Three Things About Screenplay Structure

Seeing as today is Day 1o in the Zero Draft Thirty Challenge, many if not most of the writers participating it are working on the middle section of their scripts. Here and over in the Facebook group, I noticed several comments wherein writers worried about how long their first act was… a key plot point happening too early or too late… concern over how the draft may be too long. That precipitated a Facebook post which I am copying here:

Three Things About Screenplay Structure

1. There isn’t one right way to tell a story. No single formula or screenplay paradigm to fit all stories. However due to the influence primarily of Syd Field and Save the Cat, there is a certain amount of conventional wisdom about how and when certain things *should* happen. Ultimately that is bull shit (I’m talking from a purely creative standpoint). However it’s something we have to be aware of.

BTW this is one of the downsides of the preponderance of various screenplay formulas. Script readers and creative execs, who may not have much in the way of training with re story, pick up these formulas and assess scripts on that basis. The problem is while one formula may work for one story, it doesn’t work for another. So you have readers critiquing stories based on a narrow formulaic take on script structure.

My point: Be aware of these prejudices — and finally, that’s what they are — but DON’T LET THEM RULE YOUR CREATIVITY!

2. Write your story the way YOUR STORY NEEDS TO BE TOLD! If your first act absolutely NEEDS more setup so it ends on 35, so be it. If, on the other hand, your story DEMANDS you leap into Act II by 15, go for it.

Stories are ORGANIC. This is one big honking reason why writing to formula is so dangerous because you can strangle the creative energy right out of your script.

That said, you have to be CONFIDENT about your connection to your story to verge significantly away from general expectations on the part of Hwood readers. Don’t think of it as restricting you rather as touch points to make sure your story ABSOLUTELY needs to veer from the norm.

If it does, you HAVE to write it that way. In all things, the STORY rules. Not the formula. Not the paradigm. Not the conventional wisdom. Not the prejudices. The Story is King, Queen, Prince, Princess, Duke, ruler of all. Ultimately you are beholden to your Story and that’s it.

3. IMHO the single best way for you to go into the story and have it structure emerge ORGANICALLY is by immersing yourself in the life of your characters. After all, it’s THEIR story, no one knows their experience better than they.

My advice: When you do story prep or even a crazy challenge like ZDT, start and end with your characters. Follow THEIR lead. Trust they will lead you into and through the story’s structure.

There’s also this: At the end of the day, readers want to FEEL something. How do they do that? Through their connections with characters and the experiences they have in the plot.

I just read a great interview with the three time Oscare winning film editor and sound engineer Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now, Ghost, The English Patient) and he said something interesting:

“Our medium is called motion pictures, but it could also be called emotion pictures. That seems to be the main driving force behind it. When I made a list of six criteria for determining what kind of things you weigh when you choose to cut from one shot to another, emotion is at the top.

Identification with characters is the main thing that will create emotion. You feel as if you are with these people, whoever they are onscreen, and you want them to succeed against all odds. And you are rooting for them and you’re agonizing with them when they fail and you’re feeling great when they succeed. There are several ways to mine the vein of emotion, but that’s the main one.”

We do a great deal of thinking when working on story structure, but in actuality we should be doing at least as much FEELING in the process. How? By going into our characters… and see where they take us.

So again re story structure:

Be aware of conventional wisdom and reader expectations, but understand there are no rules in this regard, no ‘right’ way to tell a story.

Write your story the way it needs to be told.

The best way to have story structure emerge organically and tap into its emotional life is by immersing yourself in the lives of your characters.

A side benefit of ripping into and through a Zero Draft: It reminds us of the freedom we have. When our focus is on the characters and what is happening in each scene, rather than page counts, we are much more likely to get in touch with the emotional life of the story.

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