Screenwriting: John Jarvis Interview
March 11th, 2004
Example of the Jarvis Method, using STAR WARS
By John Jarvis
John Jarvis is a member of the Writers Guild of America, a kind of doctorate in the screenwriting world. In Hollywood, the WGA membership is respected even more than his B.A. in English and M.A. in Humanities. Before going to Hollywood, the Norfolk, Virginia-born writer wrote radio drama and features for radio stations WGH and WHRO. In Hollywood he, among other things, free-lanced for Ralph Edwards-Stu Billiett, producers of "The Family Medical Center" and "The People's Court." Jarvis has also written many articles, fiction and non-fiction, for national magazines. For several years, his bimonthly columns in the respected trade magazine Screenwrite Now! featured his ideas on fiction writing and the structure of screenplays. Jarvis is the creator of The Jarvis Method of story writing. (Each month, you can read about his Method in Story and Myth: The Journal of Classic Story Writing.) He is also the chief designer of StoryCraft Writer's Software. He is the current president of StoryCraft Corporation. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
Before going to Hollywood, the Norfolk, Virginia-born writer wrote radio drama and features for radio stations WGH and WHRO.
In Hollywood he, among other things, free-lanced for Ralph Edwards-Stu Billiett, producers of "The Family Medical Center" and "The People's Court."
Jarvis has also written many articles, fiction and non-fiction, for national magazines. For several years, his bimonthly columns in the respected trade magazine Screenwrite Now! featured his ideas on fiction writing and the structure of screenplays.
Jarvis is the creator of The Jarvis Method of story writing. (Each month, you can read about his Method in Story and Myth: The Journal of Classic Story Writing.) He is also the chief designer of StoryCraft Writer's Software. He is the current president of StoryCraft Corporation. His e-mail address is email@example.com
Star Wars personifies modern mythological drama. It goes, as Thomas Mann once said, to our "picture dreamings" -- the structural essence of the universe that makes up nature.
This film, being an epic, is also an excellent illustration of the distinction between film and drama. For the drama belongs to the mind, that is to say the conscious, whereas film speaks to us only through the unconscious. Hence, film is more allied with music and poetry, just as drama speaks to us more in the words of the novel.
This difference also manifests itself in subject matter. As mentioned above, film does fine with epics -- witness the recent movie Titanic.
Indeed, before moving on, let's take a moment to look at the nature of this film. The love story sub-plot in Titanic has been much critiqued as being too "upstairs, downstairs" but film tends to deal in stereotypes when it comes to character. For, as in myth, in film character tend to represent type, more than real human beings; and therefore tends to take poetic liberties with the truth as the common man sees it. But epic is anathema to the drama, and only works in large prose works (such as War and Peace.)
Indeed, Titanic is reminiscent of another great epic, D.W. Griffith's The Birth of the Nation. For as with that film dark tragedy and passion, a finality to our "picture dreamings," often take the place of "common sense" truth, till we begin to see that there is a Truth that lies not quite in our grasp -- a pot of goal at the end of the rainbow, perhaps, but more akin to the spirit of the Church.
If you will now think of the characters in Star Wars, they are unusual and typical of an epic. That is, they have what I call super ability and an air of mystery about them. A drama, on the other hand, would dwell on the character's backstory and need, something almost entirely missing in Star Wars - as they are in all good films
This observation comes, I know, as somewhat of a shock, but those who have been taught fiction are usually instructed by prose instructors, or film instructors so influence by prose requirements that they pass character development theory on to their students as gospel. But film, as we have seen, has different basic needs, needs that are almost entirely neglected by misguided instructors.
Therefore, I use something I call the Category. This category is based on what medium you are writing for. Later on, based upon this Category choice, a major distinction between the character development of the Hero and the Antagonist will be made depending upon that decision
However, there is one place where both the other instructors and I agree: a good story needs good structure. After trying a number of different methods, I settled on the hero's journey scheme, as descible by Joseph Campbell in his Hero of a Thousand faces. This structure system uses only 12 steps, but so well details the hero's journey though life that I've found it to be the best one. What I have done in StoryCraft, however, is five each of these stages a special content step, based on the Story Type template. Hence, in my Method the each step has content, rather than just presenting the writer with a list of steps with the injunction: "Now write."
But enough theory! Let's look at my Method in action. I will very briefly go over the highlights of Star Wars.
The First Stage in the Jarvis Method has nothing to do with any of the sophisticated stuff that comes later, however. For what we need first is a simple statement of what the story is going to be about. I call this the Story Concept, and in Star Wars it is simply:
Good triumphs over evil in a galactic war
Now comes the important Category selection. As this is film, our choice is naturally: Action (Note this choice has nothing to do with genre.)
Another initial choice is the Story Type. This comes from a list of plot templates I use in my StoryCraft software. The Story Concept dictates the choice of the Story Type template. Star Wars uses a template called Adventure, focus on locale.
This last - Story Type - is now detailed in what I call World Creation. This is simply six premise sections, the forst of which is:
1.The Ordinary World
This is generally the main charter's original home, as it is in Luke's case. I am skipping detail so the piece won't be longer than it is, but If you were writing this script, you would spend some time here describing the area, the living quarters, the environment, and anything necessary for the story.
Second, since it will comprise about 98% of our story, we need to spend a great deal of time (and about 10 pages of notes) detailing the
2.The Extraordinary World
Again, I am skipping space (no pun intended). However, in an actual story, you would probably have close to ten pages of notes about the place where the antagonist, the main character, etc. spend their time. (Make sure that every part of the area you plan to write about is covered here. In short, here (and in the other parts of world building, is where you write your story. And if good ideas don't come here, keep at it till they do.)
So, in one line, the Extraordinary World is the world where Luke finds the Death Star, Vader, Hans Solo, the Princess, and so on.
The time has come to build the hero. This should also take at least 10 pages of notes. Most good writers make 15 or so pages at this point.
3. The Hero
In the Jarvis Method, the Theme hero and the Action Hero are quite different. Since this is an Action story, we need to find the hero's super abilities and his arc. His super abilities are the Jedi capabilities that Luke will develop over the course of the three films.
The arc is a growth from innocence to wisdom -- typical of an Action story. In the second film of the series (The Empire Strikes Back) we are to see that Luke places ethics above all else (an ideal the eventually gets to Vader). The need is to save the Universe from evil (no less!) What makes this story work is the constant action and supernatural depth of the characters.
Helpers introduce a variation from the main plot. These characters should not receive anywhere near the notes you gave to the main hero.
4. Heroes Helpers
Han Solo is one of the main helpers (although Luke has many others. Not only R2D2, but Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, the Princess, her people, etc. In the last of this series, Han begins to emerge as the main character. Indeed, if we were using the Method for the last film, we would be spending much more time on him.
In sports or a chess game, the opponents must be evenly matched. So it must be with stories if they are to interest the reader or viewer. In short, you need to spend as much time on the Antagonist as on the hero.
Vadar, of course, who is a human manifestation of the real antagonist: The dark side of the Force:
As with the heroes helpers, the Antagonist's helpers should not be drawn with anywhere as much depth. However, since they are an obstacle the hero must overcome, they are slightly more important that the other helpers.
6. Antagonist Helpers
Here we have what are called in mythological teaching, the Gate Keeper and the Shape Changer (sometimes, Shape Shifter). The Death Star and the Emperor are the Gate Keepers, Princess Leia is the Shape Changer. (I know, I know, she's also among the hero helpers. In myth it is not unusual to find a women who serves both the dark and light forces.)
That's it! Except for the structure. And rather than trying to tell the picture, I will just outline the 12 Structure Steps, which I call Story Creation. Keep in mind, though, that if you were actually writing the story, you'd have a lot of notes for each step as well as (probably) some sample dialogue.
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