Tag Archives: Mission Impossible

How to write almost anything – The basic story structure of the classic plot.

Painting of The Damsel of The Holy Grail by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1874)

Yesterday, I went to a talk by Robert Thirkell at Elstree Film Studios. He describes himself as “a TV repair man”.

He is said to be the first ‘go-to’ person if your TV script or factual TV series is not working and needs re-structuring – “arguably the world’s leading story consultant for television and factual features”.

He is worth listening to and part of his basic structural theory is the same as in Joseph Campbell’s 1949 book The Hero With a Thousand Faces.

Campbell’s book (which I have not read) famously analyses the structure of fairy tales and myths to come up with ‘the one’ universal story structure to rule them all; the one story structure to find them, the one universal story to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.

It is much-lauded in Hollywood and, as well as being the basis of Star Wars et al, has influenced the whole Movie Brat generation of film-makers.

Campbell’s story structure is for works of fiction, but Thirkell uses it as a structure to grab and hold the attention of the viewers of factual TV shows.

The Campbell structure is basically this:

A hero leaves his castle on a quest… overcomes obstacles along the way… and, at the end, succeeds in his quest. That quest may be to find an object – the Lord of the Rings or the Holy Grail or the Rabbit’s Foot in Mission Impossible III – or to rescue a damsel in distress as in John Ford’s The Searchers.

But The Quest it is basically the same, it is said, in any classic and effective work of fiction… and can be used in factual narratives.

You set up an unresolved problem at the very start of the story – the classic movie ‘hook’ to grab the audience’s attention. The development of the plot involves a series of attempts to uncover a way to resolve the problem and overcome the multiple obstacles encountered. And the climax involves the resolution of the problem.

That holds for books, movies, plays, even narrative comedy routines.

Any successful American movie or TV show has traditionally had a tendency to set up the ‘problem’ – the ‘hook’ – and to introduce the main characters within the first 2-5 minutes of the narrative. To hook the audience from the very outset.

I have sat through endless dull movies which do NOT do this. They are endless because they are startless.

They start by setting up atmosphere, place and time and even characters aplenty, but no plot. My internal reaction is always: “What the fuck is this story actually going to be about?” Watching atmosphere bereft of plot is like watching weatherproof paint dry. You have to have it, but you need to build the bloody shed first.

Another of the classic structural underpinnings of the universal story is that the hero starts a boy and ends a man because, under pressure of the problems surmounted in the course of the plot, there is a transformation in his character. He ends a wiser, braver and transformed character.

(NB ‘he’ can be ‘she’…! But, in traditional fairy tales and myths it tends to have been ‘he’ and the Campbell book is about Heroes. I did not invent the English language. Don’t give me unnecessary PC grief.)

Robert Thirkell has a theory that the hero has to lose some of his battles in the middle, retreat, re-think, try again and then win on the re-attempt. Because that makes the character more sympathetic and more admirable. If the hero constantly surmounts problems effortlessly, the reader/viewer finds it difficult to empathise with him.

Personally, the best opening to a movie I have ever seen – and all the better because it is not noticeable – is the opening credit sequence of the first Die Hard movie because all the central characters, their backgrounds, relationships and the basic starting ‘hooks’ of the plot are set up before the film actually starts for real. 

(I should, at this point, mention that I wrote a similar but different blog about story structure in January 2011, titled How to write the perfect film script: “Die Hard” meets Pixar animated feature “The Incredibles”. But – hey – if something is worth saying…)

Rule 2 of writing anything…

Don’t be silly. Nothing is truly 100% original.

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Why do people keep criticising macho, talented, not really small Tom Cruise?

Jim Grant aka Lee Child, father of Reacher

Jim Grant aka Lee Child, father of Reacher

Last night, my eternally-un-named friend and I went to see the new Tom Cruise movie Jack Reacher.

I wanted to see it because the original novel was written by Lee Child, the pen-name of Jim Grant, a quiet, self-contained man I used to work with at Granada TV in Manchester. We were not friends; we just worked in the same department; and we have not kept in touch. But I knew him in a general way.

So I have an interest, but no personal axe to grind.

Jack Reacher was wonderful.

I was not expecting too much of it. Perhaps because of that, I was amazed at how good it was.

Quite a few reviews rightly praised the acting of German film director Werner Herzog who was cast as the terrifyingly icy villain. And some appreciated the always wonderful actor Robert Duvall. But Tom Cruise got little credit. Why?

I may be totally wrong, but I thought he may have partly based his Jack Reacher character’s apparent inner stillness on Jim Grant/Lee Child (who appears very briefly in the background of one scene as a police desk sergeant.)

Some of the reviews I read before seeing the film were rather lukewarm, rather grudging. Most seemed to carp on about how Tom Cruise does not look like the 6’5″ Jack Reacher of the novels.

Well, tough shit.

Sean Connery looked nothing like the English James Bond in the original Ian Fleming novels. Indeed, the Bond movies’ plots have almost nothing to do with the novels from which they nick their titles.

I have not read any of Lee Child’s 17 Jack Reacher novels but, if the plot of this first Jack Reacher movie bears any relation to the original book (One Shot) then ‘Lee Child’ writes bloody good books.

My eternally-un-named friend – often a Rom Com movie lover – and I had sat through a DVD of the appalling near-laugh-free zone that is Bridesmaids the previous night. When we came out of the cinema last night after seeing Jack Reacher, she simply said to me: “That was wonderful”. And it was, apart from a single bizarrely miscalculated scene in which Reacher throws away his gun and his advantage to have a macho fistfight… What was that all about?

The rest? Absolutely wonderful.

So why the grudging reviews? And why the constant sniping at Tom Cruise for being small?

It seemed a lot of the carping reviews were obsessed with the fact that, in the books, Jack Reacher is 6’5” and Tom Cruise is famously tiny. It didn’t make any difference to me, a non-reader of the books. He played ‘tough’ very effectively, just as he does in his Mission Impossible movies.

But, in any case, he is not actually small. He is 5’7″. The same height as Al Pacino, Robin Williams and Robert Downey Jnr… Are they small?

Daniel Radcliffe is 5’5″ and Emilio Estevez is 5’4; Jack Black, who played the large Gulliver, is 5’6″. Ben Stiller is 5’8″. Are they candidates for a re-make of Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs? I think not.

Perhaps people keep criticising Tom Cruise because he is so successful or perhaps because he is a Scientologist. Who knows? It makes no difference to his acting or movie producing ability.

All I know is that he is a good actor and a good producer.

You don’t get cast by directors Michael Mann or Steven Spielberg or Paul Thomas Anderson just for being a Big Name. You get cast for acting ability. And, in the pre-credit sequence of Mission Impossible III, he gives a virtual masterclass in how to act the whole gamut of emotions.

He also produced the four Mission Impossible films.

The first was awful (employing visual stylist Brian De Palma as director, then filling the movie with scenes of people talking to each other, sometimes over tables in dull rooms)… but Mission Impossible II was very good… Mission Impossible III was an utterly superb piece of film-making… one of my favourite films… and the fourth Mission Impossible was a return to the quality of the second film. Not a bad average.

I just hope Tom Cruise makes at least another sixteen Jack Reacher movies, even if he will be a bit long in the tooth by the end.

Perhaps, like James Bond, they will re-cast occasionally.

But, for the foreseeable future, I am more than happy to watch Tom Cruise be tall and macho and talented.

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