Structures and Scaffolding: The Seven Course Meal

Beckett was known to answer his door to guests with a bottle of Jameson’s in one hand, fingers of the other capped by shot glasses, held up like glassine flowers. Visitors would pluck one and he’d pour. “There,” he’d say, raising his own glass. “It helps.” Narrative Structures are Everywhere.

i. Cocktail Hour. Apéritifs aren’t necessarily a ‘course’ in the fully prepared seven course meal of traditional French service, but most menus open with them, and there is something to be said for the shock, the chill, the florals, the tickle, the bubble and the loosening of tongues and emotions that comes with a drink before dinner. A Martini, a French 75, or an Old Fashioned with its muddled sugar cube, bitters, cherry and orange (topped with a few fingers of bourbon), the conviviality of a glass raised opens more than the palette to the opportunities of congress promised by a long meal.

French 75 For Screenwriters, we can imagine that cocktails correspond to the opening logo, the first strains of music and the first images – in some of our favorite movies, purely abstracted: the opening fences upon fences at Xanadu in Citizen Kane; the breezy outer garden of Howards End; the rolling, glistening and twittering Enterprise in JJ Abrahms’ recent Star Trek. 1. The traditional first gustatory course, once the guests have taken their seats, comes under the delightful name ‘Amuse Bouche’: amusements for the mouth. These are most often presented as single bites or sips served in spoons, small glasses, tiny plates, or on wooden or steel skewers or small forks. At his restaurant in Trump Plaza in NYC, Jean Georges Vongerichten says this course “is the best way for a great chef to express his or her big ideas in small bites”. [It is interesting to note that incantatory Amuse Bouche has its twin at the end of the meal with the similarly prudent Petit Fours. But we will come to that!] Amuse-Bouche In a script we can think of this course as the first great image of the story, the signature and iconic shot establishing the story’s ‘mise en scene’ a gesture that strives to achieve what Wordsworth said of the best poetry (I’m paraphrasing), “that it is great by the degree that it must teach you how to read it.” Continuing with our previous examples, this would be in Kane (a film obsessed with scaling effects), the utterance of ‘Rosebud’ and the smashing of the the Snow Globe along with the so humble miniature house inside it; in Howards End the first glimpse of the amber lit interior of the country house full of laughter, the sneaking of the lovers into the garden, and their first kiss against the oak; and in Star Trek the obscene, menacing entrance from the wormhole of the Romulan mining ship and the breathless reaction it evokes on the bridge of the doomed USS Kelvin. 2. Soup. This course serves to settle the palette and increase the appetite. It should continue the theme of the dinner, but with a calming effect; it presents a few moments of hesitation, reflection and anticipation – anticipation almost to the degree of delayed gratification. It is a slow, deliberate course that invites curiosity and conversation. The Soup Course In Kane this corresponds to the reflective March of Time News Reel (which in a moment will be rejected by the News Reel staff as too impersonal); in Howards End it’s the scene around the house next morning when the promises of the previous evening still seems full of possibility; in Star Trek it is the introduction of the childhood lives of Kirk and Spock in Nebraska and on Vulcan – subtly suggesting their altered histories and their future stories. [Tomorrow: Appetizers through Sorbet!]

Structures and Scaffolding

Structures and Scaffolding

Maxfield Parrish, Daybreak 1922

We’re studying structure in everything, and artists like Maxfield Parrish (1870-1966),  have already provided some exquisite keys, here rendered visible and delightfully analyzed by Scott McDaniel. Reverse engineer any working structure you can find – even two dimensional frameworks as with Daybreak – then unwind them along a temporal axis: what do you get?

I know it may seem, for the moment, that I’m writing for a particular (and peculiar) kind of mind, a geek for patterns, palettes, structures, scaffolds, scalability and causation, but really I’m writing for that peculiar engineering geek latent in every writer and conceptualist – screenwriting is engineering, it’s architecture; and all roads lead to Rome.

Teaching yourself to see these formal patterns and the way artists use structure to create a frame for ‘accidents’ to appear casual and organic is every part of this job.

Creating work that’s true to yourself and true to your times, it won’t be enough to know how “Chinatown” or “Diehard” work after the fact, or what the character arcs are in Gladiator (hint: there aren’t any), you must learn to see the patterns that exist all around you from Cathedrals to Character. Then you will find unique subjects for your stories crystallizing everywhere you look.

Scott McDaniel’s terrific art analysis blog is here.