Tuesday, August 30, 2011
Plot & Structure Analysis - Notting Hill
A tool I use to study effective structure is from James Scott Bell's best seller "Plot & Structure." Whether you're a plotter or a pantser, it's wise to consider the major scenes of your story and how they sustain the story starting with the first sentence all the way to "The End."
The foundation this model is built on is that stories follow the three act structure: Beginning (Act I), the long middle (Act II), and the end (Act III).
Mr. Bell argues that a novel's structure is held together with a well thought out initial disturbance and two doorways of no return leading to grand finale.
Early in Act I, we come face-to-face with a disturbance. This is where the lead's normal life is altered (it can be a change, trouble, etc.)
Act I ends when we arrive at the first Doorway of No Return. This is the transition into the confrontation of Act II. The key is that it must be a doorway of no return. If the lead can say, "Screw it, I don't care anymore," then there's no real conflict. It needs to matter, greatly. And turning back needs to be impossible (physically or emotionally).
Throughout the second act, the stakes need to rise. It needs to build up to something drastic which makes the resolution or winning even more critical than ever before. Act II is the longest portion of the story.
This leads us to the second Doorway of No Return. Like the first one, it's a kick in the pants, with no choice but to enter the doorway. This propels us into the final battle, the confrontation, the do or die section of the novel. This second doorway drives us directly into Act III, the waging of battle.
Finally, with the end of Act III comes the final battle and resolution. Then there's the aftermath where the story leaves a lasting impression, or a resonance.
The book has plenty of samples and clarifying explanations. But with this high level refresher in mind (because I know that you've read the book and if you haven't you can win it -- see my contest), let's see how it works in the real world.
Applying The Model
I like real examples. I need to see it. More importantly, I need to do it on my own to internalize it. Although on the surface I get it, concepts never really sink in until I apply it to things that I understand. For illustration (and educational) purposes, I will apply it to a romantic comedy, Notting Hill.
Notting Hill -- Starring Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant
SPOILER ALERT -- If you haven't seen the movie, I will be giving away key plot points and the ending. You really should watch it. It's a fun movie.
The Hero - HG
The Heroine - JR
HG is a not-so-successful book store owner (they only sell travel books--clearly, he has not been following the industry trends). In walks the biggest actress of the time. He immediately recognizes her, but does his best to be low-key about it. Is this the disturbance? Sure, a mini disturbance no doubt. But the real one is coming.
A couple of funny scenes later, she buys a book and leaves. He's a bit taken by the surreal nature of the experience, but moves on. HG leaves the store to buy coffee and juice. On his return he runs into JR spilling the juice all over her. Major disturbance.
First Doorway of No Return
Is this a kick in the pants? I don't know about the rest of you, but if a world-famous actress, who's the hottest thing on the planet, kisses you in a passionate moment, chances are things will not be the same for you. You have slipped down the rabbit hole. THE FIRST DOORWAY. This is a key point. He's a regular guy, going through the motions of life and the biggest celebrity has suddenly kissed him.
Escalation of Stakes
Turns out, she has a boyfriend (another famous actor). And when he shows up in London, HG understands that he was silly and naive to think that an average bloke like him, would ever have a chance.
She leaves, he's broken hearted. Things are not the same for him. He is damaged. This is the escalation of conflict.
She's distrught. Pictures taken of her when she was younger have hit the rags -- nude shots. He takes her in and comforts her. She's a mess but in a short period of time, he gives her peace, comfort and more importantly friendship.
Later that night, they make love. The next morning, she asks if she can stay with him longer. He says, "Stay forever."
That's the SECOND DOORWAY. He's in love. He wants her to stay with him--forever! There's no turning back now. Impossible.
In fact, it lasts, about 25 seconds in movie time. The paparazzi find her at his home and take pictures of them in their underware.
It's all bad at this point. Months pass. He's in a state of depression. This is appropriate for someone who has entered through the second doorway. He had it all... for a few seconds, but still had it all, and now she's gone.
He then hears that she's been in London filming a new movie. He needs to see her (emotional death is at stake if he's not with her), so he goes to visit.
She's a bit distant but invites him in. As he watches them shoot, he hears her tell a co-star that she doesn't know why he (HG) showed up. HG finally gets it. He leaves without saying a word.
The next day, she shows up at his bookstore. This is another classic scene. He turns her down when she asks if they can try again. She explains that she didn't want her co-star to know what was really going on in her life. But as far as HG is concerned, his heart can't take it anymore. He needs to have a clean break, because he's certain that she will break his heart again. She leaves with a classic gut-wrenching scene. "Remember, that I'm just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her." She walks out and he's left there planted.
But a romantic comedy must have a happy ending, right?
He calls his friends and recounts what happened. As he explains the whole thing to them, it dawns on him that he was a "daft prick" and got it all wrong.
The chase is on.
They're trying to find her before she leaves the country. They finally find her at a press conference where she's explaining that she will take a break for some time and leave London immediately. The last question, goes to the gentleman in the pink shirt. Yup, it's HG. He asks her to take him back in front of the press, and of course, she does. A true knockout ending. Done with brilliance.
Everyone--even the mega-stars and bookstore owners--deserve happiness.
I hope this has been helpful. Try it. Pick a movie, TV show, or a novel and see if you can identify these scenes. When they're done well, they make the story world believable. And the more you do it, you'll get a better feel for what makes for convincing scenes that move the plot along.
I have a separate journal for this type of analysis.
Do you also analyze your favorite movies and books? Do you dissect them to see what made them great? How do you do it? What do you look for? Do share.
Fight the good fight!