Movies have changed dramatically over the last 100 years. Several of these changes in popular English-language filmmaking practice are reflected in patterns of film style as distributed over the length of movies. In particular, arrangements of shot durations, motion, and luminance have altered and come to reflect aspects of the narrative form. Narrative form, on the other hand, appears to have been relatively unchanged over that time and is often characterized as having four more or less equal duration parts, sometimes called acts – setup, complication, development, and climax. The altered patterns in film style found here affect a movie’s pace: increasing shot durations and decreasing motion in the setup, darkening across the complication and development followed by brightening across the climax, decreasing shot durations and increasing motion during the first part of the climax followed by increasing shot durations and decreasing motion at the end of the climax. Decreasing shot durations mean more cuts; more cuts mean potentially more saccades that drive attention; more motion also captures attention; and brighter and darker images are associated with positive and negative emotions. Coupled with narrative form, all of these may serve to increase the engagement of the movie viewer.
Keywords: Attention, Emotion, Evolution, Film style, Movies, Narrative, Pace, Popular culture
Over at Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications, James E. Cutting has an interesting paper about how popular movies have changed over time in terms of shot duration, motion, luminance, and cuts.
One thing that hasn’t really changed though: a three or four act structure.
In many cases, and particularly in movies, story form can be shown to have three or four parts, often called acts (Bordwell, 2006; Field, 2005; Thompson, 1999). The term act is borrowed from theater, but it does not imply a break in the action. Instead, it is a convenient unit whose size is between the whole film and the scene in which certain story functions occur. Because there is not much difference between the three- and four-act conceptions except that the latter has the former’s middle act broken in half (which many three-act theorists acknowledge; Field, 2005), I will focus on the four-act version.
The first act is the setup, and this is the portion of the story where listeners, readers, or viewers are introduced to the protagonist and other main characters, to their goals, and to the setting in which the story will take place. The second act is the complication, where the protagonists’ original plans and goals are derailed and need to be reworked, often with the help or hindrance of other characters. The third is the development, where the narrative typically broadens and may divide into different threads led by different characters. Finally, there is the climax, where the protagonist confronts obstacles to achieve the new goal, or the old goal by a different route. Two other small regions are optional bookend-like structures and are nested within the last and the first acts. At the end of the climax, there is often an epilogue, where the diegetic (movie world) order is restored and loose ends from subplots are resolved. In addition, I have suggested that at the beginning of the setup there is often a prologue devoted to a more superficial introduction of the setting and the protagonist but before her goals are introduced (Cutting, 2016).
Interesting way to think about film structure. Why are movies told like this?
Perhaps most convincing in this domain is the work by Labov and Waletzky (1967), who showed that spontaneous life stories elicited from inner-city individuals without formal education tend to have four parts: an orientation section (where the setting and the protagonist are introduced), a complication section (where an inciting incident launches the beginning of the action), an evaluation section (which is generally focused on a result), and a resolution (where an outcome resolves the complication). The resolution is sometimes followed by a coda, much like the epilogue in Thompson’s analysis. In sum, although I wouldn’t claim that four-part narratives are universal to all story genres, they are certainly widespread and long-standing
Cutting goes on:
That form entails at least three, but usually four, acts of roughly equal length. Why equal length? The reason is unclear, but Bordwell (2008, p. 104) suggested this might be a carryover from the development of feature films with four reels. Early projectionists had to rewind each reel before showing the next. Perhaps filmmakers quickly learned that, to keep audiences engaged, they had to organize plot structure so that last-seen events on one reel were sufficiently engrossing to sustain interest until the next reel began.
I love reading stuff like this, in the hopes of improving my craft at storytelling, but as Cutting notes:
Filmmaking is a craft. As a craft, its required skills are not easily penetrated in a conscious manner.
In the end you gotta learn by feel. We can feel when a story is right, or when it’s not right. I reckon you can learn more about movie story, and storytelling in general, by telling your story to somebody aloud and noticing when you “lose” them than you can by reading all of Brodwell. Anyone who’s pitched anything can probably remember moments when you knew you had them, or spontaneously edited because you could feel you were losing them.
Still, it’s fun to break apart human cognition and I look forward to more articles from Cognitive Science and am grateful they are free!
Another paper cited in this article is “You’re a good structure, Charlie Brown: the distribution of narrative categories in comic strips” by N Cohn.
Thanks to Larry G. for putting me on to this one.
It’s like we understand that we’re not in here to eat mozzarella and go to Tuscany. We’re not in here to accumulate money. We’re in here mostly to sacrifice, to do something. The way you do it is by taking risks.
It’s taking risks for the sake of becoming more human. Like Christ. He took risks and he suffered. Of course, it was a bad outcome, but you don’t have to go that far. That was the idea.
TALEB: Before 15, and I reread it many times. I’d say, before 15, I read Dostoyevsky and I read The Idiot. There’s a scene that maybe I was 14 when I read it. Prince Myshkin was giving this story. Actually, it was autobiographical for Dostoyevsky.
He said he was going to be put to death. As they woke him up and were taking him to the execution place, he decided to live the last few minutes of his life with intensity. He devoured life, it was so pleasurable, and promised himself, if he survives, to enjoy every minute of life the same way.
And he survived. In fact, it was a simulacrum of an execution, and Dostoyevsky . . . effectively that says the guy survived. The lesson was he no longer did that. It was about the preferences of the moment. He couldn’t carry on later. He forgot about the episode. That marked me from Dostoyevsky when I was a kid, and then became obsessed with Dostoyevsky.
I discovered that I wanted to be a writer as a kid. I realized to have an edge as a writer, you can’t really know what people know. You’ve got to know a lot of stuff that they don’t know.
Also re: Jesus, how about Norm Macdonald on the topic:
Our friends over at Monkey Trial put this one up. Led us to the Stephen J. Cannell website, where there’s a short but thorough and helpful writing course available fro free. Adding it to my category Writing Advice From Other People.
“Good story” means something worth telling that the world wants to hear. Finding this is your lonely task. It begins with talent… But the love of a good story, of terrific characters and a world driven by your passion, courage, and creative gifts is still not enough. Your goal must be a good story well told.
What is a story? What makes something a story? It’s a question of personal and professional interest here at Helytimes. The dictionary gives me this for narrative:
a spoken or written account of connected events; a story.
The human brain is wired to look for patterns and connections. Humans think in stories and seem to prefer a story, even a troubling story, to random or unrelated events. This can trick us as well as bring us wisdom and pleasure.
Nicholas Nassem Taleb discusses this in The Black Swan:
Narrative is a way to compress and store information.
From some investing site or Twitter or something, I came across this paper:
“Cracking the enigma of asset bubbles with narratives,” by Preston Teeter and Jörgen Sandberg in Strategic Organization. You can download a PDF for free.
Teeter and Sandberg suggest that “mathematical deductivist models and tightly controlled, reductionist experiments” only get you so far in understanding asset bubbles. What really drives a bubble is the narrative that infects and influences investors.
Clearly, under such circumstances, individuals are not making rational, cool-headed decisions based upon careful and cautious fundamental analysis, nor are their decisions isolated from the communities in which they live or the institutions that govern their lives. As such, only by incorporating the role of narratives into our research efforts and theoretical constructs will we be able to make substantial progress toward better understanding, predicting, and preventing asset bubbles.
Cool! But, of course, we need a definition of narrative:
But first, in order to develop a more structured view of how bubbles form, we also need a means of identifying the structural features of the narratives that emerge before, during, and after asset bubbles. The most widely used method of evaluating the structural characteristics of a narrative is that based on Formalist theories (see Fiol, 1989; Hartz and Steger, 2010; Pentland, 1999; Propp, 1958). From a structural point of view, a narrative contains three essential elements: a “narrative subject,” which is in search of or destined for a certain object; a “destinator” or source of the subject’s ideology; and a set of “enabling and impeding forces.” As an example of how to operationalize these elements, consider the following excerpt from another Greenspan (1988) speech:
More adequate capital, risk-based capital, and increased securities powers for bank holding companies would provide a solid beginning for our efforts to ensure financial stability. (p. 11)
OK great. Let’s get to the source here. Fiol, Hartz and Steger, and Pentland are all articles about “narrative” in business settings. Propp is the source here. Propp is this man:
Vladimir Propp, a Soviet analyst of folktales, and his book is this:
I’ve now examined this book, and find it mostly incomprehensible:
Propp’s 31 functions (summarized here on Wikipedia) are pretty interesting. How a Soviet theorist would feel about his work on Russian folktales being used by Australian economists to assess asset bubbles in capitalist markets is a fun question. Maybe he’d be horrified, maybe he’d be delighted. Perhaps he’d file it under Function 6:
TRICKERY: The villain attempts to deceive the victim to acquire something valuable. They press further, aiming to con the protagonists and earn their trust. Sometimes the villain make little or no deception and instead ransoms one valuable thing for another.
There’s some connection here to Dan Harmon’s story circles.
But when it comes to the definition of what makes a story go, I like the blunter version, expressed by David Mamet in this legendary memo to the writers of The Unit::
QUESTION:WHAT IS DRAMA? DRAMA, AGAIN, IS THE QUEST OF THE HERO TO OVERCOME THOSE THINGS WHICH PREVENT HIM FROM ACHIEVING A SPECIFIC, *ACUTE* GOAL.
SO: WE, THE WRITERS, MUST ASK OURSELVES *OF EVERY SCENE* THESE THREE QUESTIONS.
1) WHO WANTS WHAT?
2) WHAT HAPPENS IF HER DON’T GET IT?
3) WHY NOW?
Cracking the enigma of narrative is a fun project.
ps don’t talk to me about Aristotle unless you’ve REALLY read The Poetics.
Similar advice is given at the beginning of this book:
which I found really helpful. The jist being: make it as easy as possible, even automatic, to start creative work.
The starting is the hard part.
In a 1935 Esquire piece, Hemingway, already playing the preening dickhead, gives some writing advice that I think is clear-eyed and well-expressed.
The setup is a young man has come to visit him in Key West, and Hemingway has given him the nickname Maestro because he played the violin.
MICE: How can a writer train himself?
Y.C.: Watch what happens today. If we get into a fish see exact it is that everyone does. If you get a kick out of it while he is jumping remember back until you see exactly what the action was that gave you that emotion. Whether it was the rising of the line from the water and the way it tightened like a fiddle string until drops started from it, or the way he smashed and threw water when he jumped. Remember what the noises were and what was said. Find what gave you the emotion, what the action was that gave you the excitement. Then write it down making it clear so the reader will see it too and have the same feeling you had. Thatʼs a five finger exercise. Mice: All right.
Y.C.: Then get in somebody elseʼs head for a change If I bawl you out try to figure out what Iʼm thinking about as well as how you feel about it. If Carlos curses Juan think what both their sides of it are. Donʼt just think who is right. As a man things are as they should or shouldnʼt be. As a man you know who is right and who is wrong. You have to make decisions and enforce them. As a writer you should not judge. You should understand.
Mice: All right.
Y.C.: Listen now. When people talk listen completely. Donʼt be thinking what youʼre going to say. Most people never listen. Nor do they observe. You should be able to go into a room and when you come out know everything that you saw there and not only that. If that room gave you any feeling you should know exactly what it was that gave you that feeling. Try that for practice. When youʼre in town stand outside the theatre and see how people differ in the way they get out of taxis or motor cars. There are a thousand ways to practice. And always think of other people.
Mice: Do you think I will be a writer?
Y.C.: How the hell should I know? Maybe youʼve got no talent. Maybe you canʼt feel for other people. Youʼve got some good stories if you can write them. Mice: How can I tell?
Y.C.: Write. If you work at it five years and you find youʼre no good you can just as well shoot yourself then as now.
Mice: I wouldnʼt shoot myself.
Y.C.: Come around then and Iʼll shoot you.
This article is behind a paywall at Esquire but I found it reprinted on the website of Diana Drake, who has story by credit on the film What Women Want.