In the Parts 1 and 2 of this three-part mini-series of articles on the Chinese art of writing screenplays without outlining them first, we looked into the core technique of such method of storytelling – the crisis – Guanzi (關子), and into creating an escalating chain of events. In today’s final Part 3, we’ll focus on techniques for working with dramatic energy and creating contrast as a way to build screenplay form without outlining it.
The Energy of the Crisis
The “crisis story” method offers many techniques for keeping the story fresh and interesting for the audience. One of them is energy-based.
A well-written crisis can be extreme – ”high-energy”. It may involve unbearable tension or violent action. But a scene can also be quiet, low-key, and still qualify as a bonafide crisis, because what’s really needed for creating the crisis is simply the parity of forces, locked in a temporary stalemate.
To reflect this flexibility in designing dramatic situations, Chinese storytelling distinguishes between “cold crisis” Leng Guanzi (冷關子) – a low-key, quiet, internal, indirect conflicting situation; ”hot crisis” Re Guanzi (热關子) – open, direct, violent, high-intensity, bombastic crisis – or anything in-between.
If used consistently throughout the story, these “energy levels” can define its style.
For example, an entire story could be quiet and low-key – and its style would be referred to as Leng Shu (冷书) – ”a cold story”.
Creating “cold stories” requires particular mastery from a storyteller, and is known to result in some extremely expressive screenplays. Jia Zhangke is a great master of “cold style”, and his 2006 movie “Good People of the Three Gorges” (三峡好人) could be considered a textbook example of “so-cold-that-it-burns” story, somewhere all the way down near zero Kelvin! Other great examples are “Oxhide” (牛皮) and “Oxhide II”, by Liu Jiayin - and “Days of Winter and Spring” (冬春的日子), A 2007 independent movie, written and directed by Wang Xiaoshuai.
Or an entire story could be a frenetic, loud, aggressive, overwhelming assault on senses – Re Shu (热书) – a “hot story”. Such movies as Lu Chuan’s 2009 war drama “Nanking! Nanking!” (南京! 南京!), Wu Jing’s 2017 actioner “Wolf Warrior II” (战狼2) and Dante Lam’s 2018 military propaganda piece “Operation Red Sea” (红海行动) are typical examples of “scorching-hot” filmmaking all through.
One of my all-time favorite war movies, the 2007 drama “Assembly” (集结号, written by Liu Heng and directed by Feng Xiaogang), has a very unusual form. It starts as the “hot” story and continues to “heat up” through its first half all the way to the middle… and then it “freezes over” and stays “ice-cold” through its entire second half. Feng Xiaogang later used a similar form in his 2010 disaster drama “Tangshan Earthquake” (唐山大地震, written by Su Xiaowei).
Mainstream stories usually find some balance between quiet, reserved drama and all-out open warfare, and the intensity of dramatic situations in them should generally increase from the beginning toward the end. So, in creating your story, you may want to consider progressing from the “coldest” crisis toward the “hottest” one – with a few opposites included in the right places, for proper dramatic balance.
Crisis and Contrast
To keep the audience engaged with our story, every now and then we should provide a diversion – some unfamiliar, emotionally, or stylistically different material. This has something to do with a universal storytelling problem – that of contrast.
Contrast is necessary: It propels the story forward and saves it from the most terrible fate – from being boring.
This is where Chinese storytelling school codified narrative techniques that can offer a screenwriter unparalleled creative flexibility!
Chinese storytellers never lose awareness that the story they are telling is not mundane “real life”, but a special experience. Many Chinese screenplays or stories in other genres and mediums depend on a carefully maintained balance in the audience’s mind between “suspension of disbelief” and awareness of the “event of narration”: being told a story as an artfully created, trance-like aesthetic adventure.
This gives even mainstream Chinese screenwriters the freedom to be daring in their ability to bring contrasting material into their screenplays, and create shocking juxtapositions and playful, clever narrative effects that wouldn’t feel out of place among the avant-garde experimentations of early Soviert filmmakers or the revolutionary auteurs of the French New Wave!
We already discussed how blending Chinese techniques with mainstream Hollywood story material can result in massively successful works of filmmaking, so using some of the tricks I’m about to describe can give your writing extra-sharp edge and make it a lot more fun.
First of all, you can switch between two or more storylines and create the effect known as Gong Dang (共檔) – literally ”common file” – multiple narrators, or multiple key characters, each responsible for their own point of view or story thread within the main story.
You can also alternate between styles. For example, you can tell parts of the story in the “common style” – a story of regular people with simple, ordinary problems, desires and motivations, living in ordinary circumstances, speaking and thinking in unremarkable, earthy, sometimes vulgar words. This style is known as Yuan Kou (圓口) – “round mouth”. You can juxtapose it against Fang Kou (方口) – ”square mouth”, or the “high style” – lofty, sophisticated, highbrow, dignified, filled with high ambitions, big visions, and deep insights.
(This is what Quentin Tarantino did in “Pulp Fiction”, when the character of Jules Winnfield switches from bantering about cheeseburgers to his speech about God’s vengeance.)
One of the great examples of such juxtaposition in screenwriting is a 2014 road movie “Happiness on the Road” (aka “Breakup Buddies”, written by a team of half a dozen screenwriters and directed by a great Chinese master of comedy Ning Hao). That movie has two converging storylines. In one of them, a heartbroken failed male pop singer and his sex-crazed buddy take a journey across China, picking up girls; in the other, a single young woman, obsessed with the songs from a forgotten failed pop singer, travels down the same road, seeking authentic connection with a soulmate... It’s one of the most memorable films I’ve seen, featuring one of the most profound and powerful twist endings ever! It’s as if Judd Apatow and Christopher Nolan got together and made a movie, in China.
You can also blend the two styles together in a story of “ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances” – Fang Yuan He Shen (方圓合身) – ”square and round in harmony” – which could be considered a third style of its own.
Sometimes one layer of a story can be lighthearted or comical, and the other terrifying or tragic. A great example of it can be found in a classic 1937 Chinese film “Street Angel” (馬路天使), written and directed by Yuan Muzhi.
You can also alternate between dramatically contrasting emotions and even create unusual “mood swings” and emotional whiplash effects.
But perhaps the most interesting way to achieve contrast is to abandon the main story altogether and start telling a totally different story!
You can switch from Zheng Shu (正書) – ”main book” or “main story” – to Shu Wai Shu (書外書) – ”book outside the book” or “external story”. That external story could be anything at all – unrelated to the main story – the only rule is that it should represent as much contrast to the main story as possible! You can keep telling the “external story” for ten, twenty – even thirty minutes! – before you come back to your main story. Sometime later, you can leave the main story again, and continue the external story wherever you left off – or switch to a new external story, drastically contrasting to both the main story and the first external story you were telling!
Or, instead of switching to a full-fledged external story for a prolonged period of time, you can briefly – for a minute, or a few seconds, or perhaps even a few milliseconds! – cut away to small pieces of contrasting material, known as Xiezi (屑子) – ”crumbs” or “snippets”.
Contrasting material could be as simple as a poem narrated in voiceover, a song, or a dance number, suddenly included in the middle of what otherwise may be the most unmusical and mundane story. This technique is deeply rooted in Chinese drama – and is used today even in gritty, naturalistic, socially critical films by China’s most radical anti-establishment rebel filmmakers, such as Jia Zhangke, who so far hasn’t directed a single movie (even documentaries!) without singing, dancing or Beijing Opera featured prominently in it.
Contrasting material – such as “book outside the book” – can even be used to begin the overall story! You can start with a prologue that doesn’t have anything to do with the main story material – except maybe its theme. (And yes, you can do the same for the ending of the movie, too.)
Ideally, the material of your “external stories” should be wildly contrasting to the main story, but it should still be connected to it thematically. A good example of this can be found in Wong Kar-Wai’s romantic drama “2046”. That film has four storylines (here’s that number again!) – three of them interweave to form the main story: a moody romantic tale of loss and alienation, taking place in the 1960s. But there’s also an external story – a science fiction tale of a man in love with a robot, set in a dystopian future!
[The Worst Conflict! The Top Tip of How to Create a Good Story]
The coolest part about using the material extraneous to the story is that by juxtaposing the unconnected, contrasting stories, you can deepen and enrich the subject matter of your story – possibly creating new, deeper meaning. The bigger the clash between the contrasting stories, the more in conflict they are – the deeper can be the new meaning they create.
If two stories deliver dramatically opposing views of reality, their juxtaposition becomes a situation of “the unstoppable force vs the immovable object” – “the spear vs. the shield” – in other words, a crisis!
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This article concludes the three-part mini-series of articles about the Chinese “no-act” approach to screenplay structure, known as Guanzi Shu (關子书).
But our overarching series of articles, “Screenwriting Kung Fu”, will continue exploring Chinese methods for structuring screenplays and dramatic scenes and sequences, and will further review the exotic and refreshing principles of Chinese screenwriting, which can be effectively merged with the familiar Hollywood-style storytelling, to create fascinating new screenwriting styles and voices with global box office appeal.
Please stand by for the next article in the series!