Amongst the ways you can divide fiction writers are the division between those who like to plan their stories out beforehand, and those who like to make things up as they go along.
George RR Martin, the writer of the Song of Ice and Fire books which have recently been turned into the excellent Game of Thrones television series, describes this division as being between Architects and Gardeners.
The Architect plans things out in detail before starting, while the Gardener enjoys waiting to see what things look like, then decide where things will go.
It’s easy to see Architect writing style as stiff and uncreative. I’ve read writers who’d probably describe themselves as Gardeners who say that a lot of the fun of writing is seeing where the story will take them.
But when I try to write in this style, I either regret the choices I take with the story, or end up spending ages setting up a relationship or describing the working environment, or introducing the hero and villain, with no solid idea of what they’ll come into conflict over.
I’d definitely describe myself as an Architect.
As a result, I’m fascinated by story structure. I’m sure there’ll be people who see structure as the death of creativity. I’m pretty confident there’ll be some big name screenwriters of the 70s and 80s who see the arguments put forward by Robert McKee and similar prescriptivists as being responsible for the lack of creativity in modern blockbusters. (The truth is, of course, that it’s entirely Michael Bay’s fault.)
The best way I know of to achieve this is a term I’ve only heard of in the last year, ‘breaking the story’.
In essence, you start with the story that you want to tell. That could be a story from your own childhood, something in the news that struck you as fascinating, or just a bunch of characters you want to play around with.
You then ‘break the story’ to get across the things you want to say, the jokes you want to tell, in the best possible way. Story structures, if they work, are rough rules for when things should happen.
I’ll start with a really basic story structure, which you’re probably already aware of – the three-act structure.
In basic terms, the first act is where characters are introduced and a conflict arises. In the second act, things get worse and tensions rise, and the third act is where the finale and ending occur.
That probably sounds really obvious – if you’ve ever seen a film, read a book, or told a joke, you basically know all that. But I just used a basic example to demonstrate that structure and creativity aren’t necessarily opposed.
Anyway, the point of all this, is that one thing I intend to do more of soon is to reverse engineer existing stories, look at how others have approached the idea of structure.
I’ll look at Blake Snyder’s 15-part Beat Sheet & Dan Harmon’s Circles soon, and others not long after.
I’ve done a little of this before (though not on the blog) and I find it both interesting and useful to look at how other writers have structured their stories. So if anyone else reading this wants to join in and link to their own reverse-engineered story plans I’d be interested to take a look.
When I first started this blog, one of my initial aims was to analyse, to look at films and television from an analytical point of view, to tear things apart and look at why they do, or don’t, work.
As part of the process, I’ve looked at a few pilots, in particular how they introduce the characters, to take some tips for my own script.
In particular, the opening scene of Friends is, in my opinion, excellent. I’m not going to look at the quality of the jokes (I think that analysing humour tends to kill whatever was funny about the line or situation, and besides, that’s not really what interests me here) but at the way the characters are introduced.
First of all, I’d recommend you take a look at the video below, as it really is quite funny:
0:00 – 0:28 The episode (and the series) opens by introducing Central Perk coffee shop first, introducing the setting before the characters, and the sign on the window establishes that this is a coffee house.
Four of the main cast are discussing Monica’s pathetic love life, Joey mocking her while being smooth, Chandler quipping, Phoebe talking sympathetically about her ex-boyfriend’s chalk addiction.
Four of the main characters are fundamentally introduced here – Monica is pretty defensive and has romantic troubles, Phoebe is open-hearted and mixes with slightly weird people, Joey and Chandler are being smooth and quippy respectively, and to an extent playing off each other. Bear in mind that this is within the first twenty eight seconds of a brand new programme, and the audience should have a decent sense of who 67% of the main characters are already. That’s pretty efficient story-telling.
I just want to slow down for a second, and look at what we know about these characters based on just this very brief opening section.
Joey is cool, laid back, though the leather jacket is perhaps slightly overstating his character, making him seem a little bit more like Tony Danza than the character Joey Tribbiani would become.
Phoebe has her hair in pigtails (a girlish look) and is genuinely slightly weird, in a way that’s amusing and intriguing, rather than ‘look at me’ wackiness.
Chandler is quippy, with a fast-paced delivery, and Monica is more emotionally open and honest than the other characters, more open to mockery than doing the mocking.
0:28 – 1:00 The scene cuts forward to later, still at the cafe. Chandler is now telling the story of his dream, which is recognisable but… goes off in a weird direction.
And, while I may be reading a bit too much into the scene here, it also touches on the empathy of the series. The core audience was always, as far as I’m aware, people in their mid-twenties – similar people to the characters – just living a more glamourous and exciting life. It’s a slightly cheap trick, but introducing something – anything – that the audience can identify with, will help to build a bond between viewer and character. Also, Chandler’s dream condition sounds quite painful.
1:00 Ross enters, on the verge of collapsing into tears. Upset at his wife having left him, he’s being miserable and self-hating – hatred driven internally, rather than outward.
Joey’s line – ‘This guy says hello, I want to kill myself’ – shows that this is a group of friends willing to make jokes about even the misery they’re going through, suggesting a strong friendship, with no solid boundaries betwee them.
Concentrating on Ross’ behaviour for a moment, it’s striking how different his behaviour is here to in the later years of the series. His reaction to being left by the woman who had pledged to spend the rest of her life with him, makes him understandably miserable, but he doesn’t seem too angry about it.
Imagine if he acted in a different way. Imagine, to pick a totally random example, his ex-girlfriend, who dumped him after he slept with another woman several years earlier, pointed out that this hurt her, and he responded by, out of nowhere, yelling at her about how technically what he did was okay, because technically they hadn’t been a couple for about six hours when he slept with the other woman.
You wouldn’t like that guy, would you? Of course not, that guy’s a jerk, to put it mildly. So unless you have really bad taste in friends, you’d be annoyed by someone with such poor self-control and lack of perspective.
Here though, Ross, though clearly unhappy, has driven his anger inwards, he’s reluctant to even admit he’s angry at his ex-wife, who’s left him for someone else. The Ross – Rachel plot was the central driving narrative in the first few years. With Ross as the main protagonist of the series, establishing him as sympathetic and likeable early on is pretty important.
1:30 Combining my earlier points about Phoebe and Ross, trying to cheer Ross up, Pheobe ‘cleanses his aura’. Ross is clearly annoyed by it, but doesn’t get too worked up.
Ross doesn’t seem the type to believe in spirituality, but even at his emotionally lowest doesn’t snap at her, plus it helps establish Phoebe’s slightly weird personality a bit further.
1:44 Joey: ‘And you never knew she was a lesbian?’ Ross: ‘Why does everyone fixate on that?’
First of all, it’s a really funny line.
I’m not totally aware of the state of gay acceptance in mid-nineties New York. (In my defence, I was a kid living 300 miles away.) But I’ve read references to Ellen’s ‘coming out’ episode as being a major landmark in gay culture, and that came in 1997, three years after this episode was aired. The idea plays up the metropolitan, colourful nature of New York, and, to an extent shows how nice a guy Ross is that this seems almost irrelevant to him. Though I’m not sure of the cultural context, it may have helped make the show seem edgy.
There were early plots centring around threesomes and being the other man in an open marriage. In the early years it was a little bit edgy, all things considered.
2:25 ‘I just want to be married again’, then Rachel shows up in a wedding dress. Chandler’s next line (‘And I just want a million dollars!’) shows his irreverence, and he’s mocking the show itself to an extent. I don’t want to get bogged down in how much the quality of the show dipped over time, but I’d say this acts as a sort of promise to the audience, that there’ll be big, interesting events happening in this and future episodes, but that the characters won’t take themselves too seriously.
2:50 Monica takes control when Rachel enters, introduces her to the other characters. This establishes that the two have the previous relationship, Monica’s position as the mother hen of the group, hammers home who the characters are (I don’t think Joey and Chandler were mentioned by name before this).
Having re-watched a few of the first few years of Friends in recent months, most of them in or just after the Tom Selleck era, I’ve started to realise how much Monica is the emotionally vulnerable mother hen of the group, the ‘heart’ of the story, so to speak. In the same way that Michael Bluth is the ‘normal’, relatable character in Arrested Development, surrounded by weirdos, I’d argue that Monica plays a similar role in the early years of Friends. If my memory’s accurate, this only goes as far as series 4 or 5, before the gang start to deviate from their ‘classic’ personas, and become less funny, less interesting characters, with their interesting and relatable quirks being replaced by melodrama and overacting. But in the early years, she is very much the mother hen, the characters who feels, and creates, the most empathy.
Over time she becomes an uptight weirdo, with an OCD problem that would concern Adrian Monk, and I’m not sure that Courtney Cox has ever been particularly funny. But, as much as the friends clearly care for each other, she goes further than the others in the early years in creating empathy. Ross, with his divorce and feelings for Rachel, is the central character plotwise in the first few years, but I’d argue that Monica is the emotional centre of the show.
3:10 Rachel tells her story – why she ran away from the wedding. She’s a bit scatterbrained in her explanation, but gives a good and compelling explanation of why she suddenly came to the realisation she couldn’t marry Barry.
She’s the last of the characters to be properly introduced, and as she’s coming into their lives, it makes sense to introduce the other five main characters – the status quo – first, and have Rachel’s introduction act as the inciting incident, the thing which shatters the status quo and spurs the story into action. As well as her own story, she has an impact on Monica (her old friend who invites her to share her flat) and Ross (who had an unrequited crush on her when younger). While these plotlines aren’t shown in the opening scene, she’s turned to Monica for help, and Ross is being supportive and helpful to her.
Looking in from a technical point of view, one of the things that surprised me was the quick cuts.
Rather than everything in the conversation following on in real time, the show cuts across the relevant points in a long conversation. This shows they’re happy to spend a significant portion of time just sitting around in each other’s company, and is more realistic than having the ‘big events’ happen one after another.
I don’t think that I’ve seen this used too often in other sitcoms (or even in Friends) but it’s an interesting device.
Chandler’s material is weird, embarassing, witty but self-effacing.
Joey’s is smooth, he’s stylish in control. His cool is never really undercut, whereas Chandler would find it nearly impossible to build up a sense of cool after what we see of him here. Joey’s also a bit indifferent – whereas Ross goofily and clumsily tries to be supportive to Rachel, Joey just sits there, and makes fun of his goofiness.
Rachel is moving at 100 miles an hour, bit of a scatterbrain, a bit self-involved and spoiled. There’s an episode in one of the later years when Phoebe discovers Rachel had a lesbian affair in college, and is surprised by it, as Rachel is ‘so vanilla’. Eventually she develops this way, but at first she’s definitely a slightly spoiled and emotionally stunted brat, and this is the start of a personal quest for her, a process of personal growth.
Ross is miserable, but drives his frustration and anger against himself (as he’s not yet developed the sub-Adam Sandler anger management problem he’ll have in later years). He doesn’t lash out at his friends – even when he’s clearly a little bit annoyed by Phoebe, he’s still quite nice about it. He wants to wish the woman who’s just broken his heart well, and is being caring towards Rachel (pouring sugar into her coffee) when she tells her story.
Phoebe in later years becomes more generic Hollywood zany girl, as if the writers are thinking up wild and wacky things for her to, rather than look to the root of the character. Here she’s quirky, off-beat, but in a way that feels like a real person.
Monica, I’d say, really only has one funny line where the comedy rests on her performance (rather than being mocked by others). I don’t know if she was originally envisioned as the ‘straight man’ of the group, but she feels like she works that way here.
When a television programme is as well made as Friends was at it’s peak, it’s tempting, even as someone who wants to imitate it’s greatness, to sit back and enjoy, without thinking about why I enjoy it. But, even without looking at the jokes, I think it’s interesting how quickly and how well the characters are introduced here.
Basically those are my thoughts about the opening of Friends.
I’d be interested in reading any further thoughts people have to offer, whether building on what I’ve said or tearing apart my interpretations.
The aim of this blog is to analyse, take apart, look at technical elements of stories – TV episodes, films, and so on, to look at the story, characters, jokes, look at what, in my opinion, works and doesn’t, and why.
I’m going to begin not by looking at any particular story element, but looking at one episode in particular, from whatever angles I can see.