Creative Practice Theory Narratology – A Manifesto
In 1966, in a special issue (#8) of Communications journal, which included articles by Claude Brémond, Genette, Greimas, Todorov and others – Roland Barthes published a paper titled “Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives”. The paper includes suggestions for research on the structural analysis of narratives.
As a critical approach, I suggest a new theory, method and discipline: Creative Practice Theory Narratology.
Creative Practice Theory Narratology stands apart from other critical approaches such as Structuralism, Critical Theory, Cultural Studies and Post-Structuralism in several important ways:
Practice Theory Narratology takes Structuralism and – importantly, differs from it in that it integrates Bourdieu’s ideas of “structure and agency” – and also habitus (meaning “a feel for the game” which is developed over about 10 years of creative practice in a specific field, on average).
Barthes’ original article and manifesto was published in 1966. Since then, both science and philosophy have advanced considerably.
Creative Practice Theory Narratology integrates such recent scientific and philosophical concepts such as: Csikszentmihalyi’s systems model (1988, 2006, Bourdieu’s structure and agency, and habitus (1972), Dawkins’ memes (1976) and Koestler’s holons (1967) in addition to Mandelbrot’s fractal geometry (1975).
Practice Theory Narratology also utilizes agent-based models (Schelling 1971 and Wilensky 1999), computer programs that can simulate systems in action.
It can be seen that all these advances occurred after 1966, when Barthes’ article and manifesto was first published.
Here, then – is a Manifesto for Creative Practice Theory Narratology that outlines how current and future research might best proceed in a field I am hereby inventing, and naming Creative Practice Theory Narratology.
This Manifesto specifically is a deductive model for the syntagmatic analysis of feature film narrative.
In other fields, it can (and should) also be applied to songwriting, novel-writing, TV writing, short films, in fact – any creative field (Science, Art, Music, etc.).
– Where are the empirical studies of “what makes a successful screen story”?
Where are the tools that any screenwriter (indeed, filmmaker) can use to unleash their creativity in a way that should ensure that their screen story reaches the widest possible audience?
Before reading the 21 points of the Manifesto, please note the following holon diagram and the computer simulation of the system in action:
Illustration #1 – The Velikovsky Holarchy of Creativity
(Note coincidental similarities to diagrams in Lemma 26 and 27, from Newton’s Principia:)
To view the online, Agent-Based Model version of the Feature Film System, please visit:
(Please note – the online model works in all Google Chrome browsers.)
VELIKOVSKY’S FILM SYSTEMS MODEL
Note how similar the model is to Popper `The Logic of Scientific Discovery’ 1990, p117 Certain Subclass Relations in Logical Probability.
“THE MANIFESTO of Creative Practice Theory Narratology”
Given the need to establish Creative Practice Theory Narratology as a theory, a method, and a discipline – we hold these truths to be self-evident:
1) The Systems Model of Creativity (Csikszentmihalyi, 1988, 1999) should be applied, to explain the creation of any emergent creative artifact.
Examples include: a feature film script, and a resulting feature film). This tripartite confluence systems model includes 3 major elements: The Individual (e.g. the Screenwriter/s), The Field (The Screenwriter/s and the Film Industry including Producers, Directors, Gaffers, Grips, Hair and Makeup, the Audience and Critics, etc.), and The Domain (all “creative” knowledge and feature films).
However – one extra element to consider – and add in to the model, is “uncreative” knowledge and feature films (which previous models ignore).
See the holon diagram above, which shows “all feature films and knowledge related to feature films”, and within this, a Domain of works judged `creative’ by the Field, and selected for inclusion in the Domain. These films are judged “creative” and are the most popular.
In practice therefore, when we study a successful film, and choose to study the writing (the screenplay) we need to include in the study, an examination of the Screenwriter as an Individual (their Biological and Social Influences), the Field (the Producer, Financiers, Distributors, the Film Cast and Crew, the Audience, Critics) and the Domain (Who was the audience? What did the critics say?)
We also need to include a study of the habitus – of not just the Writer – but all involved in the Field and the Domain. These factors all contribute, and are all equally important to the system. For this reason we need to include Time, as a context – and as a measure. See the Creative Practice Theory general model, here.
2) To the Systems Model, should be included: the notion of `agency and structure’ (Bourdieu,1977, 1990). In other words, Individuals within the structures of the System have agency (they have the freedom to make choices).
This includes – choosing to even write a screenplay, what to put in the screenplay, which producer or agent to send the screenplay to, etc. Note that – there are many formal structures that exist, created and maintained by the Industry (for example – a narrative fiction theatrical feature film screenplay should be 80-120 pages, in Courier 12-point font, in “accepted screenplay format” – regarding Action and Dialog, and with no pictures on the front cover, 3-hole drilled and bound with brass brads, etc.)
3) Memetics should be included in the model (see: Dawkins, 1976).
Memes are units of information that spread through a culture (a system) – much like a virus in biological systems. Films are memes, Stories (e.g. feature film stories) are memes, songs (which may be in a screenplay/film) are memes, memorable lines of dialog are memes, jokes are memes, anecdotes are memes, etc. Memorable scenes and even single images from the film are memes (e.g. Robert De Niro standing before a mirror, in the “You talkin’ to me?” scene, in Taxi Driver). Extremely popular films are highly contagious memes, and also, contain many memes. Writers can benefit from thinking in these terms, when they write.
4) Holons should be included in the model (see: Koestler, 1967).
Holons are simultaneously a part, and a whole. They are organized within holarchies. A film is a holon – that has a holarchy within it, that includes: the film, its acts, sequences, scenes, story beats, moments, dialog lines, words. Note that: memes are often holons, and holons are often memes. This overall concept (the entire film/script being a holarchy of holons) is also known as mise en abyme, where an image (or – a diagram, such as the Velikovsky Holarchy of Creativity) contains a smaller version of the overall image/diagram, and so on, down to infinity. So too, as a film has a beginning, middle and end: acts, sequences, scenes and dialog lines all have a beginning, middle and end. Related concepts (to mise en abyme) are: recursion, self-similarity, and “a story within a story” (say, an anecdote within a film scene). A sequence of scenes within the film can be viewed as `a series of short films’. Likewise, a single image in a film may be a visual metaphor for the overall story (see Jerome dragging himself up a spiral staircase in Gattaca; a visual metaphor for Vincent’s journey in the film).
5) Assume that all existing literature on Screenwriting by “screenplay gurus” is most likely incorrect – if it has no scientific method.
This includes:Robert McKee, Syd Field, Linda Seger, John Truby, Michael Hague, etc., who select films at random to derive syntagms (structural story templates) from.
Note that on the first page of Story, McKee points out that the films he uses as “examples” to prove his “story principles” are selected in each case for the reason that they illustrate the point he is making. This is not a scientific nor empirical method of research.
Claiming to define “a principle” – and then producing one example of it, does not a scientific proof make. If there were a significant sample data set (say, 20 extremely popular films, i.e. high ROI films, that all exhibited the “principle/ pattern”) and from this, some findings were made, that would indeed be empirical scientific research. However citing just one or two examples does not “prove” a principle. By accident/luck/chance – the principle may well happen to be true – but the final “set of principles” like Aristotle’s in The Poetics (c335 BCE), is prescriptive – and not descriptive research, and is therefore, not science. It is mysticism/romanticism, as opposed to – science/rationalism.
Moreover, a study of a set of 20 Oscar-winning screenplays may well reveal some patterns – but – How many early or mid-career screenwriters win Oscars? In short, in doing scientific research, we must avoid: sampling bias, observer bias, The Hawthorne Effect, the John Henry Effect and the Pygmalion Effect. The established screenwriting gurus’ work is not relevant to 95% of screenwriters and filmmakers. 95% of screenwriters do not work in Hollywood, do not have established credits or large budgets. However note that – by studying the top 20 ROI films, extremely low-budget ($7000) and medium-budget ($11m) films are included.
6) The “linear structure for describing a feature film story pattern” should be called a syntagm, and not a paradigm.
Note that – Syd Field (in 1977) labeled “3-Act structure” a paradigm. Note also – that Field’s “3-Act structure” is in fact a misnomer – as it is 4-Act structure, since there is a “midpoint” in Field’s “paradigm” and “Act 2” is split in half, resulting in 4 Acts of 30 mins, and not “3 Acts, where Act 2 is 60 mins”.
Creative Practice Theory Narratologists seek to identify structural patterns in the syntax (the horizontal/syntagmatic axis) and not just the paradigm (the vertical / paradigmatic axis.)
The screenwriter makes their own choices (using their free will / agency) for the paradigms (i.e. their story’s characters, settings, ideas, events, etc.) and the `structure’ is provided by the syntagm (the story template).
An example of a syntagm is the Hero’s Journey monomyth. The 12 beats (The Hero In the Ordinary World, The Call to Adventure, etc.) are the syntagm. The paradigms are in fact the characters, settings, events, themes, dialog and meanings, all chosen by the writer.
7) When film story syntagms are studied, a clear distinction should be made between Films (Stories) which are successful memes – and those which are not.
One extremely useful measure of the meme’s (film’s) success is Return On Investment (ROI). This is obtained by dividing the film’s box office – by its overall cost (production cost + marketing cost, [which includes film prints and advertising]).
Note that if a film does not break even, it is not a successful Story meme. – It is therefore not worthy of study if we only wish to analyze successful Stories/Story memes/structures. (We may of course, wish to study extremely unsuccessful Story memes – so that as writers, we may avoid creating them. An example of this would be to also study high Loss On Investment films)
8) Use the most accurate real-world data possible.
At the time of writing, some figures and lists of highest return and highest loss on investment films is here:
9) Creative Practice Theory Narratology should make innovative use of statistics and in-depth interviews, and all within the context of the Systems Model.
Note that – Bourdieu claimed that: Cultural Studies lacked scientific method. (see: An Introduction to the Work of Pierre Bourdieu: The Theory of Practice, (Eds) Richard Harker, Cheleen Mahar, Chris Wilkes. Houndmills : Macmillan, 1990 p 68-71)
10) Note that currently: only three in ten feature films “break even” – or make a profit: 2 in 10 films make money, 1 in 10 breaks even and 7 in 10 lose money.
The reason for this may well be: the Story.
Marketing and Casting of these films can be discounted as causal factors – since most highest ROI movies do not have large marketing budgets nor stars in them.
The films that lose money should not be regarded as successful memes.
High ROI films should be regarded as successful memes. Note that Avatar only made about 7 times its budget, and Paranormal Activity made 13,000 times its budget.
11) The results of a Creative Practice Theory research study must produce guidelines and techniques that Creatives (e.g. Screenwriters, Filmmakers) can use in the Field.
For example, a structural narrative (syntagmatic/syntax) study of the Story of the Top 20 ROI Films should ideally produce a set of guidelines for a Screenwriter to follow if they wish to write a screenplay that has the best chance of becoming a high ROI film (and therefore reach the widest possible audience). Films are expensive – and investors are risk-averse.
12) A High ROI Film must be viewed as “a film that reaches the widest possible audience for its production cost”.
We must assume that: the goal of all Screenwriters (and Producers and Directors) is: to reach the widest possible audience with their story, no matter what their film budget may be.
13) Further research should also be conducted using Creative Practice Theory Narratology methods and techniques – to empirically investigate the domains of songwriting, art, novel writing, and science and technology.
14) The “Romantic” view of Creativity (and the myth of “creative genius being a birthright/mystical endowment”) is a myth – created by Romantic artists (Coleridge, etc.) to advance their careers. It should be dispelled whenever possible. The Systems Model and recent work on Creativity has done excellent work in this area, yet many still support the `Romantic’ view of Creativity. This view keeps screenwriting in the Dark Ages, and must be actively combatted with Rationalism/Science, which is the main purpose and aim of Creative Practice Theory Narratologists.
15) A Rationalist view of Creativity, such as is adopted by Creative Practice Theory Narratologists (using the above methods and principles) – means that the ABC (Art, Business and Craft) of Film Storytelling can evolve and improve over time. This will only result in better Stories.
16) Any Systems view must accept that multiple systems (of Creativity) exist concurrently, and simultaneously overlap, as shown by the holon diagram.
These include: from the Universe, down to solar systems, and from Culture, to the Individual, and Biology, to Quantum physics. Physics and chemistry overlap to create (emergent) Biology (i.e. Life). “Nature and Nurture” (Biology and Socialization) both overlap to create habitus. And – so forth, infinitely. All existence is a series of holons – within which, Creative Systems exist.
17) In terms of narrative structural analysis Method, previous Narrative Theory should be appreciated – but can be ignored.
By all means – do something comparable to – the approaches of: Aristotle, Levi-Strauss, Todorov, Eco, Propp, Campbell, Snyder, etc. – in analyzing the syntagms /structure of narratives – but – use the Practice Theory method – i.e. Systems, containing holons , that are memes. A screenplay artifact is a holon, and a meme. (Note also that: tropes are memes.).
We also note that in 1969 Todorov called Narratology a “science of narrative”. With Practice Theory Narratology, let us make it even more scientific.
Once a syntagmatic study on a strictly-selected data-set (with clearly definable criteria, e.g. The 20 Highest ROI films) is complete, compare and contrast the results/findings back to the other approaches (Propp, Campbell, etc.).
It should be the case that: Practice Theory Narratology both (retrospectively) synthesizes and systematizes all earlier Narratology approaches. That is to say: Systems, Holons and Memes – should cover everything that has gone before: narremes, kernels/satellites, Propp’s “functions”, langue and parole, etc.
18) Wherever possible, to describe a System (and any Narratives/narrative artifacts within it), try and apply existing algorithms and laws of complex systems – i.e. use Science and Mathematics, fractals, Chaos Theory, etc.
Interdisciplinary exploration (Science and Maths, Biology, Physics, Chemistry, Geometry, etc.) is encouraged, as – due to Romanticism, Science/Rationalism has been largely excluded from the study of Creativity (and therefore – to Narratology) up to this point in history. Notably this changed in 1988, with the discovery of The Systems Model of Creativity by Csikszentmihalyi.
Romanticism must be defeated – if Humanity is to continue to evolve from Mythos (darkness/ignorance) to Logos (light/knowledge).
Practice Theory Narratology exists in the overlaps of: Narratology (as established by Plato and others), Social Science (Cultural Anthropology), Science (fractals, systems theory, memetics) and indeed philosophy (memetics, holonography and – A Theory of Everything).
19) If possible, when reporting research findings, use the term “Story-ality” to describe any highly powerful holonic story meme.
There is a reason for this: by suggesting this, we are keen to see how far that meme spreads (the word “story-ality”) and intend to check its progress through the culture in May, every year (by checking for citations of it)…
By doing this – (using the term `story-ality’) you are also now participating in an experiment, within all these systems. (e.g. say: “The memes within Paranormal Activity all exhibit a high degree of story-ality.”)
Note that de Saussure invented the word “semiology” to describe “the science of signs”.
Likewise – we even suggest “Story-ology” be the term used for the science described here using all of the above Creative Practice Theory Narratology methods, indeed the system itself.
This means, at times you can use the term “Creative Practice Theory Story-ology” – which is in fact not exactly “Narratology” – as all previous Narratology uses very little Science, and what this Manifesto describes should be clearly distinguished from that which has gone before.
For more context on this, see Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
20) The term “Creative writing” is a misnomer.
All writing is in fact creative, whether it be: a fiction short story, historical writing, an essay, a scientific treatise, etc.
Narrative fiction theatrical feature films are just one holon within that holarchy, one domain within the culture.
21) Finally – providing writers with a Story Structure (a narrative template, a Story Syntagm) as “a creative writing tool” should make their job much easier, and should not mean that their agency is in any way reduced, in fact their agency is – ironically – increased.
A screenwriter is free to tell any story they wish within a story template/syntagm (say “a high-ROI film story template/story syntagm”) that may be provided by the results/findings of Practice Theory Story-ology research.
In fact, as writers, structure gives us the freedom to be more creative with our choices…
The above 21 points form the principles and intentions – and therefore: The Manifesto of Creative Practice Theory Narratology, with specific regard to narrative fiction theatrical feature films.
The ultimate aim of the theory/method/discipline of Creative Practice Theory Narratology is to enable writers to write better (more successful) stories.
JT Velikovsky – May 2012
Creative Practice Theory Narratologist
…Thoughts? Comments? Feedback?
High-RoI Story/Screenplay/Movie and Transmedia Researcher
The above was (mostly) inspired by research done for my doctoral thesis: “Communication, Creativity and Consilience in Cinema”. It is presented here for the benefit of fellow screenwriting, filmmaking and creativity researchers. For more, see https://aftrs.academia.edu/JTVelikovsky
JT Velikovsky is also a produced feature film screenwriter and million-selling transmedia writer-director-producer. He has been a professional story analyst for major film studios, film funding organizations, and for the national writer’s guild. For more see: http://on-writering.blogspot.com/
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