The Tree of Life: Alternative Forms of Structure
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. So for today’s podcast we’re going to take a blast to the past, and look at a film that seems to diverge in almost every way from the traditional forms of structure we’ve been talking about on this podcast: Terence Malick’s, The Tree of Life.
What makes 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.
In fact, if you compare The Tree of Life to Terence Malick’s more recent, and significantly less successful film, To The Wonder, you can see the difference between a film composed entirely of beautiful images without a sense of underlying structure, and one composed with a structure underneath them.
And that’s a valuable lesson, whether you’re writing an art film, like The Tree of Life, or are simply in an early draft of a more linear story, when you’re still trying to find the thread to tie together all your moments of visual inspiration.
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
It’s easy, as writers, to think it’s our job to tell the audience what to think or feel. But usually our best work comes not from answers but from questions. And these are often questions that are too big to answer. 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. Woody Allen’s comedy Midnight in Paris is built around a profound question “Would my life have been better if I lived in another era?” Inside Out is built around a profound question; ‘Why do we have to feel sadness?” Nightcrawler is built around a profound question: “What does the business of the news do to us as people?”
Think about any successful movie and you’ll find that it’s fundamentally based around a profound question. And often it’s a question the audience or the writer can’t fully answer.
So, The Tree of Life and Jack’s journey in the movie is built around the question: “Why should I be good if you’re not?” You have a main character that is asking this question of himself, struggling in a world where both God and father can act in such contradictory ways.
Jack is asking the same question of his father—his loving but abusive father—and of God. And at the same time, Jack is trying to answer this question for himself: whether he’s going to build his life in their image or in another.
Structurally, in The Tree of Life this question is asked with two different inciting incidents, both involving the death of a child.
What Questions Are You Asking in Your Writing?
Think for a moment 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? And how are these questions manifesting in the structure of your story? How are they being incited in your character’s lives?
There’s a mistake that we often make when we think about structure. We think that a movie has one inciting incident. But the truth of the matter is that many movies are comprised of many different threads, woven together from the different journeys our characters are taking, just like your life in comprised of the many different threads of your own journey. You may have a thread that follows you at work, at home, in your relationship, in your art, in your writing.
And though these threads weave together they often have different inciting incidents.
You Let A Boy Die
No one could forget the moment early in The Tree of Life, when Jack’s mother receives the letter, and with it, news of her son’s death. Thinking in traditional screenplay structure, this moment provides a powerful inciting incident for the film as a whole, ripping a hole not only the family’s universe, but the universe of the film itself. At this moment of loss, we slip from a character driven drama into an epic sea of juxtaposing images, dinosaurs, births, and big bang cosmology that at once seems to dwarf and echo the problems of the family:
How can the world possess such beauty and such violence at the same time? How can a woman whose only philosophy is “love everyone and everything” be punished in this way? Where is God?
Two Levels of Structure
In creating the structure of a screenplay, it’s important to think about the moment that incites the film as a whole—that opens the door to change, introduces the central question of the film, and locks the audience into the journey of the movie. And whether you’re writing an art film like The Tree of Life or a Hollywood blockbuster, it’s vital that you get to this moment as quickly as possible, to create the feeling that your movie is moving, and to create the lens through which the audience can interpret the events of your story.
When you’re building a movie that jumps around in time, you actually have two different layers of this structure: the primary linear structure of the main character’s journey, and the secondary structure of the way that information is revealed the audience.
For the audience, the journey begins when Jack’s mother receives the letter, and this provides the typical “inciting incident” of the film, not only for the audience, but also for the adult Jack.
But for Young Jack, the journey begins with a much earlier inciting incident, when a boy dies right in the middle of a “perfect” day at the local swimming hole, and Young Jack is forced to confront the fact that neither life, nor God, is what he thought it was.
Young Jack whispers his dismay to God. “Where were you? You let a boy die. You’ll let anything happen.”
For Jack, as for his mother and father, the fruit of knowledge of good and evil leads to a fall from the Eden of his childhood.
Two Inciting Incidents Form Two Linear Structures
So, we have two different inciting incidents for two different linear structures. We have the inciting incident for Young Jack, with the boy in the swimming hole, and the inciting incident for adult Jack (and for the audience, and for his mother) with the death of Jack’s brother.
These two moments of unexpected death provide the two inciting incidents that get the structure of The Tree of Life moving forward, propelling both threads of The Tree of Life’s narrative structure:
The Fall From Eden: The story of young Jack’s fall—from an idyllic childhood where death was present but not perceived—to his gradual disillusionment, with God, his father, his mother and himself, leading up to the moment where his brother dies and all hope of Eden is lost.
The Return to Eden: The story of grown Jack’s (Sean Penn) surrender—through which he finally comes to terms with the death of his brother, the opposing philosophies of his parents, the beauty and ugliness of the universe, and the inexplicable nature of God.
For the audience, these two threads are chopped up and juxtaposed one against another in a way that transcends time and captures the emotional feeling of Jack’s experience. But on the primary structural level, these two threads comprise a single linear journey for the main character, as he first loses and then seeks to return to Eden.
Finding The Drum Beat of Your Movie
Every movie needs a drum beat—a clear structure that lets us know where we are and helps us imagine the road ahead, so that we can hope for, be disappointed by, or pleasantly surprised by the turns that the story takes.
And this is doubly true when you are building around a structure as complex as that of The Tree of Life. Commercial movies tend to have more of a rock and roll drum beat—while The Tree of Life is more like experimental jazz—leaving the beat behind for extended sequences of improvisation—and then returning to the beat to get the story flowing again.
We first see this jazz-like improvisation in an extended way with the epic montage of big-bang images early in the film. But just when it seems like we’re just going to drift in an endless meditation, we find the beat again with a much smaller big bang: Jack’s birth, and the idyllic memories of his early childhood: a childhood filled with beautiful moments where death is present, but not perceived.
Each of these moments foreshadows the road ahead, preparing us for the inciting incident in Young Jack’s journey, when the boy dies at the swimming hole, the question of the film arises and his fall from Eden begins.
Hegelian Dialectic and the Drum Beat of Life
The Tree of Life is quite obviously a film about ideas—about characters grappling with profound questions (and even narrating those questions aloud in the voiceover soundtrack which punctuates the piece—as if the audience were listening through God’s ears). It’s not a big Hollywood film, it’s a piece of poetry on the screen.
But for all its poetry, The Tree of Life is also a film. And as a character in a film, Jack cannot simply ask his questions with words; he must grapple with them through action.
In writing the script, this means Malick must take the profound ideas he wants to explore, and bring them into active conflict through the characters of the film, the actions they take, the choices they make, and Jack’s journey in relation to those choices.
The structure through which Malick gives shape to this journey is known as a Hegelian dialectic.
An 18th century German Philosopher, Hegel certainly wasn’t a screenwriter. However our craft, and many of the best movies ever written, owe him a debt of gratitude.
Hegel believed that if you took a thesis (something you believed strongly) and forced it to do battle with an equally powerful and irreconcilable antithesis (a belief that runs deeply counter to the original thesis), you would end up with a synthesis which would somehow bring unity to the dialectical opposites of thesis and antithesis, and in this way lead you closer to the truth.
In dialectical screenplay structure, thesis and antithesis stop merely being philosophical ideas, and take human form, in our characters and the belief systems they represent. As those belief systems come into conflict, our characters are forced to change, driving to a synthesis that transcends their original belief systems, and leads them closer to the truth in relation to the question of the film: the question the with which the writer is wrestling in him or herself.
In many Hollywood movies, the thesis and antithesis of the Hegelian dialectic are boiled down to a “good” protagonist and an “evil” antagonist.
But while good vs. evil might be the oldest Hegelian dialectic out there, in the best movies, protagonist and antagonist transcend simple good and evil, and come to represent powerful ideas with which the writer is truly wrestling: ideas which the writer is questioning in him or herself.
Just like great philosophers, great writers don’t stack the deck for one side of their argument.
No matter what you believe as a writer, to truly make the most of a dialectical structure, you must step into the world view not only of the protagonist, but the antagonist, crashing their ideas against each other as if both were true, and pealing back the layers of their true and false assumptions as you search for a synthesis that somehow reconciles their irreconcilable differences.
This isn’t just true for art films like The Tree of Life.
In Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, Darth Vadar represents the Dark Side of the Force and Luke Skywalker represents the Light Side. But their dialectic transcends simple good and evil, because Luke doesn’t know that Darth Vadar is his father, and doesn’t realize that he also has the Dark Side in him. In the Synthesis, good does defeat evil, but at a cost that changes Luke forever, and costs him both his hand and his black and white view of the world.
In The Big Lebowski (as I discuss in detail in my video seminar The Big Lebowski: Seven Act Structure) The Dude represents the non-violent hippy thesis “the dude abides” and John Goodman’s character represents the antithesis of the “This will not stand” mentality, tempting The Dude away from his values and into a “war” for his stolen Persian carpet. (A satirical examination of the way the grown up hippy generation was seduced into The First Gulf war.)
In There Will Be Blood, the thesis of Capitalism in the character of Daniel and the antithesis of Church in the character of Eli do battle literally to the death, forcing both thesis and antithesis come to grips with their failures and hypocrisies, driving to a synthesis in which “Church” is left dead in the bowling alley, and “Capitalism” has drunk his own milkshake, and destroyed everything he has built.
The Tree of Life is built around a dialectic between Nature, as represented by Jack’s father and Grace, as represented by his mother.
When using a Hegelian Dialectic to structure your screenplay, it’s important to remember that your characters are more than just the ideas they represent. They are also people, complete with complexities, contradictions, and competing motivations that have nothing to do with your dialectical structure. In The Big Lebowski, The Dude may represent the hippy thesis, but he’s also a character who loves White Russians and bowling, and spends most of his time pursuing one of these things. In There Will Be Blood, Daniel may represent capitalism, but he also is a character desperate for a family connection and someone he can confide in. Even Darth Vadar loves his son, and secretly wants to overthrow the Emperor and rule the galaxy with him.
Rather than fixating on the structural role your character plays in your dialectical structure, you can think of the ideas your characters represent as a kind of North Star—something to navigate by as you construct their choices.
But if you’re lost in the forest, you need to remember how the North Star actually works!
If you spend every moment with staring up at the sky looking for that North Star, you’re going to spend most of your time crashing into trees. But if you keep your eyes on the instinctual path of your character, and allow yourself to remember that North Star is there to guide you when you need it, that dialectical idea will help you discover the most profound structure possible for your character’s journey.
What makes both the father and mother function so well as characters in the The Tree of Life is that in addition to representing dialectical opposites of Grace and Nature, they both love their children more than anything in the world, and want to protect them from suffering. The problem is that they have opposing views of how to do this—and in good Hegelian fashion, neither of their views work in the universe.
The Thesis of Nature
The father, played by Brad Pitt, believes that the Nature of the world is violent and destructive, and in many ways he’s right. That’s why he wants to make his sons tough, so that other people don’t walk all over them, so that they can express themselves as artists, control their own destinies, and not have to compromise the way that he did.
We’ve seen this type of character before in movies like Billy Elliot, The Return and A Prophet— in fact there’s even an archetypal name for him: The Terrible Father. But Brad Pitt’s character is more than just an archetype or an intellectual thesis. And that’s what makes him care about him, and keeps him from being a cliché.
Unlike the terrible fathers we’ve seen in the past, who want to quell the artistic expression of their children, Brad Pitt’s character wants only to foster it. He loves his children, hugs his children. He is loyal to his wife, and makes sacrifices for his family. His tough Nature is the North Star by which he navigates. But it’s not his sole reason for existence.
The problem with the father’s Thesis is that it doesn’t ultimately protect him, his family or his children. Rather than earning him his son’s love, his lessons in Nature only destroy the beauty in his family and in Jack, turn his sons against him, tear apart his marriage, and pit brother against brother. For all his toughness, he can’t protect his patents from the courts, himself from a lost job, or his children from suffering. And his rage at his failures only manifests in more violence against the people he most loves.
The Antithesis of Grace
In dialectical opposition to the beliefs of the father, the mother inherently believes that the world is beautiful. And she’s right too. That’s why she wants to play happily with her sons at every moment, love everyone and everything. That’s why she infuses their life with joy and bliss and their genuine love for one another.
But her Grace doesn’t ultimately protect anyone either. Because she can’t stand up to her husband, or defend her children from his violence. As Young Jack accuses her in a moment of rage, she lets her husband walk all over her—and all over them. Her love cannot protect her children from suffering or from death. And for that failure rather than earning her love from Jack, it only earns her his anger.
The Dialectic Within Jack
Just as Thesis and Antithesis are embodied within the characters of father and mother, so too are they embodied within Jack. And it’s through Jack’s wrestling with both sides of the dialectic that we experience his journey, in relation to his mother, his father, his community, his God, and most importantly, his brother. And as he wrestles with these dueling parts of himself, the thesis of his father and the antithesis of his mother, we experience his journey.
The first phase of Jack’s journey takes him away from the Grace of his mother, and toward the violent Nature of his father—a nature Jack pushes even further than his father would dream, by letting go of love almost entirely and succumbing to hatred, jealousy, and betrayal in their rawest forms. He rages against the mother who loves him, contemplates killing his father while he works under the car, and betrays the trust of his adoring brother when he shoots him with the bb gun.
The second phase of his journey takes him back toward his mother’s Grace, as he makes peace with his brother, and tries to once again be deserving of his brother’s trust and love. But just as Nature failed to protect him, so too does Grace.
Despite Jack’s love, his brother is taken from him, leaving him completely alone in the world, isolated from his family, his work, and from God. Eden is lost, and to find his way back, Jack must somehow find a new Synthesis that reconciles the dialectical opposites of Grace and Nature in his world and in himself.
The Dialectic of Images
This is what it means to truly wrestle with a question—to push both sides of a dialectic to their extremes of success and failure, and expose how they both work and don’t work in the universe. But Malick pushes his dialectic to a cosmic level, which transcends time, space and even character relationships. In almost every image of the film, he captures the omnipresence of death within beauty, and beauty within death. Nature within Grace, and Grace within Nature.
In the big picture, his opposing styles of storytelling for an even bigger Hegelian dialectic, between the vastness of the earth, time, universe and God captured in the meditative sequences, and the small, family drama of earthly realities, pain, and beauty that seem so important in the family story, and so small when juxtaposed against the scope of the universe—building toward a profound synthesis, which doesn’t try to answer the question, but instead to surrender to it.
And in that surrender, to finally find catharsis.
The Dialectic of The Film Itself
Like movies such as Memento and 500 Days of Summer, The Tree of Life tells its story in a non-linear way in order to capture the essence of its main character’s experience.
Rather than unfolding in linear order, the story unfolds dialectically, stepping into the swirl of memories in Jack’s mind, and juxtaposing moments of Grace and Nature from his past and his present.
But it’s actually the strong linear journey, and the character driven dialectic underneath all these flash-forwards, flashbacks, and meditative sequences, and images of mom spinning happily that allows the film to jump around in time so effectively. In To The Wonder we can see what happens when you have all that spinning in fields without that kind of structure structure—not a heck of a lot!
Once you’ve created a strong linear journey for your character, you can slice it up, flash it back, take it out of order or toss it like a salad. You can play around like an experimental jazz artist, departing from the beat and then finding it again. And if you do it right, your audience will delight in putting together the pieces, and figuring out how they are connected.
But if you start tossing before you know the real structure of your film, you’ll be left with the kind of cooking no one wants to eat.
So, this is what I want you to think about as you try to apply the lessons of The Tree of Life in your own writing: What is the question that you are wrestling with; that drove you to want to write this movie in the first place?
It might be like the question that drove Amy Schumer to write Trainwreck: “Why am I still single?”
It might be a political question, like “How did the hippie generation become a fan of the Iraq war?” which drove the Coen brothers to write The Big Lebowski.
Or it might be a question of Grace and Nature and “why should I be good in a world where it seems like God is not?” which drove Terence Malick to write The Tree of Life.
No matter what your question, you want to allow the different sides of that argument to be a North Star for the characters in your movie, not taking sides, but allowing each character to pursue their philosophies to the extreme, and ultimately bring your main character to make a choice in relation to these opposing dialectical ideas.
A choice that might bring him or her a step close to their own catharsis.