Thursday, July 16, 2009

Book Review: Inside Story - The Power of the Transformational Arc (Dara Marks)

Dara Marks has been one of the most prominent script doctors in Hollywood for years. A good thing, then, that she's decided to write down her theories and share them with the world, so that every screenwriter can benefit from her approach.

Since the subtitle of the book is The Power of the Transformational Arc, it's pretty clear from the start what Ms. Marks' main focus is going to be. And you may think 'Hey, I know about that stuff already'. And you'd be right - you do know about the concept.

However, you do not know how Dara Marks approaches it. And even though I've read literally hundreds of screenwriting books, and some of the concepts used here were very close to some of the material in Keith Cunningham's The Soul of Screenwriting, reviewed here a couple of weeks ago, I still learned quite a lot from this book.

Or rather, the new concepts (or, more correctly, the new dimensions added to concepts) are explained so well and convincingly that you immediately take them on board. This, to me, is the mark of a truly effective screenwriting manual - after one read, you have the concepts down pat to a degree that you can immediately start applying them to your work.

The first part of the book looks at the central concepts in Ms. Marks' theory; the second part then applies them to screenplay structure.

As we're talking about the transformational arc, it's no surprise that much of the theory is about defining and using the fatal flaw in the main character. What makes Ms. Marks' approach particularly useful is that she stresses that the fatal flaw must be intimately related to the main conflict of the script. In so many flawed (pun intended) scripts, the protagonist has to overcome a weakness which bears no relation to the external story goal. The result is that the transformation of the protagonist is gratuitous and clichéed. When the transformational arc does coincide with the story goal, it becomes an indispensible part of the storytelling experience (Casablanca, anyone?).

There's also a lot of good material about creating characters and about finding (and using) the theme for your story. The book also takes the three-pronged approach we found in Soul of Screenwriting: the A-story is the external conflict, the B-story is the internal conflict within the protagonist which leads to the transformation (or, in a tragedy, to the lack of same) and the C-story is about the relationships the protagonist is involved in, and how they are affected/changed by the transformative process. It's very good to have these things spelled out so clearly, because especially this third level is overlooked far too often by screenwriters.

The example films used here are three big movies from the '80s: Romancing The Stone, Lethal Weapon and Ordinary People. These films were chosen for a very good reason: they each have a different approach to their protagonists. Romancing has the traditional single protagonist, Lethal has co-protagonists and Ordinary has a group as the protagonist (the family).

This is probably the thing in the book I'll be most grateful to Dara Marks for, for the rest of my writing life: yes, you can have more than one protagonist. What really matters is the goal - if two people work together towards the same goal, they are co-protagonists (all the buddy movies). And if a group of people are working towards the same goal, the group is the protagonist of the story.

This is such a breakthrough in thinking about screenplay writing, it cannot be emphasized enough. It absolutely helped me conceptually with a script idea which I'm convinced is extremely powerful, but which confused me structurally because, as it's about a family in dire peril, I couldn't get a handle on who the protagonist was going to be. Because each family member took the spotlight at different points during the story. Now, considering them as a single entity striving towards a common goal, things are falling into place very nicely.

Oh, and there's much, much more on how to apply this concept practically in the book. Don't worry, I didn't spoil it for you, I just gave you a little taste of what's in store.

The second part on screenwriting structure is both surprising and traditional. Very traditional, indeed, because where structural points are concerned, Ms. Marks harks back to Syd Field in a pretty basic form: two plot points and a midpoint, that's all you get.

However, she adds a lot of content to the model. Not in terms of 'points to hit', but in how she describes what is happening to your protagonist during each act (act 2 is, once again, divided into two parts). The transformational process is described in painstaking detail.

The graphical representation of the screenplay is quite different from what we usually see - instead of a mountainous range, it's a bell curve, created by folding open a circle. Each quadrant of the circle (an act) has its own descriptor to indicate how the protagonist is 'feeling' with regards to the transformation at that point. So it's quite clear, visually speaking, though I personally don't like that the third act is on the same level as the first act. However, no one ever wrote a bad (or a good) screenplay because of a visual representation of a story structure, so this is merely a personal nitpick.

Throughout the book, the writing style is excellent: professional in tone, but very clear and easy to read without ever feeling dumbed down. It's a perfect example of a textbook, combining readability with content. There are some spiritual passages in the book, but they are never overbearing or preachy, and quite limited in number. Interestingly, though Ms. Marks has a Ph.D in mythology, there's very little Joseph Campbell in this book, and no explicit mention of the Hero's Journey whatsoever.

There's but one thing I truly disagree with in here (well, two things - I really really really don't like the ending of The Piano), and that's the analysis of Million Dollar Baby. I think the shift in the third act of that film is a stroke of genius, turning what seemed to be a very good version of a formulaic story we'd seen many times before(rags to riches) into a scarily realistic tragedy. Ms. Marks finds the shift too far removed from the story of the previous acts, and claims that Hilary Swank is the protagonist up to that point - but she's really not, it's Clint's story all the way. As the third act makes poignantly clear.

But this quibble aside (and who knows, you might agree more with her analysis than with mine), I wholeheartedly recommend this book to any screenwriter. And especially for beginners, this should be the second, third or fourth book you read when you're starting out. Because it will teach you a lot of important concepts which you will need to use in some form or another throughout your entire career, and it does so in an exemplary manner.

So, what are you waiting for? Get it here:

You'll be glad you did.

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