Why follow conventions?

It’s a question that many of us struggle with anytime traditional narrative structure is brought up, with it’s 3-act structure and goal-oriented protagoniots.

but these questions also come to mind:

  • why deviate from what works? (are your motivations economic or artistic)
  • what causes this model to “work” (is it ground-up or top down?)
  • is this model just an arbitrary framework in which to place films? (aka “When you have a hammer…”)

I believe alternatives to the norm force the audience to engage the material in a very different manner and therefore demand some sort of intellectual investment/concentration, and I understand that a lot of people aren’t necessarily looking for that level of cognitive commitment in their entertainment. However, when creating/analyzing narratives, you have to walk before you can run, and the traditional 3-act structure with all its elements is as good a place as any to start. You have to know the norm before you defy it, should you choose to at all. The beginning, middle, and end of the three-act structure seems inherent in everything we engage in (be it relationships, life, or an event), and the existence of a goal-oriented protagonist and clear opposition creates entertaining tension and suspense. This seems to work for the majority of films, and if you’re looking at filmmaking from a economic perspective, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

In our readings concerning some alternatives to goal-driven protagonists, including ambivalent protagonists, passive protagonists, and shifting protagonists, we are told that these exceptions usually lead to less-traditional drama, which in turn leads to different modes of storytelling. Passive characters avoid problems and retreat from opposition; therefore, the story becomes more focused on situation than character and action.

I agree that ubiquitous character growth is pretty contrived, but fundamental drama is caused by conflict and opposing forces…without a strong goal-oriented protagonist, the story seems stagnant and sometimes melancholy…sort of how real life can feel sometimes. Characters with repressed emotions, ambivalent feelings, and passive coping strategies like those outlined in the reading feel more real than the melodramatic cookie-cutter performances that audiences have come to expect.


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