Monday, July 09, 2007

Today's Review, Part III


(For Bob's script, My Brother's Keeper.)

...I want to make a point about horizontal and vertical narratives. I've mentioned this before, but it's worth mentioning again. You are consistently short in all of your scenes, which is great, but it's a bit of a misnomer to do that in EVERY scene. Keep short the setups and action that pushes the story forward (horizontal narrative), but when you get to heightened moments of great drama (vertical narratives), you can stop, build your story vertically, and take your time by really getting the most emotionally out of that scene. And I mean scenes like the one on page 100 between Sean and Michael. That can go on for a couple of pages (instead of the half page we're given) because you already know that you have your audience by the throat and you won't lose them. Do you see what I mean? The idea for horizontal and vertical narratives came from Maya Deren, I believe. (I referenced her in my final thoughts on Napoleon article.) To quote her:

In Shakespeare, you have the drama moving forward on a ‘horizontal’ plane of development, of one circumstance - action - leading to another, and this delineates the character. Every once in a while, however, he arrives at a point of action where he wants to illuminate the meaning to this moment of drama, and, at that moment, he builds a pyramid or investigates it ‘vertically,’ if you will, so that you have a ‘horizontal’ development with periodic ‘vertical’ investigations, which are the poems, which are the monologues… You can have operas where the ‘horizontal’ development is virtually unimportant—the plots are very silly, but they serve as an excuse for stringing together a number of arias that are essentially lyric statements.

Click here to read the full review.

16 comments:

Mickey Lee said...

I think Miriam's film breakdowns really highlight the whole horizontal/vertical nexus. You'll have one minute scene after one minute scene, building and building, climaxing with a 3-5 minute scene -- whether it be action, or some other form of emotional release.

This is a great point to make.

Mim said...

Thanks, Mickey. I've noticed that too, but I never thought of it as horizontal and vertical.

It's almost as if the film-maker organized the film as a piece of music.

I loved My Brother's Keeper, but it could use a few more passes. I don't know if you've done another revision since I reviewed you, Bob, but it's a great story.

Mystery Man said...

Mickey - I couldn't agree more. In fact, I have only my list of ever-expanding future articles a piece that expands upon the Horizontal/Vertical Narratives with examples using Mim's breakdowns. I fully believe in this theory, and I'd like to explore it more for my own satisfaction.

Mim - Enough could be said about the great job you do. I love having you around. Can't wait for your book review, too! And I, too, loved Bob's script. He's grown so much since the early drafts I've read. You can really tell that there's been a noticeable improvement. And he really loves the cutting back and forth between two sequences taking place at the same time, and it's effective. He's a great guy, too.

-MM

Laura Deerfield said...

Interesting. I've never thought of it in terms of horizontal/vertical - just in terms of pacing.

If you go fast, fast, fast (or intense, intense, intense), you can lose the audience. They know what to expect or they become overstimulated, and part of them tunes out. It's the equivalent of someone yelling, or music that has a driving bass that doesn't vary for several songs in a row.

If, however, you modulate the pace and intensity, just as you would beat and volume, then you actually retain the audience's attention more effectively and the intense scenes feel more intense. This can be done with tone, as well (inserting a bit of comedy) - but a little bit of slowness can make a fast-paced film more intense.

sabine said...

That's kind of what I was getting at in the other blog about Visual Storytelling and my examples of abstract art. Take Kandinsky or some of Escher's work and you'll find both vertical and horizontal rhythm. It's even in the "Wedding" picture that opened the blog. Look at lines, repetition and shapes. There's an entire story in the bricks of that wall alone and its relation to the figures.
One of my favorite movie examples in regards to rhythm would probably be RUN LOLA RUN.

Sorry, wasn't sure where to post this :)

Love the reviews, MM. Can't imagine the line of people hoping to get one from you :)

bob said...

You know me Mim, ALWAYS re-writing.

This discussion about vertical storytelling is really great. It's a concept that isn't touched upon in the "how to" books, but as it becomes more evident to me, you can't ignore the importance of it in building emotional depth in your story.

Also, thanks for the kind words MM. You've been so very patient with all my questions and countless drafts. You've been a HUGE help in my growth as a writer.

say hey to Mrs. Mystery. he he

Mystery Man said...

Funny, Bob. There is no Mrs. Mystery. I'm still very much the eligible bachelor.

I have a number of thoughts about vertical narratives. Everyone goes to films and plays and operas to experience those vertical moments, don't they? And contemporary thinking about screenwriting and in particular, PACING, has been robbing people of those moments. This is also another example where screenwriters should pay attention to the film scholars, because I think they're closer to the truth about the realities of storytelling.

By the way, great comment, Sabine. Thanks.

-MM

Laura Deerfield said...

A book I read recently, "Screenwriting is Storytelling" by Kate Wright, says that the one hard and fast rule of screenwriting is: You cannot bore your audience for too long.

She then goes on to explain that a little bit of boredom can be useful and can enrich a story.

I don't especially recommend the book as her writing is somewhat fuzzy and she tends to talk around her concepts - but she does have a couple of interesting ideas and talks about the central importance of spine (though she never, despite having written an entire book about it, quite explains what "spine" is and how it differs from theme - which she insists it does.)

Joshua James said...

The avant garde theatre director Anne Bogart used to do demonstrations of vertical / horizontal storytelling, but they differed a little bit . . . she would stage an ordinary scene between a man and wife, with ordinary breakfast chatter.

Then she'd stage the same exact scene, with the same actions and same dialogue, only she'd plant a gun right in the center of the table.

Then she'd do it again, with everything the same, including the gun, only this time the actors would be nude . . .

She believed that sometimes just one thing could expand a story horizontally . . .

Mystery Man said...

Laura - I think I may have picked that book but, but... blah, I couldn't bring myself to buy it. But I could wet myself I'm so excited about David Bordwell's forthcoming Poetics in Cinema. Oh baby... I love that guy.

Joshua - Thanks so much for that. The best example I have at my disposal right now is the Napoleon script. Because in order to cover all of the important events in Napoleon’s life, you have to fly down that horizontal plane at lightning speed in order to squeeze it all in before you reach page 150. But you cannot help but notice those moments when Kubrick shifts gears in the narrative and chooses to slow down to be “vertical,” to spend just a few pages to highlight the meaning of a dramatic moment. The first example that comes to mind is Napoleon's marriage to Josephine. I mean, we just fly through Napoleon's rise to power, but then we suddenly stop to build lyrically out of this relationship. Just great. I frickin' love it, man. Hehehe...

It's on my "to do" list to explore this principle in films.

-MM

TJ (Joshua) said...

So much of screenwriting is stripping away, and as a writer, I know that's a valuable part of the process (King's credo, 2nd draft is the 1st draft minus ten percent) and you have to take shit out, absolutely . . .

But one thing I miss about a lot of new, modern scriptwriting is the layering, which is how I view the vertical writing process . . . it speaks to tone, mostly, but it also speaks to small moments that, when viewed by themselves, don't add much - but when added to the canvas as a whole help bring it to full color . . .

The first example I can think of is, off the top of my head, Luca Brasi practicing his speech to Don Corleone in THE GODFATHER - it wasn't in the book, it was a found moment by the director -

By itself is was little . . . the information it gave was also conveyed in the scene Luca has with Don . . . so in a way it was repetitive . . .

But it added depth and detail when looked at as a whole . . .

I'm sure I'll think of better examples later on . . .

This is on my mind now due to a gig I have, where we go through a script piece by piece and jetison what's needed . . .

Now I'm a big fan of Strunk's rule (echoed by King) which is "omit that which is unnecessary" but where I differ is when it comes to repetition . . . when used rightly, repetition can be an extremely effective tool.

I find myself constantly defending small moments which, on their own, convey information that we hear before (information that I would say is reflective of the theme, which needs to be echoed throughout) - but in a zeal to put their stamp on a script, everything that doesn't have to do with the hero or the main conflict, explicitly, is torn out . . . which includes a majority of moments that are implicit to the main action of the story . . .

and that what's missed is that repetition, like rythm, is best when viewed in its place during a whole song . . . by itself, a beat is just a beat . . . add other beats and you have something.

The only example I can think of off the top of my head is FOREST GUMP which, of course, is not a great, great film . . . just an average one that is extremely well made, in my opinion - look at how repetition is used in action and dialogue . . .

These days, the stories are so stripped down of anything other than the bare bones that it's no wonder so many feel their predictable . . . it's like we have all these colors to paint our canvas, why can we not use them all?

Ah, but I'm ranting, MM . . . it's early and you caught me - LOL!

Laura Deerfield said...

tj - nicely said...

Coming from poetry, I feel the importance of repetition in a film. It amplifies the effect of whatever that moment conveys, gives it resonance. The echoes create a sense of cohesiveness as well as depth. And, for the average audience member - it's only going to be recognized on a subconscious level... (unless it's clumsy and overdone, but we're not talking about bad writing, are we? Bad writing is bad no matter the tools used.)

Mystery Man said...

Josh & Laura - Loved it! I, too, believe in small moments and repetition. The piece I'm writing now has a lot of both, particularly small moments that will hopefully be obvious visual statements that reinforces character. But I fear that we may be having with differing definitions of vertical narratives, which is fine, I'm open to other interpretations. However, at least going by Maya's definition, vertical isn't necessarily small moments as much as it is investigating the meaning of something, which does not push the story forward. Well, I guess that could be small moments, but such as the case with Napoleon, Kubrick stopped to analyze this relationship with Josephine in a vertical sequence that's probably one of my favorite in any script.

While Napoleon's preparing for his Italian campaign we hear him write these overwhelming, passionate love letters and all the while we watch Josephine have an affair. It wasn't about the facts, which was that they got married, she cheated on him, and then they got divorced. Kubrick investigated the MEANING of all this - the letters were really about how Napoleon so completely suffocated her with his overwhelming love, how infantile he was emotionally, which was so different than Napoleon the leader, and how Josephine really married for reasons other than love. It was more than just facts, it was an investigation into the meaning of it all, which didn't really push the story forward, but ya know, the meaning was so valuable, you cannot help but treasure that part of the script. At least, I treasured it.

Hope that makes sense.

You likewise caught me early.

-MM

Laura Deerfield said...

Oh, completely makes sense... and while I do like repetition as a tool, I don't think it's the same as vertical storytelling. I think of vertical storytelling as moments when we slow down to find out more about something - a break in the action...

Though, now that I think about it, I suppose in the overall picture, anything that adds depth rather than directly moves the story forward is vertical rather than horizontal...

I have it in my head that one of these days I'm going to write something with a spiral structure... coming back around to almost the same point, but each time that point recurs, it's also moved forward a bit (because I think this is much how life is.) Such a structure would use both techniques.

Mystery Man said...

"Though, now that I think about it, I suppose in the overall picture, anything that adds depth rather than directly moves the story forward is vertical rather than horizontal..."

Exactly! I love it!

"I have it in my head that one of these days I'm going to write something with a spiral structure... coming back around to almost the same point, but each time that point recurs, it's also moved forward a bit (because I think this is much how life is.) Such a structure would use both techniques."

That sounds like Groundhog Day. Hehehe...

I love experimenting with structure.

-MM

sabine said...

Yeah, RUN LOLA RUN is another example. And even though (just like GROUNDHOG DAY) it moves in a circular motion, the progression is still horizontal as each repetition has a slight alteration to it that changes the story overall, leading up to climax.
I think the vertical in RUN LOLA RUN is Lola herself... her actual body. She is in constant motion and to top it all off , has that bright red hair. She looks like a flame bouncing across the page to me. She's pure power and determination... like a little rocket... and in the end she really takes off!

There seems to be a very thin line between symbolism vs. vertical - static vs. movement - off-beat vs. rhythm. For instance, I see Lola's running as the vertical/movement/rhythm and her hair as symbolism/static/off-beat. Her hair doesn't have an impact on the story progression but it has meaning nonetheless. Her running however affects the story. In that sense, I struggle with the word "vertical" as it implies it goes a separate path, leading "nowhere". I'd rather see it as a parallel/second dimension to the horizontal and symbolism as vertical spurts.

Then again, it may just be time for my coffee. Hoooahh!