Thoughts On: Moonlight/Pulp Fiction/Wild Tales - Abandoning The 3 Act Structure


Moonlight/Pulp Fiction/Wild Tales - Abandoning The 3 Act Structure

Thoughts On: Moonlight/Pulp Fiction/Wild Tales

An exploration untraditionally structured cinematic narratives.


I have just covered Moonlight and have previously covered Pulp Fiction, but it was Moonlight that spurred me to think about set-pieces or chapters in films that give rise to idiosyncratic narrative structures. Beyond its very mediocre character work and thematic projection, Moonlight transcends the 3 act structure of the average movie by expanding and contracting its chapters to its own needs. This means that the first chapter isn't necessarily the first act, nor is the second chapter the the second act and so on - the parts or chapters simply fit together for the sake of the story in spite of acts. The reason why the chapters aren't strict acts comes down to the containment of their individual stories (Chiron as a child, then teen, then adult) and the way that each chapter holds its own arc that is distinct from the other chapters'. Whilst there is a large debate to be had that asks a question of if the 3 act structure may actually be transcended, I want to hold off on this and simply assume that, by having three distinct stories joined primarily through characters and locations, Moonlight is a unconventionally constructed story that can't simply be broken down into 3 acts. In assuming this, we can see Moonlight to be a film very much like Boyhood, Blue Is The Warmest Colour, Forrest Gump, Once Upon A Time In America, Mr. Nobody and Boyz N The Hood. All of these films feature the growth of the protagonist through many years, and in such, we often see them mature from a child or teen into an adult. These films thus hold very distinct parts to them that break down their narrative structure. What this means is that the audience doesn't recognise the first act, second and third, much rather, when Forrest was young, when Adele was a teen and when Chiron was a man. These are all very interesting ways of breaking narrative structure as they grant a story its own unique form to work with.

The advantage of this is both thematic and to do with character. Not only do we, as an audience, get to grow with a character, start their journey with them and see it to a conclusion, but the writer and director are given the opportunity to concisely develop theme. A great example of this is Forrest Gump. Forrest starts the narrative as a naive, not very intellectual person. However, as he matures, he grows to know people, himself and emotions very well. This provides him a very concise and eloquent view of the world where he understands the beauty and frailty of all that is confoundingly impactful abut it. In such, Forrest learns the worth of relationships and finding a place in the world amongst the people you know. All of this allows Eric Roth (screenwriter) and Zemeckis to bring into question themes of personal worth, intellectual capacity and experience. These themes are so powerfully conveyed to the audience because of structure, because of the way we see Forrest grow, moving through historical events and learning from them. So, whilst Forrest Gump isn't as explicitly unconventional as something like Moonlight or Boyhood, it does show the power of structuring a movie around a character and their situation. By using character as a structural guide, you not only bring an audience closer to them, but give a chance for themes to be much better voiced.

To zoom further in on the voicing of theme, we only have to consider the length of a set-piece or chapter in comparison to an entire feature. In being shorter, set-pieces have a simpler structure. This isn't to say that a short film, or more concise content is easier to create. This would be a naive thing to say as shorter formats present restrictions that can make the telling of a poignant story all the more harder. However, with a temporal restriction, you have less space and time to manage - which can help get a story out. Coming away from short films, by deciding how long your set-pieces need to be, you can fine tune the space and time you need to fill in a supportive manner that you allows to construct a feature-length story. To further clarify, imagine you want to write a story about an aspect of childhood, embark upon the journey of creating the script without considering page numbers and end up fading out to an end on page 38. Your original intention was to was to write a feature, what do you do? The story conveys its point perfectly, you could cut it down, make a few amendments, but stretching the script to 90 pages would kill the story. The only way you could manage getting to page 90 would be to inject a new story line. There's two ways you could approach this. One way would be to fatten the original 40 pages with more things happening. The other way would be to set up a new story line that is connected to the first and doesn't effect its pacing or message in a negative way. This second approach is a much more sensible and safer option. Whilst I think that you should try a draft where you beef up the 40 pages as that may actually turn out great, I think a more sensible option that provides more creative possibilities would be to have those 40 pages be a singular set-piece or chapter in a larger script which you build with more set-pieces. The reason why I think this is a more exciting option is to do with theme. With your first 40 pages being about childhood, you would have established a point - maybe one that implies the profound effect early experiences can have on you. When you progress into a new chapter, a new set-piece, you can keep at hand this theme of childhood, but put a new twist on it, expanding your initial commentary. An example of how you could do this would be to take those profound effects of early childhood and show how they contribute to a maturation into adulthood through another set-piece or short story.

This is the beauty afforded by the kind of structuring we see in Boyhood and Moonlight. They allow you to create mini-films that are supportive of one another and so build towards a more complex narrative. Moreover, set-pieces used like this free the writer. You don't have to write with a goal of hitting some number between 90 and 120. You can let your story breath and naturally come out in however many pages it needs. If you can combine two great short stories, maybe three or four, as set-pieces or chapters and do so with a thematic understanding of each story, you have a malleable formula to really exercise you writing muscles and maybe create something new, great and exciting. And malleability is a key term. The approach to this kind of story telling doesn't have to mimic a film like Moonlight. We'll get into how and why with the next point.

Another aspect of structuring stories in this way (as well as ways we will later touch on) is a concept of The Infinite Story - something we explored with Forrest Gump. The Infinite Story is a simple recognition that no stories have beginnings or ends until we give them one. If we zoom into Moonlight, we can see that this film could have explored Chiron's Mother's backstory or who she was as a child. Moreover, it could delve into the history of the town, the city, culture - any of the minor characters. As the same time, this film doesn't have to end where it does (I won't provide any spoilers). It could go on to explore the later years of Chiron, the many lives he effects and so much more. In such, you could create a perpetually expanding story that propagates infinitely from Chiron's arc seen in Moonlight. It is understanding this that writers can find a great source of inspiration as well as an overwhelming lack of direction. Knowing how to find the right story inside the infinite story comes down to, again, theme. By knowing what you want to say about a certain subject, it becomes easy to pick apart the right aspects of you story. Whilst this may lead you to find Die Hard, one night in a tower block following one character's struggle, you can also find films like Moonlight, Forrest Gump and so on. These films find many small moments in the scope of an infinite story that can come together to make one thematic point.

And this is the formulaic malleability, the freedom and range provided to you with our previous concept of bringing that 40 page script into a larger one with extra set-pieces. You don't just have to jump to later points in a person's life. You only need to look to films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Tree Of Life to understand why. Structurally, these films take the exact same approach to narrative as Moonlight, Forrest Gump and a plethora of other films that feature preludes or prologues - films like Goodfellas and Amelie. Kubrick and Malik decide that an important aspect of their infinite stories are not only the journey to Saturn or the childhood of a boy in a small town, but also the beginnings of human civilisation and life on Earth. Whilst you're writing your confined space thriller or family drama, this may seem insane, but, if the thematic dots connect, well... just look at what The Tree Of Life and 2001 achieved. What should now be evident to you is that this is a very ambiguous formula, one you may apply in a plethora of ways to create a wide range of narratives. Taking the set-piece approach then can vastly widen the scope of your narrative and deepen its thematic message.

Moving to a different approach to creating unconventional narratives, we come to Pulp Fiction. Whilst all of the films discussed in relation to Moonlight stretch or manipulate time and the infinite story, films such as Pulp Fiction compound time and deepen the infinite story. In such, they take that 40 page script and beef up the pages in a very concise manner instead of building upon it in the manner just discussed. Films that have this kind of structure in addition to Pulp Fiction are Nashville, Magnolia, Amores Perros, Crash and City Of God. These films all have many characters and an awful lot going on. Directors like Tarantino, Altman and PT Anderson have this astounding control of character and pacing that allows them to select very minute sections of space and time, an infinite story, and capitalise on it to the max. Pulp Fiction is probably the most explicit example of this as it takes something like Nashville and completely rearranges the order so that all that matters are the set-pieces, not necessarily the narrative as a whole. This all emphasises the astounding capability Tarantino has to tell us shorter stories in an almost playlist format. If we look to his latest film The Hateful 8, we see his attempt to follow a linear Die Hard-esque approach to story for the first half. He breaks this with the movement back in time, but what the majority of this film demonstrates is Tarantino's need to break his films up even if there is a linear structuring. He moves from character to character, having them tell stories or explore a bit of plot just like he himself moves from plot-to-plot or character-to-character in Pulp Fiction (just in a linear fashion). These individual moments of character and plot, say for instance the Sam Jackson fellatio story, shine by themselves. In many interviews Tarantino has admitted that this is his strength; he can make great set-pieces. Pulp Fiction is arguably his best film because it exploits this in an irrefutable manner. His lesser films expose his appeal to the set-piece in a negative manner though - The Hateful 8 is an example of this. Whilst I really enjoyed the film, it does have huge lulls - indicators of a lesser set-piece. In such, we see that each link in your cinematic chain is imperative, leaving your film to be as strong as its weakest set-piece.

What this all demonstrates is an approach to beefing up that 40 page script. Instead of spending more time on the present plot, add in a new parallel one. There are variations on this approach, however, that are dependent on the type of writer/filmmaker applying it. With films such as Pulp Fiction and Nashville, you are seeing entertaining character pieces constructed by auteurs and actor's directors - narratives opposed to the likes of 2001. What something like 2001 has a focus on is theme and narrative message - Pulp Fiction does not. Pulp Fiction primarily wants to entertain you and achieves this by selecting the most entertaining points in time and condensing them. This weakens theme and often distracts your audience with great pacing and tone. This may be what you wish to do, this may not be what you want to do. Nonetheless, there are two other approaches to exploiting a small section of an infinite story.

The first of these two approaches can be seen in films such as Inception, Primer, Looper and 12 Monkeys. Films that mess with time allow you to create individual set-pieces in a very intricate way that can allow you to focus on plot in a very technical respect. Inception and Primer are brilliant examples of this. Nolan and Carruth go deep with their sci-fi high concepts here with a pin-point focus on one event or question. Inception asks the simple question of 'what happens if you could dream within a dream?' and Primer asks the equally simple question of 'what if you had a time machine?'. What these films then demonstrate is how to exploit one singular idea and take from it all it has to provide. Whereas films such as Pulp Fiction and Magnolia really drain all they can out of characters or events, these films show you how exploit the high concept. In such, films like Looper and Primer let singular ideas construct their plot. Because the ideas behind them are so complex and have so many stages, so will the film - and the stages will be set-pieces. Simple, yet very intriguing.

If you're not a fan of exploiting characters or concepts like Pulp Fiction and Inception do and are maybe looking for a more poetic approach to structuring a film, you need to look no further than films such as Wild Strawberries, The Mirror, Un Chien Andalou and Upstream Colour. Believe it or not, these films are structured in very similar ways to all mentioned thus far. Instead of jumping from character to character or into dreams as a way of achieving more basic entertainment or complex plotting, films by Bergman and Tarkovsky take this approach as to create profound narrative meaning, atmosphere and subtext. In such, Tarkovsky will often split his films into set-pieces so he may not simply jump through time, but into characters. Bergman also does this with Wild Strawberries and demonstrates how you may compound you infinite story by taking a more novel-esque approach to narrative where you attempt to project a characters inner monologue through cinematic imagery.

From Tarantino to Nolan to Tarkovsky, you can now get a good picture of how to use set-pieces or chapters in a way that abandons the 3 act structure whilst zooming in on your infinite story and compounding time. The key to this is understanding that many spaces or plots can be ongoing in a film. You can take a peek at a plethora of locations, characters or parts of your film concept without adhering to an act 1 of set-up, an act 2 of growing conflict and an act 3 of resolution. Films like Inception, Lord Of The Rings and Upstream Colour show that you certainly can insert set-pieces into the traditional three acts, but the likes of Pulp Fiction, The Mirror and Un Chien Andalou support the creative freedom you may be seeking in abandoning that structure.

Moving to the final approach you can take to construct an unconventional film with chapters or set-pieces, we come to Wild Tales. This is a film that features disjointed shorts that come together to create a comedic anthology. Other films like this are Movie 43, VHS and The Animatrix. Now, this is probably the most gimmicky way of creating an unconventionally structured film. This is because you're simply creating a playlist like a bad DJ may. This is what we see in Movie 43. All I can say about this movie is, please don't do this. This film is a cautionary tale about creating unconventional narratives. More successful approaches to this, however, are of course Wild Tales, The Animatrix and VHS. The many parts in these films are bound by singular intents. For example, with Wild Tales, you're supposed to find the comedy in the absurd and tragic. With VHS, you're simply supposed to be scared many times over. With The Animatrix you're allowed to see the true breadth of the high concept belying The Matrix trilogy. With these three films we are seeing an approach to the infinite story that doesn't expand or condense time as films like Pulp Fiction or Moonlight may. Instead, these films approach the infinite story by jumping through space and into disjointed plots lines. The distinguishing factor of these film is thus how space is handled - not time.

However, as is apparent, we are dealing with 3 very different films. What differentiates The Animatrix, Wild Tales and VHS is their narrative glue - in other words, the way theme or intent is used to stitch the stories together so that filmmakers are justified in becoming cinematic DJs. With VHS, we are seeing the weakest approach to creating anthologies from shorts. What keeps this narrative together is simply the fact that each short, in turn the overall film, is supposed to scare you. Movie 43 also had a similar approach in trying to be funny, disgusting or absurd. Audiences are quick to see through this though and can come down heavy with criticism because of the contrived nature of the gimmick. This is because we feel like we've been sold many cheap ideas that don't have a cohesive worth. To overcome this and to validate this compiled approach to a narrative, you must have a much stronger control over theme. This is what we see in the second approach to this kind of structure through Wild Tales. What makes Wild Tales special is how each short builds on the other to create this singular thematic story of the absurd, arbitrary nature of the world. In such, each individual wild tale comes together to convey one wild idea about the world. This results in a singular feeling in the audience as they leave the movie, one that should be equivalent to the feeling you can get by seeing a traditionally structured feature. All of this suggests that a good cinematic DJ knows how to bring together a great playlist through an understanding of cinematic devices - primarily tone and theme.

The last kind of compiled class of structuring you can utilise is best presented through the Animatrix. The Animatrix is, in fact, very similar to Inception in the way it allows its high concept (humanity existing inside a computer) structure the narrative. This spatial element of everything existing inside this one concept called The Matrix is what brings each short together. Their combined intent is then to dive deep into one idea. In such, we see a captivating approach to creating unconventional structures in a film. Instead of finding one plot line to represent you concept, The Animatrix demonstrates that you can successfully explain, with much greater scope, a complex idea. This is so important as many people have the ability to ask these amazing what if? questions that are deemed un-filmable. The concept belying The Matrix is a great example of this: what if we lived in a simulation? The answer to this question is one that will follow a pattern such as: well this... and then this... and then this... and then that.... but then... and then... which leads onto... at the same time... and then this... oh, there's also this... ect. The 3 act structure demands a simple there is... but... so. And this is ultimately the structure of a logline. For example, there is a quiet bay town that's economy relies on tourists, but a man-eating shark forces the beaches to be closed down, so a trio of men must go out to kill the animal. This is a very rough example of a logline for Jaws, but in each segment of the sentence we can see an act. There is a quiet bay town... implies the first act and the introduction of location as well as characters. But a man eating shark... implies conflict, action and the story moving towards action. This is realised with the third act of the trio defeating the shark. Set-up, conflict, resolution - your perfect 3 act film. You cannot fully achieve this with a concept as complex and multi-faceted as what if we lived in a computer simulation? The original Matrix proves this. The first film was a great projection of a hero's journey. But, it didn't explore the scope of the Wachowskis' fundamental question to its full extent. We didn't get to see really this in either Reloaded or Revolutions - and that's a large contributor to why these are such disappointing sequels. It took The Animatrix to really shine a light on the genius belying the initial question asked by The Matrix. Thus, the importance of The Animatrix as a structural lesson to writers with big ideas should become all the more poignant.

There is a final bonus kind of structuring technique that is linked to a film such as Wild Tales. We see this in films such as Groundhog Day, Rashoman and Mr. Nobody. These films deal with time like Pulp Fiction - they condense it. However, there is also a spatial element given to these films. The events occurring in the repeating times periods change. In such, you see an interesting way of bringing together the set-piece or chapter in a temporal and spatial way to create unconventional narratives. The crux of this technique is understanding that perspective is what dictates structure. Whether it's the varying eye witness accounts of a murder, the changing approach to the every day, or the wandering mind questioning the paths it could have taken, it is perspective that constructs set-pieces and forms story in a very unique way. It is arguable that these film do have a clear 3 act structure and I think this is a good point for the likes of Groundhog Day, but, there is a belying construction of set-pieces in this film that doesn't have to adhere to the traditional structure. Instead of having the steady character arc seen in Groundhog Day to execute this technique, you may take the thematic approach of a film like 2001. Each space entered into, each repeated day, could present new challenges through differing themes and locations that don't require assistance from the 3 act structure - something to play with.

All in all, I hope I have demonstrated to you that there is a way to escape the dogmatic assertion of 3 act structuring. There are a plethora of films that show there are many techniques, through chapters and set-pieces, that will allow you to construct unconventional narratives. There are then 3 overarching approaches. The first is to do with the expansion of time as represented by a film like Moonlight or Boyhood. The second approach is about the condensing of time and so projecting the confined, yet thorough, exploration of characters and location. The last approach is about jumping to new spaces, creating non-sequitur shorts that can be brought together through theme and intent.

To create these unconventional films all you have to know is the power of the set-piece or chapter. They afford you small narrative slots through which a story may naturally flow. Patch-working these together can be done in a manner than doesn't fit the traditional 3 act system, but will allow you to create much more poignant, profound, deep, intricate or sprawling narratives - if done well. So, with these techniques at hand, do not forget theme, do not forget narrative cinematic devices and you just might have the ability to create your own rules as storyteller.

Good luck, I hope this helped.

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