So, a few weeks ago we were talking about qualitative storytelling.
We promised that this was something that we were going to get back to, and we meant it. There’s too many bad stories out there and everyone seems happy to jump on board and point out the bad, but there’s precious little about how to actually tell a story properly.
It’s great to be able to talk about what isn’t a good story, but criticism should aim to improve the craft of the person that is creating whatever it is that’s being criticized. I know that last sentence was wordy, but it’s important to separate the art and artist from both a critical and creative standpoint.
So, again, this isn’t going to be an attack on creatives or the creative process. What this, and the articles to follow, aim to be is a study of how story is told. That’s it. That’s the disclaimer. We good? Great.
Structure is one of those things that looks intuitive right up until you start writing. This is the bare-bones blueprint, the layout that determines what action happens where and what characters progress and when, if any. This essay isn’t about action or character, though, it’s simply about structure.
Typically, structure falls into three acts. The first act introduces the setting and characters, the second act has those characters seek something within that setting, and the last act has them either succeed or fail. That’s it. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?
To that end, let’s take a look at two of the Mad Max movies as examples of this being done. We’re running with the Road Warrior and Fury Road.
Road Warrior begins with Max on the road, fighting people from his car. We’re introduced to the character and the violence of his world, and then a secondary character, a gas refinery, and a horde of maniacs that want access to that refinery.
Fury Road begins in similar fashion, with Max being hunted by the villains out in the desert. He’s captured and taken back to what passes for their civilization, where we’re given just enough information to realize that there is a wider world at play here and that some people are trying to leave that civilization.
Both movies introduce their characters and their worlds quickly and efficiently. There’s enough small details in both that we’re led to believe that there are larger forces at play, but they’re so far beyond the comprehension or agency of the main character that they serve only to bring us deeper into this world that Max doesn’t truly care about, but we do.
Why does Lord Humungous keep his gun in that case? Why has Immorten Joe turned himself into a literal cult of personality? Why the Doof Warrior? Max doesn’t care, but these other characters clearly do and it gives their world a sense of depth that helps transition from the first act to the second.
In the Road Warrior , Max realizes that he’s running out of gas and would like a top up. Doing so means working with the people in the gas refinery, helping them so that they’ll help him. In the meantime, the Horde lurks outside, looking for any sign of weakness, and the people in the refinery realize that they need to get out.
On the Fury Road, Max escapes imprisonment and manages to capture – before being captured by – a group of women who are running from the people that originally captured him. The mutual desire of all involved to escape gets them all on the same side, and they flee together from an army that is chasing them.
The desires of both movies revolve around flight or acquisition. The people in the refinery want to take their gas and get away from the horde. Lord Humungous wants the gas in the refinery. The women want to escape from Immorten Joe. Immorten Joe wants to father perfect sons to take his place when he dies.
Max becomes a catalyst in his stories by wanting both flight and acquisition; it’s a desire to get something that gets him into trouble and his desire to get away that costs him everything.
As the stakes surrounding that end goal ramp up, we move from the second to the third and final act. This is where people ultimately get or do not get whatever it is that they’re after.
In the Road Warrior, the people in the refinery get Max to drive away with the gas they’ve refined. He’s chased by the horde, who he eventually ends up killing, only to find out that the people in the refinery used him as a decoy – the truck he’s been given has nothing in it, and now that he’s killed the horde they’ve abandoned him.
In Fury Road, we learn that the destination that the former slaves were running to has been destroyed. With no other choice, they had back in the direction they came, hoping to claim it for themselves. Immorten Joe chases, still wanting what he views as his, and is ultimately consumed by his need to dominate and destroy. The women get what they want and Max moves on.
See how simple that looks? Here’s where things get tricky: most structure have an overlay that can best be summed up as yes-no-yes or no-yes-no. Yes-no-yes is when a story or character starts in a good place, moves into a place of challenge, and then recovers to try and get things back on track or improve them. No-yes-no is when a story or character starts in a bad place, moves into a better one, and then through hubris, circumstance, or ambition, destroys what they’ve built and ends up either the same or worse than when they started.
There are exceptions – both no-no-yes stories and yes-yes-no stories exist, in addition to every other permutations of those two words in three places. The thing of it is, they rarely work as stories for the main characters or the main story. If someone starts in a bad place and goes good, then continues to go good, well, why didn’t the story end? If someone starts in a good place and then crumbles, do we really need to see them fall all the way to the end?
Sometimes, these subversions work on their own, but that’s rare. Instead, subversions work best when paired with the classic yes-no-yes or no-yes-no scenario.
This overlay applies to both the plot and the main characters within a given story.
For example, in the Road Warrior, Max is in a no-yes-no overlay. He starts off alone and is in a place where he’s barely surviving. He’s running out of resources, so when he finds the refinery and is able to build a connection with those people, his life improves. This is the yes part of the story. By the end, though, Max has been betrayed, has no means of finding the people that betrayed him, and has lost even the few resources he had at the beginning of the film.
Meanwhile, the people in the refinery have a yes-no-yes overlay. They were able to create a relatively comfortable life for themselves in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. They had food, gas, and power, so this defintely falls into the category of a yes, right up until Lord Humungous and his horde show up. They find themselves trapped, and are in the no part of their story when we meet them. Through Max and clever planning, however, they’re able to escape with their lives and their gas, and ultimately get everything they want.
Finally, Lord Humungous finds himself in a chaotic wasteland and tries to impose order upon in. We join him in the midst of the yes part of a no-yes-no overlay. His battle with Max will rob him of everything, including his horde and his life, as his arrogance, hubris, and monomania slowly chips away at the small amount of control he’s been able to impose upon the wasteland.
Oddly, the exact same overlay applies to the character types in Fury Road.
Max is still in a no-yes-no overlay. He’s been alone for so long he’s forgotten how to speak. He’s running low on resources and is captured fairly easily, is taken into a hellscape and only gets away due to flukey circumstances. While escaping, he makes a connection with several people, relearns how to speak, and finds comfort in the people around him. He follows their lead and finds purpose because of it, only to walk away from everything at the end. Max’s story ends on a no not because of hubris or arrogance, but for much more complex reasons; he knows that his presence is a poison that will taint the world the people he’s been fighting for are trying to make. So, once again, he leaves with nothing save the haunting memories of the connections he’s made. Max is and always has been a perfect tragedy.
Immorten Joe, likewise, is in a no-yes-no story. Like Lord Humungous, he’s grown in a mad post-apocalyptic world and tried to impose order upon it. Unlike Humungous, he’s largely succeeded. His ultimate goal to make human beings again, but because he’s not human ethically or morally, he’s incapable of reaching the heights of the old world and doesn’t see that; he wants to control the world, and his hubris, cruelty, and arrogance drives what he sees as his tools to flee from them. The initial no and yes parts of his story are off-screen, but we see the influence of them on and around him, and we get to watch the world he’s built fade into nothing. The entirety of Fury Road is the final no of his story, with the implication of what came before groping every event that happens on screen.
Finally, Furiosa and the women are part of a yes-no-yes overlay; their lives start in a terrible place and they escape from it, which is the yes part of their overlay. All their trials end up being for nothing, however, when they learn the place they’re running to has already been destroyed. The only place left for them is the one they fled from, so they had back to it and claim it for themselves after Immorten Joe’s megalomania finally brings him low. Their yes is the promise of a better world to come, though their success is not a part of the story as we got it.
And this brings us to another sort of overlay, one based on thematic and philosophical structure. I’m going to use the words damnation, redemption, and salvation to describe these thematic overlays, as they inform how the structure of a story is built and influence every aspect of the story thereafter. These terms are being divested of their religious overtones for the purpose of this essay; instead, we are focusing on their core meanings.
Overlays of damnation deal with destruction of a person, place, or thing. Whether through delusion, happenstance, or malice, the goals that drive the story eat away at those involved and end up in a bad place. Redemptive overlays force a character to take responsibility for their actions, and to make themselves or their world better for the choices they then make. Lastly, salvation based stories are ones in which characters abdicate their agency to an outside power, and through that power are saved.
The character of Mad Max is one thoroughly routed in damnation, regardless of the movie he’s in. He starts off every movie in straits more dire than the last, and ends every movie worse than when he started. He’s given up, lost himself to the violence and madness of his world, and he’s smart enough to know that he’s going to poison every situation he finds himself in. It’s why he walks away at the end of Fury Road; he knows he’s terrible and he knows he’s not getting better.
He has no delusions, unlike Immorten Joe or Lord Humungous. Joe’s goals are self destructive, because he’s self destructive; we meet him already falling apart, his death cult wanting nothing more than to die for their god. Once he’s dead, his children will tear whatever he’s built apart, and the religion he’s crafted will spread like a disease.
Likewise, Humungous has no plan of grandeur for what he wants, no real sustainable end goal – even if he were to capture the refinery he would end up burning it, because even his creative goals lead to destruction. That’s simply who he is. He is lost to damnation, though he would deny it and claim that his is the only path to order.
By contrast, Furiosa’s thematic overlay is one of redemption. It’s her choices and actions that start the events of Fury Road. She backs down from nothing and no one, takes responsibility for her world and those in her care, and ends up making her world a better one. Her story moves her from heartless and unhappy to heartful and happy, as she frees what’s left of civilization from the death cult that had claimed it, forces reformation, and puts power in the hands of people better than her.
And those people?
The women in Fury Road have got the flavor of salvation. They’ve put their faith in Furiosa and, to a lesser degree, Max. They’re relying on her to get them to safety, and when that fails they expect her to come up with a new plan. She does, but their agency is tied to that of Furiosa. She does good by them, and they even convince other people to put their faith in them even as they continue to put their faith in Furiosa.
Over in the Road Warrior, the people in the refinery have put their agency in the hands of their leader and, to a lesser degree, Max. They expect the plan of their leader to save them, and they’re content to let him die for their well-being. Max is a handy substitute, and they’re more than happy to let Max die for them instead.
Anyway, this is the bare bones of where story begins, the place where we lay the groundwork for everything else to come. From here, we start constructing characters, but we’ll get to that in a few weeks.
Questions? Comments? Let us know and we’ll answer. Let’s start making the best possible stories.