Gurus

The Great Guru Showdown: The Archive

It’s never a bad time to run my big-ass concordance of everybody’s structure (NEWLY UPDATED to include Dan Harmon’s Story Circle and Film Crit Hulk’s Five-Act Structure!) 

The first few posts here made it into the book, but then there’s lot of good stuff that didn’t make it in.  I made my own graphics for lots of these!  Ah, to be young again...
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The Great Guru Showdown, Part 9: Jule Selbo


The Guru: Jule Selbo
The Book: Gardner’s Guide to Screenplay: From Idea to Successful Script
The Year: 2007

The History: Unlike our other gurus, Selbo’s book is not well known and hasn’t had a seismic effect. I’ve included her for two reasons: (a) to show that there are dozens more structures available in other books, and (b) because I love how her structure doesn’t resemble anybody else’s, but still pretty much works. Selbo teaches at California State Fullerton and she’s written several direct-to-video sequels to Disney movies.

Outrageous Statement that Makes You Want to Reject the Book Outright: None, really. Selbo is a good, down to earth writer who doesn’t engage in outrageous overreaches.

Areas Where It’s Less Than Helpful:

  1. I like how she questions the rigidity of other structures, but the flip side of this is that her structure slides around too much. It fits every movie, but, by her own admission, some movies spend 60 pages on just one of the steps. If so you’re not going to get much guidance here for those 60 pages:
  2. As a result, this is a good structure for figuring out which beats are missing from your hero’s story, but it’s not very helpful for figuring out where you need to be on any given page. This structure won’t tell you: “Uh-oh, you’re halfway through, so it’s time to kick things up a notch.”

Useful Wisdom:

  1. I was really struck by how unique but nevertheless universal Selbo’s structure was, which convinced me that every story structure was really an attempt to describe the inherent structure of a problem, rather than merely the traditions of previous writers.
  2. This is proven by the fractal nature of her structure: it applies to a whole movie, it applies separately to each sub-plot, it applies to each sequence, and it even applies within each big scene.
  3. I love how much she stresses that the hero must first try to solve the problem logically. Blake Snyder insists that you get to “the promise of the premise” by page 30, but this can lead to movies like The Negotiatior, where Sam Jackson decides to take hostages way too quickly. Compare this to Safety Last: people have come to see Harold Lloyd climb a building against his will, but Lloyd smartly takes the time to exhaust all the other options, even though it means that the promise of the premise doesn’t arrive until halfway through.
  4. She does a great job walking you through several movies and showing how her structure applies. The book is a simply a good read.

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The Great Guru Showdown, Part 8: Blake Snyder


The Guru: Blake Snyder
The Book: “Save the Cat!” and “Save the Cat Strikes Back”
The Year: 2005 and 2009

The History: Unlike most of the others on this list, Snyder actually wrote a few theatrically released movies, but the only one you’ll remember is, alas, Stop or My Mom Will Shoot! After his career petered out, he wrote a slim screenwriting book that became wildly popular. His follow-up book turned him into a full-fledged guru by laying out his version of structure, but he didn’t live see it published, dying suddenly at age 51.

Outrageous Statement that Makes You Want to Reject the Book Outright: “Existential dilemmas are what close on Saturday night, as the low-performing art house gem Memento proves. Gimmick or really dull movie? You decide.”

Areas Where It’s Less Than Helpful:

  1. Snyder’s first book was way too snide and arrogantly anti-intellectual. Look at that quote! How many things are wrong with that statement?? I initially skimmed the book, found quotes like that, and quit reading. It was only after the book became a phenomenon that I tried it again, and realized there was a lot of great analysis buried beneath the arrogance.
  2. As part of his overly-bluff tone, Snyder is far too specific about which page number each beat should happen on, causing many to dismiss his work as a “paint-by-numbers” formula.
  3. His central point, that bad-ass heroes like Jolie’s Lara Croft aren’t actually sympathetic, and heroes should go back to saving cats occasionally, is a good one, but he gives too few examples of varieties of “cat saving,” leaving the reader adrift.

Useful Wisdom:

  1. Thankfully (and poignantly) Snyder’s posthumous follow-up book was far more mature and humble that his first. It’s in this book that he lays out his whole structure, which is, for my money, the best of the bunch:
  2. One of his best no-no’s that is often-quoted today is “double mumbo-jumbo”, which says you can’t have two unrelated sources of weirdness in the same story.
  3. Snyder insists that every scene should reverse the change from positive to negative or vice versa. This is the same as saying that every scene should be a reversal. I mostly agree, but not entirely.
  4. Snyder focuses a lot on the power of opening and closing images, with the latter preferably being the opposite of the former. Directors rarely do this literally, but if you think of this as some sort of symbolic object that reverses meaning from the first scene to the last, it can be a powerful tool.
  5. One idea that’s in Snyder’s structure and no others is the “False victory and/or false defeat,” with one happening around page 60 and the next around page 75. Again, this isn’t always true, but once he points it out, you do start to notice it a lot.
  6. …and lots more. These books are really packed with good pithy little nuggets of advice, if you can make it past his initial snotty attitude. Snyder shall be missed.

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The Great Guru Showdown, Part 8: The Sequence Approach (Daniel via Gulino)


The Guru: Frank Daniel, via Paul Joseph Gulino
The Book: Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach
The Year: 1970s / 2004

The History: Frank Daniel was a Czech film producer who emigrated to America in 1969, then taught screenwriting at three of the country’s biggest film schools: AFI, Columbia, and USC. At each school he preached the “sequence approach”. He never published these ideas in a book, but instructors at these schools spread the word. Finally, in 2004, one of his protégées, Paul Joseph Gulino, published a book that summarized Daniel’s approach.
Thing that Makes You Want to Reject the Book Outright: Well, before you read a word, there’s Gulino’s author photo (above), which is exactly what you fear a guru will look like.
Areas Where It’s Less Than Helpful:
  1. As with most books, the description of the structure is too vague and generic, while the definitions of the jargon are too specific and arbitrary.
  2. In general, this theory gives too much equal weight to each of the eight sequences. There’s no sense of rising action. Unsurprisingly, devotees of this approach tend to write episodic screenplays.
Useful Wisdom:
  1. If you look at what we’ve studied so far (please enlarge!), you’ll notice right away that this one’s significantly different. The sequence camp deserves credit simply for stubbornly resisting the three-act orthodoxy, and reminding screenwriters that there are totally different ways of looking at things.
  2. In sharp contrast to Field, Daniel/Guilino stress that the hero, rather than meandering through the second act while waiting for the climax, should always be trying to solve the problem right away and the only reason that it takes so long is that everything keeps getting turned on its head, which makes sure that the screenplay keeps expanding in scope.
  3. I love the idea presented here that, after the ¾ mark, the “dramatic question is answered” and now the hero starts working against everything they’ve worked for up until that point. This isn’t always true, but once Gulino pointed it out, I realized how often this happens. Basically the hero realizes that he/she’s been building a house of cards and spends the rest of the movie trying to tear it down.
  4. It took me years to figure out that the main difference between the second quarter and third quarter of a screenplay was “the easy way vs. the hard way”. Gulino, unlike Field, does mention this, though he doesn’t emphasize it very much.
  5. I like how Gulino explicitly focuses on the audience’s experience of the story, and the need to build false expectations in order to create irony.
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The Great Guru Showdown, Part 7: Syd Field


The Guru: Syd Field
The Book: Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting
The Year: 1979

The History: Field had been an unproduced screenwriter (aren’t we all?), a development exec, and a lecturer for many years, until he got fed up with the lack of any books about screenwriting. He wrote the first one and it became a wild success. He’s published several more books and lectured around the world ever since.

Outrageous Statement that Makes You Want to Reject the Book Outright: (On how well you have to know your characters) “I’ll write more than 20 pages, starting with my character’s parents and grandparents on both sides, and then I’ll even use past lives and astrology to further insight into my character.” Ah, the ‘70s…

Areas Where It’s Less Than Helpful:

  1. Field, like most screenwriting gurus, is maddeningly generic. Anyone who charges money for their seminars loses the luxury of saying “well maybe my ideas don’t apply to your story.” They have to insist that their ideas are universally applicable, which turns them into mush.
  2. And so phrases like “inciting incident” and “plot point” are too vague to be useful. Here’s a typical paragraph: “The function of the Plot Point is simple: It moves the story forward. Plot Point I and Plot Point II are the story points that hold the paradigm in place. They are the anchors of your story line” Oh, okay. Wait, what? It’s meaninglessness. It provides no real guidance.
  3. The now-omnipresent phrase “Inciting incident” makes no differentiation between the problem, the opportunity and the conflict. I’ll delve into that more soon...
  4. The other huge problem with Field’s structure, as you can see from the diagram, is that it leaves you totally adrift in the second act, without even a recognized midpoint, writers have no clue how to get through the meat of their screenplays. The result is that a lot of Field’s devotees wind up just marking time until the climax finally begins.

Useful Wisdom:

  1. For good or ill, Field ideas were generally applicable enough to give the entire industry some common terminology, such as “Act 1, Act 2 and Act 3,” which does greatly help the notes process.
  2. Field is the most laid-back of the major gurus. His tone is calm and helpful, he does a great job linking everything back to examples.
  3. He’s great with character creation and gives good examples of ways to show character through behavior.

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The Great Guru Showdown, Part 6: Joseph Campbell


The Guru: Joseph Campbell
The Book: The Hero With A Thousand Faces
The Year: 1949

The History: Campbell traveled the world, learned six languages, studied Freud, Jung, James Joyce and James Frazer, translated ancient tablets, and defined the underlying structure beneath heroic myths from every culture. His 1949 book was hugely influential. His popularity surged in the 1970s, when his work was embraced by both new agers and Hollywood storytellers like George Lucas.

Outrageous Statement that Makes You Want to Reject the Book Outright: The first line has not exactly aged well: “Whether we listen with aloof amusement to the dreamlike mumbo jumbo of some red-eyed witch doctor of the Congo, or read with cultivated rapture thin translations from the sonnets of the mystic Lao-tse … it will be always the one, shape-shifting yet marvelously constant story that we find.”

Areas Where It’s Less Than Helpful:

Campbell was a great man who humbled the world into seeing their myths from anthropological and artistic perspective, but attempts to apply his structure, derived from religious and foundation myths, directly to screenplays are very problematic....

  1. Campbell’s heroes start from a happy status quo, untroubled when the story begins, but this makes for very dull characters. There’s no volatile reaction between the character’s internal problems and the external action of the plot.
  2. Campbell’s very big on mentors, which I never see the need for.
  3. While Campbell’s circular chart is very elegant, how often do movie heroes, other than Frodo, actually “return with the elixir” to rescue their homelands? Movie execs quote this all the time, but I don’t think it applies.

Useful Wisdom:

  1. Obviously, we all owe Campbell for doing the research that proved there was such a thing as universal storytelling structure, and that it arose not from the genius of any one culture (as Aristotle would have it), but from the inherent needs of the stories themselves, with independent cultures all over the world discovering similar rules.
  2. One aspect of Campbell’s structure that I do find myself quoting a lot is the idea of “finding the special weapon in the cave” during the third quarter of the story (whether the special weapon is an object, a vital piece of information, or just a self-realization). A hero’s ultimate triumph should come from the failure of their original plan, not the success of it.

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The Great Guru Showdown, Part 5: Aristotle

The Guru: Aristotle
The Book: Poetics
The Year: 335 BCE, or thereabouts

The History: Aristotle (student of Plato, tutor of Alexander the Great) lectured on every subject under the sun, including the proper form and function of tragic plays. (There was possibly a companion volume on comedy, but that’s lost today.)

Outrageous Statement that Makes You Want to Reject the Book Outright: “The character will be good if the purpose is good. This rule is relative to each class. Even a woman may be good, and also a slave; though the woman may be said to be an inferior being, and the slave quite worthless.” Okee-Dokee then.

Areas Where It’s Less Than Helpful: I was assigned to read this on the first day of film school, but it didn’t do me much good. Students are hardwired to reject restrictions, so they pick up structure books looking for an excuse to fling them across the room, and Aristotle has no shortage of those:

  1. All heroes must come from royal families (An idea that poisoned English and French drama for centuries.)
  2. The whole drama should take place in one day in one place. (Ditto)
  3. In general, like most of the gurus we’ll look at, he’s overly didactic (“These are the only possible ways”), practically begging the student to find an exception and therefore reject everything.
  4. He had little use for happy endings, referring to the third act strictly as “the unraveling.” He didn’t leave any room for triumph.

Useful Wisdom: That said, re-reading it for this entry, I was shocked at how many of the book’s truths I had rejected only to “discover” them for myself much later. These include:

  1. Drama is about a person’s problem, not their life in general: “For tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of an action and of life, and life consists in action, and its end is a mode of action, not a quality.”
  2. One problem should rule the story: “It should have for its subject a single action, whole and complete, with a beginning, a middle and an end.”
  3. The purpose of good writing is to take the “and then, and then” randomness of life and transform this into the “and so, and so” flow that exists only in fiction. (For some reason, Aristotle’s Greek is usually translated into Latin here, so this is called post hoc vs. propter hoc)
  4. The best dramas end in a realization (ignorance to wisdom) and a reversal (good fortune to bad, or vice versa). These can happen one after another, but in the very best stories, they happen simultaneously.
Tomorrow, we’ll jump all the way to the 20th century. Sorry, slavery-lovers.

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The Great Guru Showdown, Part 4: How Do They Line Up?

So we’ll begin at the end: here’s what our gurus look like, all lined up. This is the first (that I know of) structure guru concordance. Click to enbiggen it and then drink it in...Note how some of the structures are just different ways of saying the same thing, while other truly contradict each other (especially in the third quarter, which is always the hardest part of a story to define.)

And for those of you to lazy too click on it and see the full-size version (I know you’re out there), here’s a close-up of the beginnings:
The middles:
And the ends:
But who are these guys and gals, really? Next week we’ll talk about what they have to say that’s valuable and what’s not so helpful...
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The Great Guru Showdown, Part 3: Are Gurus Helpful?

Story gurus have been around for a long time, but their track record is spotty at best. We associate Aristotle with the golden age of Greek theater (Sophocles, Aeschylus, etc.), but if you actually check the dates, you notice something disturbing: his study didn’t mark the beginning of the golden age but rather the sudden end of it.

Likewise, we associate the first screenwriting guru, Syd Field, with the American film renaissance of the ‘70s, but his book appeared in 1979, the year that that renaissance spectacularly wrecked itself (on the rocky shoals of Apocalypse Now and Heaven’s Gate) and the overall quality of Hollywood screenwriting has never fully recovered.

Is this coincidence, or not? Did Aristotle and Field directly cause the downfall of their beloved art forms by giving bad advice? Or is there a more innocent explanation: Did they perhaps write their advice books in a futile attempt to stop a downward trend in quality that had already begun? Or is there a third, subtler factor at work…

Goodhart’s Law states that, “once a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” In any field, it’s worthwhile to analyze several years’ worth of work and determine which methods tended to lead to success and which methods tended to lead to failure, but if you then mandate that only the “good” methods are allowed from then on, it hardly ever works. It could be that those methods weren’t the cause of the success, but a byproduct of it. Or maybe they only work if they’re learned through long experience, but they fail when they’re imposed from the outside.

“So what the hell are you doing with this blog, Matt? Aren’t you the one who’s always laying down rules for storytellers to follow? Are you trying to ruin us??” Of course I am- You’re my competition, you little fools! Wait, no, that’s not true. True confession: I run this blog mostly to teach myself things that I need to learn, and you people are just bystanders. I’ve never insisted that I can transform anybody from a grocery clerk into a millionaire screenwriter in three easy steps. I try to run this blog in a spirit of inquiry, not didacticism...

Absorbing someone else’s rules is a tricky proposition. If you haven’t already learned these things on your own, you’ll be dubious, but if you have, you’ll tear your hair out and ask, “Where were you when I needed you??” Ultimately, there’s no substitute for the learning power of making your own mistakes.

Advice, any advice, is useful only in certain situations. If you’ve already got your own self-generated angel on your shoulder telling you to do the right thing, but you can’t stop listening to the devil that’s tempting you to make the same old mistakes, then good advice can be very useful: a stern and steady voice to confirm and amplify your own wisdom. In the same situation, of course, bad advice can be very dangerous.

And so, hauling a heavy backpack filled with grains of salt, let’s look at what some gurus have had to say…

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The Great Guru Showdown, Part 2: What is the Structure of a Problem?


Yesterday, we talked about the reason why most movies have a similar structure: because the structure of a movie is simply the structure of solving a problem, which is something that people have been trying to codify for centuries. Anyone who tries can be considered a “story guru”. Let’s look at a philosopher, for instance. Georg Hegel said that the structure of a problem was this:
  1. Thesis
  2. Antithesis
  3. Synthesis
That’s a different and useful way to re-conceive of “beginning, middle, and end.” What about therapists? They also structure problems. Here was Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s formulation of the structure of a certain kind of problem:
  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance
Grief movies such as Ordinary People use this structure. Here was how Abraham Maslow structured another kind of problem:
  1. Food and shelter
  2. Safety
  3. Friendship and Love
  4. Self-esteem and Confidence
  5. Problem-solving and justice
Survival and exile movies such as Brother from Another Planet use this structure. Everybody is trying to solve their problems, and failing, so everybody is trying to figure out how this process is supposed to work. That’s why we tell communal stories: to pass on parables about problem solving. We’ve looked at some problem-solving-structures we can use that were devised outside the world of drama, but what about those that are made specifically for storytellers? Are they more or less useful? We’ll examine the pros and cons tomorrow...
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