Magic And Mechanics
I spend a lot of my waking hours and a good few of my horizontal ones grappling with the magic and mechanics of how to write stories – in order, ideally, to create movies of mystery by mastery of craft – hence the title of this blog. I think magic and mechanics really sums up the process, because these two disparate elements more or less have to come together in order to create the mystery and mastery of wonderful movies – the sort of film that I would like to write and direct. If you want that too, I hope that something I write here may be helpful. At the very least, these notes will be a reminder for me. I claim no originality for all that appears in these pages – some of it comes from the mountains of books that I read on storytelling, screenwriting, acting, directing and producing, but some of it at least, I like to flatter myself, emerged from my own analysis. Anyway, here we go, starting with four quarters and the middle.
Four Quarters And The Middle
Since returning to screenwriting, I have learned or discovered many answers (or techniques) to vexing questions that I did not have the answer to the first time round. Perhaps the most crucial and certainly the most useful for starting a script or getting out from behind the structural eight ball are the following two gems:
The middle of the movie is vital – it is almost an iron law that if something important and new does not happen here, the rest of the movie is going to get bogged down. There is much to be said about how to make the middle work as the hinge of the story and the springboard of the second half, and I furnish two examples below. Otherwise I want to leave ‘middle analysis’ for later posts, adding only that looking at the middle as in some ways more important than the ‘catastrophe’ or end of act two*, led me to my second discovery, namely the magic of The Four Quarters. (* I am working with the idea that most commercial movies have – or purport to have – a three act structure. I expect to talk more about act structure in future.)
The Four Quarters
The Four Quarters is definitely someone else’s idea, and so are some of the names for those quarters. The names are vital, because they tell where you are in the story, and where to put an idea or where to move an idea you know is good for the story but somehow doesn’t fit where it currently resides. For instance, the heroine has an accident, but it’s not life threatening, though it does make her change her mind about something or open up a new possibility. This is almost certainly going to live in the first half of the movie, probably in the first quarter, because it sounds like it is part of the set-up. So enough with the suspense building, here is the schema:
Quarter 1 (Q1): ‘Set Up’ (including inciting incident or call to action and the first big plot point)
Quarter 2 (Q2): ‘Progress’ – generally positive developments
Quarter 3 (Q3): ‘Complications’ – major problems arising, unintended consequences
Quarter 4 (Q4): ‘Solutions’ – to the major problems, resolution, denouement
Having recently analysed a few dozen successful movies from an eighty year time span I have found it amazing how often the films will fit within The Four Quarters, sometimes to within a minute of the exact time. For instance, if a movie is 100 minutes long, Q1 starts the moment the action begins (sometimes I include the titles if they have real story content), Q2 starts around 25 minutes, Q3 starts around 50 minutes, and Q4, amazingly enough, starts around 75 minutes. I have no idea whether this is intentional or not on the part of the film maker, but either way, this simple schema applies very frequently and is extremely helpful when writing, in part because it is so simple, easy to remember, and names the parts, as it were. After all, a car mechanic does not refer to element one, two or three, but rather calls things in the engine pistons, cylinders and crankcase, which is surely more intuitive and instructive, both the beginner and expert.
Since most people in the commercial movie business, which mostly means Hollywood, talk about movie structure in three acts, the quarters map onto these acts as follows:
Q1 = Act 1
Q2 = Act 2, first half (to the crucial mid point)
Q3 = Act 2 second half
Q4 = Act 3
I’ll post more detailed analyses of movies by quarters in future, but here are two brief examples of famous stories which illustrate the mid-point hinge: in the Wizard of Oz (1939), Dorothy and her entourage see the Emerald City for the first time as we reach the middle of the film. The first half of the film has really been about the quest to get to the city. Once inside, the quest becomes finding the wizard and then how to deal with the discovery that he is a fraud.
In Aladdin (1992), the hero spends the first half getting to the magic lamp and learning to believe in its powers. In the second half, he makes his first wish, enjoys the fruits of the lamp, then loses it, then has to get it back. In each case, the story really hinges on the middle where the real, deeper journey of the story commences.
The kinds of problems and solutions required in the second half of a story are very often qualitatively different from the first half. If they are not, most audiences may start to feel a disquieting sense that the story is drifting. Again and again, what happens at the mid-point is that the hero or heroine gets what they wanted in act one, only to find that it brings a host of trouble with it or is not what it seemed to be originally. There are other possibilities for the mid-point, but if you’re having trouble with the middle of the story, and you have the luxury of being to make whatever changes you like, then being able to start a new and deeper journey, based on what has happened in the first half, can produce just the kind of qualitative leap that the audience is unconsciously looking for.
Of course, I cannot be sure that 100 million movie-goers are really unconsciously looking for a mid-movie qualitative leap, but I am convinced that modern neuro-science will eventually prove this thesis.