Right then – PK’s Writing Blog is back. It’s a place where I (b)log screen things that help/nudge/remind anything about the writing process – with a particular view on story structure.
Writers have a love/hate relationship with structure. Some see it is a must, to get the bones of the story in precise place before you write a word. Others write by the seat of their pants. I think the best path is probably somewhere in the middle: writing’s an art and a craft, so sometimes you need to lock down the stricter craft, while other times you need to let art run away with itself.
My method? The (arty) idea comes first, with a concept, a character/their relationships, a conflict, and a conquest of that conflict – ooh that’s all Cs, that makes a handy Powerpoint slide. Then the (crafty) thrashing-out of the story, with lots and back-and-forths to (arty) character-forming, concept-tweaking, setting the setting and so on. Then a first (arty) draft based on the (crafty) outline, (crafty) rewrites and redrafts, and from there on the crafty bits mostly show me the problems and the arty bits hopefully provide a few fancy answers.
I can’t help you much with the art. But the craft… that’s what this blog’s about. (Except at Christmas. Then this blog is about Christmas.)
So I thought I’d zoom in on one excellent example of this: Sam Mendes’ outstanding Oscar-bound film, 1917. Spoilers of that will be below, but you’ll know where because I’ll say SPOILERS in big letters.
Previously on this blog, I proposed my story structure theory. Well it’s a pattern. Well it’s a thing, based on the calendar year. I call it Calendar Theory. I’m writing it up as a book, but for now, I’m blogging here about how it fits with certain films. Familiar elements of the calendar year – from human festivals to natural seasons to those handy equinoxes – are helpful markers in many films’ storylines. We’ve tried it on Mary Poppins Returns already. So now, 1917.
1917 is a visually incredible, directorially how-the-hell-did-they-film-that, one-shot masterpiece. Well it looks like one shot. There are cuts, but that doesn’t matter. It’s real-time (almost), and it feels like one very big breath. But narratively, it’s hitting all those points that almost every other film does. In stunning fashion, yes – giant kudos to writers Krysty Wilson-Cairns and Mr Mendes. To make us like it, I think it has to hit familiar markers.
Here’s how I think 1917 fits with Calendar Theory:
SPOILERS BEGIN NOW. Come back when you’ve seen the film, or read on if you don’t mind having it spoiled (though it won’t spoil it really, because how they portray it – the art on top – is breathtaking).
JANUARY: New Year/new start… Blake and Schofield wake up, almost literally coming out of hibernation. The setting is revealed: the cold, hungry Western Front.
FEBRUARY: Valentine’s… Not romantic, but no man is an island, so we need an encounter. Blake + Schofield = our key relationship. It leads to a reluctant opportunity… to go behind supposed enemy lines to deliver a message, to save over a thousand troops. But a thousand troops isn’t enough – to make it personal, those troops include Blake’s brother. Characters start a story; relationships spark it into continuing.
MARCH: They’ve had their invitation (well, their order). They would never refuse that order, yet there’s still Debate (as story theorist Blake Snyder would have it) or Refusal of the Call (as story theorist Joseph Campbell would have it). I think it’s more that our main duo have a difference of opinion as to how it should be done. Neither’s refusing to go, but Schofield wants to wait till nightfall, Blake wants to go now – his brother’s life is at stake. Look at any film or TV show: even characters on the same path, on the same journey, constantly disagree about how it should be done.
The Spring Equinox (late March) marks where our story marches (pun intended) from Act 1 into Act 2. Others call this Crossing The Threshold. Here they’re taking a major risk going over the top into no man’s land.
There’s often an Easter moment at this point in films – a glimpse of the divine. Is it a coincidence that their march into Act 2 is marked by Andrew Scott (Fleabag’s priest, no less) blessing them as they go over the top? Possibly. But there are an astounding number of glimpse-of-the-divine moments at this point in films/shows/books.
APRIL: Like many narrative theories, this one’s based on the three-act structure, going right back to Aristotle. Beginning, Muddle, End. So April starts Act 2, with an April Fool moment, as the duo discover giant craters, before the tension builds to… an empty German trench. Then a proper ‘fool’ moment when they encounter a tripwire.
April showers come when the German trench caves in on them – a lucky escape, but at this stage, we always knew they’d escape. That saving moment is crucial though, and will resonate through the film.
There’s even then a moment of ‘Spring’ talk, when the two soldiers chat about cherry blossom as they pass through an orchard. At this stage of stories there’s hope. Nature is blooming… mirrored later in the autumn of the story: cows deliberately killed so the Allies can’t eat them – the death of nature. That’s for later. For now, we’re talking about hope. (Am I reading too much into this? No. Is this bloom/death of nature deliberate in the scriptwriting? Definitely.) It’s the calm before a summer storm…
MAY: Maypole… Sub-characters weave in and out, which asks ‘Who can we trust?’ In 1917 this starts with planes flying past; the duo aren’t sure if they’re ours and theirs. Then that trust question is brought home in the dogfight and its fateful crash…
Mayfair… The mirror image of Halloween to come, hinting at bigger crisis later. In most films, later Halloween is mirrored here in a safe-yet-scary moment, (BIG SPOILER COMING) but in 1917, it’s fatal. The dogfight crashes a German plane. When our heroes rescue the doomed pilot, he fatally stabs Blake. Notably it’s Blake who wanted to save the pilot – if it was Schofield, he’d spend the rest of the film under the shadow of guilt, that he chose wrong. That doesn’t happen – Schofield is working under enough pressure without throwing guilt in too.
JUNE: Family picnic rained off… As Blake dies, he speaks of family and asks Schofield to write to his mum for him.
This scene is also our midpoint, the Longest Day of late June in Calendar Theory terms. Rising action before, falling action after, some say. Charting the story like a graph, this is our mountain-top: before, the hero couldn’t fully see the task ahead, but at this point, he can see the scale of it. So in 1917, what was a mission for a duo becomes a renewed mission for one.
JULY: School’s out/end of learning… Mark Strong and co pick up Schofield. There’s a moment of the new soldiers bantering, doing impressions of top brass. It’s the end of the school year, highlighting faulty logic and essentially graduating our hero.
AUGUST: The long hot summer… The ‘summer’ of stories are often on fast-forward. Time speeds up. In comedies (or Rocky films), there might be a montage. Here, there’s a time-jump in a mo, but that’s not what I mean. I mean Schofield’s journey literally speeds up when the lorry accelerates his journey. It gives him thinking-time and a chance to try new skills…
Summer camp… When the lorry is stuck in the mud, Schofield urges the soldiers (strangers) to get out and push with him. Push hard. They succeed on Schofield’s cry, and sure enough it’s him that ends up face down in the mud. He is suffering for his mission, and this is the time to hone those skills (resilience, digging deep) that will be needed later (for, SPOILER, the sprint across the battlefield).
SEPTEMBER: Fall, when we think it’s summer… When least expected, shots are fired over the river. We dropped our guard. We were enjoying the summer too much, and didn’t notice the nights draw in. The dark literally draws in when Schofield is shot. Blackout. The Autumn Equinox is here. It’s not quite our Act 3 yet though – in the Calendar Theory model, that’s December. To get us there, first we have…
OCTOBER: Scares! Schofield wakes and it’s night. Come on – if this doesn’t remind us of the seasonal shape of the year, I don’t know what does. There are even fires, like our winter bonfires, to light up the night, to burn the past, to scare us.
NOVEMBER: Heroic fireworks! Schofield races and chases his way through the physical dark. The emotionally darkest of moments is yet to come…
DECEMBER: Advent… The baby and mum brings a contemplative, reflective moment, full of anticipation, but calm. We need this moment, by Jiminy do we! I feel this scene was the writers’ gift to us, to carry us through the rest of the onslaught. Is it too much to read into this Advent moment, a baby as the hope the world needs? Alright, maybe. Coincidence. Maybe. Baby.
Shop early for Christmas… Something bought earlier in the film can be cleverly brought out here as a gift: milk. Makes me cry thinking about it. Beautiful.
End of term… But Schofield must leave Act 2 behind and run and jump into Act 3 – and here’s a literal divide and renewed commitment, as he jumps into the river. Like a schoolchild changing out of that uniform for the last time this year, his old safe is washed away. The Act 3 self – the Christmas self – is what’s needed now – a product of everything he’s been through till now, a product of the full year till now. But the year’s not over yet…
The darkest day… Schofield climbing over dead bodies in the river is possibly the bleakest of bleak. Through the woods, when he finally encounters the troops he’s spent the ENTIRE film/year searching for, he barely recognises them. He’s bewitched by the song, which essentially is a Christmas carol.
December looks suspiciously like January… The trenches Schofield discovers are starkly reminiscent of the trenches from the start of the film. John Yorke’s book Into The Woods sees stories as journeys into the woods then back home again changed. Here Schofield embodies that, seeing these new trenches with greater purpose than the ones at the start – and he’s even just gone through literal woods to be here.
Christmas Eve rush… The sprint along the battlefield is this moment incarnate. It’s Colin Firth running through the streets of Portugal at the end of Love Actually. It’s Marty McFly racing the Delorean before the lightning bolt strikes. It’s Sandra Bullock hurtling to Earth in Gravity. It’s the Christmas rush, often against the flow of pedestrian traffic – and sure enough here George MacKay is running at 90 degrees to the tide of the troops. In all these films, this dynamic scene thrills us and pulls on our heartstrings, because we’ve been with the hero for the whole year and know what it’s taken to be here.
Gifts, reunion… Against all odds, Schofield accomplishes his mission. And it’s a Christmas party of cameos: him from that film, him from that show. The hero is pretty much offered a festive drink here, but can’t take it, because it’s not over yet…
Family, security – Outside it’s snowing, but in here it’s cosy and warm… Alright this film doesn’t quite manage that physically, but emotionally oh yes. Despite the war around, we end the film in the security of the triage tent. Schofield finds Blake’s brother, handing over both news and the gifts of the first Blake’s possessions. A family reunion, of sorts.
New Year’s Eve: The film ends with an exact matching image of the very first image: Schofield sitting under a tree. Like the Bible, it starts and ends with a tree (this story pattern has been around for a loooooooong time). Schofield shows us pictures of his wife and daughters, that he’s not mentioned till now – this is his family reunion, and it’s even underneath a (Christmas) tree…
Okay, maybe strike the Christmas tree metaphor from the record – I’m reading too much in. Perhaps. But the tree as a symbol of hope and nature’s continuing revival is a huge one. That sense that we end yet start again having barely moved on, is there in this film, in the calendar year, in so many stories.
What a film. What a story.
So if you’re currently writing a story, have you accidentally (or deliberately) woven in any of those story points above? Does yours have a seasonal shape to it? Bet it does, even if you hadn’t noticed it. Till now…