Why Theory Matters

Those who can’t, teach. Those who can’t teach, teach gym. And those whose authority rests in peer review and professional status find every opportunity they can to trash and diminish the honest and hard work of others.

In his most recent attack on story “gurus”, professional screenwriter John August (Go, Charlie’s Angels and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) states:

If so-called experts really knew the secrets, they would be writing movies rather than selling books about writing movies.

Absolutely untrue.

There is more to story than beating the Hollywood reader or landing an agent. There is more to story than crafting progressive complications for protagonists and inserting unforeseen whammies when possible. Thoughtful people sense that. And theoretical explorations of this reality illuminate that intriguing unknown opening up whole new worlds of insight.

They also can sometimes lead to the creation of a better story.

August’s article on realizing the plot points of Big Fish after the fact is a good one, a rare and tantalizing look at structure ex post facto. But to end it with petty snark only discourages the kind of growth in thinking that needs to occur in order for things to get better someday.

And things need to get better.

Trust us

John has visited this meme before. In the previous year’s Those who can’t write, teach seminars, inspired by colleague Craig Mazin’s Screenwriting is Free, Mr. August successfully skewers the work of story experts and gurus alike with the simple idea that the working screenwriter knows best.

Do they?

Aside from Midnight in Paris (written by a writer who has been practicing his art for decades) and maybe Win Win or 50/50, 2011 was an abysmal year for professional screenwriting. A quick look at RottenTomatoes for 2012 reveals more of the same.

Rotten Tomatoes for 2012

Working screenwriters are losing their audiences. They’re losing them because they’re failing to engage the minds of their viewers. They’re losing them because they’re purposefully avoiding theoretical structures that clearly explain why some films last an eternity, and why others end up at the bottom of that list.

Searching for something more

Audiences have lost their faith in Hollywood to deliver meaningful content, preferring to stay at home on Sunday nights or engage online with their Twitter followers or Facebook friends. Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire, and Mad Men receive rightful praise because they’re delivering the kind of stories the human mind craves–the kind of stories comprehensive story theory helps to explain. On the other side of the attention gap, Angry Birds, Words with Friends and Draw Something succeed because of the lack of assumption of any purpose. They’re just games. Mindless distractions.

Movies are not supposed to be games. Unless of course they’re a movie based on a game (like this year’s Battleship), in which case both space and time should fold in on itself.

Stories, great stories, call for a more enlightened experience.

And story theory shines a light on that more compelling path.

Structure by numbers

When speaking of story theory it becomes helpful to move beyond saving cats or discussions of the five major plot points as was done in the referenced Big Fish analysis. These “proscribed templates” generate great interest, yet always fail to explain why a certain moment needs to occur or what it really means to the totality of the story being told. This is why so many can easily toss these structures aside as pointless. In the end, these systems are simply pattern matching timestamps. Thus, they’re not truly story theory–they’re structure by numbers.

True theory, the kind based upon an understanding of psychological structures and dynamics, passes the “template” critique. It elevates the conversation beyond making things worse for a hero by seeking out why and searching for the appropriate leverage points to do so. It acknowledges that story provides an insight unattainable in daily life and outlines how an Author can grant that experience to a willing Audience.

More importantly though, it saves a writer from himself.

The naivety of free will

Authors who believe in the magic of writing and the power of one’s artistic creative self to overcome all obstacles live an illusory life:

Free will is an illusion. We live in a deterministic world. The universe is governed by universal laws. The universe is governed by the laws of physics. All things that have been and will be are governed by these laws. We are constrained by these laws. This is what makes us human; we are limited.

In other words, we cannot govern the way stories work anymore than we can dictate the laws of gravity or the physics behind interstellar space travel. Following the line of thinking in the above quoted article, we do not have the “ability” to run counter to effective storytelling and still expect our Audience to follow. By dishonoring, or somehow ignoring the psychological similarities between great storytelling and the human mind, we attempt to exercise control we never had.

We let our egos steer the ship of story straight into the iceberg of irrelevance.

When self supplants the Universe

Believe it or not, there are actually people out there who find exploring the mechanics of story a better use of their time. They’re interested more in the progress of human communication rather than the progress of their own individual writing careers. They prefer insight over the masterbatory practice of stroking one’s ego that “selling” a screenplay promises.

Professional screenwriters who don’t–those who prefer to take matters into their own hands–write stories that force undeveloped change onto Main Characters (see Super 8 or Kung Fu Panda 2). They write stories that fail to engage the Audience’s empathy (see Captain America or Battle: Los Angeles). They write stories that really aren’t stories, but rather easily-forgettable tales (see Hanna or The Adjustment Bureau). Even those who self-admittedly have already “unlocked the hidden secrets of story” write broken and incomplete stories that Audiences literally run from (see John Carter). A better understanding of theoretical concepts of story available today could have easily transformed any one of these movies into a classic for the ages.

But then, that would also require a certain level of humility.

Elevating the conversation

The purpose of this site is to communicate a theoretical understanding of story in the hope that it will somehow transform the quality of filmmaking.

True, it’s an unusual interest and one that doesn’t set a path towards fame and fortune, but since when does the economic viability of a pursuit determine its worth? Are writers, or those interested in the reason for writing and the reason why stories–good stories–have such a profound impact on people, really only allowed to work towards the creation of a product? If so, then by all means follow John’s advice and that of other professional screenwriters to forget the “experts” and simply write. Write and make connections and sell your product. Only then will your subconscious become engorged, your self-esteem restored, your name in lights and your mother left beaming, only then will your acceptance by others insure a solid and long-lasting reputation.

But if your interests lie far beyond the primitive requirements of id and sustenance, then continue to read the articles on this site and elsewhere. Ask questions of this “expert” on story theory using the form attached below. Engage and expand your understanding of story without purpose of financial gain and without pretense of worldly accomplishment.

You might just learn something.

Advanced Story Theory for this Article

The Dramatica theory of story is the most comprehensive understanding of meaningful narrative fiction available to us today. Based on the idea that every complete story is an analogy to a single human mind trying to solve a problem, Dramatica provides writers with a holistic snapshot of their story, offering suggestions on how to improve the quality of their story by maintaining their original intent.

This is more than a systematic template. This is understanding.

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