It’s funny, but if you try to construct “The Way of the Dodo” in Japanese, in the same fashion as the Way of the Warrior (bushi-do) and the Way of the Sword (ken-do) you get dodo-do.

Which is a joke on par with The Way of Electronic Warrior (ninten-do) or maybe Sumomomomomomo and similarly silly, but closely related to what I want to say today.

You see, it started when I stumbled onto “Save the Cat”, which is a book on screenwriting just as apparently influential as it is misleading in terms of writing for other purposes…

But first things first.

Professor Minjushev,1 once told me, “You’re a closet marxist.” Which I suppose I am. Despite being thoroughly unfamiliar with most of Marx’s work, I constantly find economics influences culture to much greater extent than is commonly assumed, and typically arrive at pointing this fact out to my embarrassment when trying to find some other causes behind things.

The aforementioned Blake Snyder describes the structure of a perfect screenplay in a vacuum, an unbreakable pacing standard to hold all movies to. He describes movies as ‘emotional machines’, story devices which exist to produce emotions in viewers and for no other reason. He frequently mentions that he believes he stumbled onto a fundamental property of storytelling itself along the way.

There is no denying Snyder’s structure works for the purpose he sets for movies. It is no exaggeration to say that it makes a perfect movie. While in later books he mentions that it is by nature recursive, and even singular scenes can be structured this way, he does not press this claim too much.

But what exactly is a movie?

The first thing I noticed is that this structure plays exactly the same role that a rock song’s traditional structure does. A rock song needs verses. It needs to have a chorus. It needs to fit within a certain length. It is played by a specific number of musicians in concert, using an ensemble of fairly specific instruments.2

But is it that a rock song has to have these things, or that anything that does not is not a rock song?

Songs in their propagation – at least up until very, very recently, before the advent of YouTube3 – rely heavily on radio stations. And radio stations have a thing called “programming format”. A programming format is a complicated notion, which is rarely put into concise words, but it very strictly defines what a station will and what it won’t broadcast. The notion is not at all limited to music, and covers many other types of programming, but it’s music that is interesting for the purpose of this discussion. The programming format is tightly coupled to the intended audience the station wishes to carve out of the whole pool of radio listeners, and the whole thing is very territorial.

In the environment of modern media, where the cup of the media consumer runneth over, whether your songs get broadcast or not heavily influences whether your albums sell, because hardly anyone will want to buy things they never heard about. Which means that content producers are dependent on radio environment, and have to produce things that will get broadcast, even if they would rather produce something else, like a rock symphony4 or a rock opera. They also need to obey specific technical requirements of the radio, for the same reason – that’s the reason the loudness wars actually continued all the way until equipment which normalizes loudness became the norm. Things like a special radio version of the song were not uncommon in the 80s and 90s and still pop up from time to time.

At the same time, the programming format does not appear out of thin air, it is a result of evolution through generations of listeners and subtle – or less subtle – innovations in music. It’s yet another case of a feedback loop, a snake biting its tail. Rock songs acquire listeners who like “more of the same but different”, as Snyder puts it. Radio stations emerge to carve the audience into clusters. Rock musicians now have to conform to the standards the stations set for themselves, because they become dependent on radio stations.

It’s not that other kinds of music can’t be commercially successful, but if they rely on radio, it’s their way or the highway. Once the environment changes far enough, and other means of finding out about new music start dominating, so will the landscape change, and something new will emerge. The original structure of a song itself might go the way of the dodo – it is, after all, a comparatively recent thing.

And so is the movie. It’s not a surprise that the Hollywood movie5 is itself tightly coupled to its own distribution environment – movie theaters, and the practices of these movie theaters. As practices change, so does the format. Practices change as the situation of the audience changes, and there’s a tremendous difference between what the audience of a drive-in movie theater did (when those existed to any significant degree) and what the audience of a modern movie theater does.6 The very notion of a “B movie” exists because of distribution requirements.

The statement I’m making here is that Snyder’s concepts of movie pacing and structure are not in fact fundamental, but rather, indirectly coupled to the distribution practices of the movie theater industry. Like that fable about the width of a horse’s posterior determining the size of important components of the Space Shuttle,7 the peculiarities of American movie theater industry, its legal and economic pressures, determine which movie pacing and story structure ends up ideal for them to show and best to draw the audience in.8

I can tell a similar story about the notion of the novel, the short story, and how they relate to the economics of book publishing, which can change drastically at the drop of a hat,9 and it will also be indirectly, but tightly coupled to what a novel is, how many words it might have, how it gets printed, and how it is expected to be read.10

None of these things are universal or forever, and most haven’t been around for all that long. I have no idea how the whole thing might change in the future, but serialized fiction – in particular TV series of various ilk, as well as web serialized written fiction, made popular with the wide popularity of blogging, seem to be the experimentation field of choice.

While movies seem to be remaking remakes a third time around.

  1. Sadly, he passed away a few months ago, and he would be exactly the person I would want to discuss this with… ↩︎

  2. The famous saying “Groups of guitars are on the way out.” stuck in history. Notice it was not always a given that a guitar is involved, but now it almost invariably is. ↩︎

  3. Which, I remind you, was launched in 2005, and isn’t even ten years old at the time of writing. ↩︎

  4. Rock operas notwithstanding, is there such a thing as a rock symphony, actually? ↩︎

  5. In USSR, movies had considerably different structure, considerably different pacing, and very different size formats – because a foreign film was a rarity, and USSR movie industry mostly existed within itself, having much closer ties to European movies than it did to American. European movies are also quite different… ↩︎

  6. One of the things that killed drive-in movie theaters for good was the introduction of daylight savings time, which basically destroyed their preferred timeslots. ↩︎

  7. It is not actually true. However, it rings so true that I keep repeating it anyway. I also know a similar Russian story: Legend says that none of the Soviet era aircraft had wings wider than a certain value, even when this was to their aerodynamic detriment. The value is there because the TsAGI hangar doors don’t open wider than that. ↩︎

  8. If you actually take the time to read Snyder’s books, notice that he does not make any statements regarding the suitability, or lack thereof, of his methods to TV. My guess it’s because they aren’t, and what makes a perfect movie in a theater is not a perfect movie on TV, where it is interrupted by ads every few minutes. ↩︎

  9. Up until a certain point in the 00s, due to specific tax situation, the break even point for a book print run in Russia was around 5000 copies. This made it practical to print anything as long as it’s not total nonsense, and a good bit of that, too. Then the tax situation changed, break even point jumped to about 20000 copies, and the book industry – and the things writers could expect to sell – also changed drastically, unfortunately, not for the better. For one, much less new names appeared on the shelves since then. ↩︎

  10. I was surprised to learn that book size can determine whether the owner of a news-stand gets insurance if the news-stand burns down or not, and therefore determine whether they will carry it or not. As far as I know, it’s still true. ↩︎