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Old 06-09-2019, 12:26 PM   #1
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Join Date: May 2005
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Default Structure 101: More than one way to build a screenplay (STPS #8)

My new blog is about screenplay structure.

What do we mean when we talk about the “structure” of a screenplay?

“Structure” isn’t the same as an outline or a beat sheet, though outlines and beat sheets are tools you can use to develop a structure.

Structure is like a framework or a skeleton. It’s what holds your script together and keeps it from being a pile of word mush.

Structure involves a lot of elements. For example, it can encompass:
  • Causation: THIS causes THAT
  • Dramatic Questions/Suspense: What’s going to happen next? What’s really going on here?
  • Pace: How fast/slow does the story move?
  • Variation: in scene length, intensity, etc.
  • Obstacles: what problems do the characters bump into?
  • Reversals: changes in direction/goals/wants, good-to-bad and vice-verse, etc.
  • Plants (clues), Reveals (surprises), and Callbacks (references to earlier events)
  • Framing Devices (prologues, epilogues, stories-within-stories, etc.)

Structure Doesn’t Mean Formula

I don’t believe in any “one-size-fits-all” theory of structure. Also, I’m highly suspicious of any overelaborate structure model, because that can lead to formulaic, paint-by-numbers scripts.

I don’t believe that if you do X by page 10 and Y by page 24 you’re well on your way to a great script. That’s just silly (but too many screenwriting books are based on such silliness).

But if you’re not applying any structural thinking to your script, you can end up with mush.

So here are some ways of thinking about structure.
"People who work in Hollywood are the ones who didn't quit." -- Lawrence Kasdan

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Old 06-09-2019, 10:23 PM   #2
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Default Re: Structure 101: More than one way to build a screenplay (STPS #8)

adding a few opinions of my own as they do vary.

structure is simply all the events that happen in a story start to finish and the order in which they happen. outlines are as much structure as is a beat sheet. what we are striving for is good story structure.

the old adage that problems in your third act often have to do with problems found in your first act structure are true. this often indicates your first act set up is weak, or missing vital elements that prevent your story from delivering on the promise of the premise.

it is the lack of good structure that leads to incoherent or disorganized storytelling often resulting in meandering plot lines and plot holes.

stories are about causation. this happens and because of that, this happens and so on and so on... one event must lead to the next event, so much so that if you remove any event in the story it should fall apart. all the events are necessary.

i.e. Luke goes with Obewan because his aunt and uncle are murdered and he has nothing to keep him on Tatooine. if his aunt and uncle are not murdered the story stops and Luke goes nowhere until another event forces him to make a choice. one thing happens because of another.

i.e. Tony Stark becomes Iron Man because he is a weapons manufacturer blown up by his own warhead and captured by enemy forces. and because of that event, he creates the device that prevents the shrapnel from entering his heart and designs a weapon to escape capture. one event leads to the next. that is causation.

some outlines or treatments can be nearly as long as a screenplay themselves. sometimes a writer may only have a few pages. the point is that not all writers or outlines, treatments, beat sheets, are created equal. some writers may only require a loose outline, maybe in their head and not written down.

i remember the story of Joe Eszterhas and how he wrote Basic Instinct in 13 days and sold it for a record, at the time, $3 million. he knew what he wanted to write.

it's not like making brownies where you always have the exact same ingredients: eggs, sugar, chocolate. this idea that if you have a tight structure with events happening at specific points in your story means you're "formulaic" is ridiculous.

saying you should have an event in the first 10% of your story is good story structure. having another turning point a the 25% mark keeps the story moving forward. these are generalizations. guidelines if you will. placing events at specific points isn't paint-by-number, because every story has different events and different characters. nor does using/following a story paradigm guarantee you will have a compelling story. it's a tool.

structure is in every story regardless of length. jokes. short stories. commercials. ballets. plays. movies. symphonies. web series. songs. novels. textbooks. greeting card messages.

probably the most detailed story paradigm is The Hero's Journey. if it's good enough for George Lucas, it's good enough for me. and once you understand various paradigms you also begin to realize that you already inherently understand story structure. we all do, because we as a species are always telling stories. and believe it or not, we're always revising our stories for the next person we tell.

understanding good story structure can be a powerful tool. but every writer has their own unique process. these are tools that help us get from fade in to fade out.

good story structure forces you to keep your story on the spine. it forces you to stay focused on story and not unimportant subplots and details that drag the primary story off the spine into muddy, diluted and irrelevant territory.

My opinions are just that-- opinions.
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Old 06-11-2019, 07:16 PM   #3
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Default Re: Structure 101: More than one way to build a screenplay (STPS #8)

If people that build houses tried to use our screenwriting terms to do it, most of the houses would be crooked, have 15 bathrooms and no bedrooms and be made for a family of 125 instead of 4.

That's because the real danger in all these things in following them to the letter is actually the stuff writers add that they don't need -- that ruins good screenplays. It's not that they leave out stuff, it's that they add things they don't need to please some structure god or godess.

We don't have to be ignorant of these things, but writers should do more of let's sit around the camp fire and tell a great story to the people listening to it... think about them and not hitting on the marks laid out in some book.

Because as Craig Mazin was just pointing out in his podcast -- that the problem with structure is it's a tool to look back on what we already created, not a great tool to create a movie.

We aren't building a table. We are painting like Bob Ross.

Last edited by Bono : 06-13-2019 at 09:41 AM.
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Old 06-11-2019, 09:44 PM   #4
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Default Re: Structure 101: More than one way to build a screenplay (STPS #8)

Originally Posted by Bono View Post
...Because as Craig Mazin was just pointed out in his podcast -- that the problem with structure is it's a tool to look back on what we already created, not a great tool to create a movie...
Well now that's sort of profound.

I'm usually finished my outline before I remember to worry about structure. It's story, first and foremost, yet somehow the thing just comes out right, literally after the fact. Sure, there may be minor tweaks, but it just seems to fit, by default.

After outlining, but before committing to the script, I used to use Michael Ray Brown's cool 'structure checklist' to make sure I had all the bases covered: Structure Checklist

Inevitably, I found most points in the list were covered off well enough, in my draft, but it was reassuring to go over them anyway.

For a couple of years, I guess as a result of sheer quantity of writing, most of it's just in-mind as I write, and I no longer even refer to this excellent (and free) guideline.

But why would I suggest that structure is mostly a default of storytelling?

Well, it's certainly not because I for one am somehow magically hard-wired to write automatic 3-Act structure. I figure it's because I (we) have watched and read and heard so many stories that it's ingrained in us that that is what constitutes story structure: A beginning, middle and end and oh, guess what, that's 3-Act structure!

But the thing is: You can't sell something so simple yet all-encompassing, and that's already inside most of us, for $39.99, can you?

I know that lots of people won't even start any sort of challenge without an accepted theory attached, aka instructions.

But with regard to writing, it has to be story above all; otherwise, a computer-generated script is coming soon to a theater near you!

No matter. If complex rules of structure make you feel good, go for it!
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Old 06-11-2019, 10:38 PM   #5
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Default Re: Structure 101: More than one way to build a screenplay (STPS #8)

It's like a mini lecture this episode and the example he uses is FINDING NEMO which is fun.
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Old 06-13-2019, 03:40 AM   #6
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Default Re: Structure 101: More than one way to build a screenplay (STPS #8)

Originally Posted by Bono View Post

It's like a mini lecture this episode and the example he uses is FINDING NEMO which is fun.
Thanks for the link, Bono. This was one those "I finally get it" talks.
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