Truby on Structure: Cold Mountain
By John Truby
Warning: If you haven't seen Cold Mountain, this article contains spoilers which may impair your viewing pleasure.
The myth-drama is one of the most powerful story combinations that we have. Myth gives us the hero's journey and the epic scope. Drama gives us the family and the deep, complex issue. When the love story is added, we have the potential for a real knockout.
Unfortunately, the original writer of Cold Mountain structured his story in such a way as to remove much of the power of the myth-drama. By doing a straight cross-cut between the two leads for most of the story, the hero's journey does not build and the family cannot explore a central issue through conflict.
Cold Mountain is obviously "The Odyssey" set during the Civil War. In "The Odyssey," Homer also cuts between the traveling Ulysses and the faithful Penelope back home. But notice the key difference in structure. Homer doesn't do an equal crosscut. He heavily weights the story in favor of the traveling hero. This gives the story a building line and a powerful spine on which to hang all the symbolic elements that come with the myth form (for more on this see the Myth Class).
The biggest drawback to doing a crosscut throughout most of Cold Mountain is that it kills the love story. The lovers barely have time to meet and have a quick kiss before they are separated. Yet we are supposed to believe they will both fight through three years of silence and the worst assaults of war to get back together.
Of course the thematic point of the crosscut is that the juxtaposition of the two story lines creates a larger point through comparison. But here that comparison remains on the broadest level, showing that the two leads are equal in the obstacles they must overcome for their love. But the specific scenes where the crosscuts occur are largely wasted.
This film almost overcomes its foundation structural weakness through a number of excellent scenes. But then it commits one of the great sins of storytelling, the false ending. When an audience invests two and a half hours of their time watching two people struggle through hell to be together, you better have a profound reason to kill one of them at the end.
In Cold Mountain, we're not even close to profound. Yes, in war, especially a civil war, a lot of people die. But by that logic, you could kill off everyone in this story. But killing off one of the lovers after all that effort serves no thematic point, and gives no new story value.
It is fake tragedy, what I call "death ex machina." It doesn't make your movie better. It just pisses people off.
Meet the Author: John Truby
John Truby is Hollywood’s premiere story consultant and founder of Truby’s Writers Studio. He has worked as a story consultant and script doctor for Disney Studios, Sony Pictures, FOX, and HBO, among others, and has taught his 22-Step Great Screenwriting and Genre classes to over 40,000 students worldwide.