Sunday, September 28, 2008

Loving and Hating Three Act Structure

In the Screenwriting One class I teach at Art Center College, much of the first class session is dedicated to three act structure. One semester one of my students informed me that he didn’t have to learn three act structure because he “preferred European films.” Guess what, kid, European films follow three act structure too.

But I understand his skepticism. If someone told me they had a formula for making a good story (and people actually say that with surprising frequency) I would also be skeptical. But if used properly, three act structure is not a formula at all. It’s a way to understand how stories work.

Let me get even more philosophical for a moment and pose the question: What is a story? I believe a story, by definition requires three things:

1) A character. Even if the character is a frog or a tree, we anthropomorphize them. If you try to write a story without a character, what you have is not a story. A travelogue or non-fiction essay maybe, but not a story.

2) A dilemma. The character must have a problem to solve. If you tell me about someone whose life is great and has no problems, well that’s nice but it’s not a story. I get it. He’s happy. Let’s move on. Whatever it is in humans that makes us want to hear made-up tales, it seems to have to do with the need to explore how people solve problems.

3) A resolution. If the dilemma isn’t resolved, the story doesn’t feel complete. That doesn’t mean the ending has to be happy, or that all the loose ends need to be tied up. But we listen to/watch/read a story to find out what happens. So it’s not a story unless we indeed find out what happens.

If you’ve got those three things you’ve got a story in my book. But I want to point out a couple other elements that you need for a good story: obstacles and stakes.

Obstacles: If your story is about a guy sitting in his living room and his dilemma is that he’s hungry and the resolution is that he goes to the kitchen and makes a sandwich, that’s a story but not a very good one. But if the same guy with the same dilemma is stranded on an island where there’s only one fruit tree and a tiger is sleeping below it, then I’m interested. That’s because you’ve given him obstacles. (Which isn’t to suggest the obstacles have to be physical. You could make a compelling story about a hungry guy in his apartment whose obstacle is he’s on a diet.) Generally, the more challenging the obstacles, the more dramatic the story.

Stakes: What is at stake for the character? What happens if he succeeds or fails? If the character doesn’t really care about the outcome of his dilemma, then why should I? The more he has at stake, the more interesting the story. Now, a lot of people who only partly understand structure make a common mistake (and many of those people work as development executives in Hollywood). They suggest a writer raise the stakes by increasing the size of what’s at stake. Rather than trying to get one million dollars the character should be trying to get 100 million dollars. But that’s the wrong approach.

Imagine a story where a terrorist has planted a bomb in a diner and our character must get across town in time to keep it from going off. “Why don’t you raise the stakes,” our clueless development executive says, “make it a football stadium instead of a diner.” Objectively that would seem to raise the stakes – more lives are in jeopardy. But it’s still a character trying to save the lives of a bunch of people. The number is not all that important to how much we care.

What would raise the stakes is if the character’s wife and child were having lunch in the diner. Stopping a bomb from killing his family is much more dramatic than stopping a bomb from killing a group of strangers in a football stadium (though hopefully we'd root for him to do either). Because the key to raising the dramatic stakes is to increase how much the character cares about the outcome of the situation. Don’t confuse objective stakes with dramatic stakes.

So what does this have to do with three act structure? Three act structure is simply a way to codify what a story is and how it works. In act one we meet a character, introduce a dilemma and establish the stakes. In act two the character tries to resolve the dilemma but has difficulty doing so due to the obstacles. In act three the dilemma is resolved either for or against the character.

That’s it. And that’s why even European films follow three act structure.

Where we get in trouble is when we try to create “rules” for this structure. I once had someone tell me the first act of my screenplay was too long. “What makes you say that,” I asked.

“It ends on page thirty-four,” they said.

Me: “Is it boring, slow, uninteresting?”

Them: “No, it’s actually really exciting. But act one is supposed to end on page twenty-eight.”

Well if it’s really exciting who the hell cares what page it ends on? Structure is supposed to serve story, not the other way around. If it ain’t broke, why are you trying to fix it?

The other problem is there are a bunch of books and one day seminars that purport to teach screenwriting but really teach three act structure. That’s great as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go all the way to good writing. Structure’s only the first piece of good writing. There are now tens of thousands of perfectly structured really bad spec scripts floating around out there. Many of the writers are saying, “I don’t understand why my script didn’t sell. My act breaks all fall on the right pages.”

Audiences go to see movies for a lot of reasons – compelling characters, exciting scenes, witty dialogue, spectacle, humor, reassurance, escapism, profound themes, even on occasion beautiful scenery. But not one person goes to a movie to see act breaks.

That said, once we understand three act structure we can extrapolate some guidelines that will help us write better stories.

Guidelines, not rules.

And that will be a topic for my next post.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

How I Went From Film Student to Produced Screenwriter

Usually the first questions anybody in the film industry gets asked when they’re speaking somewhere is, “How did you break into the business?” So, I figured I would start this blog by answering that question. (The second question is, “How do I get an agent?” I’ll deal with that one at a later date.)

When I was a kid I saw Star Wars. I was so blown away by this movie that I read everything I could get my hands on about it – which wasn’t easy back then. This was before DVD commentary tracks and shows like Extra. As my young mind was devouring articles in Time magazine and the like, I kept reading about this guy named George Lucas who had a job called director. Sounds like a fun job, I thought. Maybe that’s what I’ll do when I grow up.

When I was growing up I didn’t know anybody in the movie business. In fact, I was so far removed from Hollywood that when I told friends, family and guidance counselors that I wanted to be a movie director, they all thought that sounded pretty great. Nobody knew how insanely competitive the field was or how many very talented people utterly failed in the business. I pursued directing the same way a high school student in Juneau, Alaska (where I lived) would pursue engineering. I researched what colleges were the best in the field and sent off my applications. I ended up at George Lucas’s alma mater: The University of Southern California.

As an undergrad I was in the production program. That is essentially a program to teach directing, though most people emphasized one technical area or another. I emphasized cinematography. When I graduated I worked back-breaking, low paying jobs doing such high tech tasks as coiling cable and holding the boom on music videos and public service announcements.

“At least you’re working on film sets,” people would say. I wanted to punch those people in the mouth. Turns out, having any job in film wasn’t enough for me.

I applied to graduate school largely because my father was bugging me to. I applied to USC because there was no application fee for alumni, and I applied in screenwriting because I figured I’d already done production. Right as I was coming off a job and wondering what I was going to do next, I got the acceptance letter.

I really discovered myself in USC’s screenwriting program. Turns out, I really liked writing and I was good at it. For my thesis, I wrote a romantic comedy script called “Melanie’s Getting Married” about a sophisticated woman from New York who must return to her small home town to convince her estranged white trash husband to give her a divorce so she can marry someone else.

When I graduated, USC sent out a list of all the graduating students’ thesis script log lines to producers and studios around town. From that I got a few dozen calls requesting to read the script. I guess that was a little unusual – the power of a good log line. From there, I met with half a dozen producers who liked the script. Half of those were actually real producers with offices and everything.

And then I started temping.

The people who had met with me said very flattering things about the script, but none of them wrote a check. So I sat down to write another script, one I’d started in school, an action adventure called “Undertow.” I didn’t know at the time you were supposed to stick with one genre early in your career. (Note: “Undertow” has not been produced yet, though another movie with a similar title has since been released.)

I sent “Undertow” to the people who liked “Melanie.” One of the companies I had met with was on the Disney lot. The person who had read my thesis script was the intern at the time. Now she was head of development. She really liked “Undertow,” but the company didn’t do action movies. However she thought I should have an agent and offered to make calls for me.

Her assistant had a friend who had just been made an agent at a large boutique literary agency. She asked if she could send the script to him. “Of course,” I said. That turned out to be the agent I signed with. (And that assistant became head of development at the production company a short time later…lesson: be nice to the assistants and interns.)

The agent sent out “Undertow” and Neal Moritz at Original Films liked it. We let him take it to three studios, all of whom also liked it. But all of them decided it was just too expensive. The project died, but Neal was pleased with the reaction and asked me to come in for a meeting. They asked what else I had and I gave them “Melanie’s Getting Married.” Neal didn’t go for it, but a protégé producer named Stokely Chaffin really liked it.

Stokely gave me some feedback on the script and I did a rewrite, but she was not able to get Original to buy it at the time. I went on to other spec scripts. Eventually I parted ways with my agent and got a permanent job at Disney Feature Animation. I was still writing scripts at night but with little success.

Then one day my phone rang. It was Stokely. I hadn’t spoken to her in probably two years but it turns out she’d been pushing my script the whole time and finally convinced Original to option it. We did the deal and I took the small option payment and bought a brand new piece of furniture for my apartment and went back to the day job.

A couple years passed. Other writers were hired to rewrite. Actors and directors came and went on the project. I would get phone calls from Stokely telling me the good or bad news and learned not to invest too much emotion into any of it. But they kept renewing the option and I kept cashing the checks and buying myself little presents. I also kept writing and got a new agent based on another script.

Then one day they actually made the movie. Nobody was as surprised as me. It had been re-titled “Sweet Home Alabama” and starred Reese Witherspoon. It resembled my original script more than I might have guessed and I was awarded “Story by” credit after a brutal Writers Guild arbitration process. The movie set a record for biggest September opening ($38 million) and went on to earn over $100 million domestically. I made enough to pay off my student loans and quit my day job.

I was an overnight success seven years after graduation.