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Tarantino and The Pulp Fiction Effect

By Patrick Kirkland · November 5, 2011

The year was 1994. A small film came out of Austin, by a guy only a few knew from the indie film scene. It was called Pulp Fiction, and it starred John Travolta. You remember him? That guy from Grease, and he played opposite Kirstie Alley in Look Who's Talking.

"What's he play? A hitman? Huh, okay," spread the pessimism. Still, we paid our $6 and hunched down inside the dark theater.

Two hours later, we emerged eyes wide open. We spouted new terms like "Le Big Mac" and dreamed of the days we too could drink a $5 milkshake. And we weren't the only ones who were changed. Filmmakers around the globe realized that films, once long and meticulous and stagnantly structured, could be cool again.

The cinemas began to ooze Pulp Fiction remakes. Drug deals, jewel thefts, and anti-classical structures became not the exception, but the norm of acceptable seatfillers. Doug Liman directed Go, and Guy Ritchie's Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels paved the way for his later Snatch. If a studio didn't have the next Pulp Fiction in their hands, they were ultimately a failure– or at least that's what it seemed.

Even in 1999, during my stint as a reader for Miramax, I must have read 20 different nonlinear scripts, each one trying to be the next Tarantino. And while reading and nixing each one, I would look across the hall to Tarantino's office, see him talking to Lawrence Bender, and would hear the whisper, "He's working on his next script." His next script wouldn't be for another three years, when Kill Bill would hit screens. 

The Failure of "It's Like Pulp Fiction"

If I read 20 or 30, that meant there must have been hundreds of nonlinear scripts that circled through Hollywood between 1994-2004. And from the ones I read, all of them had the exact same problem: cool scenes, no story. Sure, they had title cards and someone getting shot, but they weren't "like Pulp Fiction". Because the beauty of Pulp Fiction is that it doesn't rely on it's structure– the structure just makes it better.

Structure 101

I get sick of the number of people that tell you how to structure a script. I'm not a fan of the beloved Blake Snyder beat sheet, although I still use it from time to time. The Hero's Journey is simply traditional storytelling, and therefore I know it well enough by heart that I don't spend a lot of time researching it. Although, again, at the end of a writing session, I make sure I've hit my beats. And Syd Field– well, he has his points, but after following several of his books, I realized that my script still was lacking any sort of emotional depth. It makes you wonder with all the theories out there, what beat sheet did Tarantino use?

I simply put down the screenplay for as long as possible. A week. Two weeks. A month. And then I read it straight through and look for holes. When something jumps out or doesn't make sense, or I start asking questions, I know where I need to write, or edit. The story must make sense– linearly.

Rearranged into a classical structure, beginning with the Kahuna Burger miracle and ending with Bruce Willis offing Travolta and leaving on Zed's bike, Pulp Fiction is a complete linear story. But the structure that Tarantino uses allows the true emotional climaxes to happen at the right time.

The Pulp Fiction Trick

In each of its sequences, there is a full story told. There's the story of the boxer and his watch. The story of Marvin and cleaning his brains out of the car. And the story of the date with Mia, ending with an adrenaline shot to the heart and an awkward goodbye. Each sequence doesn't end until it has its own climaxes, and its own denouement.

The trick here is that at one point, Pulp was obviously a completed linear script, and then Tarantino turned it on its end. He screwed with it, which as the writer, you have every right to. Make it as non-linear as you like, but to be successful, you must keep with the structure of the emotional journeys, not be trapped within the structured beats.

The Miracle gets us into the story, just like any first 10 pages should. We see Bruce's watch, and the Gimp, and all of these major turns, just at the time we need them emotionally. And even though we see Vince Vega dead, we're left with an emotionally fulfilling, traditional style ending, as Samuel Jackson leaves Vega at the diner, exits, and walks into the light of Heaven, or downtown LA. The structure that Tarantino gives us makes Pulp Fiction a good story, magnificently told. And that is the mark of any great film.

Ultimately there would never– and will never– be another Pulp Fiction. It has solidified its place in cinematic history. No one will ever replace it– not even Tarantino.

But Tarantino would never try. As so many of the other scripts and writers and films tried so hard to be the next Pulp Fiction, the creator of the original moved on. First to a linear storyline, Jackie Brown, then to a comic book gore fest in Kill Bill. Then to Inglourious Basterds, his most traditional film yet. Whereas for years, writers across LA went to pitch meetings and said "It's like Pulp Fiction," Tarantino possibly walked into his next pitch and said "It's nothing like Pulp Fiction, and it's going to be bad-ass."