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.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Fargo - Act Three

(SPOILERS:  Fargo)

Time to wrap up my analysis of Fargo (written by Ethan and Joel Cohen) by examining Act Three.  Remember, I’m working from the screenplay available here.

The first thing we look for in Act Three is the aftermath of the Act Two Break.  In this case we see Jerry trying to clean up the crime scene.  He doesn’t really have a plan anymore, but he’s trying desperately to get out of the hole he’s dug.  He goes home where his son alerts him that his father-in-law’s lawyer is trying to reach him.  This serves two purposes:  a reminder of the human toll of Jerry’s actions and an emphasis of the danger Jerry’s in.  How does Jerry react?  He goes to bed.

We then see aftermath in the form of minor characters’ reactions to recent events – the ever-tightening noose of the investigation and Carl burying the money.

Next we get the epiphany.  It’s a bit unusual here in that the realization comes to the antagonist.  Marge learns the old school chum she met was lying to her.  This prompts her to go back to the dealership and talk to Jerry.  His story doesn’t quite add up, after all – maybe he's lying, too.  This is the moment that will lead to Jerry’s undoing.  He can’t answer her questions and flees.

Now Marge begins to figure out what’s really going on.  This leads to the resolution when she finds the missing car and arrests the surviving kidnapper.  Carl and Jerry’s wife are dead.  And the final bit of the conclusion is Jerry being pulled over and arrested.  The dramatic question of “Will Jerry succeed in his kidnapping plan” set up in Act One has been answered definitively in the negative.

Lastly there’s a little denouement where we see Marge and her husband living their nice little domestic life.  This gives us a positive note to end on, that life is good for those who value family over money and have strong ethics.

The things that are most interesting to me about Fargo are the “wrong” Act Two Break that I discussed in the post on the movie’s Act Two and the hope and fear of the film.  This is an example where we are rooting for the antagonist.  We have ambivalent feelings for Jerry, though.  We don’t really want him to get away with his plot, but neither do we want to see his wife or father-in-law killed.  So the outcome of the crime is somewhat bittersweet for us.  Which makes the denouement important in mitigating the unpleasantness of the story.  It’s always important to think of the feeling you want the audience to have when they leave the theater.

Ultimately what makes Fargo work is the quirky characters and the unusual setting.  It has a certain verisimilitude derived from its specificity.  And though it is an indie film, it still mostly follows traditional three-act structural principals.  Most importantly, it has a very strong dramatic question, set up in the catalyst and answered in the resolution, that defines the scope of the film and pulls the audience through.

Perhaps not the clearest example of structural principles, but evidence that strong structure is important even in more “artsy” films.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Act Three

(SPOILERS:  Star Wars, Some Like It Hot, Little Miss Sunshine, Zombieland)

We’ve now reached Act Three in my in-depth look at story structure.  Act Three is of course the ending of your movie.  You want to make sure you end with a bang.  There’s a saying: the first ten pages are the most important part of a screenplay and the last ten minutes are the most important part of a movie.  That’s because you need to grab the reader up front to sell a screenplay, but a movie audience will largely judge a film on how it ends.

Or so the theory goes.  To be safe, I’d make sure your screenplay has both a strong beginning and ending.  Grab ‘em early and leave ‘em with a “wow.”   This means, just like in the opening of your movie, you don’t want to bog down Act Three with a lot of exposition or subplot.  The whole movie has been building to this point – everything should already be set up.  Act Three is the time to pay it off.


The first thing that usually happens in Act Three is we get a sequence that shows the aftermath of the Act Two Break.  This is why I don’t like to call the Act Two Break the “lowest moment.”  More often things go downhill from the failure of Act Two for a while.  The actual lowest moment usually comes just before the Epiphany.

For example, in Some Like It Hot (screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond) we see Joe packing up to go on the run with Jerry yet again.  Joe will have to discard his disguises and leave Sugar behind.  We see him mourn this lost love as they’re throwing clothes into their suitcases. 

In a movie where the Dramatic Question is going to be answered in the negative, this is reversed.  The character celebrates their victory from the end of Act Two.  So in Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt) after the family successfully gets Olive to the pageant, Olive gets to meet Miss California and learns Miss California eats ice cream, which makes Olive very happy.

The aftermath sequence gives the audience an emotional payoff to the failure or success of the Act Two Break and emphasizes the consequences.

The Epiphany

When the character has really hit rock bottom (or the height of their success), that’s when the Epiphany comes.  This is the twist that shows us how the character is going to succeed (or fail) after all.  For example, in Star Wars (written by George Lucas) the Epiphany is the briefing scene when the general explains the weakness in the Death Star.  Luke now knows how he can beat Darth Vader.  Most often the character themselves has the realization, but sometimes the character has already figured it out and it’s the audience who’s let in on the secret.

It’s important here that you avoid the Deus Ex Machina ending.  This is an ending where some outside force saves the day for the character.  The term comes from Aristotle and means literally “god in the machine” referring to those ancient plays where an actor playing Zeus would be lowered in a basket to sort everything out for the characters.  A more modern equivalent would be the cavalry to the rescue in a western.  Endings where the character succeeds by pure luck also fall into this category.

To avoid this, the Epiphany must be set up.  Whatever realization the character has must be planted, usually around the midpoint.  We know Princess Leia has put something into R2D2.  Luke has rescued Leia and brought her and the ‘droid back to the rebels.  When it is revealed that the robot contains the Death Star plans and that these reveal a weakness, it feels organic because the elements have been planted and Luke was critical to bringing them together.  But the audience was kept in the dark just enough so that they didn’t know how this twist would come about.

In Some Like It Hot, the epiphany is when Joe exposes himself to confess his love to Sugar and kiss her on stage.  He realizes he’s no longer the carefree playboy; that he’s actually fallen for her.  He can’t leave her behind.  In Zombieland (written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick) Columbus decides to go after Wichita despite the fact that she’s rejected him.  

In Little Miss Sunshine the epiphany is when Richard realizes he loves Olive more than he cares about winning.  He wants to stop her from competing in the pageant for fear she’ll be humiliated.  He hasn’t quite figured out how he’s going to succeed (Olive does compete) but he’s had the key realization he needs for the Resolution.

The Resolution

The Resolution is the climax of the movie.  It should be big and exciting and emotional.  It is also the moment when the Dramatic Question is answered either positively or negatively.  Thus it is what we’ve been waiting for since the Catalyst.

In addition to making this a big moment, it is crucial that you make it a final moment.  The Dramatic Question must be answered definitively.  If our hero can just go out and try again, then we don’t feel like the question is resolved.  The Resolution must be the last chance for success or failure.  If Luke can’t destroy the Death Star then the rebellion will be crushed.  It’s not just another battle; it’s the climactic battle.

The resolution is usually pretty obvious.  Luke destroys the Death Star.  Joe, Jerry and Sugar escape the mob. Columbus rescues Wichita from the zombies.  In Little Miss Sunshine Richard gets up onstage with Olive and dances with her in support, and in defiance of the pageant people who want Olive off the stage.  Olive may lose the pageant, answering the Dramatic Question in the negative, but the family has come together.

The Resolution in the mythology structure spelled out by Joseph Cambell in The Hero With A Thousand Faces (and applied to screenwriting by Christopher Vogler in his book The Writer’s Journey) is called the Final Conflict and operates the same way.  But this is also the point where the hero becomes Master of Both Worlds – the normal world and the special world.  Luke is a successful space adventurer and he’s found a new family among the rebels.


Once you’ve answered the Dramatic Question, your story is over.  However, you may want to wrap up a few loose ends or give the audience a little emotional closure with a final scene or two. This is the Denouement.  In Star Wars we see a medal ceremony where the heroes bask in their victory and smile lovingly at each other. 

This is fine as long as it doesn’t go on too long.  If your script continues more than a few pages after the Dramatic Question has been resolved, then your reader will start to wonder why they’re still reading.  They’ll feel the script is anti-climactic or has multiple endings.  Once you’re story is done, get to FADE OUT as soon as you can!

And with that, I’ll wrap up this post before you accuse me of going on too long.