P:O.V. No.5 - On the Art of the Short Fiction Film

Five Parameters for Story Design
in the Short Fiction Film

Richard Raskin


The simplest questions are often the most difficult to deal with. For example: what are the properties of a good story? Or for our purposes: what are the properties of a good story for a short fiction film?

There are many excellent works on narrative theory as well as books on writing in general and on screen writing in particular. In an earlier booklet,[1] I assembled key passages from works ranging from Aristotle's Poetics to Sidney Lumet's Making Movies. In the present essay, I will present my own ideas.

In an attempt to identify factors which make film stories function optimally, I have found it useful to work with pairs of properties that can be thought of as balancing or completing one another. Each set of properties constitutes a parameter. When the two components of a given parameter are both fully present in a filmic event, their interplay shapes and enriches that event. When only one is present, or when they are out of balance or there is no real interplay between the two, the filmic event will be that much poorer.

I will be looking at five such parameters for story design - that is, at five different kinds of balance - which in their aggregate form a conceptual framework that is both comprehensive and yet sufficiently open to allow for greater structural divergence than do, for example, sequential models which define a specific path or dramatic curve for any narrative to follow.

The five parameters discussed in this essay are by no means the only ones which count in filmic storytelling, but they are arguably the most important ones. None of them involves concepts borrowed from linguistics, semiology, psychoanalysis or any of the other disciplines or political agendas which have virtually colonized film studies for decades.

I have also tried to write in a manner which filmmakers would not find totally foreign to their own concerns.

This essay has a double focus. One of its purposes is to enable student filmmakers to design better stories for their films. In that connection, the five parameters can be used either as guidelines during the early stages of screenplay development, or as a means for diagnosing problems at later stages.

Another and equally important purpose this conceptual framework can fulfill is as an analytical tool, in which case the parameters can help to illuminate the story design and esthetic qualities of any given short fiction film.

While this framework is prescriptive in nature, it in no way favors any given film style, but rather is geared to making the most of any type of short narrative.

No serious research has previously been published on the short fiction film.[2] It is hoped that the present essay will contribute to stimulating additional scholarly interest for a field that has been sorely neglected and that deserves the same lavish attention that is routinely accorded to feature films.

1. Causality/Choice

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It is generally believed that the core of any story which is satisfying to its public, is a chain of cause-and-effect relationships. In Aristotle's words,

whenever such-and-such a personage says or does such-and-such a thing, it shall be the probable or necessary outcome of his character, and whenever this incident follows on that, it shall be either the necessary or the probable consequence of it."[3]

This principle has remained a cornerstone of narrative theory and of works on the crafting of fiction, which define a story (or plot) as a sequence of causally related events.

For example, Gerald Prince wrote:[4]

Any story must have at least two events which not only occur at different times but are also causally related (p. 26).

We can now define a minimal story as consisting of three events [...] conjoined in such a way that (a) the first event precedes the second in time and the second precedes the third, and (b) the second event causes the third (p. 28).

Another influential commentator on this issue is the novelist E. M. Forster, who looked down upon "story" as a mere narrative of events in temporal sequence, appealing only to curiosity, while he praised "plot" as involving causality and appealing to intelligence. In an often quoted passage of Aspects of the Novel , he wrote:

We have defined a story as a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence. A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. "The king died and then the queen dies," is a story. "The king died, and then the queen died of grief" is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it.[5]

However, I would argue that causality alone - by which I mean: causality not enmeshed in choices freely made by characters who do what they want - belongs to the realm of the inanimate and the involuntary, and results in lifeless stories, while an interplay of causality and choice is a basis for storytelling at its best.

A good example of causality and choice in perfect balance can be seen in William Golding's account of an incident he witnessed while serving in the Royal Navy during the Second World War:

...The Germans used to have a very long distance plane. And if we were escorting convoys back across the Atlantic, this plane would come out, and it would circle the convoy, perhaps five miles away from it, round and round and it was wirelessing to submarines saying where this convoy is. So you knew that this thing that was going round was sending your position.

And I remember one moment at which the captain of the escort got in touch with the plane. He flashed it up on an alders lamp, you see - and said, "Please, will you go round the other way. You are making my head ache." And this airplane turned round and started going round the other way, like that, you see. There was this kind of insane contact between people.[6]

Here, one event - the English captain's request - leads to another: the German pilot's reversal of his flight pattern in compliance with that request. In that respect, a causal relationship exists between the two events, since one person gets another to change what he is doing. But at the center of each event is a choice freely made by the person in question, and much of the pleasure we derive from this story stems from our understanding that in changing the direction of his flight, the pilot deliberately and of his own free will did what he was asked, and in so doing, went along with the joke.

The basic structure of Golding's incident can be described as an overture/response figure, in which one character makes a proposal to another, who is thereby confronted with a choice between compliance and non-compliance. This figure is ideal for designing pivotal moments in short fiction films, in which causality and choice can be balanced in novel and satisfying ways.

For example, at the end of Pål Sletaune's Eating Out (Norway, 1993, 6 min.), which is set in the grungiest hamburger joint in the world, the main character (Parka) says to the shivering woman (Julia) who is now seated next to him: "You may lean up against my parka if you like," and after a moment's hesitation, Julia chooses to do just that.[7]

Parka: You may lean up against my parka if you like

An overture/response figure is also used at the end of Liz Hughes' Cat's Cradle (Australia, 1991, 12 min.), a film with a deliciously dark humor in which a family that is too poor to pay for a professional burial, tries on their own to dispose of the deceased father's body. Unable to bury it themselves because the ground is too hard, or to fit it into an industrial oven for cremation, the mother and children finally leave the body sitting upright and seemingly looking at the screen in a movie theatre. Soon after a woman seats herself next to the dead father, his head flops down onto her shoulder. After a moment's hesitation - which emphasizes the process of deliberation in which she is engaged - she overcomes her initial resistance and leans her head down onto his, in response to what she interprets as his overture.[8] Here again, causality and choice are in perfect balance.

What I have been calling the overture/response figure is not, however, the only framework for that balance, which can be successfully managed in many other ways as well.

For example, in Daphna Levin's The Price Is Right (Israel, 1994, 17 min.),[9] the main character is Lev, a supermarket stock clerk who knows the exact price of every kind of merchandise under the sun. He eventually becomes a contestant on a TV quiz show about product prices, and correctly answers one question after another, while the other contestant - a pretty but emptyheaded blond - sits by passively. Suddenly, in the midst of his winning streak, Lev's buzzer stops working and his protests to the host are ignored. Here, we can figure out that someone has deliberately disconnected his buzzer, either to make the contest less lopsided and more interesting for the viewers, or in order to get the now favored female contestant into bed. In this situation, we can work our way back from effect to probable cause by considering what might have motivated someone to choose to disconnect the buzzer.

Zev's opponent.

Zev and his buzzer.

Yet another strategy for interweaving causality and choice, can be seen in Gregor Nicholas's Avondale Dogs (New Zealand, 1995, 15 min.),[10] in which a young boy shoots a neighbor's pigeon with a beebee gun. When his mother, who is fatally ill, takes a turn for the worse, the boy thinks his misbehavior somehow caused the deterioration of her condition. In this way, his choice to shoot the pigeon becomes a cause for guilt feelings, and a subsequent choice he makes - giving to the girl whose pigeon he shot, a ring he had intended for his mother - is at least in part motivated by a need to make up for his misdeed and for the loss of his mother.

Paul aiming at the pigeon.

Paul's terror-stricken face a moment later.

The films cited above are among the most distinguished short films of the present decade. In all of them, causality and choice balance one another and their interplay is an important part of the richness of each film.

There are also films in which causality and choice are out of balance, and whatever other qualities those films may have, they are severely limited in their appeal because of their problems with this parameter.

One such film is called The Rat's Death (La Mort du rat, France, Les Films de la Commune, 1973, 3 min.).[11] A man whose factory job consists in holding small plastic bags up to a nozzle from which beans pour out at regular intervals, gets behind in his work, tries to block the nozzle with his hand, and is severely scolded by his boss.

When he returns home, he takes out his frustrations on his wife by walking over to a pot on the stove, lifting the lid, looking disgustedly at the food she is cooking, and throwing the lid down; he then stalks out of the apartment, without a word to his wife or child. The wife, wiping away a tear, then trips over her child's toy lying on the floor, and takes out her frustrations on him by slapping the little boy - who in turn kicks the dog - which then barks at the cat - which finally pounces on a rat. However politically astute the film's message may be, its causal chain is unrelieved by choices freely made; each action has been totally conditioned or programmed by an antecedent event. And because the film leaves no room for overcoming the determinism in play, The Rat's Death is more a fable designed to prove a point than a story with characters who have a life of their own. I am well aware that determinists will not approve of my position on this issue. In this connection, I subscribe to the views proposed by such representatives of psychoananlytic ego psychology as Heinz Hartmann, Ernst Kris, R. M. Loewenstein, Erik Erikson and David Rapaport, the essence of which I have briefly described elsewhere.[12] An old story told by David Rapaport will help to illustrate this position with regard to freedom and determinism:

Moses' portrait was brought to an Oriental king whose astrologers and phrenologists concluded from it that Moses was a cruel, greedy, craven, self-seeking man. The king, who had heard that Moses was a leader, kindly, generous, and bold, was puzzled, and went to visit Moses. On meeting him, he saw that the portrait was good, and said: "My phrenologists and astrologers were wrong." But Moses disagreed: "Your phrenologists and astrologers were right, they saw what I was made of; what they couldn't tell you was that I struggled against all that and so became what I am."[13]

What I am suggesting is that stories in which causality overshadows the freedom of characters to choose among options and do what they want, even when circumstances exert a pressure on them to behave in other ways, are stories in which the characters will be lifeless representations of mental states or social roles.

This is a danger that will crop up whenever a story is designed to demonstrate a principle, which is why Lajos Egri's idea that any drama should "prove a premise" is to be avoided like the plague.[14] A devastating critique of this conception was proposed by David Howard and Edward Mabley, who wrote that a student of theirs, who was a devoted believer in the "method of the premise," had to "learn to give her characters full freedom so that they would be able to do what they wanted and needed instead of being forced by her to perform what the premise required. She had to learn that characters are never our puppets. They have to live their own lives."[15]

While stories designed to prove a point are problematic, even worse are stories in which characters are portrayed as the helpless objects of forces beyond their control, so that things happen to them rather than their being - even to the slightest degree - in control of their own lives. A short film exemplifying this type of imbalance in the causality/choice parameter, is Rudolf Mestagh's Ouf! (Belgium, 1994, 14 min.). In this film, a passenger on a tram has a sudden need to get to a toilet - though it's only at the end of the film that this becomes clear - and runs off the tram before the inspectors can check his ticket. He is pursued through the city by growing numbers police, and the chase sets off a series of cause-and-effect chain reactions which are supposed to be hilarious. For example, a running policeman bumps into a man carrying a basket of corks; the man stumbles, spilling the corks all over the ground, in time for another passerby to slip on them and fall into a nearby dumpster, which then rolls down the hill. At a later point, we see the dumpster

being emptied into a garbage truck, and the refuse it contained is carried along a conveyer belt along with the passerby who is kicking and groaning; and later still, we see a pair of gesticulating hands sticking out from a cube of compressed garbage, as it is being driven away. This is only one of perhaps twenty running gags, which include for example a runaway baby carriage, a man in a wheelchair unable to stop his own accelerating descent down steep hills, and a mailman who is accidentally hoisted up by a crane and lowered into a metal tube standing on the platform of a truck, which is then driven away.

Whether or not these gags are funny I will leave aside as a matter of taste. But it is clear that choice is reduced to a minimal or non-existant role within the various causal chains woven through the story, and that is why this film is tedious beyond belief.

Summing up, I would suggest that causality is necessary for the coherence and inner logic of a story, and that when causality is conceived in terms of the power of characters to act on the situation in which they find themselves, it serves the interests of the story. Similarly, choice is necessary for the characters in a story to come alive. Unless they are freely choosing to do what they want, there can be no breath of life within them. As John Garder wrote:

No fiction can have real interest if the central character is not an agent struggling for his or her own goals but a victim, subject to the will of others. (Failure to recognize that the central character must act, not simply be acted upon, is the single most common mistake in the fiction of beginners.)[16]

2. Consistency/Surprise

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Aristotle taught that every character should be "consistent and the same throughout"; and that if inconsistency happens to be a particular character's trait, then "he should still be consistently inconsistent" (op. cit., p. 56).

Any major character in a short fiction film should have definition, a central core of attibutes that remain constant. As much of this definition as possible should be established when we first encounter the character, so that we get to know as early on as possible how the character thinks and acts - above all, how the character interacts with others.

This does not mean, however, that we can predict what the character will do next. Each successive action should be both unexpected and yet fully compatible with the character definition already established, so that although each new action takes us by surprise, it also strikes us as being "in character."

In Dorthe Scheffmann's The Beach (New Zealand, 1996, 8 min.),[17] two women, who have been friends for years, have a quiet dialogue at the seashore while their husbands are taking care of the children playing on the beach. Margie notices a bruise on Anne's back, and though Anne at first answers evasively, Margie presses her for an explanation, until it finally comes out that Anne's husband has been been beating her for years. When Anne eventually admits "David hits me," in a manner which shows that she is thoroughly resigned to this situation, Margie angrily replies: "What the fuck do you mean, he hits you?"

Immediately after this exchange, Anne's husband, David, cheerfully comes running over to the women, and Margie lashes out at him: "David, you fucking prick, don't you ever hit her again," to which he answers innocently, "What? What are you talking about?" Margie repeats: "You heard me. I said don't you ever hit her again." When David angrily tells Margie to "mind her own fucking business," she jumps to her feet, rushes over to him and kicks him in the balls with all her might. He falls to the sand, doubled over in pain.

We already knew, on the basis of her dialogue with Anne, that Margie is a forceful and assertive person, who would not put up with anything that threatened her friend's well-being. That she ends up kicking David in the groin is therefore fully in keeping with her definition as a character; at the same time, however, no one - neither we, as viewers, nor any of the other characters present - could foresee the kick. In this respect, it exemplifies an action which perfectly balances consistency and surprise.

Pål Sletaune's Eating Out is so abundant with examples of consistency/surprise that virtually everything that happens in the film could be cited with respect to this parameter. To keep the discussion within manageable bounds, I will focus primarily on the behavior of the cook.

As already mentioned, the action takes place in an exceptionally unappetizing diner. It is manned by a lone cook, who is unshaven, wears a filthy undershirt, and has strings of greasy hair hanging down from his hat. So much for his repellent appearance. There is

only one customer in the place: a man sitting at the counter, with his parka hood pulled up over his head, hence the name "Parka" given to him in the shooting script. When Roy enters the diner with his female companion, pulls a gun on the cook and hysterically yells "Give me the money," the cook turns to look at Roy and then returns to scraping the grill as he replies: "Can't you see I'm busy? You'll have to wait until I'm finished." However much his appearance has put us off, the cook's gutsy reply to the hold-up man wins us over to him totally.

Later, as the cook is dutifully emptying the cash register, the female accomplice, Julie, discovers that she is hungry and asks Parka if his hamburger is good. Parka then launches into a connoisseur's comparison of menu items number 37 and 36, which is utterly incongruous with the situation at hand and yet perfectly consistent with his self-image as a gourmet.[18] Julie follows Parka's recommendation and wants a burger like the one he is eating. When Roy gruffly orders the cook to make her one instantly, although we already know that the cook is not to be interrupted when he is in the middle of something, his reply - involving both total compliance with Roy's demands and yet an insistance on defining the situation in his own terms - is nevertheless as unpredictable as it is in character: "I can't do two things at the same time. Do you want the money first and then the burger, or the burger first and then the money?"

This same balance of consistency and surprise is found in the cook's third and last line of dialogue, spoken to Roy when the hold-up man has heard the sound of approaching police sirens and is in the process of making his getaway, before the cook has finished emptying the cash register. As Roy exits, the cook says to him in genuine puzzlement: "Didn't you want the money?" Here again we

have a line of dialogue which takes us by surprise while being fully consistent with the cook's character, in the sense that a) as in his previous line (about not being able to do two things at the same time), the cook expresses both compliance with and a questioning of Roy; and b) the line is spoken by a man who has been defined for us as saying what we would never expect.

The unpredicitability of virtually all of the events in this film - the fact that we never know what will happen next, or how any character will respond to what another character does - is wonderfully refreshing, since we don't want to be able to foresee what is coming, even while attempting to do just that. This in itself is a paradox: our wanting to be thwarted in our attempt to outguess the screenwriter.

Furthermore, the many surprises the film has in store for us are doubly satisfying, because they 1) defy our attempts to guess what will happen, catch us off guard and tickle us with their originality; and 2) at the same time, fulfill our expectation - shaped during the opening shots - of being repeatedly taken by surprise. In other words, it is by remaining unpredictable that the film lives up to what we are led to expect of it. This might be called the paradox of expected surprise.

In commenting on the orgasm scene in When Harry Met Sally,[19]Meg Ryan stated in a TV interview: "The only reason this scene works is because Sally is precisely the kind of person who would never, ever do such a thing." However, if that were true, then the audience would not accept it. (Instead, we would be irritated by her acting out of character.) What I think Meg Ryan actually meant is that Sally is the kind of person we would never expect to do such a thing, but once she has done it, we can accept that - surprising and unforseeable as it may have been - it was nevertheless within the range of possibilities for her character.

When characters truly come to life and are allowed to live out their own existences, what they do may surprise not only the viewer but the writer as well. In commenting on his novel The Music of Chance, filmed in 1993 by Philip Haas, Paul Auster stated:

There's no question that [The Music of Chance] took over and had its own life independent of my will or judgment about what should or shouldn't go into it. There was an interesting example during the poker game. Nashe leaves the table and goes upstairs to look at "The City of the World" again. He stays for an hour and winds up stealing the two little figures of Flower and Stone. I had no idea he was going to do this until I wrote the passage. It was as though Nashe had become enirely real for me and was doing it on his own. I still don't understand why he did it, and yet it was right that he did it. It had to be that way.[20]

The figures of Flower and Stone, played by Charles Durning and Joel Grey in the film.

Nashe (Mandy Patinkin) in the process of stealing the figures from "The City of the World."

What is in play here is not only a view as to how fictional characters behave, but also a fundamental belief that human life is unpredictable. Auster stated: "If my work is about anything, I think it's about the unexpected, the idea that anything can happen" (ibid., p. 233); he also said: "...what I'm talking about is the presence of the unpredictable, the utterly bewildering nature of human existence. From one moment to the next, anything can happen" (ibid., p. 289).

This outlook concerns not only the consistency/surprise parameter, but also the interplay of causality and choice, since in both contexts, it is important to realize that we don't necessarily need to understand why a character chooses to act as he or she does. In a film on the making of Short Cuts (1993), Robert Altman stated:

If we were able to explain any of these characters, any of the twenty-two of them, it probably wouldn't have been interesting enough to make stories out of. It's the very fact that the things happen to them that happen to them, and that they are inexplicable, because I think that's probably more truthful to the way life really is. And I don't think we have explanations. I mean, I've been doing this for thirty years, and I've been getting the same flack from the critics. They say, "Why did they do that? You didn't explain why." Well I don't know why. Go back to Nashville: why does the assassin kill the singer? Well, if we knew any of that, we could probably prevent that sort of thing.[21]

The above discussion might be summed up by suggesting that any short fiction film should be designed in such a way that surprises and consistencies balance one another. The consistencies provide structure and a framework within which the surprises are endowed with a resonance they would not otherwise have, while the surprises, the unpredictable events, keep the structure open and breathe life into it.

Incidentally, an interplay of consistency and surprise is the very substance of the set-up/pay-off figure.[22]

3. Image/Sound

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In the same work cited above, Robert Bresson argued against integrating sound and image, suggesting that at any moment in a film, precedence should be given either to the visual or to the auditory component, and that sound and image should never work together in balanced interaction as equals. He wrote for example (p. 62):

If a sound is the necessary complement of an image, give preponderance either to the sound or to the image. As equals, they interfere with one another or kill each other off [clash], as is said of colors.

Sound and image must not come to one another's assistance but rather take turns, working in shifts.

For Bresson, it is either our eyes or our ears which may be occupied at any given moment, but not both at the same time, just as any one filmic event should be directed either to our sight or to our hearing, but never to both simultaneously (pp. 60-61). Views of this kind, sometimes cast in terms of avoiding the redundancy of sound and image, regularly turn up in works of film theory. And although the theoreticians or filmmakers who propose these views may be among the most distinguished in their respective fields, their basic position with respect to this one issue is nevertheless utterly misguided.

Perhaps the misconception involved here is an offshoot of a fully justified objection to any redundancy of the verbal and the visual. Jean Epstein wrote for example:

In his Mémoires, Casanova judges to be one of the most serious and stupid errors that a lover who says "I love you" to a woman who can see that she is loved. But this is an error committed by nine films out of ten, in nine shots out of ten.[23]

That it is a mistake to use verbal cues - lines of dialogue or voice-over - when the physical enactment of events before a camera could carry the same information to the viewer more effectively, is a view to which Alfred Hitchcock heartily subscribed, as can be seen in such statements as:

In many films now being made, there is very little cinema: they are mostly what I call "photographs of people talking." When we tell a story in cinema, we should resort to dialogue only when it's impossible to do otherwise.

In writing a screenplay, it is essential to separate clearly the dialogue from the visual elements and, whenever possible, to rely more on the visual than on dialogue.[24]

What is true of feature films in this connection can be argued even more forcefully with respect to the short fiction film. Roman Polanski, whose wordless Two Men and a Wardrobe (Poland, 1958, 15 min.) created a sensation and gave new life to the short fiction film, went so far as to say that dialogue is not proper to the form.[25] But there is an exception to every rule, and in this case, the obvious exception which proves the rule is Jim Jarmusch's Coffee and Cigarettes (USA, 1986, 5 min.), with Roberto Benigni and Steven Wright as the two coffee drinkers, whose off-the-wall dialogue keeps us spellbound for five minutes.[26]

Two Men and a Wardrobe (1958)

Coffee and Cigarettes (1986)

Having argued that: a) a redundancy of the verbal and visual is unfortunate; b) it is preferable to communicate information visually in a film, rather than verbally; and c) the best short fiction films (with few notable exceptions) generally keep dialogue to a minimum and rely primarily on visual storytelling, I would now like to look at other aspects of the role of sound in the short fiction film.

Even beginners, making their very first shorts, generally understand that in designing a story to be filmed, they must make sure that the action is visually exciting. However, that the action must also be exciting in auditory terms is often overlooked.

One way in which this can be managed is to design events which include a striking auditory dimension. In Cat's Cradle, for example, which has one of the most mesmerizing sound tracks of any short fiction film I know, there are - in virtually every scene - events in which the interplay of sound and image is essential: in scene 1, theamplified sound of a spoon scraping porridge from a bowl to a pot, as we see it done on screen - the increased volume of the sound making us feel closer to or more present within the situation at

hand; in scene 2, the "thwap" sound made as the mother forces the dead father's arm into place in his suit jacket, making that physical act more convincing, grotesque and comical, all at once; in scene 3, the sound of the shovel hitting rock or impenetrable ground, helping to tell us why burial will be impossible there, as well as the subsequent sound of the shovel being dragged along the ground, as though to emphasize the uselessness of the implement.

In all of these examples, we simultaneously see and hear the same event, the sound and image interacting to give more power and richness to the storytelling. Each of the actions involved are ones which produce sounds, and the noise they make are as much a part of our experience as the sight of the physical event.

There are also events in the film which do not make their own noise, but which are accompanied by sounds that also enrich our experience. For example, when the mother pulls the sock onto the father's foot, with the big toe protruding through a hole, we hear a

sound that might either be a cat meowing or a baby crying. This sound, issuing from some off-camera space, in no way distracts our attention from the event shown on screen, but rather in accompanying it, gives us two events to experience (one visual, one auditory) instead of only one.

Yet another strategy - in some ways the most important one - for ensuring a vital role for sound in a short fiction film, is to allow what might be called "sound events" to play an important part in the action.

For example, in Rita Nunes's Menos Nove (Portugal, 1997, 12 min.), one of the many murders portrayed is that committed by a man who is driven crazy by the sound of a woman loudly, demonstratively and repeatedly striking her spoon against the inside of her coffee cup as she stirs to dissolve the sugar she has added to her coffee.

Similarly, near the end of Jean-Marc Vallée's Les Mots Magiques (Canada, 1997, 21 min.), the son deliberately wakes up his sleeping father by putting a record on the phonograph and turning the volume up as he leaves the apartment, thereby making sure that his father will find and read the letter he has just left for him.

In Christine Parker's The Peach (New Zealand, 1993, 16 min.), in the midst of a seduction scene in which the Woman (Lucy Lawless) is about to kiss Sal (Tania Simon), Sal suddenly hears her baby crying (off screen) and the spell is broken.

The Woman in the process of seducing Sal in The Peach.

The sound of Sal's baby crying breaks the spell.

Finally, in Brad McGann's Possum (also New Zealand, 1997, 15 min.), we see Kid - an autistic child - sitting under a table, looking at pictures of animals in a book, and making the animal sounds. As she roars like a jungle cat, her sister, Missy, teases her by pushing their pet kitten toward her face. The sounds escalate, with Kid's roaring frightening the kitten, until the father - a stern and repressive man - exasperated by the noise, slams a hammer down onto a possum trap on the table to put an end to the incident.

In all of these examples, from Les Mots Magiques, Menos Nove, The Peach, and Possum, the screenwriter designed his or her story in such a way that a sound is used to trigger or transform an event, and in that respect, the sound constitutes a decisive event in its own right.

Summing up the above discussion, we could say that strategies for ensuring a dynamic interplay of sound and image in a short fiction film include: 1) designing events which are both visually striking and make striking sounds; 2) accompanying an event that does not produce its own sound, with an appropriate off-screen sound; and 3) focusing the viewer's attention on a sound which in itself will have a role in determining what happens next, and might therefore be described as a "sound event" in its own right. It is also worth insisting at this point that minimizing the verbal component - a generally desirable effort with regard to story design in the short fiction film - does not mean neglecting the importance of building sound-producing events into the story.

4. Character/Object

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A great deal of ink has been spilled over a controversy Aristotle inadvertantly started, when he taught that "the first essential, the life and soul, so to speak, of Tragedy is the Plot; and that the Characters come second" (op. cit., pp. 37-39). Virtually everyone who has subsequently written about storytelling has in one way or another taken Aristotle's position into account.[27]

However, arguing as to the relative importance of plot and character is of little practical use to the filmmaker designing his or her story, or to the analyst trying to understand how any given short film works.

A far more fruitful discussion concerns the relationship of character and object, of person and thing.

In feature films, characters often run themselves ragged trying to get their hands on secret plans or stolen papers - a class of object Hitchcock called a MacGuffin, and which is sometimes even more contemptuously referred to as the weenie of a film. Here the object is primarily a plot device intended to get the action moving, and may have little or no visual presence within the film, or have any meaning beyond its literal one (though the statuette in The Maltese Falcon - "The, er, stuff that dreams are made of" - is a notable exception).

Possibly because the short film lends itself in general to a more symbolic mode of communication, objects have a more noble role to play in this context. In many cases, an object is the central focus of interest in a short film and the interplay of one or more characters with that object is an essential part of the life of the film. This is the case, for example, in Polanski's Two Men and a Wardrobe (1958). Here, a fundamental ambiguity at the heart of the film lies in the possibility of understanding the wardrobe in two very different ways: either 1) as symbolizing those physical or moral properties which set the two men apart from everyone else and constitute an obstacle to their acceptance by others; or 2) as representing a gift, a set of life-affirming values which the two men embody in their behavior, such as playfulness, generosity, protectiveness, tenderness and loyalty, and which they unsuccessfully attempt to transfer to or to share with others.

Another film in which an object plays a central role is Didier Flamand's La Vis (France, 1993, 19 min.).[28] In this film, the protagonist discovers a defective screw and tracks down the culprit responsible for it; in the process, the screw becomes a central focus

for the filmmaker's playful exploration of questions of social hierarchy and of identity.

Other recent short films in which an object carries an important share of the film's storytelling work, include Kriv Stenders's Two/Out (Australia, 1997, 12 min.), in which a small black plastic bag filled with water becomes the "woman" of one of two prisoners sharing a cell; and Vivian Goffette's La Carte postale (Belgium, 1997, 16 min.), in which a post card takes on a pivotal role on the day of a funeral.


La Carte postale

In Assif Kapadia's The Sheep Thief (U.K., 1997, 24 min.), there isn't one single object which becomes our focus of attention, but rather a number of objects or even the very physicality of everything shown. When a young thief strikes back at a boy trying to catch him, the thief hits the boy with a stick, which a subsequent shot shows to have a nail hammered through it, and on the nail are drops of blood and bits of tissue from the wounded boy's head. Other shots in which the very physicality of things is in sharp focus, include images of raindrops falling on grains of sand and pebbles, and of drops of sap rolling down the bark of a tree. After the sheep thief is caught, he is branded on the forehead, and later covers the mark of his shame with a red headband which becomes a part of his persona. When at the end of the film, his identity is discovered and he is expelled from the village, he tears the headband into two pieces, and gives them to the two brothers he has befriended.

The nail with droops of blood and bits of tissue on it.

Drops of rain falling on grains of sand and pebbles.

Drops of sap roll down the bark of a tree.

The red headband.

Tearing the headband.

Giving it to the brothers.

In an exceptionally thought-provoking passage, Frank McConnell suggests that literary and film narratives differ essentially in the following way:

In written narrative, we begin with the consciousness of the hero and have to construct out of that consciousness the social and physical world the hero inhabits. But in film the situation is, essentially and significantly, reversed. Film can show us only objects, only things, only, indeed, people as things. Our activity in watching a filmed narrative is to infer, to construct the selfhood of the hero who might inhabit the objective world film so overwhelmingly gives us.[29]

Perhaps it is all too easy to take the world of objects for granted when writing a screenplay and to concentrate instead on evoking subjectivity or interiority. In the best short fiction films, there is a dynamic interplay of character and object, of subjectivity and physicality, and specific objects are singled out and invested with special meaning for characters and for us. Once charged with that meaning, objects can take on and carry out an important role in the storytelling work of the film. And particularly in the short film, enlisting the use of objects in a dynamic interplay with characters can be an effective strategy for telling a story with great economy,

5. Simplicity/Depth

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Student filmmakers sometimes assume that in order to have depth, a story must be complicated. Actually, simplicity enhances the possibility for depth, in ways that will soon be described.

One facet of simplicity in story design is clarity, about which François Truffaut stated:

Each cut of a picture, lasting for three to ten seconds, is information given to viewer. This information is all too often obscure or downright incomprehensible, either because the director's intentions were vague to begin with or he lacked the competence to convey them clearly.

To those who question whether clarity is all that important, I can only say that it is the most important quality in the making of a film.[30]

And here again, what applies to filmmaking in general is even more true of the short film, in which the viewer must at no point be in doubt as to what he or she is seeing on screen.

Simplicity can also be understood in terms of the time - a kind of temporal space - allowed to the viewer to absorb what is going on in the story. Paul Auster said in an interview:

The one thing I try to do in all my books is to leave enough room in the prose for the reader to inhabit it. Because I finally believe it's the reader who writes the book and not the writer... There's a way in which a writer can do too much, overwhelming the reader with so many details that he no longer has any air to breathe.[31]

In this connection, it is worth returning to a comment made by Marcell Iványi, in the interview provided in full on pp. 15-22 above:

...usually the short film that makes a strong impression - and for that matter this applies to the feature film as well - the short that makes a strong impression is one that is simple enough to give time to the viewer. When you are watching a film by Antonioni, the main thing you feel is that you have time to think, just to be there, and the film is not pressing you to think about this now, and now here's a close-up of this, you have to think about this, and now this is a detail here, you have to see this. When it starts to be like that, the viewer gets tired of it. And doesn't want to think any more. So he gives it up. And when the film wants you to think later, then you won't think, and you say: "Well, why don't you just show it to me, just the way you did before?" So when there's time and space for a viewer just to be there, and be settled about the whole theme - just be able to look at everything the way a child looks at things for the first time. I think that's very important. All the great films we see, the classics, also the short films - the best of the films we see is always like that, always works inside like that (pp. 20-21).

In the same spirit, the film editor and sound designer Walter Murch advised:

Always try to do the most with the least - with the emphasis on try. You may not always succeed, but attempt to produce with greatest effect on the viewer's mind by the least number of things on the screen. Why? Because you want to do only what is necessary to engage the imagination of the audience - suggestion is always more effective than exposition. Past a certain point, the more effort you put into wealth of detail, the more you encourage the audience to become spectators rather than participants.[32]

What all of these quotes suggest is that simplicity means leaving enough space - also enough temporal space - for the viewer to play an active role in experiencing the film, while excessive complication or detail reduces the viewer's role to that of keeping up with and merely registering what happens at the surface level of the story.

One way in which we experience depth in a short film is in the form of inner space within characters. For example, in the final shots of The Beach and of Immediate Departure,[33] we have a sense of almost unlimited inner space within the boy, Simon, as he looks at his mother from a distance, trying to understand what has just happened, and within the Man, now in tears and in utter despair, as he looks out of the train window. These shots last 21 and 32 seconds respectively, and both give us ample time to plumb the depths of the characters, to think about what is going on inside of them. In both cases, we have a perfect interplay of simplicity and depth.

The Beach.. Final shot.

Immediate Departure. Final shot.

In Come, directed by Marianne Olsen Ulrichsen (Norway, 1995, 5 min.), this same character depth is enhanced by a temporal depth as well, as a woman in her 80's delights in the memory of her first moment of love. As a result, the film spans her entire adult life, focusing on two moments, more than half a century apart, in each of which she has her own fully developed inner space.

A second way in which depth can be understood is in terms of the depth of emotion the film inspires in us. Exceptionally, I will illustrate this point with an example drawn from a recent documentary, entitled Black Ashes (directed by Shukhrat M. Makhmudov, Uzbekistan, 1997, 10 min.). This is a film about lambs who are separated from their mothers when they are three days old, and sent off to be slaughtered for their fur, which is highly priced. In the final scene of the film, the lambs are driven away on a truck; one of the mother sheep runs after truck, though her instinctive quest is utterly hopeless. Here again, we have a perfect interplay of simplicity and depth, with depth in this case referring primarily to the depth of feeling the heartbreaking scene evokes in the viewer.

The lambs are separated from their mothers and loaded onto a truck.

The back of the truck is closed and the truck drives off with its cargo of three-day-old lambs, leaving the flock of mother sheep in the distance.

One of the mother sheep follows the truck.

The mother sheep continues following the truck as the lambs huddle.

The mother sheep gives up, then resumes her hopeless quest, and finally runs off in another direction. The truck, now filmed from behind, continues transporting the lambs to their slaughter.

Yet a third way in depth can be understood is in terms of underlying meaning, or openness to interpretation. Two examples from Possum will be useful in this context.

A scene in which Missy teases her autistic sister Kid, ends with Kid biting Missy on the leg. Missy chooses to tell their father about it, and as the father is tending to the bite, with Missy sitting on his bed, her brother stands in the doorway watching and he and Missy exchange glances.

In commenting on this shot, director Brad McGann described it to me in illuminating terms as a "reflective moment, creating cinematic space within which the viewer can register subtext."[34] And the subtext here is what Missy's eyes say:

  • "I rule the roost, I have Dad's sympathy and affection"

  • "I'm the one with the power in this situation"

  • "Kid is in serious trouble now"

And yet another facet of this subtext is the slight overtone of an incestuous relationship, as the father tends to the bite on his daughter's leg, with her sitting on his bed. Here, once again, simplicity and depth - the latter this time in terms of underlying meaning - are in perfect balance.

The same is true of the film as a whole in which Kid is not only an autistic child but a representation of the wild, untamable side of human nature. She is also an outsider. And just as she can be seen in relation to three different layers of meaning, so can her father, who is at one and the same time: the father of an autistic child; that side of human nature that seeks to repress the wild side; and a represention of society in relation to an outsider. These layers of meaning might be lined up as follows:

layers of meaning in Possum an autistic childfather of an autistic child
a representation of the wild, untamable side of human nature a representation of that side of human nature that represses the wild side
an outsider society

Wind is another example of a film which lends itself to more than one interpretation, thereby giving the viewer an opportunity to use his or her decoding skills for constructing alternate frameworks of meaning, depending upon whether the story is seen for example as concerning a specific historical period, such as the Second World War, and as involving internal strife or occupation by an enemy.

At the same time, the story design of Wind is remarkably simple, and the very simplicity of the story leaves the viewer sufficient space to ponder the film's possible meanings. In this way, Wind exemplifies yet another perfect interplay of simplicity and - in this case - interpretive depth.

Summary in schematic form

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parameter when in balance when out of balance
  • in responding to one another or to situations at hand, characters freely choose to do what they want to do
  • initiative/response model often in play
  • choices made by characters have consequences
  • characters behave as though programmed
  • characters acted upon by forces beyond their control (are reduced to the status of helpless puppets)
  • characters remain consistent with a central core that defines them but their actions are never forseeable
  • characters behave either predictably or out of character
  • dynamic interplay of image and sound
  • verbal communication kept to a minimum when other means are available
  • at pivotal moments, sound events make things happen
  • all significant events are dialogue-based
  • sound (other than dialogue) plays a marginal role in the storytelling
  • dynamic interplay of main character and some object charged with meaning
  • balance of interiority and physicality
  • an object has a storytelling function
  • no particular attention focused on objects or physicality
  • character's inner being is in no significant way linked to objects
  • story is simple and clear, allowing the viewer time and space to reflect upon and participate in the construction of the story
  • depth as inner space within a character
  • temporal depth
  • depth as depth of feeling within the viewer
  • depth as underlying meaning or openness to interpretation
  • story too complicated or confusing
  • viewer reduced to spectator rather than participant
  • film is nothing but surface

Short films cited

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Avondale Dogs. Gregor Nicholas (New Zealand, 1995, 15 min.)

Black Ashes. Shukhrat M. Makhmudov (Uzbekistan, 1997, 10 min.)

Cat's Cradle. Liz Hughes (Australia, 1991, 12 min.)

Coffee and Cigarettes. Jim Jarmusch (USA, 1986, 5 min.)

Come. Marianne Olsen Ulrichsen (Norway, 1995, 5 min.)

Death of the Rat, The. Les Films de la Commune (France, 1973, 3 min.)

Eating Out. Pål Sletaune (Norway, 1993, 6 min.)

Immediate Departure. Thomas Briat (France, 1995, 14 min.)

La Carte postale. Vivian Goffette (Belgium, 1997, 16 min.)

Menos Nove. Rita Nunes (Portugal, 1997, 12 min.)

Ouf! Rudolf Mestagh (Belgium, 1994, 14 min.)

Possum. Brad McGann (New Zealand, 1997, 15 min.)

The Beach. Dorthe Scheffmann (New Zealand, 1996, 8 min.)

The Peach. Christine Parker (New Zealand, 1993, 16 min.)

The Price is Right. Daphna Levin (Israel, 1994, 17 min.)

The Sheep Thief, Assif Kapadia (UK, 1997, 24 min.)

Two Men and a Wardrobe. Roman Polanski (Poland, 1958, 15 min.)

Two/Out. Kriv Stender (Australia, 1997, 12 min.)

Wind. Marcell Iványi (Hungary, 1996, 5 min.)

[1] Quotes and Notes on Storytelling for Student Filmmakers (Department of Information and Media Science, Aarhus University, 1996).

[2] The existing literature consists in four books, none of which contains anything even remotely resembling a new conceptual model: William H. Phillips, Writing Short Scripts (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1991); Pat Cooper and Ken Dancyger, Writing the Short Film (Boston & London: Focal Press, 1994); Edmond Levey, Making a Winning Short. How to Write, Direct, Edit and Produce a Short Film (New York: Henry Holt, 1994); and Linda J. Cowgill, Writing Short Films. Structure and Content for Screenwriters (Los Angeles: Lone Eagle, 1997).

[3] On the Art of Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990; trans. Ingram Bywater), Section 15, pp. 56-57.

[4] The Grammar of Stories (The Hague & Paris: Mouton, 1973).

[5] E. M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel (London: Edward Arnold, 1953; orig. pub. 1927), pp. 82-83.

[6] Transcribed from an interview made for Danish television by Werner Svendsen in 1980, and broadcast on October 6th, 1983, the year Golding won the Nobel Prize for literature. Golding is best remembered as author of Lord of the Flies. (1954).

[7] A detailed shooting script for Eating Out, accompanied by numerous stills, can be found in p.o.v. no. 3 (March 1997.

/Issue_01/Catscrd/Catscrd1.html [8] A full synopsis of the film as well as an interview with Liz Hughes, will be found in p.o.v. number 1 (March 1996).

[9] The screenplay of The Price Is Right, as well as my article on causality in that film, can be found in p.o.v. no. 3 (March 1997).

[10] A synopsis of Avondale Dogs as well as an interview with Gregor Nicholas, will be found in p.o.v. no. 1 (March 1996).

<[11] Apparently produced by a collective, La mort du rat was made by: Pascal Aubier, Josette Barnetche, Alix Comte, Françoise Elefantis, Jean-Jacques Flori, Dominique Gallieni, Claude Ornon, Alain Perisson, Brice Perisson, Marie-Elizabeth Prouvost, Pierre Santini and Jacques Tourovsky. The film was apparently inspired by a lecture given by Jean-François Lyotard at the Sorbonne, on the exploitative nature of work.

[12] The Functional Analysis of Art: An approach to the social and psychological functions of literature, painting and film (Aarhus: Arkona, 1982), pp. 32-33.

[13] "The Theory of Ego Autonomy" (1958) in Collected Papers of David Rapaport, ed. Merton M. Gill (New York and London: Basic Books, 1967), pp. 745-746.

[14] Lajos Egri, The Art of Dramatic Writing. Its Basis in the Creative Interpretation of Human Motives (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1960; orig. publ. 1946), pp. 1, 3-6, 61. Egri mistakenly believed that his conception of premise was reconcilable with the empowerment of characters to make decisions, since he wrote: "The character's decision necessarily sets in motion another decision, from his adversary. And it is these decisions, one resulting from the other, which propel the play to its ultimate destination: the proving of the premise."

[15] David Howard and Edward Mabley,The Tools of Screenwriting. A Writer's Guide to the Craft and Elements of a Screenplay (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993), pp. xx-xxi. Their argument is reproduced in my Quotes and Notes on Storytelling for Student Filmmakers, op. cit., p. 5.

[16] The Art of Fiction. Notes on Craft for Young Writers (New York: Vintage Books, 1991; orig. pub. 1984), p. 65.

[17] A detailed screenplay will be found in p.o.v. number 3 (March 1997..

[18] He makes a point of eating his hamburger with knife and fork, which must be positioned properly on either side of his plate. When Julie is served her hamburger and grabs it with her hands, Parka quickly pushes her knife and fork closer to her plate, and she complies with his unspoken suggestion.

[19] Directed by Rob Reiner, screenplay by Nora Ephron, 1989.

[20] The Art of Hunger (New York: Penguin, 1997), p. 232 (interview with Mark Irwin).

[21] Luck, Trust and Ketchup, 1993, produced and directed by John Dorr and Mike Kaplan.

[22] For a systematic discussion of that figure, see my "Set-Up/Pay-Off and a Related Figure" in p.o.v. number 2 (December 1996), pp. 53-75.

[23]Écrits sur le cinéma (Paris: Seghers, 1975), vol 2, p. 104.

[24] François Truffaut, Hitchcock (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1985), p. 61.

[25] When asked why he used little or no dialogue in his shorts, Polanski replied: "...I think that in a short it's unpleasant to use dialogue. It's like a piece of a feature film. [...] When you use people in a short, if they talk you expect it's going to last for two hours. It's not natural, not proper, to the form." Joseph Gelmis, The Film Director as Superstar (London: Secker & Warburg, 1971), p. 145. Polanski made similar statements in his autobiography, Roman (London: Heinemann, 1982), pp. 121-122.

[26] Another noteworthy exception, in dialogue bears the short, is Hal Hartley's Theory of Achievement (USA, 1991).

[27]A number of positions are assembled on pp. 10-12 in Quotes and Notes... (op. cit.).

[28]An outline of La Vis will be found in p.o.v. number 1 (March 1996), pp. 57-59.

[29] Storytelling and Mythmaking. Images from Film and Literature (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), p. 5.

[30] Hitchcock, op. cit., p. 17.

[31] The Art of Hunger, op.cit., pp. 282-283 (interview with Jospeh Mallia).

[32] Walter Much, In the Blink of an Eye. A Perspective on Film Editing (Los Angeles: Silman-James Press, 1995), p. 15.

[33] See pp. 57-61 above for a detailed outline of Immediate Departure.

[34] The interview, which took place at Clermont-Ferrand in January 1998, will be printed in its entirely in p.o.v. number 7 (March 1999).