Sunday, July 29, 2012


In the West, plot is commonly thought to progress by way of a sequence of conflicting actions, or the actions of natural or supernatural forces that oppose the best interests of the characters. In the ensuing and on-going confrontation, one character or another ultimately dominates or is beaten by another character, or by fate or nature. The standard three- and five-act plot structures—which permeate Western media—have erected conflict at the center of the conventional, dramatic story forms. A “problem” appears at the beginning, which leads to a crisis near the end of the first act; and, in the second act, the conflict generated by this evolving crisis takes center stage. Conflict is used to create audience involvement even by many post-modern writers, whose work otherwise defies traditional structure.

The necessity of conflict is preached as a kind of dogma by most contemporary screenwriters’ workshops and Internet “guides” to screenwriting. A plot without conflict is considered dull; some even go so far as to call it impossible. This has so influenced mainstream filmmaking that it has crystallised into templates or formulae that every screenwriter worth his or her salt must follow if they are to create a successful screen story. Yet, is there any ultimate merit in this belief? Does plot necessarily hinge on conflict? Not so long ago, I might’ve answered in the affimative, but to do so is to overlook or even negate the very powerful contribution that mystery, suspense and re-contexualisation contribute to our interest in character actions and motives. To simple-mindedly claim that conflict is essential to a great story tells us more about the West’s prejudices and insularity than it does about the scope and variety of cogent and emotionally compelling narratives.

For countless centuries, Chinese and Japanese storytellers have used a plot structure that does not have conflict “built in”, so to speak. Rather, it relies on exposition, contrast, mystery and suspense to generate interest. This structure is known as kishōtenketsu ( 起承転結 in Japanese, 起承轉合 in Chinese)

Kishōtenketsu contains four acts: introduction, development, twist (or re-contextualisation) and reconciliation. The basics of the story—characters, setting (given circumstances), etc.— are established in the first act and developed in the second. No major changes occur until the third act, in which a new, often surprising element is introduced. In the best stories this element is “planted” or in some way foreshadowed in one of the previous acts, though its ultimate significance is not at first recognised. When this element appears (or re-appears) in the third act - which is the core of this type of plot - it manifests as a kind of structural non sequitur. The fourth act draws a conclusion from the contrast between the first two “straight” acts and the disconnected third, thereby reconciling them into a coherent whole. In the short-form drama this manifests as an idea that the audience takes away after the film has finished, upsetting the audience’s assumptions and expectations and as a result forcing the audience to reconsider its judgements about the story and what it actually means. As a result, the audience goes away from the experience altered or changed in some way.

Kishōtenketsu is probably best known to Westerners as the structure of Japanese yonkoma (four-panel) manga. In its simplest form, it may be illustrated as shown in the four-panel storyboard at the right.

Each panel represents one of the four acts. The resulting plot — and it is a plot — contains no conflict. No problem impedes the protagonist; nothing is pitted against anything else. Despite this, the twist in panel three imparts a dynamism — a chaos, perhaps — that keeps the comic from depicting merely a series of events. Panel four reinstates order by showing us how the first two panels connect to the third, which allows for a satisfactory ending without the need for a quasi-gladiatorial victory.

NOTE: Sejong Park’s Oscar-nominated short, Birthday Boy, is a case in point.

The Western structure, on the other hand, is a face-off—involving character, theme, setting—in which one element must prevail over another.

If one were to re-conceptualise the first comic (above) into the formulistic three-act structure of conventional Western screenstorytelling, it might look like the frames below.

The first panel gives the reader a “default position” with which to compare later events; and the second panel depicts a conflict-generating problem with the vending machine. The third panel represents the climax of the story: the dramatic high point in which the heroine’s second attempt ”defeats” the machine and allows the can to drop. The story concludes by depicting the aftermath, wherein we find that something from the first act has changed as a result of the climax. In this case, our heroine sans beverage has become a heroine avec beverage.

What this shows is that the three-act plot, unlike kishōtenketsu, is fundamentally confrontational. It necessarily involves one thing winning out over another, even in a minor case like the one above. This conclusion has wide-ranging implications, since both formats are applied not just to narratives, but to all types of writing. Both may be found under the hood of everything from essays and arguments to paragraphs and single sentences. As an example, the reader might re-examine the first two paragraphs of this article, in which a “default position” is set up and then interrupted by a “problem” (namely, the existence of kishōtenketsu). The following paragraphs deal with the conflict between the two formats. This paragraph, which escalates that conflict by explaining the culture-wide influence of each system, is the beginning of the climax.

As this writer is already making self-referential, meta-textual remarks, it is only appropriate that the article’s climax take us into the realm of post-modern philosophy. It is a worldview obsessed with narrative and, perhaps unconsciously, with the central thesis of the three-act structure. Jacques Derrida, probably the best known post-modern philosopher, infamously declared that all of reality was a text—a series of narratives that could only be understood by appealing to other narratives, ad infinitum. What kinds of narratives, though? Perhaps a benign, kishōtenketsu-esque play between disconnection and reconnection, chaos and order? No; for Derrida, the only narrative was one of violence. As a Nietzschean, he believed that reality consisted, invariably, of one thing dominating and imposing on another, in a selfish exercise of its will to power. The “worst violence”, he thought, was when something was completely silenced and absorbed by another, its difference erased. Apparently, Derrida was uncontent with the three-act structure’s nearly complete control over Western writing: he had to project it onto the entire world. Eurocentrism has rarely had a more shining moment.

Kishōtenketsu contains no such violence. The events of the first, second and third acts need not harm one another. They can stand separately, with Derrida’s beloved difference intact. Although the fourth act unifies the work, by no means must it do violence to the first three acts; rather, it is free merely to draw a conclusion from their juxtaposition, as Derrida does when he interprets one narrative through the lens of another. A world understood from the kishōtenketsu perspective need never contain the worst violence that Derrida fears, which would make his call for deconstruction—the prevention of silence through the annihilation of structure—unnecessary. Is it possible that deconstruction could never have been conceived in a world governed by kishōtenketsu, rather than by the three-act plot? Is the three-act structure one of the elements behind the very worldview that calls for its deconstruction? Can the Western narrative of the will to power remain coherent in the face of a rival narrative from the East? This writer would prefer to ask than to answer these questions…


PLEASE NOTE: THE ABOVE IS A HEAVILY ALTERED VERSION OF AN  ARTICLE THAT FIRST APPEARED ON THE TUMBLR SITE "STILL EATING ORANGES" - a site maintained by an art collective, which describes itself as follows:  "Expect from us illustrations, experimental writing, comics, philosophy, humor, academic and general interest essays, photographs, recommendations and videos."  WHERE'S THE DRAMA graciously and gratefully acknowledges and credits their original article.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012


WARNING! This synopsis contains spoilers
Leith - an obsessive transvestite in her mid-30s - has been involved in a ten-year relationship with her lover, Jelly, and Jelly's dead mother, whose spirit inhabits the fig tree in the garden beneath which Jelly's placenta is buried. Consumed by jealousy for the mother, and by a primordial urge to possess Jelly - a slippery and seemingly passive drama lecturer - Leith's world is cracked wide open by the arrival of Jelly's student - the exotic Chinese beauty, Hart Sommerstein. When Jelly arrives home, Leith accuses him of having an affair, and, in a shattering confrontation, they spill the horror of their relationship. In her frenzy to destroy the mother's dominance, Leith slays the tree with an axe, which unexpectedly frees Jelly.

Jelly John.............Craig Boreham
Leith Law...............Marc Carlis
Hart Sommerstein.....Ryan Lee

Writer/Director.........Christina Conrad
Producer........Melissa Anastasi
Co-Producers........Christina Conrad & Billy Marshall Stoneking
Cinematography..........Steve Macdonald
Editing.........Geoff Brokate & Joanathan Wald
Design.........Christina Conrad
Sound.......Ryan Dunwoodie
Script Editor........Billy Marshall Stoneking

Sound Design.......Paul Hurrell
Picture Grade.......Warren Lynch

Executive Producers...... Billy Marshall Stoneking, Jonathan Wald

For more about this film and the filmmaker, go to CONRAD

Thursday, July 5, 2012


There are undoubtedly exceptions to these, but since I first became involved with the bizzness of filmmaking - all the way back to my acceptance into AFTRS as a screenwriting student (1981) -  I have constantly noticed the following:

The industry is dominated by three "tribes", which can be loosely characterised as follows:

Tribe 1: People that are hostile towards, ignorant of, and understand nothing or next to nothing about DRAMATIC ACTION.

Tribe 2: People who can tell you what’s wrong with your screenplay/story, but have little if any ability to illuminate its problems in ways that permit you to gain a fresh and clear perspective in order that you might effectively work through the weaknesses.

Tribe 3: People who can not only determine what’s wrong, but can illuminate character and action in ways that constructively aid you in overcoming the screenplay's problems.

If you are a writer that has had any experience with the screen storytelling industry in this country, you've most likely met people from all three tribes, and I know which ones you probably prefer. If you've kept your eyes and ears open you've probably also noted the following:

* Virtually no one in the acquisition, development, production or marketing side of the Australian screen storytelling industry would ever admit to being a member of Tribe 1.  But they’re there.  You can spot them easily if you keep your ears and eyes open. If you ask someone, “What’s the story about,” and they respond by actually telling you the story beat for beat; or if they want to talk about what it reminds them of, or if they make comments like :"I felt I was there.",  there’s an awfully good chance they don’t have a very good grasp of the concept of story.

* Most people in this country fall into Tribe 2. They know enough about story to be dangerous. That is they can tell you at least some of the things that are wrong with a script, but often their solutions are uncomfortably wide of the mark, or worse - they want to take over the writing by making suggestions that will force you to radically reinvent the story. They also seem incapable of anticipating how and why this merely creates new problems. They say things like “I know it’s called 'Gayby Babies', but why does it have to be gaybys?”

* If you’re a writer, you're probably hoping to find someone from Tribe 3.  Stop looking.  If you're really a DRAMATIC storyteller, your job is to SEE, HEAR and SOLVE the problems yourself (with the assistance of the other characters, of course) It's YOUR ability to identify a story’s underlying issues - and your insights! -  that will allow you to find solid, tangible and compelling ways of resolving your concerns. Look to yourself (or rather, your SELVES) - that will serve you better than anything you'll find in the first two tribes.

However if you are a member of Group 3, and you have a great script, or at least the makings of something good, you cannot speak to people that are in Tribe 2 and certainly not Tribe 1 as if they understand story the way you do.You have to be able to break down your analysis and ideas into a series of graspable talking points. If you try to impress them with your "deep" understanding of the nuances of story theory and rely too much on jargon, you probably aren't a fully intiated member of Tribe 3 anyway. You will most likely not only lose them, they will probably feel a great deal of discomfort sitting in a room with you.

Instead you must meet them on their level and shape your suggestions into digestible, bite-sized talking points that won't upset their stomach.This is not to demean them. You may know story, but you probably don’t know squat about business or the subtleties of networking. You have your talent.  They have theirs.

And by the way, this is not only about Tribe 3s trying to communicate with Tribe 2s or Tribe 1 people, it’s also about YOU appreciating the fact that people lead extremely busy lives, so being concise and on point is always the strongest and most dramatically effective way of communicating with them.

Bottom line: No one really gives a fuck about you or your story. They don’t really NEED to give a fuck, or know the ins-and-outs of story theory. All they want is for you to fix the damn script!  Or send a thrill through them. In other words - it's entirely up to you to make them give a fuck.

[Note: Are there producers that are members of Tribe 3? Absolutely. And that can be both a blessing and a curse, the former because you benefit from their great ideas, the latter because they will want to explore every conceivable plot possibility, hopefully a beneficial process, but an exhausting one].

Some of you might be asking: "How do I go about becoming a member of Tribe 3?" Apart from those of you that are precociously wise about character, action and dramatic screen storytelling, there is really only one answer. Immerse yourself in cinema. Not just screenwriting, but the entirety of movies.

See every film.
Read every book.
Analyze every script.
Study the business.
Think like a writer.
Think like a director
Think like a producer.

You should envelope yourself in everything related to filmmaking and the movie business. In other words, you have to love cinema and follow that passion. Passion is the key, because to write a damn good dramatic story and to make a damn good dramatic film are among the hardest things to do in the world. And if you don't have a passion for it, you simply won't have the energy or the will to overcome all the obstacles and complications that will arise in the process of finding the story.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012


Here is one of my favorite short films, from New Zealand director, Robert Sarkies, whose funney and eccentric first feature, Scarfies, premiered at Sundance several years ago. This film provides prospective, short-film makers with a great object lesson in the essential dramatic grammar. Watch how the writer/director introduces the dramatic problem and then how the protagonist actively pursues his utimate objective with ever-increasing risk and heighthened stakes. The comedic elements are kept credible and the journey that we go on is filled with enough surprises to maintain our involvement. Check it out and see if you don't agree that this great example of the masterful use of dramatic grammar. For more about the grammar of dramatic storytelling see GRAMMAR.


Writer and director Billy Wilder - the man behind some of Hollywood’s most beloved films, including Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, and Double Indemnity - wrote or directed more than 50 screenplays, winning six Oscars and numerous other awards.

In a modern Hollywood where big-budget formula films often command the box office, many filmmakers still look to Wilder as a role model of a director/writer that understands the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of making movies that matter. His hard-earned wisdom has been distilled for us in Cameron Crowe’s interviews with Wilder, which I recommend. In the meantime, here is an even more distilled version of his basic set of rules.

The obvious one: be on time to the set, work on schedule — in short, be reliable. But he codified some of his on-set knowledge, as well.

Rule two: ‘grab ‘em by the throat and never let go.’

He means grab us, the audience, with great characters, doing emotionally compelling things, speaking winning dialogue and actors that we love to look at.

Another of Wilder’s creative concepts is to let the audience figure out key plot points. “Don’t underestimate the intelligence of the audience. Treat your audience intelligently. What movies can do, at their best, is let us in — they show us things, they don’t tell us.

But for my money, the most imporatnt of Wilder’s insights had to do with the actual screenplay. According to Billy, a defining characteristic of a well-written screenplay is that it will tell its audience how the movie ends halfway through the script. In other words the conclusion is “planted” at some point in the middle. (But of course, at the time, the audience is not aware of this). To illustrate his point, Wilder cites any number of examples:

In Sunset Blvd: On New Year’s Eve, Joe leaves Norma for a party so he can be around people his own age. Joe is a struggling scriptwriter in his late 20s, Norma is an aging silent movie queen who just turned 50. Joe is Norma’s “kept boy.” Norma gets so upset when Joe leaves her (because nobody leaves a star) that she tries to kill herself. Joe returns to the mansion, and stays with Norma. That scene just told the audience how the movie will end. At the end of Sunset Blvd, once again, Joe leaves Norma, but this time instead of killing herself, she kills Joe.

In The Sixth Sense: Halfway through the movie, Cole, is in bed telling Dr. Crowe that he can see dead people. He says the most important line in the movie, “They don’t even know they’re dead.” Right there, Cole just told you how the movie will end.

In Gone With The Wind: After Rhett ushers Scarlett and Melanie out of burning Atlanta, he leaves Scarlett. What happens at the end of the movie? Once again, Rhett leaves Scarlett.

And in The Wizard of Oz: Halfway through the movie, Dorothy and the others fall asleep in the poppy fields. Glinda comes by and helps them wake-up. Why? Because Dorothy is dreaming. She’s dreaming the entire time. She needs to wake-up. She always had the power. Remember how the Scarecrow is saying, “Dorothy you’re waking up! Wake-up!” Remember at the end of the movie when her aunt and uncles are saying the exact same thing.

Recently, whilst editing a feature screenplay by Adelaide filmmaker, Kelly Shilling, I noticed that she, too, had instinctively planted the ending of her story in a scene that occurs at about the halfway point of the plot.

However, Wilder’s most important rule is also the simplest: Don’t be boring.

Keep these rules in mind, anad when you see a Hollywood blockbuster insulting the audience’s intelligence or taking up too much valuable time, you’ll probably also find it is abusing its privledges by ignoring one or more of these prinicples.


"Filmmaking is a matter of asking questions to which you don’t know the answers, and holding yourself tenderly open, ready to come across new questions at any moment. The work that results is an admission of what you don’t know and might never be able to understand. It is not about moving from confusion to clarity—for the actor, the director, or the viewer. Getting lost is the goal—being forced to break old habits and understandings, giving up your old forms of complacency. The way to wisdom is through not-knowing."

- John Cassavetes

From the dead of an Australian winter, let me offer this opportunity to rub your hands at least temporarily on the work and ideas of pioneer, independent filmmaker, John Cassavetes. Assembled in one place - at the WHERE'S THE DRAMA? website What you will find is a creative and compelling storyteller, none of whose films was considered for admission into the artistic canon during his lifetime.

As Ray Carney has said: "Almost without exception, American filmmakers and critics take for granted that art is essentially a Faustian enterprise — a display of intellectual power, control, and mastery. They assume that a work's greatness is traceable to its ability to limit, shape, and organize what the viewer sees, hears, knows, and feels in each shot. In a word, their conception of artistic performance is virtuosic. Leaf through the pages of the standard film textbooks and what you will find is an implicit equation of virtuosity and greatness that extends to every aspect of a film's creation: from the writer's ability to create "revelatory" dialogue; to the director's, cameraman's, and lighting supervisor's ability to use lighting, framing, camera angles, and movements to manipulate what the viewer knows and feels; to the editor's and musical supervisor's ability to orchestrate the pacing and dramatic intensity of events down to the last beat.

"No set of values could be more opposed to Cassavetes' belief about either the process of living or the function of art. For him making a film was not a display of power and prowess, but was rather an act of humility. It did not involve virtuosic arrangement and masterful organization, but patient exploration and tentative discovery. As he often said, for his actors, his crew, his viewers, and himself, filmmaking was a matter of asking questions to which you didn't know the answers and holding yourself tenderly open, ready to come across new questions at any moment."

Have a look inside the life and films of Cassavetes this month (July, 2012) at Where's the Drama? You can view the complete version of his first feature, Shadows, and the full version of his last film, Love Streams. There are also interviews with friends and cast and fly-on-the-wall observations of a man obsessed.


I try to make it comfortable for the actor by realising what they’re doing is so personal. If you’re doing a movie and somebody slaps a slate in front of you and everybody stands around expecting you to be brilliant, then it’s gonna be like a contest. I like to develop an atmosphere where that doesn’t exist; where nobody is looking at you to see how good you are; where people can function. It’s very hard to let the technical processes of film take over and then expect the actors to reveal themselves. I mean, you can’t take a shower at a dinner party. You make a movie to tell what you know about life – about your life. But after waiting around for eight hours, for setups, for lights, all of it, when it comes time to shoot, you’re thinking, ‘I don’t wanna tell you about my life anymore! Why should I tell you about my life?’ On a set there’s really a lot that can hamper the actors. For example, in this film, here’s maybe the most important moment in two people’s lives: a guy is committing his wife to a mental hospital. In a normal movie, while this is going on someone is also fiddling with your hair, putting lipstick on you, placing lights above you, sitting you down, marking your feet, moving cameras, yelling, ‘Hey. She doesn’t look good; her skin is out of focus.’ Now, I ask you, how can the actors concentrate? So we do all this before the actors come on stage.