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March 2001, Week 2


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Donald Larsson <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Wed, 14 Mar 2001 09:43:50 -0600
TEXT/PLAIN (135 lines)
RE Richard Cooper on narrative and violence in film.

Parallel Narrative, specifically Multiple Protagonist/Antagonist Narrative

Richard might like to look at my new book,  "Screenwriting Updated: :New and
Conventional Ways of Writing for the Screen"  ( currently available in
Australia, to be published by Silman James in the US in a month).   He might
particularly like to look at my stuff on multiple protagonist/antagonist
narrative structure plus other bits in the book.  To explain, my  book has a
lot of material on the nuts and bolts of narrative structure in (mostly
mainstream English language) film, including a large section on the
mechanics of what I call "parallel narrative" structures.   Parallel
Narrative means multiple story films - Pulp Fiction, Shine, Go, Magnolia Run
Lola Run  etc  - which I split into multiple protagonist/antagonist
narrative   (governing missions, quests and reunions The Big Chill, American
Beauty, Saving Private Ryan, Galaxy Quest etc ), sequential narrative  (one
story after another  - Pulp Fiction, Run Lola Run) tandem narrative (many
equal stories running in parallel - Magnolia) and  the whole family of
Flashback Narrative forms (Flashback as Thwarted Dream - Shine, English
Patient etc Flashback as Case History - Citizen Kane, The Usual Suspects
etc)    As I explain below, a lot of violent films are about gangs or
groups, and these often obey patterns I've described as 'Multiple
Protagonist/Antagonist structure. The interesting thing about these forms is
that they all pivot on the three act structure.

First things first.   Violence in film affects narrative very powerfully in
a number of ways.  The simplest is that the plot has to stop until the
fight/hunt/chase is over and it's clear who wins.  Hence, in a film with
lots of fights, you need less plot.  This is why there is so little story in
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.   Because you have less time for plot and
character per se, often the relationship subplot will have to occur on the
'battlefield", that is, where the violence is happening ( this is because
you can't keep cutting away from the action to a relationship subplot
happening elsewhere)  True Lies actually shifts the relationship line into
the  battlefield by importing the wife into the battle.
While actual violence stops the plot, the threat of violence energises and
drives the narrative forward, because it provides rising jeopardy and plot
steps, in other words, 'things for the protagonist to do to survive or
escape punishment".    So, what energises and propels is the characters'
attempts to AVOID violence or punishment.    The threat of violence is a
major reason why Pulp Fiction holds.  Pulp Fiction consists of a number of
three act stories all energised by the threat of violence and held together,
portmanteau style, by Jules' story, itself a story of redemption triggered
by violence.   In my book I show how all the major turning points  in Jules
classic three act structure story (all violence related) are used as points
of departure and return.  There's lots more in the book about the practical
mechanics of  Pulp Fiction - that is, the narrative reasons it holds when it
apparently breaks all the rules of narrative.   Like all successful parallel
narrative films, it simply relies on the major dramatic turning points of a
three act structure.

Another narrative issue is that monster stories (violent stories often are)
can't start until the hunter takes up the challenge and the hunt starts.

Note that many films that use violence a lot are what I call 'multiple
protagonist/antagonist narrative' because they deal with a group who are all
versions of the same protagonist  (eg all different versions of 'a gangster'
'a solder' etc).  These films are often missions or sieges (multiple
protagonist films are usually sieges, missions or reunions).  Successful
multiple protagonist films have what I call a ' group macro plot' - in
essence, a group problem that usually concerns the survival of the group.The
big issue is that the group is under threat and will it survive.    Often
this is a physical survival issue.  The macro needs to be set up
straightaway or the film will splinter into aimless vignettes - Peter's
Friends is a multiple protagonist story that doesn't work because the group
problem (one member has AIDS) isn't set up straight away (cf The Big Chill,
where the group problem - a suicide - is set up in under a minute).
Multiple protagonist/antagonist structures need conflict internal to the
group, and usually feature a range of characters like 'the traitor within' '
the outsider' and 'the dominant character' - the latter being the one who
gets the group into the problem in the first place.  Such characters help to
energise the narrative because sieges are often physically static (note, the
siege itself actually starts at the First Act Turning Point, and the Escape
replaces the third act 'battle' in standard three act rising structure).
Missions need  conflict within the group because most of the time the group
is waiting for the external antagonist (the baddies, the foe) to strike (the
threat of violence) and without internal conflict the group's deeds would
get boring.  You can see all these elements in Crouching Tiger, Hidden

No more time!  Richard can contact me if he wants (hallo Richard!), as
indeed, can anyone else interested in parallel narrative in film, or film
narrative generally.

My book is currently available in Australia under the title of
"Scriptwriting Updated:New and Conventional Ways of Writing for the Screen"
not 'Screenwriting Updated' as the US edition will be

Full details of Australian edition
Linda Aronson "Scriptwriting Updated:New and Conventional Ways of Writing
for the Screen" (Australian Film TV and Radio School/ Allen and Unwin 2000
ISBN 1 87635 103 9.   To buy, email [log in to unmask]  You can buy
on visa or by cheque.

Dopey questions from an internet illiterate .  How do I get messages posted
directly on the board to all members of the group?  Do I email you? Can you
post this message on the list for ?

All best,

LInda Aronson
Free lance screenwriters and novelist.
Associate Australian Film TV and Radio School  (AFTRS)  Sydney.

----- Original Message -----
From: Donald Larsson <[log in to unmask]>
To: Narrative <[log in to unmask]>; screen-l
<[log in to unmask]>
Sent: Tuesday, March 13, 2001 4:46 AM
Subject: Re: narrative and violence <fwd>

> The following request is forwarded from a grad student in the UK:
> > At the moment i'm writing a paper, for
> > my degree, on how violence is used within film to develop narrative.
> > Are there any texts or authors who you think may be able to help
> > me as i'm finding it difficult to find research on this specific area.
> > Any help you could give me would mcuch appreciated.
> > Richard Cooper
> You can respond directly to Richard Cooper at:
> [log in to unmask]
> I will also forward replies sent to me or the list.  Thanks.
> Don Larsson

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