SPOILER ALERT (Chernobyl and The Queen's Gambit)
As part of my weekly Script Club, set up by Talent Campus 5, we read and review a screenplay. Not all of them we've seen and they range across time, genres as well as TV and feature film. We don't delve too deeply into story structure but it does feature occasionally. Concurrently, another writing group ('tribe') I'm in often discusses films and tv programmes we're watching. Most often for sharing our love of them rather than anything technique related. And in both, I'm probably the most academic in terms of my viewing behaviour.
The recently completed read in Script Club is Chernobyl's first episode. I watched this programme and found it gripping, horrific and beautifully constructed, in particular the choice of actors - their accents - the stark grey-green pallete and the cinematography. For the latter, some of the shot choices e.g. the distant view of the helicopter falling. Almost King Kong-like with the biplanes. We're so far away, there's nothing we can do but be a witness.
Having recently given a presentation on the Hero's Journey, it's tempting to think that all stories follow that format. Of course, most do but there's enough flexibility within it to keep it fresh. Chernobyl famously simplified its representation of the team of scientists who worked to minimise the disaster. Although Legasov was the main protagonist, Khomyuk represented the others.
Now, we could create a Hero's Journey for Legasov, played expertly by Jared Harris. There's an inciting incident followed by his trials along with the realisation of his own death sentence by getting close followed by his resurrection, the decision to tell to the truth which sealed his own heroic fate - to change the world but lose his career (it's assumed).
But what I think is more interesting, is the form of his Hero's Journey. He's a detective. So instead of the protagonist finding the truth about themselves, its the solving of an external mystery. Instead of I was -> I am it's I don't know -> I know. What about other similarities?
Well, we start with Legasov sitting in his chair being philosophical, intelligent and eloquent. Much like Sherlock Holmes. But unlike the great detective, we realise this will be his last case. We go back to the start and we begin with...a disaster or in detective terms, a murder. In Chernobyl's case, mass death (at least 4,000). Following the realisation that things are bad, he gets the phone call and straight away, begins to ask questions/make recommendations.
Along the way, he acquires a trusty sidekick, the sublime Emily Watson's Khomyuk. In traditional story terms, she offers the feminine side to the solution. They work together to mitigate the impact of the crisis. In the finale, Legasov, has his audience in the form of a court room. In older detective stories, this would be the Poirot type reveal in the sitting room. He makes his choice, truth over lies, signalled in the first episode.
There is another element of course to the construction of Chernobyl, in that it starts with the end and flashbacks to the start of Act 2. This puts us straight into the disaster as it happens and provides the inciting incident for Legasov's journey. If told in a more traditional format, we'd have no Legasov for most of the start as the workers begin their path to destruction. We'd also have a court room scene with either no flashbacks or repeated images to break up the long sequence.
The Queen's Gambit
I've just finished The Queen's Gambit. It's a child chess prodigy on her journey to adulthood. As a former chess talent, I was somewhat hesitant. Many that feature chess either get it so wrong or sometimes can go too far in terms of exposition in regards explaining a specialism. I thought Queen of Katwe and Moneyball got it right. The Queen's Gambit does too, saying just enough that you get some idea of the rules along the way, eventually building to a fairly detailed description of her favoured opening.
In regards to the Hero's Journey, although I've not super analysed each episode, I'm pretty much at the point now I can see the topiary frame behind the leaves. But I'll illustrate something interesting, if not surprising, with episode 1. We're often told that you can apply a 3 Act structure to pretty much any story length. It doesn't mean you have to. Short stories often end at the end of Act 1 (mysteries) or Act 2 (tragedies).
So each episode of a series should have this form. It can be most clearly seen in traditional sitcoms or traditional series. As these are self-contained pieces, they need that structure. Of course, you can have multiple stories (A, B, C in sitcoms) or spread the story across an ensemble. But in each, there's a strict following to the hero's journey. But with the rise in serials - where the outcome of one episode has an impact on the next, this requirement has been loosened. As far as I can tell. Even with the phenomenon, however brief, of the 'bottle' episode.
In The Queen's Gambit, I'm pretty confident that each episode both follows the Hero's Journey AND has impact on the overal story. This is strong writing in its attention to form. Interestingly, the writer Scott Frank never outlines. A master storyteller at work to be able to do this. Let's look at episode one, Openings.
Well, we start with a scene from Act 2. Why? It's just like in Chernobyl, showing us the antagonist but instead of a reactor, it's the Russian. But what's it really doing? It's showing her flaw. In Chernobyl, he's a detective - so perfect - he's the truth finder on our behalf, the saviour like Bond, who will or should always be there when we need them. Her flaw is her addiction to drugs. And this storytelling method, appears to be the now go-to method. Show the flaw as early as possible. And neatly, her flaw appears to also be the source of her strength as she can visualise the pieces on the ceiling.
Okay, let's look at episode one:
- The Ordinary World: Elizabeth, mother dead and father absent, at an orphanage on tranquilisers
- The Call to Adventure: the janitor in the basement is playing chess - she's intrigued
- Refusal of the Call: Elizabeth doesn't ask what he's doing
- Meeting with the Mentor: Jolene tells her to take the pill at night but not to get too used to them. Beth talks to Shaibel (false mentor).
- Crossing the First Threshold: Beth plays chess.
- Tests, Allies, and Enemies: she falls out with Shaibel, she meets a local chess club/teacher
- Approach to the Innermost Cave: she falls out with Shaibel but goes back.
- The Ordeal: she beats Shaibel. Goes from loser to winner. Goes from loser to winner.
- Reward: Shaibel gives her a book on openings
- The Road Back: she begins her journey to another level when she meets the chess club/school guy
- The Resurrection: she's told no more chess in the basement and no more drugs. She ignores both rules.
- Return with the Elixir: she breaks into the pharmacy and steals the bottle of tranquilisers
I know it's a little mean calling Shaibal a false mentor because you can have two mentors of course. But I wanted to distinguish him somehow. And if he is a mentor, he's her life mentor, the father she never had. In episode 1 he advises her to be polite about the doll and in the final episode, she realises that he was more like a parent (as her adopted mother became), a cheerleader. The hand on the shoulder. No, you're crying. If he's the father mentor then Jolene is the friend/sister mentor.
Another thing I think is worth considering is the use of symmetry. This is something I'm keen on and I have my own methodology. It's not dissimilar to the Story Clock but it's actually easier to use and much neater. I'm not going to analyse the whole of The Queen's Gambit to demonstrate every symmetrical moment but here are a few that stick out.
- Jolene is her mentor at the start and the end. They're family.
- Shaibel is there at the start (the one thing giving life meaning) and the end, through the funeral/office and the notice board
- Her biological mother is all through the story but with the final review for the tipping point shown at the end. This mimics the start of the story. In the beginning, Beth's biological father wants contact and at the end, it's her mother.
- Townes - the love interest. He's there near the beginning and near the end. At the start, she shadows him. In the end, it's more the other way.
- Her adopted father. Initially, he appears to want her but ignores her. At the end, he hounds her but doesn't want her.
All this symmetry is clearly mirror-like, creating a 180-degree switcheroo. It's clearly not 'real'. Human beings don't all go full circle on you. Most stay consistent. But life isn't what it is, it's what you are. So by showing their change, we're in effect showing the protagonist's change. It's a somewhat blunt instrument because you could say, no, the other characters have changed. Shaibel clearly died but their character arcs merely present a different shade to cast on your hero.