By, Jacob Krueger
SPOILER ALERT: You may want to come back to this article after you have seen The Tree of Life.
Often as writers we get so hung up on linear, narrative structure that we forget that there are completely different forms of screenplay structure that can be equally moving and powerful.
What makes Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life so extraordinary is the effortless way it weaves traditional linear storytelling—the story of the family– with long meditative sequences of breathtaking images of the vast beauty and wanton destructiveness of the universe.
But don’t let Malick fool you, underneath the melodic rambling of The Tree of Life is a rock solid structure, which provides the drum beat for the entire film.
The Fundamental Question
Despite all its jumping back and forth in time, its shifting perspectives, its God’s eye view of the universe, its whispering voiceovers, its dinosaur sequences and its meditative imagery washing over us like ocean waves, at the fundamental structural level, The Tree of Life follows the story of Sean Penn’s character, Jack, as he searches both past and present for the answer an unanswerable question:
“Why should I be good, if you’re not?”
On the spiritual level, Jack is asking this question of God, as he tries to reconcile the vastness, wonder, and beauty of the universe with the senseless death of his brother: the problem of a world where death is always present, even in the most idyllic memories of his early childhood.
On the physical level, Jack is asking the same question of his loving but abusive father, played by Brad Pitt, whose often misguided love both protects Jack and is slowly destroying him. As young Jack’s adoration for his father and desire to “be good” devolves into disappointment and hatred, he is forced to reconcile not only the dual sides of his father’s nature, but also the dual sides of his own– wrestling with a profound and unanswerable question of how to be good in a world where the love of both God and father seem to shift inexplicably from beauty to violence.
Great Movies Are Built Around Big Questions
What’s wonderful about building a movie around a question to which you truly don’t know the answer, is that it forces you, as a writer, to take a journey as profound as that of your characters.
Searching for a deeper understanding of the world is what writing is all about. And that’s not limited to experimental films like The Tree of Life. Even Woody Allen’s new comedy Midnight in Paris is built around a profound question “would my life have been better if I lived in another era?”
Think about movies like Michael Clayton, A Few Good Men, The Social Network, or Solitary Man and you will see the fundamental questions at the center of these other commercially successful movies.
What Questions Are You Asking in Your Writing?
Think about your own writing. What are the questions that haunt you? What are the questions your screenplays are asking? Are they questions you care about? And are you truly wrestling with them through your character’s journey, or trying to tie them up with a neat little bow?
Stay tuned for the next article in the series: “The Tree of Life: From Questions To Structure“, in which I’ll be exploring Inciting Incidents of The Tree of Life—and the ways Malick uses an idea from philosophy in order to give shape to his character’s journey.
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