To fully appreciate the great flexibility of Chinese story forms, we should acknowledge a type of creative method – and indeed, of creative personality – very common among professional screenwriters.
Thinking in terms of the number of acts is not the only way, and perhaps not even the best way, to approach the problem of structuring a story.
Knowing in advance how many acts a story will have can be creatively limiting: The number of acts dictates the placement of turning points, the distribution of the types of story material, the timing for introduction of characters, the pacing of main conflict – all of that is predefined before you even start to sketch the story!
No wonder that many screenwriters claim that knowing the structure in advance can result in cookie-cutter storytelling!
Such great and diverse film storytellers as Charlie Kaufman, Guillermo Arriaga, James Mangold, and the Coen brothers, among many others, at different times asserted that fitting a story into a set number of acts is of no interest to them, and a screenplay would feel dead if they knew in advance what must happen in it, and when.
Chinese storytelling tradition offers this category of screenwriters a great array of simple, effective tools.
This way of thinking about the story is centered around a fundamental dramatic concept: A crisis.
A crisis is a situation of seemingly unsolvable conflict.
One of the greatest examples of a crisis comes from an ancient Chinese philosophical book Han Feizi (韓非子), written in the 3rd century BC. That book includes a story of an arms merchant who was selling a spear and a shield. Describing the spear to prospective buyers, the merchant claimed that it could pierce any shield; describing the shield, he swore that it can stop any spear. When somebody asked what would happen if his undefeatable spear hit his impenetrable shield, the merchant grew silent…
This became known as Maodun (矛盾, literally “spear-shield”) – the Chinese word for “contradiction”. Its western analogue is a well-known paradox: “What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?”.
A crisis, that’s what happens! It’s powered by stakes – Du Zhu (赌注): The “why” behind the unstoppable force or immovable object, or both. The clash of will can’t be over nothing – it must be a matter of life and death, or even beyond!
When something extreme is at stake, the conflicting parties in the crisis are whipped into a frenzy and will never each other tooth and nail, not giving an inch.
The purpose of the method is to keep the audience in the state of fluctuating tension – masterfully raising and lowering it, but never relaxing it too much – until in the culmination the tension can be dialed up to “beyond unbearable”!
Building from the millennia-old tradition of crisis-based storytelling, contemporary Chinese screenwriters elevate the art of designing a dramatic crisis to cosmic heights, achieving virtually acrobatic mastery of the form, far greater than anything their Hollywood colleagues can envision.
Sha Po Lang II (殺破狼2), a 2015 Hong Kong film written by Wong Ying and Jill Leung and directed by Cheang Pou-soi, is a high-octane action movie, primarily concerned with the problem of Fate.
During the climax of that film, two enemies-turned-friends, Hero A and Hero B, wage an epic kung fu battle on the top floor of a skyscraper against a vicious, super-athletic Villain – until they arrive at the following masterfully executed crisis:
- The Villain mortally stabs Hero A and then throws Hero B (and the plausibility) out of a skyscraper window.
- The mortally wounded Hero A suddenly comes back to life, rushes at the Villain, and pushes him out of the window next. Both Hero B and the Villain are now falling to their death!
- The dying Hero A throws a metal chain to the falling Hero B – but the Villain grabs the end of the chain instead, while Hero B continues to fall.
- However, in the last millisecond, Hero B manages to grab the Villain’s necktie.
- The dying Hero A holds one end of the chain, and the Villain holds the other. Hero B is holding on to the Villain's necktie for dear life, hanging below.
- Hero A at the top is bleeding to death, fading away and losing his grip on the top end of the chain.
- The Villain is suffocating on his necktie, pulled by the weight of Hero B. The Villain is also fading away, and his hand holding the bottom end of the chain begins to go slack.
- The hand of Hero B is slipping off the necktie, which starts to tear.
- But Hero B must not die, because he is the only bone marrow available for the dying Hero A’s terminally ill daughter.
- So, the dying Hero A at the top musters up all his remaining strength, leans all the way out of the window, grabs the wrist of the suffocating Villain, and begins to pull, trying to get the Villain and Hero B back to the top.
- In the meantime, Hero A’s daughter, having escaped from the hospital, is alone at night in the middle of a wildlife park... and a hungry wolf is stalking her.
(All of this is accompanied by the divine sounds of Mozart’s “Requiem”!)
How’s that for a crisis?
Unstoppable force: Earth gravity and Death itself. Try stopping that! Immovable object: Hero A – stubbornly refusing to die and let go of the chain until he saves his daughter’s savior.
The Villain is in crisis, too, because he got between a rock and a hard place – Death and Life itself. We care for the Villain because of what a cool fighter he is. Somebody who can do kung fu so well can’t be all bad!
But the real stakes here are the lives of Hero B and, more importantly, of Hero A’s little daughter.
Implausible? Over-the-top? Perhaps. Entertaining? Awesome? You bet!
Would you like to learn how to write cool scenes like that?
The Machinery of the Crisis
The techniques of crisis design, used in Sha Po Lang movie series and innumerable other films, can be traced to the uniquely Chinese form of storytelling known as Shuo Shu (說書) – the term that can be translated as “storyspeaking” – a public daily narration of stories from a stage over a course of many weeks or months by a single storyteller.
This beloved tradition is alive and active today, even though it existed since the dawn of Chinese civilization. For centuries, it’s been passed in close families or guilds from master to apprentice – but in contemporary China, professional entertainers study it in colleges.
This creative medium influenced every genre of contemporary Chinese storytelling, including the immensely popular Chinese radio drama – and, of course, screenwriting.
A traditional Chinese term for a dramatic crisis is Guanzi (關子) – a slightly archaic word that means something like “a stop”, “a shut-off” or – “a barrier”.
That’s a profoundly meaningful term because a great way to grasp the concept of the dramatic crisis is to think of it as a barrier – an insurmountable obstruction, a point of maximum resistance, which must, however, be overcome in order for the next story phase to occur.
Overcoming such barriers is “the impossible task” of drama, and it doesn’t come “free of charge”: It may be achieved either through some form of sacrifice or loss – or by miracle.
One of such miracles may be the outside help, received unexpectedly from another character.
Another miracle is the help that the character finds inside – a character in the impossible situation discovers and connects to previously hidden additional resources of power within self.
Either one of the parties in the conflict, or an external force, must find a way to upset the balance because a crisis must find a resolution. In the words of Frank Sinatra, “Something’s gotta give”.
And then what?
What happens next is the very reason for telling a story: When the crisis is resolved, we behold the Truth.
If the unstoppable force moves the immovable object, it means it was not immovable, after all! Or, if the object doesn’t move – it means the force was not really unstoppable, because the immovable object stopped it.
Either the shield or the spear will inevitably turn out to be stronger… unless we also take into account their owners’ mastery of kung fu.
A crisis finds resolution in Shengli Shibai (勝利失敗) – a “victory-defeat” situation: Somebody wins, and somebody loses. That’s how it works.
Remember that it doesn’t have to be your protagonist who always wins in your story! The antagonist can – and must! – win at least as often.
In either case, once the crisis is resolved, there’s no turning back – the resolution of the crisis irreversibly changes what the audience holds true about the characters – either permanently, or at least until the new truth is proven false during the next crisis.
This moment of leaving behind the old thinking about the characters as a result of the resolution of a crisis is known as Xia Guanzi (下關子) – “down-crisis”, or ”downward from the crisis”.
This term reflects the emotional implication of this phase – it eases the conflict, releases the tension, and “relaxes” the story. It’s a “cool-down” after-crisis phase.
But there’s also a very important secret you should know about the action that has resolved the crisis: If the story is to continue, most typically the thing that solved the crisis contains in itself the seed of the next, even stronger crisis!
(For example, a character may take a heroic action and win a battle… but the honors he receives fill him with arrogance, and that arrogance causes much greater trouble down the road.)
This is known as An Gen (安根) – a term that can be interpreted as “a quiet root”, “a safe root” – or, with a little imagination – “a secret root”.
So, the seed of the new conflict takes root – and blossoms into a series of events that will lead to the next “unsolvable” conflicting situation: a new crisis.
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Thank you for reading Part 1 of the three-part mini-series of articles about the Chinese “no-act” approach to screenplay structure, known as Guanzi Shu (關子书). I hope you found it useful.
In the second and third parts, we’ll continue reviewing the techniques of Guanzi Shu, and will study the art of creating escalating chains of events without outlining them first. We’ll also talk about the internal and external Chinese storytelling styles, and the way to build the form through creating contrast.
Please stand by for the next article on Chinese screenwriting techniques in the Screenwriting Kung Fu series!
Learn more about story structure in our SU course, Powerful Endings to Hook Your Reader