Assignment One - Essay on analytical narrative structure
My choice: Touching the Void
Touching the Void – Kevin McDonald
The opening sequence really attracts the audience, the first thing we see is a black screen, with white writing on the left side, outlining facts and figures about the mountain and the journey, this actively involves the audience. Following this we have a slow-paced, visually exciting sequence of the Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes, there are lots of establishing shots of the mountains and characters. This is anchored to sound, which has been amplified, to create strong sound effects echoing through reconstructions of the journey. We cut between this and the silent interviews with the main characters, the editing emphasizes important phrases which are clues to what is to come in the story; “…at some point you have to reply wholly on your climbing partner…”.
Field states that the beginning of a screenplay needs to establish three things “the character...the dramatic (or comedic) premise…and the situation” (Syd Field, 2005, pg. 100). With this in mind the opening hook of Touching the Void does everything it should; the story is well established, we know the goal of the characters, we know the conditions they will need to overcome and there is a dramatic presence which drags the viewer in.
“Endings and beginnings: two sides of the same coin.” (Syd Field, 2005. p104)
This is true in Touching the Void as we have a bookended story; we end the story exactly the way we started, with the three characters and their belongings at base camp, cutting to the same black screens.
Touching the Void adheres closely to the three-act structure outlined by Field. There is a clear separation of the three acts created by the storyline, plot-points and the editing. The act breaks follow the timings that Field outlines, with act one ending at thirty minutes, act two ending at sixty-seven minutes and resolution at one hundred minutes. As discussed the opening act fulfills its purpose, and the second act does not fail to do the same. Field states that in act two the main character “encounters obstacle after obstacle that keeps them from achieving their dramatic need” (Syd Field, 2005, pg. 201) and this is exactly what the audience sees.
On further investigation, you can also translate Touching the Void to Vogler’s version of the three-act structure. In act one the characters have a call to action, in act two-A they take the call to action, they have the ordeal and obstacles in act two-B and finally in act-three both characters make their way to the resolution, where they go through a process of metamorphosis.
The story is further supported by the inverted triangle approach, where the writer starts with a lot of information about the journey and the characters and then slowly drip feeds more information as the story develops (for example, Joe’s stubborn and pragmatic personality).
A plot point is described to be “any incident, episode, or event that hooks into the action and spins it around in another direction.” (Syd Field, 2005, p 143). As Field describes, Touching the Void has plot point one and plot point two; the two key plot points that hold any narrative in place. Both plot points occur exactly when the paradigm outlines they should, PP1 lands almost dead on the thirty-minute mark, just before the end of act one, Simon cuts the rope suspending Joe and he falls, it’s this specific moment that sets the screenplay on its way. PP2 comes in the fifty-ninth minute; Joe is in despair, he is stuck down a deep crevasse, he takes a chance and lowers himself deeper into the unknown where he finds his way out. The story changes yet again.
Also following Syd Field’s theory, the bulk of exciting plot points happen in act two. Every plot point shows the emotional and physical aspects that are slowly disintegrating our characters; examples include Joe breaking his leg and Joe’s deliria.
Touching the Void has very little in the way of traditional character set up, it’s almost like all Field’s theory work (the three P’s and the Coffee Cup analogies) have been thrown out the window. The writer does not tell us much about the backstory or the interior/exterior life of the characters, this is possibly because the characters are not created and the characters tell the story.
“Events in a screenplay are specifically designed to bring out the truth about the characters” (Syd Fields, 2005, pg. 44).
This is very true of this screenplay, we always have the need of the characters. Their need to climb the mountain – and later the need to survive - tests them and brings out the truth in their characters. Touching the Void is fantastic at telling us facts about the characters at pivotal parts of the screenplay – for example Joe’s pragmatic nature.
We meet Joe, the main character, closely linked with Simon, his climbing companion. We learn about the pair mainly from the “third-wheel” Richard. We learn quickly that Joe is 25 and Simon is 21, they are both incredibly young, self-claimed ambitious, remarking that climbing makes them feel “alive”. Richard speaks of how he had a great bond with Simon but not so much with Joe. This causes the audience to wonder if Joe is an unpleasant person, which is thought provoking as later we learn that Simon is the character who feels no guilt and seems emotionless.
Dramatic tension in this piece is pinnacle to its success; the use of music is excellent, it depicts the emotion to the audience, from somber slow music, to happy and uplifting. The use of the handheld camera work is also extremely successful, it really gives the audience a sense of being there with the characters. Dramatic tension is also created by the use of shots; at the start of the story the shots are very wide, but as things become tense, the shots are very close, particularly in the character interviews. This level of extreme-close-up allows us to see the true character emotions. Further to this the use of dramatic irony works well, as the audience feel they are ahead of the climbers. The dramatic tension is mainly created by the use of sound effects, in times of struggle and loneliness the sound is amplified.
In conclusion Touching the Void is seemingly enhanced by Field’s suggestions for successful narrative, but in some ways it takes on its own style. This is also true when comparing the documentary to its genre conventions. For example Touching the Void uses the traditional handheld camera work, the simple fade to black and straight cuts in the editing, but uses the non-traditional “character narration” which makes the documentary less stereotypical and slightly different. This narration style enhances the tone of the piece, as you feel with the character.
Field, Syd (1984-2005). Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting. Westminster, MD, USA: Dell Publishing, 2005.