The Joy Luck Club shows writers the commercial and critical success that is possible by using the structures and techniques of advanced screenwriting. I have long argued that the old 3-act structure is too elementary for anyone wanting to write a mainstream Hollywood script that will actually sell. Trying to write an advanced film like The Joy Luck Club with it would be laughable.
Here is a film that tells the story of eight women over the course of approximately sixty years. Does this film have three acts with plot twists on page 27 and page 87? Of course not. You could try to impose such a system – and I’m sure someone will – but what good would it do? The 3-act structure was never designed to help writers create a script. Its main use has been in demarcating a script after it’s written.
To see how this film is put together – and how you might write a film like it – we have to look at how the seven steps of every story interact with advanced structures.
Every good story is founded on seven dramatic steps: problem/need, desire, opponent, plan, battle, self-revelation, and new equilibrium. Sure enough, the first thing we notice when exploring the structure of The Joy Luck Club is that each of the eight stories works through the seven steps.
Clearly some of the stories in the film fulfill the seven steps better than others. In general I found the mothers’ stories more compelling than the daughters’. That may be due in part to the nature of history and geography. The mothers’ stories take place in a brutally patriarchal China that is going through vast social and political upheaval. As a result, the mothers’ stories have an epic canvas, and the problems these women face are more tragic and profound.
The daughters, on the other hand, face the problems of the affluent American, of what has also been called the “end of history.” Without the burden of war, famine, and slavery, these “modern” women are free to concentrate on the psychological, on the painful bond between parent and child, or in these cases, mother and daughter.
Indeed, the biggest flaw of the film for me is that the psychological needs and self-revelations of the daughters are virtually identical. Each woman feels inadequate in the face of her mother’s expectations of her. And each learns, through the help of her mother, that she is a valuable and unique individual. I don’t mean to diminish the importance of this problem or revelation. On the contrary, I was overjoyed to see such a powerful feminine perspective coming from a film industry that is so excessively masculine. But the sameness of the daughters’ problems makes these parts of the film drag.
To see the power of this film, we must go beyond a simple seven step breakdown of each of the eight stories. The trick to this film is the way these stories are tied together. And for this, we need to look at advanced structures.
Unlike the linear seven or twenty-two step structure used by almost all Hollywood films to track a single main character, advanced films require specialized structures that can tie a number of characters and stories together into an organic whole. This is a complex subject; there are over 15 different advanced structures (see the Advanced Screenwriting Class), and each serves a different thematic purpose.
The Joy Luck Club uses a variation of the branching structure. In branching structures, the author sets up a main trunk, then takes the story out to a series of branches that can be organized in an infinite number of ways. The problem with branching structures is: how do you sequence the branches to avoid repetition and the sense that the story is stopping and starting all the time.
The Joy Luck Club strategy is to center the story within a communal event where we can meet all the characters and return after each story to get anchored. The main trunk of the story is provided by the desire line of June. She wants to visit her long-lost sisters in China. This single line creates the reason for the communal event, returns again and again throughout the story, and gives the story the ending that not only completes June’s story but thematically completes the stories of the other seven characters as well.
With June’s desire as a through line, the writers, Amy Tan and Ron Bass, can then branch out to the other stories and know that they have an organizing principle. But this simple desire line is not sufficient to unify eight stories into an organic whole. Simply telling each story in succession would become repetitive and tiresome.
So the writers try to organize the branches in a different way. They present the stories in mother-daughter pairs. After telling the tale of June’s childhood, the writers begin with a mother’s distant past, then come up to the recent past when mother and adult daughter are in conflict, then go back to the daughter’s childhood, then finish with the daughter as adult reconciling with or learning through her mother.
Although this pattern doesn’t completely avoid the problems of the branching structure, it does give the film a nice variety and, more importantly, emphasizes the underlying system that enslaves all of these women in similar ways. Rarely has a film shown the pain and joy of the mother-daughter relationship or the changing role of women in different times and societies as well as The Joy Luck Club.
As with any choice, of course, there are costs. And writers need to be aware of the costs as well as the benefits of different structures. The branching structure gives us the benefit of comparison and system-wide perspective. But the cost is depth.
Any time you split a film into smaller stories, you are reduced to working through little more than the seven basic structure steps. You have time to introduce the problem, show some conflict then present a tidy self-revelation. The Joy Luck Club, though better than most multi-character stories, certainly suffers from an excess of pop psychology, self-awareness, and quick change.
But this film is a real accomplishment. Amy Tan has brought her unique vision to the screen and it is a perspective that has been sorely lacking. If it can encourage some of us to write advanced structure stories, and avoid the paint-by-numbers approach of 3 acts, so much the better.