Soon after my novel First Citizen came out, my agent at the time showed it to a friend who was vice president of development at a major film studio. He liked the book immensely but, because it was so vast and sprawling—after all, it is the autobiography, with commentary, of a modern-day dictator patterned on Julius Caesar—he felt the entire novel could not be made into a movie. Instead, he urged me to take the book apart and find the single story line that would make an acceptable screenplay. Because I had recently read and practiced with the Syd Field books1 for another project, I agreed to have a go at it and write the screenplay on spec.
The vice president of development then proceeded to tell me exactly how it should be structured. The first act must show the hero happily living his everyday life. At the end of that act, something happens to destroy that life, strip the hero, and leave him—and you can read “her” throughout here—metaphorically lost and alone, out in the cold. The second act shows the hero struggling to regain what has been taken. “But everything must work against him,” my mentor said. “Not just the villain, but other people, society, the government—the ground itself must literally rise up to oppose him.” The second act ends when the hero discovers the key to winning his fight. The third act shows the hero using that key to succeed and put things right. And, in this final act, the hero “must meet and beat the villain by going mano a mano, like Holmes and Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls.”
That was the sum of his advice. All I had to do then was find the part of my story that fit the formula, and I would have a movie he felt he could produce.2
You can see this structure quite plainly in thousands of movies, mostly of the “action” variety. Sarah Connor in The Terminator has her everyday life, her roommate, and even her sense of normality stolen by a homicidal maniac who isn’t human and gives no reason for his hostility. No one will believe her, not even the police, as she runs from the monster. Not until she teems up with the equally frightening soldier from the future, Kyle Reese, does she begin to learn the truth and build a strategy to win her struggle. And in the end she is left alone to kill the robot with a power press in an automated factory. … I’ll leave it to the reader to recall other examples and dissect them.
Of course, what my would-be mentor was describing is technically a dramatic comedy. This is not because it’s filled with jokes and laughter, but because the hero is an innocent. Bad things may be done to him, but he has no responsibility for setting them in motion. They are simply circumstances that involve him. But in the end he triumphs through his own wit and skill, overcoming these dire and unjustified circumstances. The film executive was suggesting that all movies these days must be structured as such comedies. Nobody wants a downer. Nobody wants a lesson. They want to walk out of the theater feeling good. The hero has to win—and win big—against natural oppression. So tragedies are ruled out as a medium of popular culture.
This is a very limited view of human relationships and exchanges, of human nature, of the human condition, and of what constitutes “feeling good.”
Tragedies are not just sad movies where the hero suffers and dies. That would be simply pathos, where we pity the main character in his misfortune. Or bathos, where the suffering and loss—and the bloodletting—are so overdone that pity becomes sick or maudlin, mere sentimentality. Instead, tragedy must invoke something deeper and more involving in the human spirit. Tragedy shows what is noble in human beings by dispensing with the frivolity of everyday life and cutting to the bone. In tragedy, the main character confronts his own nature, the consequences of his actions, and the bedrock level of the human condition.3
The hero of a comedy only has to be smart and quick, and by the end he may have learned nothing except a one-time trick for beating the present odds. The hero of a tragedy has been to hell, seen the faces of fire and death, learned what is really going on in the deepest, most hidden parts of his life and condition, and come back wiser for the experience—or died in a state of spiritual release and redemption.
The hero of a comedy can remain passive in the story until the villain—or simple bad luck—catches up with him at the end of the first act. The hero of a tragedy usually initiates the action, sometimes long before the story even starts. The hero of a tragedy might be unsuspecting, but he is never an innocent.4 In the best stories, the action that precipitates his problems comes from the hero himself and reflects some essential part of his character. The hero cannot resolve the problem without coming to understand the true nature of long-cherished assumptions and/or relationships as well as past actions and/or reactions. At the end, the hero’s life cannot simply be restored to its former success and smoothness, because some faults cannot be fixed nor some complications disentangled. And the lessons learned from them cannot be unlearned. But even though the hero is financially, physically, or mentally broken, even though he dies, he ends in a better state for knowing the truth rather than a happy fantasy.
In the play Oedipus Rex, the king of Thebes is disgraced and deposed. The end comes not simply because he murdered his father and slept with his mother—although when he learns that he has in fact committed those sins, he gouges out his own eyes. Those sins were all along the subject of prophecies made about Oedipus both as baby, which caused his biological father Laius to have him exposed on a mountainside, and as a young man, which caused him to flee his adoptive parents. His “tragic flaw” is not even his hot temper, which caused him to kill a quarrelsome old man—whom he did not know was his own father Laius—at a crossroads. His flaw was persistence and a stubborn, perhaps ever self-righteous, pursuit of a different truth.
His new kingdom, which he inherited when he married the dowager queen Jocasta—whose husband at the start of the play has recently and mysteriously died—is suffering under a curse because the killer has not been brought to justice. Oedipus determines to pursue the story, find the killer, and lift the curse. When the prophet Tiresias, through whom the gods are working, warns him to leave well enough alone, Oedipus refuses and tracks the mystery to its conclusion and to his own destruction.
In another play in the series, Antigone, the daughter and half-sister of Oedipus comes to grief for much the same reason: stubborn persistence in doing what she thinks is right. Her brother Polynices has been killed in battle while revolting against Thebes. Her uncle Creon has declared that his body will not be given funeral rights and must lie exposed, which means his soul can’t rest in the underworld. Antigone buries him anyway, and Creon punishes her sedition by having her walled up, a dreadful punishment that causes her to hang herself. In grief, Creon’s son Haemon, who was her fiancé, kills himself. Creon’s wife Eurydice, who can’t stand the pressure, also kills herself.
In Hamlet, the prince of Denmark is undone by his own indecision. Having learned that his uncle had killed his father—from his father’s ghost no less—and then took his mother as queen, Hamlet vows revenge. But taking action is hard for him. He tests his uncle by putting on a play that reenacts the murder, and that’s proof enough of the guilt. Perhaps deranged by grief, perhaps to throw off suspicion, Hamlet becomes or pretends to be insane. During the course of madness he rejects his fiancé Ophelia, then kills her father by mistake, and she drowns herself in grief. Everyone dies at the end of this play: Ophelia’s brother Laertes, Hamlet’s uncle and mother, and Hamlet himself. It’s supposed to be Shakespeare’s greatest play, but for the life of me I can’t think why.5
In Richard the Third, the newly crowned king of England is defeated and killed in battle. His flaw is his despicable character. To get to the throne, he has betrayed or murdered everyone who stood in his way and a few others besides. When the final battle comes, no one will stand up for him.
The point of these stories is not that everything turns out badly. But in each case the ending is intellectually and emotionally satisfying. It either teaches or confirms something about human nature and the human condition that the audience either needs to learn or already knows. That the pursuit of justice is a risky business, and that bold actions can have irreversible consequences. That honoring the demands of conscience and the gods against the commands of civil authority will also have dire consequences. That indecision and delay can be worse than taking no action at all. That succumbing to the temptations of the easy, obvious path—and so becoming a thoroughgoing, self-serving bastard6—will end badly.
Whether comedy or tragedy, the audience and the reader must feel that the story has been resolved and that the resolution is justified. Comedy does this by everyone winning through the struggle and going home happy. Tragedy does it by having the main character’s loss and suffering explained, so that he or she arrives at a state of balance, justice, and purification, while the audience achieves catharsis—the purification of our temporarily clouded emotions.
Not all successful modern movies are dramatic comedies, however. And not all of the filmed tragedies are simply retreads of Shakespeare and other classic playwrights who worked that side of the aisle.
In the John Sayles movie Lone Star, the young sheriff, who has virtually inherited his father’s position, pursues an old murder and finds out more about his father, his family, and his personal relationships than he knew before. No one is happy at the end of the story, but they have achieved peace and the audience is satisfied.
The Chicago Black Sox scandal, retold in the movie Eight Men Out, another Sayles production, shows the consequences of the players holding a grudge against the team’s owner, trying to get even with this skinflint, and accepting bribes to thwart his ambitions and throw the World Series. None of the guilty players—who are supposed to be playing for love of the game—comes out of the experience whole. Summary justice is done and, while the careers of sympathetic people are wrecked, the audience understands and is satisfied.
Curiously, even the lightest of action flicks can have a tragic element. In the three recent James Bond movies with Daniel Craig in the title role, the villain is happily killed and disaster averted each time. But that’s almost incidental, because Bond—through his own blindness and impulsiveness—loses someone he has come to care about. James Bond, the solid soldier of the Ian Fleming novels, the devil-may-care playboy of a half-century of earlier movies, has become a tragic figure. He is learning the bitter truth about himself and his job. He accepts it coldly but not casually.
Not every story has to end happily. But then, not every one has to end in the bloodbath of a Hamlet or Antigone, either. What audiences and readers look for is a sense of rightness and completion, the feeling that justice has been done, that the character is made whole, and the world is set back to spinning west to east. Do that for the reader every time, and it won’t much matter what kind of structure underpins your story.
1. See his Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting and The Screenwriter’s Workbook.
2. I did find what I thought was a story line, centered around the turning point of the war in Mexico, and wrote a complete screenplay based on the main character’s launching of the second American civil war and his rise to power. But it wasn’t what the studio executive was looking for, and we never talked again. Working on spec—that is, for free—is often like that. Now I take the attitude of the masked executioner in the movie The Four Musketeers: “And two more pistoles for rowing the boat. I’m a headsman, not a sailor.”
3. And if you think tragedies won’t appeal to modern young audiences, remember that Shakespeare wrote a great many of them which played well with the groundlings, the lowest-paying audiences of the period, which were composed mostly of young apprentices and day laborers.
4. Granny Corbin, the main character in First Citizen, certainly isn’t innocent. He is as much or more doing as done to.
5. But then, I don’t have much sympathy with indecisive, hesitant characters. To quote Tuco’s law, “If you’re going to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk.”
6. Darth Vader, please take note.