addressing this theme. [Michael] And I think that’s … [Christabelle] That he challenges it, doesn’t he? That makes it hard. [Michael] Yes, that’s right.
Filmmakers will play on it; Michael Haneke loves to do that. And is just going to refuse to satisfy that question. And Kiarostami will do it at the other end - he’ll refuse to tell us what the film is about; the character clearly is doing something but he’s not gonna let us know. And they work within a three act structure but they omit important parts of the information from from the storytelling, so the audience is left hanging. And I would think that happens with stories that seem to follow this this causal structure but shake us by killing off the protagonist, you know, it happens, and or what appears to be a protagonist … [Tom] False-protagonist, early on … [Michael] Right!
Well … it’s not always early on. In No Country for Old Men, we get most of the way through and the person that we think is the protagonist is killed off. And in The Homesman, the same thing, we start following a story that seems to have a clear protagonist and suddenly they disappear. And it’s very disorienting for us as audience because we’re so used to the structure and it makes it all the more shocking. [Tom] There’s pleasure there in having that denied. [Michael] Right, right. [Tom] Having our expectations subverted. I think the best stories, they keep some promises and break others. They will confound our expectations.
[Christabelle] I think though, that the common thread of what we’re saying is that you do need to be really acutely aware of the audience experience. It’s just not the case that you can ignore that and think well, I’m just writing according to what I feel. You’re always making an architecture. [Tom] You’re managing expectations. [Christabelle] You’re managing expectations and you’re managing and manipulating a very emotional experience, aren’t you?
[Molly] Yeah, absolutely, but I would say when - I think it can be a bit of a bombardment when you’re trying to write, when you’re trying to be creative, to be thinking about this stuff and so I think my approach that is the kind of thing is to try and absorb as much as possible and then try and forget it when I’m actually sitting down to write because I think we have to assume that it’s intuitive and that it’s going to be instinctive once we’re actually writing. [Tom] At least for a first draft. [Molly] At least for a first draft. I think we use these we should use these things as an editing tool and a guideline afterwards.
[Michael] Yes, I agree. We’ve been mainly dealing with, in three act structure, immersive storytelling, where we empathise with a character. I was thinking there are storytelling styles in which we want to consciously interrupt that, so that we interrupt the the part of us that identifies with the story emotionally because we want the audience to think about what’s happening, rather than just feel so … [Christabelle] The Brechtian thing … [Michael] Right. So it’s alienation or epic theatrical techniques where we think about what’s going on, rather than merely having an emotional identification with it. [Tom] Where we’re just straight immersed.
And I think even if you do the opposite, even if you draw our attention to the theme, you step outside the story, or you remind the audience of the artifice and then you know, it’s a paradox, ‘cause that is still immersive; you’re still getting us, the audience, to think about what this story means, what these things mean and how they have an impact on the world we live in. [Molly] But you’re getting them to think about it rather than to feel. You’re not asking them to emotionally invest so it’s - that’s the distance, right. It’s emotional distance.
[Tom] Yeah, there’s a there’s an emotional distance there but if you’re asking them to think about all these things and it’s about a miscarriage of justice, or something like that, then there’s an emotional connection anyway. I guess it depends on what that theme is. [Molly] That’s very different, having emotional connection to the subject, to the themes and then to the character. It’s not cathartic, we’re not empathising with anybody. [Tom] Yeah. I agree. We’re not - there’s an emotional disconnect with those characters but if it’s being - if we’re drawing attention to it as an artifice then that emotional thing might, sort of, translate, or be transplanted into the real world.
[Michael] But it’s not just as artifice, it doesn’t have to be - it can interrupt the narrative without trying to create a self-conscious narrative, but I think multi-story line structures often do this. They’re joined, or the the element, the glue that holds them together is often a theme and something they want us to think about. But there are films in which were looking at - at say Traffic; we have three stories but we’re supposed to step away from this and you’re thinking about the impact of of drugs use, of drug importation and all of that on life.
And you would certainly say that about, I think, about Altman’s films and you might say that about even somebody - about Tarantino - that he’s often serving up these kind of, characters that are almost cartoonish because he’s going to subvert like the World War II movie, in Inglourious Basterds, and you know it’s impossible to empathise with, or too deeply anyway, with Brad Pitt’s character. He’s a cartoon and that’s the point. [Molly] And the effect that has on us is it means we’re not, we’re not allowed to be lost; we’re not allowed to lose ourselves in the story; we have to remain as sort of intellectual connection with it. [Tom] Yeah, the pleasure is elsewhere.
It’s about self-reverentiality of it, of having a movie about other movies and movie making itself and so, it’s a different way of being, getting invested in that story. It’s, perhaps not an emotional connection like you would with a traditional character. It’s coming from elsewhere. [Molly] Yeah.

The panel discusses a range of alternate story structures and considers structure in relation to story architecture, audience expectations, the immersive medium and interrupted narratives.

It’s over to you: see if you can summarise a multi-narrative story, either something of your own or a film you have seen. The Five Finger Pitch may not work; how will you describe it? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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