Screenplay Structure

Started by Sleepless, January 25, 2013, 10:52:04 AM

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Very, very mild potential spoiler for The Master, but I'm treading extra cautiously here

Matt posted something on Facebook the other day blasting the consensus that "there's only one story – constantly retold" as bullshit. I couldn't agree more. It got me thinking more and more about the idea of screenplay structure, and how the idea that for a script to be successful it must conform to the traditional Hollywood three-act structure. I'm sure most of us here have read at least some of the books by Syd Field, Blake Snyder, etc. so I'm curious to get a thoughtful discussion going on the art of screenwriting and the element of screenplay structure in particular.

Those who believe that the three-act structure is the be-all and end-all seem to adamantly insist that even though it might be heavily disguised, all films abide by this convention. I'm not convinced. I think that a lot of the time they're trying to force it to fit their predetermined framework. What about The Master, for example? (A recent example which mostly everyone has seen). It's not your normal sort of narrative feature, but it does have a story, and there is plot progression – so could it be argued that this does fit the three-act structure, or is it its own thing? What other films have a distinctly unconventional approach to structure. There are obvious examples such as Pulp Fiction and Memento, of course. What about a film like Another Year? Does that abide by three-act structure or not?

I guess the reason that I want to talk about this is because I'm struggling with a screenplay myself right now. I know the tone, the feel, and the themes that I want to touch on, and moments which will add to this, but I really don't see it working within a conventional narrative structure. I'm actually thinking that it requires an unusual structure – taking 7 or 8 events (which will actually be lengthy scenes) and just stringing them together, cutting through time to tell this overall story. I'm sure other films have used this sort of structure in the past, but I've been unable to think of any within the past 24-48 hours while this has been on my mind.

I know that I can do whatever the fuck I want when writing my own screenplay, but just curious for others' thoughts on this. Am I just being lazy because I'm not ruthlessly cutting and forcing this into the acceptable norm? Maybe you can inspire something in me, or point me in the direction of other stimuli. Hell, I could write this thing and step back from the finished product and discover that it neatly lines up to the conventional three-act structure anyway without even realizing it. But I don't think that it will. I think it's going to play more like a series of shorts containing the same characters in progression, which ultimately add up to a cohesive whole.

Anyway... Screenplay structure. Thoughts?
He held on. The dolphin and all the rest of its pod turned and swam out to sea, and still he held on. This is it, he thought. Then he remembered that they were air-breathers too. It was going to be all right.


The Master actually fits a three-act structure really well. The inciting incident is Freddie accidentally poisoning the migrant worker, the first act turning point is him waking up on the boat and meeting Dodd, the mid-point, I would say is the two of them arguing in the jail cells, the second act turning point is Freddie riding away on the motorcycle, the climax is Freddie coming to see Dodd in England, and the denouement is Freddie hooking up with the pub girl.

The story may wander around loosely within each act, but it does adhere to a traditional structure. For what it's worth, I am something of a story structure loyalist. That doesn't mean a film needs to be as tightly controlled as Syd Field's books would suggest, but for the most part, any well-told story will have some form of beginning-middle-end structure to it. If you want to go totally avant-garde, that's fine, but it's a rarer thing than you'd think. The human brain is wired to interpret the world in story form.
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Quote from: KJ on January 25, 2013, 11:24:52 AM
My teacher once said that I have to know all the rules of screenwriting and structure before I can break them - that is bullshit. I want to write in my own way and try to figure out how to make the story work without thinking about how it is supposed to be done.  The most important thing is that the story is interesting and works. And if you can make the story interesting, then you're fine. How you do it doesn't matter IMO.

To me, this is like saying "I don't need to learn grammar to be a writer. I'm just going to string words together my own way." The greatest free-form jazz musicians in the world have the same knowledge of music theory as the greatest classical musicians, they just choose to do their own thing with it. Without that knowledge, they're just making noise.
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Quote from: Sleepless on January 25, 2013, 10:52:04 AM
Matt posted something on Facebook the other day blasting the consensus that "there's only one story – constantly retold" as bullshit.

I'mma get into this more when I'm not at work, but that's not quite what I said or meant. I just made a joke that there's only one story: "When is this going to end?" I was really poking fun at teachers who say things like "There's really only one story: Who am I?" or "Every story is a love story," and stuff like that.

As it happens, I am of the mind that there are only a limited amount of stories. I think the nature of stories is very, very limited. But that's not a problem. In fact, it can be exciting because storytelling involves being part of a tradition and also becomes about HOW you tell the story.

So I think you can break anything down to a handful of stories. HOWEVER, when it comes to structure, that's limitless. Moreover, there are no limits to the cinematic choices you can make. So that's exciting.

The 3-act structure works. It's not the only thing that works. It's not the right structure for everything. You can build new structures and ask yourself if they work.

I've tended recently to think more about musical structure, and it's sort of how I see THE MASTER's structure. Movements and sequences more than one thing leading to another and action/consequence. Those movements are based more in feeling than story. Scenes flow together to shape each sequence, then stops, then onto the next sequence with a different feeling, variations on the theme. The movie feels like a symphony to me.

ANOTHER YEAR has an episodic structure, and it has to be that way to align with the major theme of the movie. A traditional 3-act structure with all its gains/losses/lessons would not fit.

Anyway, I think you can invent structure or use established structure that you've seen work in other movies. It just comes down to: does this work? But stories themselves are just playing around with notions of conflict that already exist, I think, from the story as a whole to what drives individual scenes/moments. You could break all that down to a handful of stories.


Some great comments already, thank you. Matt, even though I misinterpreted what you meant while scanning through Facebook on my phone, you got me thinking, so thank you for that (you often do). I like what you think about The Master's structure working similar to musical structure - kind of what Polk is maybe getting at by referencing jazz musicians. That definitely seems to fit with what The Master does, adhering to the tentpoles of three-arc structure while drifting around between these points. It's interesting though, because when I saw The Master, one of the things which really struck me was that it didn't seem to adhere to this sense of structure, it seems like it's almost stream of consciousness. Which is of course intentional. And I realize the best Hollywood screenwriters are the ones who churn out excellently structured narratives where you don't see the structural elements.

I'm not trying to do anything avant guard with what I'm currently working on. I want it to be accessible. But it's just a matter of finding the right balance I guess. I do think the episodic structure is going to be what's going to work best.

Keep the comments coming though. This is good.
He held on. The dolphin and all the rest of its pod turned and swam out to sea, and still he held on. This is it, he thought. Then he remembered that they were air-breathers too. It was going to be all right.


Here's my take on it.

What are the 3 acts, a general idea:

1- Presentation of the world/characters/mood
2- Character development (contrast, changes, etc...), going deeper into the world you created.
3- Consequences, what it all meant. What the character did with all the little things that happened to him.

I didn't really study screenplay writing, I had a class about that and all I had in my mind is this (something I already had before btw).

Which film doesn't have this structure ? I mean, even INLAND EMPIRE, Eraserhead, Mulholland Drive or even Zerkalo(The Mirror) have this structure. We are talking about very abstract films here.

To me, it's always the way you tell things, but the way you organize the information is always the same. Even if you start with the ending, it's a mystery thing, something that grabs the audience (For sure) but come on, it's still a presentation of the mood and characters. Don't you agree ?

To me you don't have to think about them. Things will come along, you just need to feel it. To me there isn't much intellect in art, while creating, there's in the shaping of the creativity/assembly but the core must be felt and deeply personal.


How many of you folks structure and plan the events of your screenplay before you write? Or do you just jump into it?


I think it's important to have certain plot points in mind that you find exciting, but getting to those places in the story should unfold naturally out of the character's quest, not your particular 'grand scheme' as a writer.

you don't have to listen to me, though. I'm a zero.


I'm a zero too.

And I agree with what you said. I plan it out and then see what happens (it usually changes quite a bit by itself).


I think there's a common misconception that outlining is somehow divorced from actual writing, or that the goal of outlining is build a rigid plot skeleton that you then have to cram your story into no matter how much your characters and themes bulge grotesquely out the cracks.

On the contrary, I see outlining as simply the process of thinking your story through before committing it to its final format. Unless you have Jon Peters standing over your shoulder telling you Superman has to fight a giant spider in the third act, the point isn't to retrofit your story to hit predetermined points, but to be able to go through and examine from all angles how your story and your characters progress. Who are your characters? What is their situation? What happens that alters that situation? How do they react to it? What does that reaction drive them to do? How has that choice changed them, and what is the new situation they're faced with as the result? You could stop at the first question and start scripting, but what happens 60 pages in when you realize you took a wrong turn back on page 20 and your whole story is suffering from what seemed like the right choice at the time? If you're incredibly disciplined, maybe you go back and fix what needs to be fixed and redo 40 pages from scratch, but if you're anything like me, odds are you just get frustrated and put the whole thing to the side, hoping to return to it but never actually doing so.

To me (and this is the result of a major evolution over years of writing), outlining is just as much a part of the process as scripting and revising are. And the lovely thing of it is, the more you focus on the outlining, which can actually be fun and creative and gratifying, the less you typically have to worry about the revising, which tends to be mind-numbing and soul-crushing.

The process I go through now, which has made my writing so much better and so much more rewarding, is: start with a very basic description of your story, essentially your logline. If nothing else, you want a sense of what kicks off the story and the general direction that takes it. From there, figure out who your characters are. Beyond general description, you need to figure out what their internal struggle is. How is each person in your story affected by the events of the story? You absolutely positively HAVE TO know who your characters are before you start plotting, because everything that happens will derive from the actions they choose at each step of the way, and if those choices are not beholden to some logical consistency built into those characters, your story sucks and I don't want to see your movie.

From there, I write a fairly brief prose outline, maybe 2 to 4 pages, just working out the broad strokes of the story. This is where you really want to put the last step to use, because every time you ask yourself, "What happens next," the answer is always going to be found in your knowledge of the characters. And the deeper that knowledge goes, the easier those answers become clear. It's at this stage that the major themes of your story will likely start revealing themselves to you as well, and that's a fun process to be a part of.

That done, if you want to start writing the script from there, I would fully support your decision. For me, though, I would move on to the scene-by-scene outline, which is exactly what it sounds like. Using my previous outline as a loose guide, I start working out the setup and payoff of every single scene in the movie. Where are they, who's in the scene, what happens. There are two huge benefits to this: it will cut the time it takes to you finish the full script immeasurably, and it will help you find major problems and fix them before you've committed too much to paper.

I guarantee you, if you take the time to work through these steps, writing the actual script will be easier, faster, and you'll be so much happier with your first draft than you would be if you just started scripting with nothing more than an idea and a title (side note: starting with a title is fine, but 99% of the time the script itself will suggest a much better title once it's done). I find that when you've put this much thought into it beforehand, issues will become apparent immediately as you're writing, and solutions come much more easily. It's a wonderful feeling to hammer out a solution to a problem in your story and realize that same change solves a problem elsewhere in your story. I'm not saying that's impossible to achieve when you're writing by the seat of your pants, but it seems to happen more easily and more often the more thought and effort you've put into the story and the characters prior to the actual writing.

Aaaaand that concludes today's edition of Pretentious Thoughts on Screenwriting with Polkablues. Tune in next week for "'As I'm Sure You Know...': How to Better Hide Exposition in Dialogue."
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Good post. I have a little excel file for scene-by-scene outlines, but they're closer to brief descriptors with occasional notes than anything.


I'm a huge fan of corkboards and index cards.
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Jeremy Blackman

I've always wondered if there's good software for outlining. The closest thing I can think of is OmniGraffle.
Living life big time


I feel like a program like that would be overkill. All you really need is something that lets you lay your scenes out in order and move them around if you need to. If I'm doing it on the computer, I'm more likely just to use a standard word processor. If you're primarily a visual thinker, I can see how some sort of diagramming/mind-mapping program might be useful, though.
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i've noticed as i've written more and more throughout my life, screenplays end up stronger if you don't outline. like have an outline in your head, start writing and if it deviates let it go where it's gonna go. the more and more you force it into what you think it is before characters start talking, the more heavy handed and guided it comes across. its a to each his/her own kinda thing, but i'd give it a shot.
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