A Reverie

Sightlines: Filmmaking in the Academy Issue 3 2021

A Reverie: Screenplay

Chris Neilan: Writer, Researcher
Screenplay: A Reverie
Year: 2020

RESEARCH STATEMENT

Dancyger & Rush term the typical, conventional three-act narrative film model “restorative three-act structure” (2002, 22), because it restores parity to a disordered world.  The protagonist’s life, disrupted by an inciting incident, sent into the woods (Yorke 2014) by the first act turning point, brought face-to-face with death or some form of it in the midpoint (Vogler 2007), sent plummeting to a crisis (Yorke 2014) at the second act turning point, brought to confrontation with a powerful antagonist and the source of all the narrative conflict at the dramatic climax, is restored to some form of balance by the point of resolution.  Redemption has been offered, tragedy has been shown to be rooted within their own character, and all significant questions have been answered.  Order and knowledge have been restored.  Whether or not we feel surprise, or shock, or sadness, or elation at the narrative-specific turn of events and the ultimate revelation of the protagonist’s fate, any shock or surprise is limited, short-lived, revealed ultimately to be in perfect keeping with the narrative’s previous events, symbols, dialogue exchanges.

So familiar are film viewers with this narrative shape, so wired to its rhythms, to its ‘restorative’ trajectory, that the broad sweep of its course can be subconsciously predicted, and the viewer shaken, disturbed, if its key points are missed, elongated, omitted.  Diversion from this form can lead to an unsatisfying viewing experience, but it can also lead to disorientation, disturbance, what could be called, to paraphrase Nathaniel West, significant chaos (Lee 2013, 26-27), and of course, such elements can be useful to artists of any discipline.  Ultimately, the function of narrative shape, aside from maintaining viewer attention, is to create meaning.  Adherence to conventional, linear three-act form is adherence to one particular meaning.

What alternative meanings, then, are opened if the screenwriter subverts the conventional model?  How might this create an alternative viewing experience and alternative narrative meaning, and how might this reframe the viewer’s relationship with the conventional shape?  In No Country for Old Men (Coen, 2008), following the Psycho (Hitchcock, 1960) model, the protagonist dies before the dramatic climax, jellying the story’s spine and depicting a Godless, chaotic world lacking the theistic comfort of the restorative model.  In Full Metal Jacket (Kubrick 1987), the third act is omitted entirely, the narrative formed of a conventional (if long) first act followed by two-thirds of a conventional second act, echoing the confounding lack of resolution of the Vietnam conflict and the ongoing plight its band of protagonists, stuck in ‘a world of shit’.  In A Reverie (Neilan 2020), a non-linear modal structure splits the single-protagonist’s journey into three separate timelines, following the example of Christopher Nolan’s low budget crime thriller Following (1999) and Lynne Ramsay’s We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011), reflecting the fracturing of the character’s psyche by trauma, and moving the viewer through a genre narrative shaped in the manner of the arthouse.  By applying such unconventional structures to familiar genre narratives and characters, this project contends, screenwriters can begin to move away from the rote replication of a restorative world view and towards what David Foster Wallace described as a cinema more teleological, more awakening, with the power to render the audience more conscious (Foster Wallace 1996).

 

PEER REVIEW 1

A Reverie is the story of Guy, a man who tries to escape his bad deeds but finds himself drawn into an even worse situation. The story feels familiar in its English gangster crime genre tone and narrative, but fresh in its structuring and the impact this has on the audience-engagement and the meaning of the story.

A Reverie is successful in its questioning and exploring ways to more actively engage cinematic audiences familiar with the traditional three act structure, termed “Restorative Three Act Structure” by Dancyger and Rush (2002). While the storytelling sits in familiar genre territory, well understood by contemporary, mainstream audiences, it uses complex structure to cause the audience to be more actively engaged in both following and understanding the plot, and increasing tension around elements often rendered familiar by the Restorative model eg that the protagonist will realise their transgression, make amends, and thereby be redeemed and restored. The structure used in A Reverie leads the audience to believe that they already have the comfort of a restorative ending, which is disrupted by the final revelations and tragic ending, causing the audience to feel unsettled and questioning their belief in a world which is safe. The final beat gives some sense of redemption for the protagonist, but it is too late for him and for the audience’s faith in restorative redemption by then.

A Reverie fulfils its potential as both an accomplished, engaging industry-standard (if long) screenplay, and also as a piece of screenwriting research. It addresses well the accompanying research statement and engages in a considered and successful manner with the ideas of Dancyger and Rush’s theory of the Restorative Three Act Structure model, disrupting this while still creating a successful screenplay for a mainstream audience. Dancyger and Rush contend that the Restorative Three Act Structure is shaped by Transgression, Recognition, and subsequent Redemption with a result of being a comforting narrative shape and experience for an audience. By taking elements of this, and structurally shaping them in a way to make the audience both work for narrative integrity and assume that there is a ‘comforting’ meaning embedded in the genre and story elements, Neilan successfully disrupts audience assumption and thereby experience, and the standard narrative model, while delivering an engaging, tense and satisfying screenplay. He brings new meaning to this model by giving us a protagonist who adheres to all these ‘rules’ of a logical, forgiving world, but is ultimately punished, not saved. Thus, the world is shown to be one of chaos, uncertainty, tragedy.

Neilan’s accompanying Research Statement clearly poses research questions addressed in the practice of this screenplay:

What alternative meanings, then, are opened if the screenwriter subverts the conventional model?  How might this create an alternative viewing experience and alternative narrative meaning, and how might this reframe the viewer’s relationship with the conventional shape?

His intention is further posed as:

By applying such unconventional structures to familiar genre narratives and characters, this project contends, screenwriters can begin to move away from the rote replication of a restorative world view and towards what David Foster Wallace described as a cinema more teleological, more awakening, with the power to render the audience more conscious (Foster Wallace 1996).

By approaching the writing of this screenplay through a complex structural form, Neilan has successfully tested these research question interests.

 

PEER REVIEW 2

The submission sets out to interrogate the three act structure paradigm and explore unconventional alternatives.  The research statement argues that audiences are so familiar with the tropes of the “restorative three act structure that the shape of the story can be readily predicted.” Equating meaning with structure, the statement asks what other meaning can be accessed if the screenwriter subverts the conventional model.  The mode of exploration of these alternative structure possibilities is a feature film screenplay, The Reverie.  The exploration of alternative approaches to the structure has a long history in scholarly debate and commercial practice, and the absence of Gustav Fretag’s influential five act structure paradigm is a notable omission from the research statement.

The screenplay demonstrates a well-executed, deftly structured non-linear feature film narrative.  The technical quality of the writing is impressive.  The premise of the research statement, however, would benefit from further exploration, notably elucidation of the argument that structure is equivalent to meaning in a film.  The more conventional interpretation is that the meaning of a story lies in the core thematic exploration driving the surface narrative, and thematic meaning is expressed through character, not structure; that a given character journey can in theory express thematic meaning within a range of structures.

While clearly stating the context for the research, the research statement would benefit from a more focused statement of the research objectives, and methodologies employed to interrogate those objectives.  The statement refers to unconventional structures “render(ing) the audience more awake” without discussion of what form these unconventional structures might take, or what “more awake” means.  The inference here is that the writer is using the term “awake” in a specific sense related to perception, but perception of what?  As such the reader is left to infer the research objectives, which, in the absence of clear definition, appear to be to explore unconventional structures in the submitted screenplay.  However, without any discussion of methodology – that is, what alternative structure, or innovations, will be employed and to what end – it is difficult to divine the writer’s intent.

The core issue, however, lies in a dissonance between the research statement’s emphasis on exploring unconventional structures and the expression of this exploration in the screenplay.  The writer’s intent is a non-linear structure of discontinuous time.   This is executed with intricate efficiency through the screenplay and is, in structural and creative terms, a very significant achievement.  However, it can be argued that non-linear structures are far from unconventional.  From Memento (Nolan 2001), to Pulp Fiction (Tarantino 1994), Amores Perros (Iñárritu 2000), The Boys (Woods 1998), Inception (Nolan 2010) and Mulholland Drive (Lynch 2001) to name just six examples from a wide field, the form is well established in screen narrative. Moreover, my own close analysis of the text reveals a beautifully balanced – but conventional – three act structure working as a framing narrative, which focuses on a redemptive climax for the protagonist.

In these terms, it would be helpful if the research statement could more directly address how the screenplay posits alternatives to the conventional three act restorative paradigm by offering the writer’s own interpretation of the framing structure of the screenplay to more clearly define the relationship between the intent of the research and its execution in this technically and creatively accomplished screenplay.

 

REVISED RESEARCH STATEMENT 

Dancyger & Rush term the typical, conventional three-act narrative film model “restorative three act structure” (2002, 22), because it restores parity to a disordered world.  The protagonist’s life, disrupted by an inciting incident, sent into the woods (Yorke 2014) by the first act turning point, brought face-to-face with death or some form of it in the midpoint (Vogler 2007), sent plummeting to a crisis (Yorke 2014) at the second act turning point, brought to confrontation with a powerful antagonist and the source of all the narrative conflict at the dramatic climax, is restored to some form of balance by the point of resolution.  Redemption has been offered, tragedy has been shown to be rooted within their own character, and all significant questions have been answered.  Order and knowledge have been restored.  Whether or not we feel surprise, or shock, or sadness, or elation at the narrative-specific turn of events and the ultimate revelation of the protagonist’s fate, any shock or surprise is limited, short-lived, revealed ultimately to be in perfect keeping with the narrative’s previous events, symbols, dialogue exchanges.

So familiar are film viewers with this narrative shape, so wired to its rhythms, to its ‘restorative’ trajectory, that the broad sweep of its course can be subconsciously predicted, and the viewer shaken, disturbed, if its key points are missed, elongated, omitted.  Diversion from this form can lead to an unsatisfying viewing experience, but it can also lead to disorientation, disturbance, what could be called, to paraphrase Nathaniel West, significant chaos (Lee 2013, 26-27), and of course, such elements can be useful to artists of any discipline.  Ultimately, the function of narrative shape, aside from maintaining viewer attention, is to create meaning.  Adherence to conventional, linear three-act form is adherence to one particular meaning.

What alternative meanings, then, are opened if the screenwriter subverts the conventional model?  How might this create an alternative viewing experience, and alternative narrative meaning, and how might this reframe the viewer’s relationship with the conventional shape?  In No Country for Old Men (Coen 2008), following the Psycho (Hitchcock 1960) model, the protagonist dies before the dramatic climax, jellying the story’s spine and depicting a Godless, chaotic world lacking the theistic comfort of the restorative model.  In Full Metal Jacket (Kubrick 1987), the third act is omitted entirely, the narrative formed of a conventional (if long) first act followed by two-thirds of a conventional second act, echoing the confounding lack of resolution of the Vietnam conflict and the ongoing plight of its band of protagonists, stuck in ‘a world of shit’.  In A Reverie (Neilan 2020), a non-linear modular structure splits the single-protagonist’s journey into three separate timelines, following the example of Christopher Nolan’s low budget crime thriller Following (1999) and Lynne Ramsay’s We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011), reflecting the fracturing of the character’s psyche by trauma, and moving the viewer through a genre narrative shaped in the manner of the arthouse.  In this model, a familiar and conventional story (fabula) is reordered and fragmented by a fractured, non-linear plot (syuzhet).  The familiarity of the story aids the viewer’s recomposition of the fragmented plot, whilst the disruption of causality and linearity reformulate the meaning created by the narrative.  By applying such unconventional structures to familiar genre narratives and characters, this project contends, screenwriters can begin to move away from the rote replication of a restorative world view and towards what David Foster Wallace described as a cinema more teleological, more awakening, with the power to render the audience more conscious (Foster Wallace 1996).

Reference List

Dancyger, Ken and Rush, Jeff. 2002. Alternative Scriptwriting: Successfully Breaking the Rules. Woburn, MA: Focal Press.

Foster Wallace, David. 1996. David Lynch Keeps His Head, Lynch Net, viewed 18th December 2019, http://www.lynchnet.com/lh/lhpremiere.html.

Lee, Jason. 2013. The Psychology of Screenwriting.  London: Bloomsbury.Vogler.

Yorke, John. 2013. Into the Woods: How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them. London: Penguin.

 

RESEARCHER RESPONSE

My Interpretation of the Story

The inciting incident—according to how I planned the story at least and how I understand it—occurs on pages 11-13, in two parts: Symmons’ beating of an innocent bystander (violating Guy’s ethical code) and Guy’s subsequent ‘disciplining’ of Symmons (an attempt to assert his ethical code which starts a chain of events leading to the ultimate challenging of that code).

The 1st act closes on page 24, with Guy progressing into the unfamiliar world of a loving relationship with Maeve.  As in We Need To Talk About Kevin, the progress into the second act is marked by a disembodied voice (Maeve’s) telling the protagonist that it is time to ‘wake up’.  Thereafter, fragmented ‘memories’ of trauma gradually cease to be presented in an oneiric manner and become more wakeful and immediate.

The midpoint occurs on page 65, when Guy has made a contract with Waghorn to complete the robbery, asserting that no one must get hurt (in accordance with his ethical code).  The arrival of Waghorn into the narrative shifts the dynamic, and introduces the major external source of antagonism that Guy will have to overcome in the dramatic climax if he is to succeed in his overarching external goal (to escape the criminal world and make a good life with Maeve) and internal need (to be a good person).

The second act closes on page 112, with the discovery of the safe key and the successful attaining of the money—the goal that had been unifying the second half of the second act.  Page 113 begins the third act, with a new goal for Guy: to assert his opposition to Waghorn’s brutality and prevent him from causing any more harm.  That Guy achieves this through an act of brutal violence (killing Waghorn) at once asserts and shatters his ethical code.

Some of the most satisfying endings occur when either the goal is achieved but the inner need not achieved, or vice versa, creating an ironic, bittersweet feeling.  The intention in A Reverie was to create a more complex version of the ironic ending in which both goal and need are simultaneously achieved and not achieved.  Guy escapes the criminal world but does so through self-sacrifice and death.  He loses Maeve materially but retains her love.  He asserts his ethical code by preventing Waghorn from doing further harm, but by using criminal violence and murder to achieve this he simultaneously and irredeemably destroys his ethical code and the possibility of considering himself, based on his own values, a good person.  The intention is to provide satisfying climactic resolution whilst denying the character change so familiar to the restorative three-act model: Guy’s soul is as conflicted at the point of his death as it was in life.

Response to Peer Review

Cameron argues that modular narratives “put the narrative future in jeopardy by suggesting that events may be predetermined, and put the past in jeopardy via the destabilization of memory and history” (2008, 140).  Buckland points out that whilst such films emphasize a highly complex narration (syuzhet) they may partner that narration with a simple and conventional story (fabula) (2009).  More radical films, such as David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997), partner complex narrative with a complex story, leading to a substantially more alienating effect, what Berg calls “fascinating examples of avant-garde filmmaking, firmly within the Dadaist tradition” (Berg 2006).  Christopher Nolan’s work requires more active audience participation than the typical, conventional, restorative three-act narrative, emphasizing ‘the fundamental role of viewers’ activity in the process of film viewing (Ghislotti 2009, 88), but the use of a familiar story (fabula) mediates the alienation effect created by more avant-garde filmmakers such as Lynch.  Nolan, ultimately, is making art films for the multiplex.  His films challenge the audience, demanding “meticulous attention” to a ‘detailed, complex narrative’ (Ni Fhlainn 2005, 150), but provide them with familiar stories, making the task of reconstituting and making sense of the narrative more manageable, the overall impact of the film less alienating.

Memento’s (2000) story (fabula), as is the case across Nolan’s oeuvre, adheres to the conventions of the restorative three-act model, but the distortion of that story through the fragmented and re-ordered narrative (syuzhet) fundamentally shifts the meaning typically engendered by restorative stories.  Whilst the restorative model suggests a kind of determinism, it does so at the point of resolution, creating a retrospective and comforting sensemaking: it all meant something in the end.  The predetermination effect in Memento has an altogether more disturbing connotation: terrible things lie in the future and nothing can be done to change them, because they’ve already happened.  The conventional story creates unity and structural harmony, and makes the audience’s job of reconstituting the narrative more manageable, but the radical fragmentation of the narrative undermines and challenges the restorative implication inherent in that structure.

The intention with A Reverie was to emulate the more accessible modular model, as exampled in Nolan’s work—taking a largely conventional story (fabula) with familiar character tropes but fragmenting and fracturing the telling of that story (syuzhet) to subvert the restorative effect of conventional three-act storytelling.  As in Memento, causality is ruptured and upended, and effects precede causes.  In another modular narrative, Lynne Ramsay’s We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011), the resulting impact is far from that of the restorative model.  As with Memento, the story (fabula) in We Need To Talk About Kevin is broadly conventional, and the dramatic climax ties together the disparate narrative threads in a unifying way familiar from the restorative model, but the ordering of events in the narrative (syuzhet) fractures temporality and causality in a way which fundamentally disturbs and undermines the restorative qualities in the story.  A Reverie was based on this model—the intention is to undermine the comforting impact of the restorative model through an unconventional narrative shape whilst providing satisfaction and familiarity through a conventional story, and in doing so to expressionistically represent the experience of a protagonist integrating past trauma into a sense of self.

Reference List

Berg, C.R. 2006. “A Taxonomy of Alternative Plots in Recent Films: Classifying the “Tarantino Effect”.”  Film Criticism, 31 (1-2), Fall-Winter, 5-61.

Cameron, A. 2008. Modular Narratives in Contemporary Cinema. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Ghislotti, S. 2009. “Narrative Comprehension Made Difficult: Film Form and Mnemonic Devices in Memento,” in Puzzle Films: Complex Storytelling in Contemporary Cinema, edited by Warren Buckland, 87-106. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.

Ni Fhlainn, S. 2005. “You Keep Telling Yourself What You Know, But What Do You Believe?: Cultural Spin, Puzzle Films and Mind Games in the Cinema of Christopher Nolan,” in The Cinema of Christopher Nolan: Imagining the Impossible, edited by Furby, J. and Joy, S. 147-163.

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