The Secret

While you were out celebrating New Year’s Eve, I was watching David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ on DVD. Not that I’m such a pathetic hermit; it was just my wife’s fun idea of closing the Old Year. She admitted afterwards she might have been wrong. Missing the Sydney Fireworks and all that.

Meanwhile, the Story Dept. has entered its third calendar year, offering workshops, one-on-one consultancy PLUS a Premium Version of this blog, exclusive to clients and
subscribers. The Hero’s Journey continues, the obsession grows.


eXistenZeXistenZ, named after a fictitious virtual reality video game, was released around the same time as THE MATRIX; the timing having been an excuse for its poor performance. I was surprised to see Roger Ebert’s review not really giving us any critical assessment of the film; all he says is:“eXistenZ’ is likely to appeal especially to computer game players”. He probably means: “It sucked but I don’t know why.”

The film remains original and entertaining but I believe the end holds a crucial mistake as it turns out our heroes have been keeping a secret from us. This goes directly against a key principle of writing for the screen: a protagonist must share with us their knowledge and emotions.

In the Premium Edition (see also below) I will look at a few more examples of heroes who are ruining box office prospects by withholding information or being unreliable for other reasons.

When I asked one of my most loyal clients for a testimonial, he refused. I was baffled. “Karel,” he said, “if you knew where the gold was buried, would you go and tell everyone?” At first I thought that was a lame excuse, but then I had no reason NOT to believe him. He is a film industry professional who always puts his money where his mouth is. He is continuing our collaboration throughout 2008. But I’m not allowed to tell anybody.

My Unknown Client says about the story theory I’m teaching and applying during my consultancies “it’s the film industry’s best kept secret.” In many ways, he is right. Despite the title of Robert McKee’s bestselling screenwriting manual ‘STORY’, he only dedicates a relatively brief section to the principles of story structure. Many screenwriting manuals do mention the three-act structure but forget to explain why it works and why it is successful. Without a proper foundation, the 3-act structure remains dead theory.

Some people say Australian film schools are gravely deficient in the area of structure and if I am to believe my clients, many AWG script assessors tend to barely brush over it, too. In an article in The Australian last week, Joan Sauers, Billy Stoneking and Duncan Thompson blamed Australian scripts. Again. And again they forgot to mention what William Goldman said: “Story is structure”

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