August 4th 2016
Today I watched Dead Poets Society, but I didn’t just watch it. As I watched it I made notes on it. I’ve recently been studying scriptwriting, I’ve been reading books and online articles about the basic structure of a screenplay. And there’s this basic structure that was coined by a bloke called Blake Snyder. He calls it the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet, or BS2. He says that you can take any movie and break it down into fifteen parts. Each movie will in some way hit these fifteen beats. I won’t go over them individually, but this was the first film I’ve watched since I read about this structure and I decided to try it out.
So as I watched it I wrote down notes on it’s plot, on the events, on the character arcs, on the setups and payoffs, and I tried to pinpoint where the movie hit all of the beats. I noted where the theme ‘carpe diem’ was stated in the first five minutes of the film. I jotted down the catalyst that brought about the change in the characters. For a while I struggled because I couldn’t figure out who the main character was, but I realised that the main character can be the multiple, the group, the plural. Yes, there’s more weighting on one story arc, but that’s okay. The main character in this story is a group of 50s schoolboys who listen to their parents, sit up straight, and follow the schools guidelines. Tradition. Honour. Discipline. Excellence.
Except they don’t want to. They want to be individuals, and free, and creative. They’re just restricted.
The catalyst was their new English teacher, played by Robin Williams, encouraging them to tear out the ‘introduction’ part of their Poetry textbooks because it’s all meaningless, and poetry comes from the soul not a formula, etc. He says how art is not methodical, and I noticed the irony that I was trying to methodise art with my breakdown of the story’s structure.
And I’m sorry, Mr Keating, but your story matched the prophecised structure to a beat.
There was a point around beat thirteen where the film went off piste. Until that point everything had fit my structure perfectly, I was able to predict the rises and falls in the fortunes of the characters, their was a small ‘high tower surprise’ and then a ‘dig deep down moment’, so I was waiting for the ‘execute a new plan’ that would fix the hero’s woes and save the movie.
And for the next ten minutes nothing fit. My structure went out of the window. And I was in shock. I’d successfully plotted and predicted the movie the entire way through, but nothing made sense any more.
But still I waited for the new plan. The plan that would make everything okay. It took ten minutes of darkness to make things okay. And I thought it would never come, but it did. Every opportunity where it could get better, it got worse, until right at the very end. I originally thought that the film was about the group, not the individual. But I was wrong. All along it was about Ethan Hawke’s character, Todd. At the beginning he had no voice, he was scared to speak up. At the end, he stood on a table and spoke out. (With a nice subtle reference to the ‘you can see the world differently from on a table’) And at that point the hero won.
And that tension was enough to make the movie brilliant, whilst still fitting in with the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet structure.
John Keating said that Art has no structure or Method, that it comes from the soul. But I think it’s a mixture of both. To be successful and work as a story it has to have these basic beats. But it’s the soul that you flesh out the beats with that makes a story into art.
Until tomorrow, gotta do more, gotta be more.