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Guest Post | Author Edward Eaton digs into the essence of storytelling #guestpost #literaryfantasy #writing


I love writing. I consider myself to be more of a storyteller, though, than a specifically or exclusively a writer. When I direct or stage fights, I am telling stories visually. When I teach, I am telling stories performatively and aurally. When I write, I am telling stories verbally (or, literarily, if you prefer). Whatever medium I am practicing, I follow, use, and play with patterns. That is the leap-off point for my guest essay.


Freytag and the Problem with Return of the Jedi.


Patterns. Storytelling succeeds or fails often because of the patterns they follow. Aristotle knew this, as did Horace and just about any literary theorist since the classical period. Fans of fantasy and science fiction love to talk about Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey”. Screenwriters are often told to look at the three-act structure, popularized by Sid Field (but first put down by Scribe and Sardou). I prefer the five-act structure, AKA Freytag’s Pyramid of Dramatic Structure. This was Shakespeare’s structure, and if it is good enough for the most important poet and playwright in the English language (and arguably in the world), I suspect it should be good enough for me. BTW, I rather uncharitably figure that filmmakers prefer the three-act structure because they have problems counting higher than that—as someone with a Theatre background (I have a Ph.D. in Theatre History and Literature), I can, at least, count to five. 🙂 🙂


In short, the five-act structure goes something like this:


Act 1   focuses on setup and exposition and gets the characters in position for the Inciting Incident (the moment that actually gets the story going.


Act 2   the Rising Action, where the story gets going


Act 3   the events surrounding the Midpoint Crisis (turning point/twist)


Act 4   the Falling Action - things start tumbling out of control, leading to the inevitable


Act 5   The climax and the denouement


The different acts are mere pieces that are carefully put together to create a unified whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.


Yes, this is an oversimplification. If you’d like a more in-depth analysis of the structure, check out Lessons with Dr. Ted - Plot Structure (Modern).


I have taught literature for decades, and have come to realize that not only works of Theatre, Film, and Television (three art forms closely related to each other) but other forms of narrative storytelling (such as literature), fit the model as well. Simply put, if you slap the text of most novels onto this model, they fit without too much wiggling. Moreover, understanding how these parts work together can go a long way in helping readers or audience members understand the works better. For example, even a fairly cursory look at the structure of The Great Gatsby shows that the story is about Nick and Gatsby’s relationship—Daisy is clearly (structurally) a complication.


Sometimes, an understanding of the structure can help us understand why we might have issues with a certain piece. (NB, I am not saying that works of literature, theatre, or film have to follow the model, I am simply recognizing that they tend to, and if they do not, that might explain a lot).


Some of my favorite movies are the Star Wars films. Specifically, I love the good ones (AKA, the OT). However, I have always had a bit of a problem with The Return of the Jedi. Mind you, I like the film, but there is something off about it. A few years ago, as I was prepping for some classes, it struck me what was wrong: structurally, the film is flawed. It does not follow the five-act structure. It is not even close.


Star Wars (the film some people call A New Hope, even though most people know that it was originally called Star Wars) fits the model almost perfectly. The film is 120 minutes long. Act 1, which ends when R2D2 goes missing is 26 minutes long. Act 2 is 21 minutes long. Act 3 (Mos Eisley) is from 48-72, or 24 minutes long. The Midp[oint crisis is when the ship exits hyperspace: this movie is no longer about getting Ben to Alderaan; it is now a rescue). Act four is the rescue at 26 minutes, and The Attack on the Death Star and all that (Act 5) is from 98 to 120 (22 minutes). That’s pretty nicely balanced. All the parts work together to create a well-oiled cinematic machine.


Empire follows a similar structure at 24 minutes (wandering around Hoth); 24 minutes (The Battle of Hoth and the escape); 30 minutes (Luke on Dagoba, Han Solo and company escape from the Imperial Fleet—Luke goes into the dark-side cave at 63); Act 4 is a little on the short side at 19 minutes and ends with Han being put into the Carbonite; Act 5 is the escape from Cloud City and the Luke Vader fight. Again, a nicely balanced, well-oiled machine.


Jedi, though, does not really work as well. The film is 128 minutes long. One-fifth of the way through (25 minutes and change) is the top of the Sarlacc/Luke scene. There is no way to claim that is the Inciting Incident. The Sarlacc scene ends at minute 37—too long to be Act 1 using the Classical Structure and too short to be Act 1 in Sid Field’s structure.


However, if we consider the movie to start at minute 37/38, the 90-minute film divides quite nicely into roughly 18-minute acts with all the right beats in all the right places. It is the story of the Rebels attacking a new Death Star and Luke confronting Vader. Act 1 goes through the use of the Imperial Code (18 minutes); Act 2, through C3PO becoming a god and freeing his friends (19 minutes); Act 3, through the failed attack on the generator and the revelation of the Emperor’s plan (17 minutes); Act 4, from “It’s a trap!” though to the destruction of the shield generator (21 minutes); and Act 5 (14 minutes).


What of the Han-Solo’s Rescue? Essentially, it is a 37-minute cold open. While it is a fun sequence, it serves no structural purpose. Sure, we get to see Han rescued, but there is no tie-in to the rest of the film. Indeed, we need to stop, readjust, and restart with a new round of exposition and set-up. There is no moment in the sequence that can even remotely serve as an Inciting Incident for the rest of the film. It has its own beginning, middle, and end. To be fair, it is important that Han Solo be rescued, but the issue is the lack of a logical continuity.


This is not to say that Jedi is a bad movie. It is not. Of the 9 main Star Wars movies, it ranks third or fourth—it is perfectly acceptable, even if wrong, to prefer Sith to Jedi (just as it is perfectly acceptable, especially since it is right, to prefer the Sith Lords to the Jedi Knights—especially if you realize that both Jar-Jar and Obi-Wan are indisputably Sith Lords). However, Jedi is certainly not on par with Star Wars and Empire, the two reasons anybody really cares about the entire Star-Wars universe.


Nor is this to suggest that the structure of the film is its only problem. The second Death Star is lazy writing; the droids are tiresome; the Ewoks, annoying; Luke and Leia being brother and sister, creepy; and Darth Vader’s redemption, contrived. However, we have accepted a lot of nonsense in the Star-Wars universe: the Force itself is sort of a silly concept that is painfully inconsistent in the movies and television shows; two Death Stars and a Death Planet; the complete lack of any awareness of distance in the galaxy; I could go on. When a film feels wrong, often it is a question of how the piece has been put together rather than anything else. As William Goldman writes in Adventures in the Screen Trade, "Screenplays are structure."


Although the structure of prose writing is not as strict, most books that stand the test of time do reflect the classical structure. The geographical one-fifth of The Lord of the Rings is when Frodo awakens in Rivendale—the actual beginning of the “Fellowship.” The geographical middle is the scene between Gandalf and Theoden, which happens on the same day Sam and Frodo end their journey across the Marshes and Pippin and Merry see the ents destroy Orthanc. It gets really complicated when the story follows, three, and later four, paths. However, I will say that Tolkien was a professor of literature and understood structure better than most. I do find it that when I do take some issue with an otherwise well-written and intriguing book it is often a case of there being a problem with the structure. One of my favorite books is Dracula. However, when I reread it, I inevitably skim or skip the section of Harker in Transylvania. A few years ago, I took the novel apart structurally. Once the Transylvania section is done, the book goes through a hard reset. The structure is more compelling if we treat the story as starting in Whitby rather than slogging along with Harker through the Carpathian Mountains. The pertinent information in Harker’s Journal could be handled easily as a ten-page information dump someplace after Mina meets with Van Helsing. Indeed, the book would be scarier if we didn’t already know that Dracula was the monster.


Looking at a piece of narrative storytelling through the lens of its structure is also one of the few, well, objective, ways of judging the artistic value of a piece. We know that awards are only valid if they agree with how we would vote. If money is the standard, then Twilight and the Fifty Shades series would be two of the greatest works of literature and cinema in the last twenty-five years. Structure, though, is math. Painters and Sculptors are often judged by their use of proportion, ratio (specifically, the Golden Ratio, in many cases), and perspective. Why not writers and directors?


Title An Empty God

Author Edward Eaton

Genre  Literary Fantasy

Publisher Dragonfly Publishing, Inc.


Book Blurb


Dravpruk reigns over his lands, carving out seas, shaping mountain ranges, dallying with nymphs and satyrs, and sometimes chasing off giants or hunting trolls.


It is good to be a god.


When the first humans spread across his lands, Dravpruk's life becomes complicated. Does he antagonize the other gods by making war against these primitive creatures? Or should he try to understand humans? How does a young god survive with so many obstacles in his path?




Chapter I



            I am.


            I am a God.


            That much I can say.


            That much I know.


            That much I remember.


            I have forgotten much more than I could ever remember.


            I have forgotten most of my past, though I still have some vivid memories, mental pictures, of my existence so far. Vivid memories but hazy around the edges. There is an order to them, though understanding the order of  a God’s memories is much like understanding the order that leaves fall from a tree. There might be a meaning in it, a pattern to it, but there are so many leaves on any given tree that even Gods would not bother trying to figure out the reason they fall as they do.


            I am young. I am old. I am older than mountains. I am older than some stars, for I saw many born in the heavens, popping into existence as new pricks of white in a black vacuum. I am certainly younger than some stars, for I was able to watch some of my celestial companions, that were likely old when I came into existence, fizzle and die—or flare out in death as great supernovae. I am older than most seas and younger than the great oceans. I suppose I am younger than many Gods—there were wila and satyrs in my infancy, so there must have been gods before me to have created them.


            I have had many children. Children I have fathered, and children I have borne. 


            Some of them I knew. Some I did not. 


            Some of them were Gods. 




            ...were not. 


            Those that might have been Gods are all gone now, or, at least, as far as I know, they are. 

            They are gone, as are most of my kind: overrun by civilizations; destroyed by other Gods; slain by giants or other fell beasts who dare to rise up against Gods; killed by happenstance; devoured by time; simply wasted and withered by inaction, lethargy, or, in some cases, indifference; or…well, I’ve known enough talers to know I should not tell the end of my story before I start.


            If my divine children are not dead by now, they might as well be. The Age of Gods has ended.


            Most of my children were mortal. At least, as far as I can remember. They are certainly dead by now.


            Some of them are part of my story and of my memories. 


            Most are not. 


            One problem with immortality is that events, seemingly significant at the time, are diminished, subsumed, or forgotten. I might well have loved my children. Some of them. Most of them, for all I know. Perhaps I raised them and praised them and nurtured them and guided them. It is also possible that we ended in strife and violence. I am sure I loved some of them some of the time and hated some of them some of the time. That is the nature of parenting among men and wila and satyrs and beasts under the Sun or under the seas. It is also the nature of parenting among Gods. If there is any aspect of parenting the divine have excelled at over man and beast is the ability to fail abjectly. When a parent falls out with a child, the family might be torn apart. Perhaps in the cases of kings and lords, wars might be fought and nations brought down. If a God and his Godspawn fall out, entire species might be wiped out or civilizations laid waste. As you will see, I have, in my fury, rained destruction down on my lands and creatures. Perhaps I have done it many times. It is possible that at some point I did so in conflict with a child or even a parent.


            I do not remember.


            Sometimes, I feel the need to remember, but I cannot remember what I need to remember. 


            I have forgotten.


            Whatever relationships I had were brief in relation to the length of my life.

            Children grow. If they are Gods, they leave. If they are mortal, they die. Friendships cannot last. If a friend is a God, eventually one of us will get tired and restless. It may take an eon, but one of us will leave. If friends are mortal, they die. Perhaps worse: they age and wither. There is no joy or beauty in infirmity and frailty.




            I have loved many times, though few loves remain in my memory. The pleasures of divine love might well last an age, but what is one age among countless? Even less can I retain the love of a mortal, who must age and die in the fraction of a blink of an eye. I may have loved with the ardor and brilliance of a thousand thousand stars, but passion wanes and makes way for new passions, new ardors, which in turn fade and make way for others. 


            Each love, each passion, as overwhelming and all-consuming as the last. 


            Each love, each passion, unique. 


            Each love, each passion, indistinguishable from the others, forgotten. Gone. Naught.


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Author Biography


In addition to being a writer, Edward Eaton is a stage director and fight choreographer who has worked extensively in the Boston area, regionally, and overseas. He has taught classes and workshops at a number of schools, including Harvard, MIT, and Brown. Currently, he calls MassBay Community College his teaching home, where he takes on classes in English, Literature, Critical Thinking, and Philosophy. As a writer, he is responsible for a number of works including the award-winning Rosi’s Doors series, the Greek verse duology of Hector and Achilles and Giants Fall, and other works. He has also published extensively as an essayist, a journalistic, a theatre and film critic, and a scholar. He lives in the Boston area with his wife, Silviya, and his son, Christopher—when he bothers to come home from college.


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1 Comment

N. N. Light
N. N. Light
May 21

Thank you for the insightful guest post!

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