Monday, December 20, 2010

How to Use Structure as a Writer

I’ve spent the last several weeks discussing screenplay structure in great depth.  Now I want to spend a moment to revisit how I think knowing this stuff is useful to you as a writer.

Most screenwriting books, workshops and classes focus heavily or even exclusively on either three act or mythology structure.  As a result, most aspiring screenwriters learn at least some basic structural concept early on.  And as a result, there are now thousands of perfectly structured really bad screenplays on the market.  Good structure does not make your screenplay good.  But it can keep it from being bad.

I’m also very leery of any kind of “paint by number” approach.  Sometimes “gurus” will imply that following their structural approach will result in a high quality, marketable screenplay.  It’s easy!  Just buy my book/class/dvd and you, too, can be a rich and famous screenwriter.

It’s not easy.  If it were everybody would be doing it.

Obviously people wrote great screenplays before anyone ever conceived of three-act structure.  We get bombarded with stories from infanthood and internalize a lot of this stuff.  However, sometimes things go awry and even the most talented of intuitive storytellers hits a structural problem.  If you understand how structure works you have a toolkit for solving that problem.  If you don’t, you’re likely to end up tossing your half-finished script in the trash.

The other side of that coin is that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  If your screenplay is fun and exciting and emotionally moving but violates some structural “rule” then I say ignore the rule.  However in my experience most effective screenplays end up hewing pretty closely to the ideas I’ve laid out in the last few weeks, whether intentionally or not.

Think of it like shooting free throws in basketball.  Even if you’ve never seen anyone shoot a basket, if you go out and toss the ball toward the rim a hundred times a few of your shots are likely to go in.  But if you want to be a pro, you learn about technique and your shooting percentage will go up.  You probably won’t reach 100% but you might get close.

So here’s how I approach the development process of a screenplay.  First, I have to figure out what my story is.  I keep ideas in notebooks.  A few of those ideas will keep popping into my head repeatedly over time.  So those are the ones I start to develop more fully.  I’ll make notes in the notebook of scenes and twists and character ideas until I start to have some sense of the complete story.

Next I’ll write out that story on a page or two, just to try to get down what’s in my head.  Only after that will I look at structure.  The most important things to figure out at this point is who the main character is and what the dramatic question of the movie is. 

Then I’ll start to lay out the main three act beats – catalyst, act one break, midpoint, act two break, epiphany and resolution. Simultaneously I’ll be thinking about the character – who they are, what their want and need is, how this story is going to affect them, what’s at stake.  Most likely I’ll be able to identify these elements in the summary I wrote from intuition and imagination. Laying it out helps me to get it all balanced and see where I need more development work.

Then over a period of time ranging from a few days to a year (depending on if I’m working for someone or writing on spec and what else is going on in my life) I’ll slowly fill in the rest of the story.  I’ll develop a 12-16 page outline delineating all the major scenes.  I’ll keep the structural ideas in mind for when I’m having trouble with a section of the story.

If you’re like me, once you learn this stuff it’ll be nearly impossible to put it completely out of mind.  I’ll think of a plot twist and immediately think, “oh, that’ll be the end of act two.”  But the more structural concepts become ingrained, the more you’ll be able to focus on the emotional, visceral, and thematic elements of your story.  And the more you’ll free your imagination to create something fresh and original.

Then you’ll have a well-structured script that’s actually about something.  That’s the real goal!


I'm pleased to announce that I have a chapter about character development in the upcoming book NOW WRITE! Screenwriting available January 6th.  You'll also find chapters from my friends Beth Serlin, Valerie Alexander and Paul Guay, as well as numerous other talented writers and writing teachers.

1 comment:

Dave's Girl said...

for screenplay structure, see Kal Bashir's excellent 510+ stage hero's journey at