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Technique of a complex work
The success of an artwork does not depend on hazard, on the contrary it is essentially based on its technical properties. Pulp Fiction knew from its release a worldwide success, that can be explained by :
- An audacious and refined direction
- Convincing and fascinating actors
- Strong and brilliantly structured plots
- Vivid, crude, provocative, efficient dialogs
- And a dramatic tension sustained from the beginning to the end by a script that is incredibly rich in figures, tricks and narration effects.
We are now going to study those technical qualities of the script, so as to see from closer how this film was able to conquer a large audience and get so many awards.
As we saw it during the summary, Pulp Fiction has 10 plots in total:
- 1. Ringo and Yolanda rob the cafeteria (2 parts)
- 2. Vincent and Jules vs. the 4-5 guys (2 parts)
- 3. Story of Antwan Rockamora
- 4. Vincent vs. Mia (2 parts)
- 5. Marsellus corrupts Butch (2 parts)
- 6. Vincent saves Mia from overdose
- 7. Story of the gold watch
- 8. Butch vs. Marsellus
- 9. Butch & Marsellus vs. the 2 perverts
- 10. Wollf, Vincent and Jules clean the car
The general outline of pulp Fiction
Yet these plots, far from being presented flatly one after the other, get mixed, echo and interrupt each other, multiplying the effects of suspense, informing the audience then lying to them on essential data.
The film gets organized by two main ways:
- By the “chapter titles”, – but we saw that those artificial divisions are used to guide us as much as to get us lost…
- And in 6 main sequences, cut by some “fade to black”, – a sequence being defined as a continuous flow of action, and a jump of sequence being made by a visible change of place, moment and characters.
Yet in this movie a sequence never matches a plot – each time, a sequence presents either an incomplete plot, or several plots or parts of plots:
- Sequence 1. Plot 1 Act I.
- Sequence 2. Plot 2 Act I + Act II. Plot 3. Plot 4 Act I. Plot 2 Act III.
- Sequence 3. Plot 5 Act I.
- Sequence 4. Plot 4 Act II + Act III. Plot 6.
- Sequence 5. Plot 7. Plot 5 Act II + Act III. Plot 8. Plot 9.
- Sequence 6. Plot 2 Act III (version 2). Plot 10. Plot 1 Act II + Act III.
This permanent mix of the plots, guarantees that the audience always stays “hooked”, willing to know what is next in each plot, and perpetually in search for information and in an informational deficit compared to the story that never stops revealing some new parts of the action that had been hidden until then.
Let’s now focus on some major and remarkable techniques that the authors Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary used to structure the plots of the movie:
1/ Two plots, n°3 and 7, are told in inclusion in the frame of another plot
The plot 3, told during the plot 2, helps increasing the tension concerning Vincent facing Mia in the plot 4: the example of what happened to Antwan Rockamora, helps informing Vincent about the risks he would take in case he would get too close from Mia.
A similar way, the plot 7, told during a flash-back that stands as a prologue to the plot 8, helps motivating Butch to take care of the gold watch and to take big risks to get it back during the plot 8.
2/ Two plots, n°1 and 2, are cut into two parts each, that frame all of the other plots
This way, the audience has the impression that the movie starts and ends by the same story of Ringo and Yolanda, that frames the two major parts of the plot 2, of Vincent and Jules in their murder mission. Thus, the tension generated during the opening scenes by two hyper-dramatic situations, a robbery and the murder of “4-5 guys”, remains until the end, maximizing our pleasure.
3/ Two plots, the n°4 and 5, are cut into several parts, the exposition being separated from its consequences by some other plots
This way to do allows to make the whole structure more dynamic, by distributing the more static parts of these plots (by definition, an exposition is less dramatic, less tense than a development or an ending) among more active parts. We set the bomb up, use its energy, and let it explode later…
4/ Three times, a main plot gives birth to another – unexpected – plot that can itself give birth to another plot
This structure is factorial, that it to say that a plot stands as a part of the development of another plot.
It is the case with the plot 2, whose Act III is doubled, and that gives birth, because of Vincent’s awkwardness, to the plot 10.
It is also the case with the plot 4, that instead of ending “naturally”, leads to the subplot 6.
And it is again the case with the plot 5, that ends sooner than we thought but gets prolongated with the plot 8, which itself leads to the subplot 9.
Each time, the initial plot can not be concluded without us knowing the result of each of its sub-products: we can not say whether the murder mission of Vincent and Jules is successful as long as Marvin’s corpse has not been liquidated; we can not know whether Butch will be able to escape with his money and his girlfriend to Knoxville as long as he did not triumph over Vincent then Marsellus then the 2 perverts; and we can not know whether Vincent will be punished by Marsellus for having flirted with Mia as long as he did not save her from the overdose.
Hyper-efficient, this technique allows to prolongate the suspense, again and again, an effect that unlinked plots could never have.
5/ The story shows a case of convergence between the plots 1 and 2 when Vincent and Jules become clients of the cafeteria that Ringo and Yolanda just decided to attack
Here again, the results of the two plots are mutually conditioned: if Vincent and Jules would get shot by Ringo and Yolanda, that would change the answer to the dramatic question of their plot n°2, and reciprocally if Jules had decided to kill Ringo and Yolanda, the plot n°1 would end differently.
6/ The story of the gold watch is a particular case
It shows some unit of action: some characters perform actions about this watch, transmit it or threaten its transmission, and those characters have an overall goal that is this transmission between the generations. But the permanent change of Heroes and Antagonist make this plot less dramatic than others, and anyway this plot is mainly there to give Butch the motivation to find back its watch in the plot 8.
Did you enjoy it? Want to know more? Then read the full story analysis of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and improve your scenario writing skills from the study of its script
PDF, 97 pages