By Jennie E. Park.
This is the second of a two part interview. If you haven’t yet read the first part, we recommend that you do so before continuing!
Tell us more about the Central Proposition.
The one simple thing about the Central Proposition that is really useful is that you have all these racecar parts all over the garage, and this proposition pulls all those parts together into one possible vehicle. And it’s just a chassis and an engine and a transmission with tires, and you can go out and drive it in the yard, and get a feel for it. So, “This isn’t bad, but if we made the engine one-third stronger—it would be that much better!”
It’s the ability to take all the possibilities and pull them into one story that you’re going to really construct. And so not only does it focus on the conflict, and get you right down to the core conflict, it also pulls all the components together into one actual story that you can actually write.
Sequence, Proposition, Plot then enables you to take the powertrain—the Central Proposition—you’re happy with, and build a highly efficient car around it.
The Central Proposition is where you actually cook it down and go, “OK, that’s the story I’m going to tell.” Before that it was kind of a collection of dynamic possibilities; there could be ten different stories in that material. With Sequence, Proposition, Plot, you’re now executing the story you decided you’re going to write. It’s the actual plot construction, it’s like, “OK, let’s now tell the story.”
First, you do Sequence, Proposition, Plot once to the whole story in general terms, the big picture. Sequence, Proposition, Plot is a three-step process that works first with reverse cause and effect, in which you chain backward from the ending of the story—you’ve been working with Dilemma, Crisis, Decision and Action, Resolution, and Theme, so you know your ending quite well. The more you work with Resolution, the more you know your ending.
The resolution is the principal effect: it completes the magic spell on the audience. It’s a matter of stating your ending, and then working backwards from your ending. You say, “OK, what’s the immediate cause of that happening?” You’re finding the one thing that caused that to happen, rather than the half dozen things that happened before it. That is a very powerful function because it helps you separate the necessary from the unnecessary. And that is a really crucial skill for a dramatist, because dramatic writing demands complete economy. You can really see that, if you’re turning a 300-page novel into a 110-page screenplay. There’s an awful lot of stuff in that novel that you have to weed out, you have to find the spine of the story and strip away everything else. It’s like radically pruning a tree and exposing the major branches. So you do reverse cause and effect for the main spine—main events—of the story.
Then Proposition, Plot works with the core conflict of the whole story, where you set up a potential fight, touch off a fight to the finish at the two-thirds, three-quarters point, and get the audience up on the edge of their seats with a specific question about how it’s going to turn out. And then you wrap it up: you do the steps that it takes to complete the action, and complete the conflict. Sequence, Proposition, Plot is basically cause and effect, conflict. Cause and effect is reverse cause and effect; Proposition, Plot is conflict.
You then break up your story into acts, and amplify the detail a little bit using Sequence, Proposition, Plot, and make sure you’ve got good conflict in each of the acts. You then break it down into sequences, and amplify the details a little more using Sequence, Proposition, Plot. Then, break that sequence down into scenes, and do Sequence, Proposition, Plot for that scene where you’re amplifying the detail yet a little more, and you gradually develop the full, final detail that makes its way into the script, and yet you’ve constantly been separating the necessary from the unnecessary.
Once you’ve done Sequence, Proposition, Plot to the scene, you write the scene. And yet you still are being creative, it’s not a mere robotic execution of the structure that you’ve developed; it’s like being a jazz musician, where you know you’re going to be playing C sharp, D sharp, but you still improvise around those chords. You want to let that scene breathe, give it life, but you’re still following the structure.
The scene is tight and moves well, because there’s nothing unnecessary in it, it moves ahead aggressively, it has good conflict, it gets the audience up on the edge of their seats, it wraps up the conflict within the scene, so the scene is its own coherent, compelling unit, and that scene is part and parcel of the sequence. And the sequence itself is tight and dramatic, and that sequence is part and parcel of an act, which is in and of itself tight and dramatic. And that act is part and parcel of the overall story which is tight and dramatic in and of itself.
So you have a dramatic unit inside a dramatic unit inside a dramatic unit inside a dramatic unit. And the script is very tight, there’s no fat in it, it doesn’t wander off on tangents. It doesn’t sit there in neutral, it keeps rolling forward on its track so it’s good, crisp, aggressive storytelling with nothing unnecessary in it, which is what you tend to need. You want continuous, coherent, compelling dramatic action, that’s the name of the game.
And it’s a lot of work. But the premise behind this tool is you can take all the energy that goes into rewrites, and put it into engineering your script properly before you write it in the first place. And through this you have excellent control of your material. You’re engineering your script properly before you write it. And you’re gradually developing the detail and conflict as you need it. So it’s a systematic way to develop and dimensionalize the material.
In employing reverse cause and effect, writers may get tripped up on the inherent messiness of causation in the realm of human behavior, where we often can’t explain why we ourselves do certain things. Have you found that writers have holes in their cause-and-effect chains because they lack complete understanding of their characters?
It’s a good question. The way that humans act and the reasons that they act are so complex, and self-deception is such a potent mechanism, that it’s very fluid, the reasons why people do things at certain times. You might make a bad choice today, that you would never make tomorrow, and it could just be because you got a bad phone call and aren’t thinking clearly and then you did something stupid. And normally you’d never do something like, that but there you went and shot your mouth off. People do stunning things, and part of what’s fascinating about drama is getting to know a character and putting them in a really tough situation to see what they’ll do, and see how their own levels of self-deception take them down bad paths, and how their own inner strength helps them come back from it. How do we shape our lives, and will we survive—in all that, there’s so much drama in just the mechanics of human function.
Part and parcel of storytelling is the mechanics of the transformation of the character. And the way in which people grow up, fall apart, become superhuman, achieve clarity in their lives, go insane—there are all these different growth tracks, transformation tracks, that people go through. That’s part and parcel of Dilemma, Crisis, Decision and Action, and Resolution—that’s where you’re really getting solid about the dilemma, because the dilemma puts a certain type of character in a certain type of situation. In other words, in Training Day, if Jake was not really ambitious, he might not have such a potent dilemma in regards to his relationship with Alonzo. A person’s tendency to make a bad choice comes from his entire psychological history. So, all that informs what he’s going to do at the moment of crisis, and informs his decision and action in the face of crisis.
What I’m working with, with the reverse cause and effect in terms of the plot construction, is what the protagonist and antagonist actually do, which is informed by who they are and how they think, but it’s not so much, “He made this choice because he wasn’t breastfed enough when he was a kid.” It’s more like, “He made this choice because he forgot his gun and he had to get to that room no matter what.” You don’t want to be backtracking to when they were a child and why they tend to make bad choices. And so there’s one thing of, “What makes people tick,” which is part and parcel of any given drama. What I’m working with, with the reverse cause and effect in a given story, is crystallizing or beginning to crystalize the major choices in the story.
When seasoned writers approach you for a consultation or a class, what are the most common problems you see in their writing?
Many people have not really heard the concept of dilemma, or don’t understand it as well as they could, or think the dilemma is like, “I lost my keys today.” That’s just a problem. A dilemma is being caught between two equally painful choices, two equally unacceptable alternatives. And so articulating that really clearly to them and getting them doing it on their own material helps so much, and dilemma is quite amazingly powerful in terms of dramatic horsepower for the material.
A lot of people have never done anything with reverse cause and effect, have heard about the 36 Dramatic Situations but never knew how to use them—so it’s really kind of a broad spectrum of the various things that I bring to the table that can define the strengths and weaknesses in their material, correct the weaknesses, and amplify the strengths.
Do you feel beginning writers present different problems, or the same problems as experienced writers to different degrees?
I think beginning writers are lacking in a number of areas. It’s like showing up at medical school, there’s a whole lot you need to learn. Someone can have really powerful storytelling chops, and really need structure to help make that work. Some beginners are not good storytellers, and really need to have their thinking process kind of kicked in the pants or amplified or energized. There are so many reasons why people are not good storytellers. Sometimes they just don’t have a bold enough imagination, sometimes they’re not flexible enough, there are so many different things.
Varying people bring varying degrees of skills to the table. For instance, someone trained as an actor is working with a lot of the same principles, so that even though this may be their first exposure to storytelling, they innately understand it, because that’s their craft as an actor. I’ve noticed that people with training in psychology are very good with character because they’ve really soaked their head in that a lot.
A seasoned writer generally has a number of things under their belt that a beginner doesn’t even know they don’t know yet. Usually a seasoned writer is coming to me for a specific thing, say, they want to get better at a skill, or they heard from somebody who was in a class or in a consult that I have a certain strength set and they want to learn that, or just get my feedback on a story, or get fresh eyes on a story. Or, you know, do we want a full training session—it really depends on what people are doing. What I’ve started doing recently is full-blown training in Sequence, Proposition, Plot, where I’ll spend thirty hours on just teaching Sequence, Proposition, Plot.
What’s the breakdown of experienced versus new writers in your recent Sequence, Proposition, Plot class?
I have some raw beginners, some seasoned Hollywood producer types, it’s kind of all over the place. I always worked hands-on with each person, and that’s limiting in a certain way because I’m hearing everybody’s story, and I have to actually figure it out myself and figure out how to apply the tool. And that doesn’t lend itself to larger groups. What I’ve figured out for training people extensively in SPP is that I make up one story that we all work on. And I’m also deemphasizing the story creation process so that we can focus on the technical aspects of the tool. In other words, we’re more wrestling with, “How do you actually use the tool,” rather than, “How do we make this story better?”
The story is a simple cliché story that’s not really complicated. I say to them, “This is a doghouse that we’re practicing woodworking on. You’re learning how to use a power saw by working on this practice doghouse.” So it keeps it simple, everybody is enjoying it, I made the story entertaining enough.
We did Sequence, Proposition, Plot to the overall story, then we did Sequence, Proposition, Plot for Act I, then Act II, then Act III, and then I said, “OK, now I have made you guys a three-bedroom apartment. Now you’re going to make it your own home.” So they’re doing Sequence, Proposition, Plot for the sequences in the first act. We worked our way through some of it, but I’m saying, “Please make this your own story. This is not my story that you have to tiptoe around. Jump in, make it your own.” Because you have to be applying this tool to something that you’re really working on to learn how to use it right. It’s not a tool that you can learn in the abstract; you have to really be doing it, and then you’ll get the hang of it.
All of these tools work great for taking a script apart, or putting one together. I’ve done a lot of teaching where we did a lot of analytical breaking down of great movies, and that only takes you so far, because the distinction between being able to pick apart what makes Training Day great does not necessarily translate into you being able to go home and make your own script. It definitely helps, but right now with the Sequence, Proposition, Plot class, I’m not doing any script analysis; I’m just building a real script that I made up with my students, because the most crucial thing is, “Can you go home and use it to build your own script?” That’s really, “Do you know how to use the tool, in such a way that you could start raw with your own idea and be able to utilize it because you’ve had enough training in it?”
After twenty years of working with writers, what’s the one thing you’d implore writers of any skill level to heed?
I think the biggest problem people have is weak premises. Your raw idea has to really kick butt, or you’re off to the races trying to build a killer screenplay on a weak premise.
What do you consider essential to a strong premise?
It can’t be the same old thing I’ve seen a thousand times, it has to be imaginative, it has to have a certain level of energy to it, it’s got to be creative. You don’t want to really see Die Hard on a cruise ship or something like that—it’s the type of story that’s been done to death, and there’s not really anything fresh in it. And that’s not to say somebody couldn’t do a dynamic job writing that story, it might be the best movie of the year.
You know what, maybe you’re riding home on a bus and you hear two people talking, and you go, “Wow, that would make a great movie.” And you take it home and work on it and play with it and think about it and talk to your friends about it, and at a certain point you’ve got to be able to take a good hard look at it and go, “Now that I’ve really jumped in and wrestled with it, it’s pretty lame, I’ve seen it a bunch of times before, it doesn’t have heightened conflict, it’s not really getting my adrenaline flowing or whatever emotion I thought it would do to me,” and you drop it, and you find a way to radically torpedo it into something way better.
Or, you go, “I keep asking myself the hard questions about this idea and I think it’s really got something going for it.” And part of that is just pure experience—you have to be able to recognize great material when it either lands in your lap or you create it. It’s like having an eye as a jeweler, you’ve got to be able to look at it and go, “Throw that away; sell that.”
People spend all this energy structuring up bad premises, and in the industry that’s called polishing a turd. If your raw idea is crap, and you structure it every which way, you can still have just well-structured crap.
It seems a strong premise comes from anticipating what will yield an authentic response from yourself and the audience, and genuinely touch people in a new way.
Yes, and it doesn’t even have to touch them in a new way. I just saw the movie Brooklyn, and practically nothing happens in it, yet it’s really good and really moving and there’s not much to the pitch to that; it’s not a high-concept movie. There are no starships blowing up or anything. It’s just a comfortable little love story that’s got a real sweet heart to it.
Brooklyn has a very clear dilemma, where the protagonist is choosing between two husbands and two countries, but her second possible husband isn’t introduced until the film’s almost over.
Well, look at what she’s faced with right from the beginning: it’s not working for her in Ireland, there’s not really much there for her, and yet when she gets to America, that’s not working very well, either. It’s like she’s really caught between two worlds, and she’s kind of damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t. She really wants to go back to Ireland, and yet she really wants to make a go of it here, and neither alternative is very good. You can see the dilemma is there from early on.
And that dilemma gets more and more intense until it comes to a head when she’s caught between the two guys. She’s already married, but if he hadn’t married her before she left, she may well not have come back. And her decision and action in the face of crisis, where that lady says, “I know you’re married,” is when she says, “You know, I didn’t remember why I don’t like it here, why I don’t want to be here.” She’s like, “You small-minded little harpy type of people are exactly why I’m glad I left! I’m glad I leapt into a new universe.” And she hasn’t fully resolved everything, but that was her point of decision and action, right there. The resolution comes pretty quickly on top of it where she’s back with Tony in America, and she’s really happy with him and there’s a real resolution. She really went through the wringer, and came out a different person.
That’s the way dilemma works—it gets more intense, more complex, more convoluted, harder to resolve, until the breaking point. That’s the crisis. And decision and action in the face of crisis reveals the true character of the protagonist.
You’ve mentioned that some films don’t seem to have much structure, or at least not the structure you teach, but still work.
What I’m presenting is classic structural technique—if you’re writing normal movies, that will cover about 85-90% of all the scripts you write. Some of them will be wildly experimental and you could use some of this or not, or adjust it, or whatever, but this is stuff that tends to work. And it’s good to know how to do this.
If you’re a carpenter, you’ve got to know how to build a regular house. You could go out and build some wild stuff, but you’re not going to have much of a career as a carpenter if all you can build is wild stuff. You’ve got to know classic structural stuff and then do whatever you want with it, do whatever stories you want. Some of them might not have any structure and work wonderfully. You know, a movie is just two hours of entertainment—they either line up around the block to see it, or they don’t.
And before you go, don’t forget to take a look at our Shop, where we have several DVD lectures and seminars from Jeff covering his screenwriting techniques.