Category Archives: Write regardless!

The sum of a storyline

SPEAKING OF US Jack Thompson and Russell Crowe in The Sum of Us.
SPEAKING OF US Jack Thompson and Russell Crowe in The Sum of Us (Photos: Jimmy Pozarik).

WHEN Hal McElroy, one of Australia’s most prolific film producers, read the play script The Sum of Us by David Stevens, he described it as “absolutely irresistible” – the two words every aspiring playwright wants to hear from a producer after just one read.

The desire to create a film of Stevens’ script was so firmly implanted that it took only four years to bring the work to the screen as one of the iconic Australian films of the 1990s.

Inspired by my first post on dramatic structure (a breakdown of the plot of William Rose’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner), I embarked on an analysis of The Sum of Us, not by watching the film, but by reading its screenplay, to see how closely it follows the classic five-part story arc widely purported to be the key to all good storytelling.

With flashbacks that shed light on the family which is the centre of the story, and regular breaking of the ‘fourth wall‘ (the imaginary barrier between a character and their audience), The Sum of Us presents as a less linear story than my first subject, and great fodder to observe how another writer might have bent ‘the rules’ in interesting ways.

Here’s what I found … beware, there are spoilers.

Exposition – “He hasn’t been this excited for ages”

The exposition must introduce us to the characters and show who is the protagonist (the hero) and the antagonist (the anti-hero, or ‘villain’); and the protagonist must be called to action, posing a question so interesting that we are gripped.

At the age of 24 Jeff Mitchell remembers his grandmother fondly as a woman with boundless love and energy for her grandchildren. He’s a plumber who lives in suburban Sydney with his widowed father Harry, a ferry captain. Jeff (the protagonist) is getting ready to go out, with the strong chance of meeting that someone special at the pub that night. In the most loving, accepting manner, it’s Harry (the antagonist) who spills the beans that his son’s ‘someone special’ will be a man, not a woman. The call to action is Jeff’s memory of his grandmother’s great love for her partner, Mary; posing the big question: How did this obviously straight, typical Australian father become so accepting of his gay son?

Rising Action – “How can you be too bloody domestic?”

The rising actions are those the antagonist uses to thwart the protagonist and show us who both of them really are.

On his way to meet Greg, a gardener, at the local gay-friendly pub, Jeff reminds the audience that his Grandmother was a lesbian in a very long-term relationship with his “Aunt Mary”. Their kind of love is something he aspires to. Harry, meanwhile, calls Joyce, whom he met through a dating agency, and arranges to meet her for lunch. Jeff and Greg get on like a house on fire and make their way home, but Harry proceeds to make Greg so welcome that a night of passion becomes a scene of domestic normality, the likes of which Greg, with his homophobic father, has never experienced. Jeff’s date is ruined by his well-meaning but overbearing Dad.

RISING ACTION Russell Crowe and John Polson get close.
RISING ACTION Russell Crowe and John Polson get close.

Climax – “If only you’d been honest”

The climax must be the start of a battle between the protagonist and the antagonist, and a turning point after which there is no going back for either.

Harry and Joyce’s relationship develops so easily it puts Jeff and Greg’s false start into sharp perspective. Jeff is staying at home, depressed. Harry reveals his relationship with Joyce and declares he will marry her only if she and his son get on, although he has not yet told her that Jeff is gay. Jeff is thrilled for his father, but when Joyce visits, she innocently stumbles across the gay magazines Harry bought for Jeff, is affronted by the presence of homosexuality in the family she was seriously considering becoming a part of, and leaves. As the city celebrates New Years Eve, a deeply disappointed Harry has a stroke while watching the fireworks from the porch.

Falling Action – “I didn’t have the guts” 

The falling action must play out the battle between the protagonist and the antagonist, allowing one of them to win. The winner defines the piece as a comedy or a tragedy.

When Harry wakes up in hospital, Jeff is there to comfort him, and immediately steps up to the plate as his father’s primary carer. Greg, meanwhile, gets thrown out of home for participating in Sydney’s Gay Mardi Gras. Despite being neutralised by his inability to speak or walk, Harry causes a scene at the supermarket in order that Jeff and Greg meet again. Joyce comes to visit Harry at home, and is confronted by the love the Mitchell family have for one another, and she leaves, acknowledging to herself that she has missed out on sharing in it. Harry ponders what it is to lose love, once it has been made.

Dénouement – “How do you say thankyou for love?”

The dénouement (“to untie”) must unravel all the conflict and bring everything to a sense of resolution. In a comedy, the protagonist is better off than when they started. In a tragedy, this is reversed. The big question posed in the exposition must be left answered.

Reminiscing on the core love of his family, Harry recalls the day that he and his brother separated his mother and her long-term partner Mary, in their old age, wondering what they would have said to one another the night before they knew they would never see one another ever again. On a day trip to the botanic gardens, Harry notices Greg is working there, and ensures the two men meet yet again. Jeff and Greg talk. Both men have been set free from the expectations and fears of their fathers, and there is a great sense that they’ll continue growing the love of the Mitchell family together

FATHER OF THE CENTURY Harry Mitchell is a hard-to-pick anti-hero.
FATHER OF THE CENTURY Harry Mitchell is a hard-to-pick anti-hero.

The Verdict

Picking the antagonist and protagonist in this screenplay was difficult – most of the characters are affable and it was hard to position one of them as an anti-hero. But it is Harry Mitchell, Jeff’s father, who unwittingly places the obstacles in the way of his son’s happiness, by being so very keen for his son to experience the joys of love as he defines it.

Jeff is not a classic protagonist either – in the climax he remains almost neutral and does not seem to ‘do battle’ with his father in the relationship stakes. This is because ‘the battle’ is a lot deeper in this plot than usual.

This is a story about relationships in the one family – there is Gran and Mary, separated tragically after forty years; there is Harry and Joyce, trying to rebuild love after losing it to death and divorce; and there is Jeff and Greg, attempting to start a relationship from scratch under conditions that are not favourable.

But these moments of guilt and inspiration are played-out through the father-son relationship of Jeff and Harry, and it’s the lessons that Gran taught these men which make the flashbacks in the script essential (especially the placement of Jeff’s boyhood recollection of Gran and Mary’s love right in the exposition), because they ultimately see Jeff and Harry through their own battle.

WRITE REGARDLESSAnd it’s that discovery which answers the big question posed in the Exposition: it was Gran Mitchell’s courageous love that caused her son Harry to accept his son so unconditionally, and made him capable of taking emotional risks out of love for his son.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

 An extract from Write, Regardless!

Guess who’s plotting a story?

BATTLE LINES Stanley Kramer's seminal film on equality, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?
BATTLE LINES Stanley Kramer’s seminal film on equality, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.

WE all know how to write, right? Well, perhaps not. I have been working on a play script for ten (yes, 10) long years and I still don’t have it down.

One of my writing heroes Helene Hanff once declared that after forty years she could write great characters and openings for plays, but she still couldn’t plot to save herself.

Well, having knocked-off about half that number of writing years, I decided to do a bit of research on story arcs, and apparently it doesn’t matter if you’re telling a joke or writing a blockbuster novel, a well told story needs to follow a basic formula.

I decided that the next movie or play I watched would be tested to see if it followed this ‘rule’, and as luck would have it, on television this afternoon the great Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) was screened, with no ads.

I sat down and put this plot (written by William Rose) through its paces. Here’s what I found … beware, there are spoilers.

Exposition – “You may in for the biggest shock of your young life”

The exposition must introduce us to the characters and show who is the protagonist (the hero) and the antagonist (the anti-hero, or ‘villain’); and the protagonist must be called to action, posing a question so interesting that we are gripped.

A young couple (Dr John Prentice and Joanna Drayton), canoodle their way through an airport. The world doesn’t seem to give a damn that he is African-American, and she is not, but without doing anything, the couple offends a cab driver; the Drayton’s African-American maid; Joanne’s mother Christine, and her father Matt. Joanne presents as the protagonist, with her blind intention to marry despite anyone’s objections. Her father Matt presents as the antagonist, and objects to the idea of the two marrying at all. The call to action occurs almost by accident, when the couple has no opportunity to tell Joanne’s parents about his racial identity before arriving at their home, posing the big question: Will they get the support of anyone in the world?

Rising Action – “All Hell Done Broke Loose”

The rising actions are those the antagonist uses to thwart the protagonist and show us who both of them really are.

Matt Drayton digs further into his objection, despite his wife’s support for the couple’s happiness; despite John’s declaration that if her parents will not support them, he will not marry Joanna; and despite their good friend Monsignor Ryan blessing the marriage. Joanna invites John’s parents to dinner, and Monsignor Ryan calls his old friend a phony liberal coming face to face with his principles. Matt is outraged and decides to leave the house.

DYNAMIC DUO Hepburn and Tracy as the Draytons.
DYNAMIC DUO Hepburn and Tracy as the Draytons.

Climax – “We’re in Terrible Trouble”

The climax must be the start of a battle between the protagonist and the antagonist, and a turning point after which there is no going back for either.

Outside the comfort of their home, Joanna’s parents come face to face with how the world has changed around them. But a car accident with a young African-American man, and the news that Joanna is planning to leave with John that very night, sends Matt into a spin. He argues with Christine, who tells him she is not on his side in this debate about their daughter’s happiness. He argues with Monsignor Ryan, who tells Matt that he cannot destroy the couple’s happiness. Also out in the world, Joanna meets John’s parents, who show the kind of instant disapproval her father has been trying to warn her about.

Falling Action – “You Don’t Own Me”

The falling action must play out the battle between the protagonist and the antagonist, allowing one of them to win. The winner defines the piece as a comedy or a tragedy.

John’s parents arrive to a sumptuous dinner that nobody seems capable of enjoying, and the party quickly separates into rival loyalties – both mothers (who advocate for trusting the nature of love), and both fathers (who believe the relationship to be an aberration). Joanna announces she may well leave her family for good, and goes to pack, leaving the true protagonist, her fiancée John, to face his father. In the final defeat, John tells his father that he and his whole lousy generation must get off his back. Matt’s firm objections to the marriage are diminished by John’s mother, when she challenges him to accept that he has grown so old he has forgotten what true love is. Ruminating on this, he calls everyone back to the dinner.

Dénouement – “Screw Them All”

The dénouement (‘to untie’) must unravel all the conflict and bring everything to a sense of resolution. In a comedy, the protagonist is better off than when they started. In a tragedy, this is reversed. The big question posed in the exposition must be left answered.

Matt recaps the whole plot so far, reminding us of everyone’s ‘side’ in the debate. Crucially, he tells his daughter, the only one to interrupt him, to “shut-up”, and it becomes clear that he has been reminded, and is reminding them all, that they must put the way they feel above what they think. He compels the young couple to cling to one another against the objections the world will throw at them. Despite lingering unresolved feelings, the newly cemented family sit down to dinner.

PROTAGONIST REVEALED Sydney Poitier as Dr John Prentice, the real protagonist of the movie.
PROTAGONIST REVEALED Sidney Poitier as Dr John Prentice, the real protagonist of the movie.

The Verdict

Of course all rules are meant to be broken, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner breaks them in some interesting ways. We are fooled into thinking that Joanna Drayton is the protagonist, while her fiancée John broods on the situation around him and seems so affable that he might just walk away from her in order to ‘save’ her. But he is and always was the protagonist, hidden because as the ‘coloured man’ he’s ostensibly the lowest status character in the story.

WRITE REGARDLESSWhen he confronts his father he takes the hero position and shows us who he really is – a man struggling with too much history on his back. And the big question posed in the exposition, about whether the couple will get any acceptance, is well and truly answered.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

An extract from Write, Regardless!

M*A*S*H forever

SERVING OF M*A*S*H The cast of the long-running TV sitcom during its 8th season.

A Writer’s first lesson in comic timing.

WHILST participating in a television interview, Cate Blanchett apologised for answering a question about acting using an American accent, explaining that to her, ‘American English’ is the language of comedy, after years of watching M*A*S*H.

Being of exactly the same generation, I can only agree with her.

This long running sitcom, set in a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War of the 1950s, was my very first ‘adult’ experience of television.

As the child of a nurse, it was considered appropriate viewing for my first years of staying up late.

“It’s a well-known maxim that all great comedy springs from the worst situations of human deprivation.”

The fun-filled yet desperate world the characters inhabited worked its way into the very fabric of my writer’s brain, just as it was in the process of forming.

When I am writing comedy, all the classic scenarios of M*A*S*H spring to mind, because between 1972 and 1983 the writers explored every comic angle they could think of. Thanks to syndication, the series has been playing across the world’s television screens for four times longer than it aired originally, and counting.

The secret of the comedy lay not in what was overtly funny, but rather in what was deadly serious about life for Americans stuck in Korea patching-up the wounded.

It’s a well-known maxim that all great comedy springs from the worst situations of human deprivation. Pathos tempers farce. Sadness frames wit. Laughing in the face of death is always more three-dimensional than laughing or crying alone. The two states are very close in the human experience.

M*A*S*H capitalised on those extremes, from the original book MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors by ‘Richard Hooker’ (a pseudonym for Dr. H. Richard Hornberger and W.C. Heinz), where the basics of the show’s characters were created, to Robert Altman’s 1970 satirical black comedy feature film M*A*S*H and the series it inspired.

But the TV series had the time and the following to explore the dynamic to its extremes, and evolved from slapstick (think ‘Hot Lips’ Houlihan and Frank Burns cavorting, as though no-one knew they were having an affair), to a kind of black comedy that was borderline drama by the time the show took its final curtain call in the feature-length series finale Goodbye, Farewell and Amen (1983).

For me, the array of three-dimensional male characters who joked, sported, laughed, cried, cross-dressed and generally expressed themselves in ways that it was rare to see men behave in the ‘real world’, were beautifully countepointed by one of my all-time acting heroes – Loretta Swit.

MAJOR HERO Loretta Swit, who played Major Margaret ‘Hot Lips’ Houlihan for the entire run of M*A*S*H.

Stunning, prickly, sympathetic, quick-witted, great at her nursing job, devoted to the army and her country, yet willing to take emotional risks at the drop of a hat, how could you not love Margaret Houlihan, the winning smile that lit up the khaki cloud of Korea?

Swit’s work as Major Houlihan ranks amongst the best-drawn television performances ever, but she had her work cut out for her. Alan Alda (who is the only actor to perform in more M*A*S*H episodes than Swit, as Captain ‘Hawkeye’ Pierce), paid tribute to her achievement in transforming the ‘sex bomb’ tag that the role was originally drawn with, by turning ‘Hot Lips’ Houlihan of 1972 into simply, ‘Margaret’, by the show’s end in 1983.

Interestingly, this change coincided with the women’s liberation movement, and remains one of Pop Culture’s best examples of the metamorphosis of a stereotype.

Apart from being the best education in comic timing I can think of, the series is also a great example of time economy in a script. Next time you watch an episode, notice how the half-hour format restricts the use of too much foreshadowing and requires simple, fast set-ups to every laugh.

If you’re re-writing a script and you need to touch-base with how it should be done, whether it’s a comedy or a drama, watch an episode of M*A*S*H.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.