In Part 1 of this three-part mini-series of articles on the Chinese art of writing without outlining, we looked into the core technique of such a method of storytelling – the crisis – Guanzi (關子). In today’s Part 2, we’ll dive deeper into more sophisticated techniques that make the method effective, flexible, and fun.
The Crisis Chain
You can think of any story structure simply as a series of crises. To tell a good story, all you have to do is create a crisis, resolve it, create the next, bigger crisis, resolve it – and so on. Don’t worry about the number of acts!
A story, organized using this method, is known as Guanzi Shu (關子书) – ”a crisis story”.
A screenplay can contain only a relatively small number of Guanzi (crisis situations) – usually under twenty for a feature film script, fewer than ten for a script for a one-hour TV drama episode, and maybe five or so for a thirty-minute sitcom.
So, you really don’t have to work too hard to compose a screenplay using this method!
(Theoretically, there doesn’t have to be any limit to how many crises you can string together – and, of course, a TV show that runs for many seasons can include a tremendous number of the unsolvable conflict scenes, which is why this method of writing is also referred to as Wuxian De Shu (无限的書) – “infinite story”.)
Countless Chinese films and TV shows display the characteristics indicating that their screenplays grew not from the externally imposed number of acts, but from the “DNA of the story” – the crisis. They don’t have to be as wild and implausible as our previous example.
A screenplay for a 1949 classic Chinese film “Crows and Sparrows” was a collective work of a roomful of screenwriters: Shen Fu, Lin Gu, Xu Tao, Chao Dan, and Zheng Junli, under the supervision of the lead screenwriter Chen Baichen. (The movie was directed by one of its co-writers, Zheng Junli.)
I can only imagine how much fun they all had, brainstorming the escalating series of crises that form the structure of that realistic, socially critical drama:
- Tenants of a small apartment building realize that their powerful, corrupt, bullying landlord, nicknamed “Monkey”, is about to sell their house – and they’re going to be evicted.
- Some years ago, “Monkey” usurped the ownership of the building from Old Kong, an elderly intellectual who still lives in one of the apartments. Now the tenants demand that Old Kong confronts “Monkey” and takes back his former property – but Old Kong refuses to fight: He doesn’t believe in justice anymore.
- Teacher Hua, a tenant living with his wife and little daughter Wei Wei, tries to arrange for an apartment on the school campus. The school principal offers him an excellent new place – but in return expects that Hua would spy on fellow teachers in the midst of political protests.
- “Monkey” offers his other tenants, Mr. and Mrs. Xiao, to buy the building from him. To achieve that, they use as collateral all their valuables, including a priceless item: a small bottle of miraculous American medicine known as “penicillin”. They take out a large loan from “Monkey”, speculate in gold, return the loan on time, use the gold as a deposit and take out a mortgage in a bank. (What can possibly go wrong?)
- “Monkey” tries to evict Old Kong, but the elderly tenant fights back: He has nowhere to go. “Monkey” then hires a gang of thugs to attack Old Kong, beat him, and trash his apartment.
- Teacher Hua, distrusted by colleagues and school management alike, refuses to be a spy. In retaliation, the school principal unfairly accuses Hua of being a ringleader of school protesters, and the teacher is arrested and thrown into jail.
- Mr. and Mrs. Xiao spend a sleepless night in a huge line to a bank so that they can buy gold, but get beaten and stomped by a frenzied crowd. On the next day, the price for gold skyrockets. Mr. and Mrs. Xiao miss the deadline and lose all their valuables to “Monkey”, including the priceless penicillin.
- Teacher Hua’s wife pleads with the well-connected “Monkey” to help free her husband, and “Monkey” agrees… but only if she spends a night with him.
- She refuses and rushes home – only to discover that daughter Wei Wei is mortally ill with pneumonia. The only thing that can save the girl’s life is a shot of penicillin – and the only place to get it on time is the secret drawer in “Monkey’s” apartment…
And so on, all the way to the glorious final confrontation and the triumph of the tenants over their evil landlord!
From One Crisis to the Next
Of course, you can’t create a story only from crisis situations. Some action needs to occur between them. How do you create that action?
Sometimes, you may work it out thinking backward from the crisis and asking a simple question: What caused it?
But usually, you just grow it from “a secret root” An Gen (安根) – remember, the choice, action, or event that solved the previous crisis? It will cause the next one!
Most typically, this doesn’t happen right away – there’s a dynamically developing, escalating process that precedes the next crisis – a lead-in to the crisis, a “pre-crisis build-up”, a path curving upward toward the situation of the clashing, equally powerful forces.
Quite appropriately, the Chinese term for this progressive phase is Shang Guanzi (上關子) – ”up to the crisis” or “a plank, a board, leading up to the crisis”. You can visualize it as a sort of a ramp that leads the audience upward, to the seemingly unsolvable conflicting situation.
Often there’s not one such ramp, but a series of smaller ramps, one leading to the next – a chain of actions, events, choices, and conflicting situations that all just keep bubbling up, snowballing toward the big clash of wills. There could be a few smaller or intermediary crises along the way, known as Xiao Guanzi (小關子) – a small crisis.
As you progress along this upward path, you may want to increase tension, foreshadowing the big oncoming crisis for the audience. To achieve this, you can remind your audience via small hints or clues what “secret root” is at the core of the inevitable new crisis. (In fact, the term An Gen – ”secret root” – also doubles as “a clue” – because a clue is simply a piece of info that reveals something about the “secret root”!)
When you do this, it’s as if you shine a light through the darkness of the future to make the crisis visible at a distance – not coincidentally, the Chinese term for foreshadowing is “forebrightening”: Liang Guanzi (亮關子) – ”brighten the crisis”.
There’s more: Not every crisis needs to be real! You can foreshadow a massive crisis, only to resolve it effortlessly and in a lighthearted or even humorous way, creating a powerful sense of relief! This is known as Xu Guanzi (虚關子) – ”false” or “empty” crisis. Mastery of this technique can make your storytelling much more exciting and unpredictable!
Sometimes if you want to build up extreme tension, you can stack several crises closely one on top of the other! This is known as Due Gong (堆功) – “a heap work”, a pile-up, or a stack. This technique can be used within a single scene, to pile up actions or events – or on a larger scale, to pile up several big crises close together – Due Gong Guanzi (堆功關子).
Finally, you may want to consider leaving some of the crises temporarily or permanently unresolved – and just abruptly switch to a different story thread or finish the entire story without resolution (this is particularly useful for TV because it brings people back to watch the next episode). In Hollywood, such unresolved crisis is known as “a cliffhanger”. Chinese storytelling has a cool term for this as well: Mai Guanzi (卖關子) – “sell the crisis” – which means, get the audience invested in the story and “want to pay good money” to find out what happens next.
The 2017 Wilson Yip movie “Paradox” (the Hong Kong answer to “Taken”) includes a quiet scene of a young woman taking a stroll along a seashore… when she’s suddenly attacked from behind by an unknown villain and chloroformed.
That’s terrible enough as a crisis, but the screenwriters, Jill Leung and Nick Cheuk, create something known as a “crisis flare” Guanzi Yaoban (關子耀斑)– they take a frightening scene, and then abruptly dial it up to make it truly nightmarish, as well as heartbreaking for the audience and characters.
The young woman wakes up in a dark basement, covered in blood head to toe. Having realized that something horrific happened to her, she emits an inaudible scream: “DADDY!”
Cut to her father, waking up and calmly going through his morning routine.
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Thank you for reading Part 2 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 third and final article in this mini-series, we’ll focus on techniques for managing the dramatic energy and creating contrast as a way to build screenplay form without outlining it.
Please stand by for the next article in the series!