No personal blog crapola.
Just one guy's quest to unlock the mysterious art of storytelling on screen.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Jack Black, Pixar, and the Eight Plot Points

Wow. Cue Sting, The Police, and Synchronicity.

I was Googling for story structure tips and arrived at this site: Channel101

The first thing to yank my attention on that page was the 4-act circle diagram. That looks identical to my own 4-act Story Diamond. Immediately I knew the author and I were sympatico on 4-act story structure.

Dan Harmon, the article's author, has numbered the eight compass points of his circle in clockwise fashion, one through eight. That's opposite to my story diamond, where progression is counter-clockwise. I cannot tell you why I chose counter-clockwise for mine. Maybe it's because I'm in Australia and water spirals down the drain in the opposite direction to you folk in the Northern Hemisphere. (OK, so that is actually an urban legend.)

So I knew I was onto something here. Some new piece of the puzzle, I hoped. Or at least further confirmation that others prefer to work with the 4-act structure implicit in the traditional 3-act screenplay model.

What do the numbers signify?
  1. You
  2. Need
  3. Go
  4. Search
  5. Find
  6. Take
  7. Return
  8. Change
Over to Dan for the 411...

1) "You" - who are we? A squirrel? The sun? A red blood cell? America? By the end of the first 37 seconds, we'd really like to know.

2) "Need" - something is wrong, the world is out of balance. This is the reason why a story is going to take place. The "you" from (1) is an alcoholic. There's a dead body on the floor. A motorcycle gang rolls into town. Campbell phrases: Call to Adventure, Refusal of the Call, Supernatural Aid.

3) "Go" - For (1) and (2), the "you" was in a certain situation, and now that situation changes. A hiker heads into the woods. Pearl Harbor's been bombed. A mafia boss enters therapy. Campbell phrase: Crossing of the Threshold. Syd Field phrase: Plot Point 1.

4) "Search" - adapting, experimenting, getting shit together, being broken down. A detective questions suspects. A cowboy gathers his posse. A cheerleader takes a nerd shopping. Campbell phrases: Belly of the Whale, Road of Trials. Christopher Vogler phrase: Friends, Enemies and Allies.

5) "Find" - whether it was the direct, conscious goal or not, the "need" from (2) is fulfilled. We found the princess. The suspect gives the location of the meth lab. A nerd achieves popularity. Campbell phrase: Meeting with the Goddess. Syd Field phrase: mid-point. Vogler phrase: Approach to the Innermost Cave.

6) "Take" - The hardest part (both for the characters and for anyone trying to describe it). On one hand, the price of the journey. The shark eats the boat. Jesus is crucified. The nice old man has a stroke. On the other hand, a goal achieved that we never even knew we had. The shark now has an oxygen tank in his mouth. Jesus is dead- oh, I get it, flesh doesn't matter. The nice old man had a stroke, but before he died, he wanted you to take this belt buckle. Now go win that rodeo. Campbell phrases: Atonement with the Father, Death and Resurrection, Apotheosis. Syd Field phrase: plot point 2

7) "Return" - It's not a journey if you never come back. The car chase. The big rescue. Coming home to your girlfriend with a rose. Leaping off the roof as the skyscraper explodes. Campbell phrases: Magic Flight, Rescue from Without, Crossing of the Return Threshold.

8) "Change" - The "you" from (1) is in charge of their situation again, but has now become a situation-changer. Life will never be the same. The Death Star is blown up. The couple is in love. Dr. Bloom's Time Belt is completed. Lorraine Bracco heads into the jungle with Sean Connery to "find some of those ants." Campbell phrases: Master of Both Worlds, Freedom to Live.
Now. Look what happens when I overlay those eight plot points over my 4-act story diamond (counter-clockwise). Note that I've overlapped act breaks.
  • Act One - Preparation/Orphan
    • You, Need, Go
  • Act Two - Separation/Wanderer
    • Go, Search, Find
  • Act Three - Initiation/Warrior
    • Find, Take, Return
  • Act Four - Return/Martyr
    • Return, Change, You
That's a perfect fit. Not surprising, given Dan's eight plot points are built on established screen storytelling lore -- so was my 4-act Story Diamond -- as evidenced by his references to Field, Vogler, and Campbell. Even though this new (to me) eight-point diagram is not revolutionary, it is evolutionary for me, and I will add it to my 4-act diagram soon.

Here comes the somewhat weird, synchronistic part of the story.

So I found this page by Dan, mulled over it for a while and contemplated its significance to my own storytelling beliefs, and moved on.

A few hours later, again through some random browsing, I encountered a blog authored by a storyboard artist at Pixar. Specifically, I found myself on this page, titled "Who are YOU to question story structure!?!??!!!??" Hey, Jack Black in a video where he's 'the Story Wizard', cool, I thought to myself. And I pressed Play. (Go watch it. I'll wait.)


Synchronicity. In that short instructional video, the story tool JB teaches us about is... yep, the 8-point plot model I had just learned from Dan Harmon this very night. But JB's version differs slightly. Here are the vital eight plot points according to JB. Where it differs from Dan's version, I've put Dan's in brackets .
  1. Something (You)
  2. Need
  3. Go
  4. Search
  5. Find
  6. Take
  7. Back to (Return)
  8. Where it was (Change)
There is no mistaking these two versions share the same foundation. And it's a very, very solid foundation.

All I'm saying is, I thought it was kinda odd that I stumbled upon two versions of the same storytelling concept within hours of each other, both times accidentally. And this after a decade of researching storycrafting for film.

Like Sting sang...
With one breath, with one flow
You will know
Synchronicity

A sleep trance, a dream dance
A shaped romance
Synchronicity

A connecting principle
Linked to the invisible
Almost imperceptible
Something inexpressible
Science insusceptible
Logic so inflexible
Causally connectable
Yet nothing is invincible

If we share this nightmare
Then we can dream
Spiritus mundi

If you act as you think
The missing link
Synchronicity ...