This post is the second in a new series, Story Structure.
In this entry, I write about two Renaissance frescoes with the same title, and try to relate them to the idea of story structure — or, especially screenplay structure, about which so much has been said.
The meeting of Joachim and Anna by Giotto, c. 1305.
The meeting of Joachim and Anna by Taddeo Gaddi, 1338.
Here’s what a standard art history book says about these paintings.
Commentary from Gardner’s Art Through The Ages:
Giotto’s murals in the Bardi and Peruzzi Chapels of Santa Croce served as textbooks for generations of Renaissance painters from Masaccio to Michelangelo and beyond. These later artists were able to understand the greatness of Giotto’s art better than his immediate followers, who never were capable of absorbing more than a fraction of his revolutionary innovations. Their efforts usually remained confined to the emulation of his plastic figure description. Giotto’s foster son and his assistant for many years, Taddeo Gaddi (c. 1300-1366), is a good example of a diligent follower. The differences between the work of a great artist and that of a competent one are readily apparent if we compare Giotto’s The meeting of Joachim and Anna in the Arena Chapel with Taddeo’s version of the same subject in the Barancelli Chapel in Santa Croce. Giotto’s composition is simple and compact. The figures are related carefully to the single passage of architecture (the Golden Gate), where the parents of the Virgin meet in triumph in the presence of splendidly dressed ladies. The latter mock the cloaked servant who refused to believe that the elderly Anna (Saint Anne) would ever bear a child. The story, related in the Apocrypha, is managed with Giotto’s usual restraint, clarity, and dramatic compactness. Taddeo allows his composition to become somewhat loose and unstructured. The figures have no clear relation to the background: the elaborate cityscape, though pleasant in itself, demands too much attention and detracts from the action in the foreground. Gestures have become weak and theatrical, and the hunter (discreetly cut off and unobtrusive in Giotto’s painting) here strides boldly towards the center of the scene — a picturesque genre subject that weakens the central theme. Although his figures retain much of Giotto’s solidity, Taddeo’s painting weakens the dramatic impact of the story by elaborating its incidental details. Giotto stresses the essentials and, by presenting them with his usual simplicity and forceful directness, gives the theme a much more meaningful interpretation. Yet we must not seem to disparage Giotto’s contemporaries and followers. Taddeo presses forward the investigation of perspective, as his cityscape reveals and the genre figure attests to the development of a keen interest in realism.
In most screenwriting books, the idea of “structure” is equated with “3-act structure.” A screenplay is supposed to have 2 turning points at appropriate places — and these 2 turning points are supposed to divide the script into 3 acts. The writers who say this often imply that such a structure is infallibly necessary and in fact the only one that could be reasonably possible — because, after all, it’s what Aristotle recommends in his Poetics, and I suppose Aristotle was making money producing movies long before any of was ever born. The screenwriting authorities differ on what the further requirements might be, if any.
I definitely am not saying structure is bad.
On the contrary, I’m planning to say at great length in the course of several posts that structure is good — it’s indispensable. The quotation from Gardner’s, above, pretty clearly indicates that the proximate cause of the superiority of Giotto’s painting over Taddeo’s is structure. The underlying cause, whether Gardner’s mentions it or not, is Giotto’s immense humanity.
Further, I’m not even saying that 3-act structure is bad. What I’m planning to eventually say is that it’s not nearly enough — that there are 99 aspects that give a screenplay its structure and that act divisions are only one of them.
Even speaking of act structure, 3-act is only one possibility. But that’s not the main thing I’m getting at. I want to know: whatcha got besides acts?
We’re told that a screenplay has to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. But, this is a meaningless truism — until it’s given some definite intellectual and operational meaning and force.
Most paintings don’t have a beginning, a middle, and an end. What would that mean? — that it’s got “divisions” separating the top, the middle and the bottom? The left, the center, and the right?
Many paintings do recede from foreground to background in a way that’s part of their structure. But it’s by no means obligatory.
The point of this particular posting is to say that Giotto’s painting doesn’t seem to me to be importantly structured by “beginning, middle, end” — but still it has structure.
Giotto’s painting seems most obviously structured in terms of its three groups of people: Joachim and Anna, the five women, and the hunter. This structure is primarily caused by the vigorous interaction among the people in each group.
Another structural element in Giotto’s painting is the little bridge that so strongly — visually and emotionally — leads from the group of women to emphasize Joachim and Anna as the central subject.
In this series of posts I’d like to offer examples from art and music to help us see what the structural elements in screenplays are — besides act structure. I’m asking, “What’s the other 99% of structure?”
I think of it as screenwriting for adults.
My challenge to us all is can we give concrete example of movies that have structural elements besides act breaks, and can we explain to each other clearly why and how those examples work?
I originally posted this series in the discussion forums of a well-known screenwriting website. One of the other members challenged me about this particular post, and while I can’t find him to ask permission to reprint his remarks, I would like to post here my own reply, since it answers objections many others may have.
Thanks for your thoughtful response. We each have to make our own choices and do what we think best.
I would, though, like to disagree with you on two points.
First, you misrepresent me slightly. If you would look at those few of my posts that are more rational and less intemperate, you would see that I don’t completely disapprove of 3-act structure. It’s a good, basic, serviceable plan that I often recommend to people I review. Lately, I’m trying to make my own work more saleable so I make sure that, whatever the real structure is, a development suit can think it’s 3-act.
Someone once asked J. Paul Getty, the millionaire, the secret of how he got rich. Getty replied: “Rise early; work hard; strike oil.”
I tend to see the content of screenwriting books as equivalent to the “Rise early; work hard” part of Getty’s advice: sensible and promising, but certainly not the only way — and certainly not something you’d need to read a whole book to understand.
The more I write, the more I feel that the payoff in screenwriting is like the “strike oil” part of Getty’s advice: maddeningly vague, requiring lots more explanation, but probably 99% of what I need to know.
The purpose of these discussion threads I’ve started is not to try to get us to write like painters and composers, but to try to stimulate us to stop looking at the “Rise early; work hard” part that’s already so well known and to come up with ideas about the more difficult “strike oil” part.
Second, you refer to the advice in the screenwriting books as “traditional, time-honored techniques.” I know that the books would like us to think that this description is accurate and to think that the “gurus derived them by studying many films and finding their common elements.”
However, as far as I know, it just ain’t so. Period.
My impression is that those techniques came into fashion in the 80s, so that they’ve been around for maybe 20 of the 100 years that people have made movies. Further, they only seem to be practiced in Hollywood — which produces only a fraction of the movies made and distributed each year world-wide. Finally, even in Hollywood, many movies are not 3-act — some because they’re too creative, and many because they’re too stupid.
We have periodic wars about this on the discussion boards. I remember, about a year and a half ago, issuing a challenge: How many of the AFI 100 movies are 3-act?
I myself started off the challenge by analyzing 3 famous movies that are conspicuously not 3-act: The Godfather, and Vertigo, and The Bridge on the River Kwai.
I also offered to help start off the “opposition” by explaining why Star Wars (the original) is 3-act.
That challenge has lain there unanswered for all this time — with the conspicuous exception of a post by one other member, briefly analyzing 10 or a dozen AFI 100 movies without seeing any strong trend toward 3-act.
If you don’t like that challenge, then how about this one: How many of the original screenplays nominated for Oscars in the last 10 years are 3-act?
After I finish this series of “Structure” threads, I’d like to start another in which I appeal to the members to post analyses of AFI 100 screenplays. I would very much like to know how they work.
In the meantime, I’ll try to start threads about why Notorious and Star Wars are 3-act, and why Psycho is not.
For more on Giotto, please see John Ruskin, Giotto, and William Henry Fox Talbot.