There are a million books on story structure, especially in the screenwriting world. You can leap from Joseph Campbell, through Christophers Vogler & Booker, to Robert Key, Syd Field, Viki King, Blake Snyder and most recently, the excellent Into The Woods by John Yorke (if you want a reading list, I refer you to the very excellent resource collection Lucy V Hay has put together at Bang2Write).
These books pretty much agree on the core analysis – as with symphonic structure in music (exposition – development – recapitulation) – a satisfying story has a basic form – deviate from this and you lose it.
Thing is, reading all these and using them as guiding stars to chart your way through a new script can be tough. This is very much well-charted territory, but your own journey is uncharted and this work is hard.
So you can imagine my merry glee when I found a way to (a) remember it all and (b) see it in a way that was simple enough for my little brain. Welcome to my map:
Yes. Mr Benn. 1970s BBC kids’ TV. Only 12 ever made, I think. And every one of them beautifully, simply exemplifying the classical paradigm. Sigh.
OK – let’s see if I’m talking pants or not. Here’s the paradigm, cannily set out by Kelley Smoot Garrett at the Princess April blog – let’s compare this to a few Mr Benns (this is work!)
1. Ordinary world – the joys of Festive Road, “which is very ordinary and happy”: playing kids, comfy chair, loud traffic. Something to pre-echo today’s theme
2. Call to adventure – Something is happening in Festive Road or at number 52. “Then he thought it was time to pay another visit to the special costume shop, where his adventures could start from.” Some might say that’s a bit “on the nose”, but heck…
3. Refusal of the call – Mr Benn never refuses the call; but not every hero does!
4. Meeting the mentor – “as if by magic, the shop-keeper appeared!” Need I say more?
5. Crossing the threshold – into the dressing room we go: “See if it fits,” says the shop-keeper, “and looked towards the door of the changing room.” Mr Benn never hesitates – he’s that kind of hero. Then through the door to…”what? wondered Mr Benn.”
1. Tests, allies, enemies – the other world. Mr Benn often finds himself in a world where someone / a group is being treated unfairly (zoo animals, competitive balloonist, gladiators, a kindly dragon) by a meanie (thoughtless zoo-owners, Baron Bartram, the weedy Emperor and the match salesman, respectively). How can the unfairness be righted?, wonders Mr Benn, as the adventure begins.
If there are not obvious baddies, the baddy is human nature itself: a queen who wants to change how her husband looks; a space explorer who believes the grass is always greener…And as the conundrum or challenge grows increasingly insurmountable, we get special music, often this, if you skip to 2:59.
2. Innermost Cave/Threat – this is where Mr Benn and Co must face their most involved challenge: almost always clued up with what I call the “dastardly adventure and mayhem” music (you can hear it at 3:36 here!). As it’s wee kids’ TV, it’s not scary, but it is where he always gains a deeper understanding.
3. Ordeal – facing the ultimate test (and innermost fears). For Mr Benn, this links with the innermost cave. But he is always calm and uses his brains to find a way through: science, psychology, reason and humour. The gladiator episode is a great one for seeing Mr B as a folk hero with brains and wit, if you’re interested.
4. Reward – transformation! Wonderfully, in Mr Benn, sometimes, even the baddies are transformed (the hunter who becomes a wildlife photographer, for example). “Their troubles were over…the crowd cheered loudly..” There’s often an unknowing crowd in Mr Benn. Hmm….
1. Road back – the shop-keeper or an acolyte (a parrot in the zoo episode) pops up and discretely suggests that Mr Benn should come back, now. No-one notices him go; his work here is done.
2. Resurrection – in Vogler, this is about cleansing through one last challenge. For Mr Benn, it’s just his last look in the mirror before he changes back into his normal clothes again.
3. Return with the elixir – without exception, Mr Benn keeps a memento of his adventure, given by the shop-keeper: a stone age axe, a balloonist medal, a sheriff’s badge. He observes Festive Road with new eyes, his experience bringing a new understanding to the world (traffic is hazardous, whether it’s dinosaurs or cars; it’s better to play games together than wage war; cheaters never win).
So, this is how I concertina complex story structure into my crowded head. Mr Benn.