Story structure is generally considered to be the most critical skill of the screenwriter. I don’t know if I completely agree with this, but I do think that if you don’t start with solid structure it is nearly impossible to create a successful screenplay.
I learned story structure (of the three-act variety) in grad school at USC. I’ve also read dozens of books on the subject, most of which added to or altered my approach in some ways. More importantly, I’ve written somewhere around twenty screenplays, some of which were bad, some of which were good, some of which got me an agent or paid writing work and in one case got made into a big hit movie. Each experience helped me hone my approach to story development.
When I got hired to teach my screenwriting class at Art Center College, I started building the syllabus around what I was initially taught. But I quickly realized some of that stuff I never used anymore. Plus, I wanted to include the other things that I had learned since. So I adjusted the class to reflect my then-current “real world” approach. And it was shortly after that that I started this blog, where I addressed story structure in some of my earliest posts.
In the two years since I have had the experience of helping hundreds of students hone their own screenplays. I’ve seen the mistakes they commonly make and adjusted my teaching approach accordingly. I’ve also become a better writer myself in the process. And as I look back at my initial posts on structure from 2008, I find that while they are still generally true to the three-act concepts as I see them, I feel like I have outgrown them a bit.
So, in Hollywood parlance, I’m going to do a “reimagining” of screenplay structure over the next several posts.
I want to start by discussing what I see as the foundation of narrative. This may seem a little basic at first, but there is a method to my madness. I want to show that the three-act approach is not some Hollywood formula but grows out of the fundamental nature of story telling.
So let me start by addressing the question: What is a story?
A story needs three things. First, we need a character. The character need not be human, but he or she must behave in recognizable human fashion – Mickey Mouse, for example. (The fancy word for non-human characters made to behave like humans is “anthropomorphized.”) If you don’t have a character you may be writing a travel guide, op-ed essay, or a scientific treatise but you are not writing a story.
Next, the character must be facing some kind of dilemma. I don’t really care to hear about someone whose life is just fine. I mean, that’s great for them but how does it affect me? Whatever it is that causes us to respond to made-up stories has something to do with watching how people deal with problems.
Finally, a story needs a resolution. I’m watching/listening/reading to find out how this character deals with their problem. I’m not going to be satisfied until I see how it all comes out.
If you have those three things you have a story – even a thirty-second narrative commercial has them. A young man (character) is not getting good gas mileage (dilemma) so he tries a different type of gasoline and his mileage improves (resolution).
But simply having a character, dilemma and resolution doesn’t necessarily make the story dramatic. If you have a guy sitting in his living room whose dilemma is that he’s hungry and he goes into the kitchen to make a sandwich you have a story…but not a very dramatic one.
There are two things that affect how dramatic your story is: stakes and obstacles. The more that’s at stake for the character and the greater the obstacles standing in the way of successfully resolving the dilemma, the more dramatic your story becomes. Of course “dramatic” isn’t quite the same as “good” but we’ll get to that.
Those five things – character, dilemma, resolution, stakes and obstacles – are the basis of three-act structure. In act one we introduce a character with a dilemma and show what’s at stake. In act two the character tries to resolve their dilemma but faces increasing obstacles. And in act three we get some kind of resolution (not necessarily successful, but final.)
So that’s the foundation of my approach to story. Over the next few posts I’ll discuss how I apply that to building a screenplay and look at each act in depth.