Screenplays Are Structure

August 13, 2009

[Note: If you read this blog because of your interest in Liberty in the Fires (aka Men of Gray III), be advised that this entry deals primarily with the process of screenwriting, not the movie project]

If you’ve ever written fiction for any other kind of story form, you may be wondering if all of this effort I’m going through to “structure” the screenplay is necessary. 

To this, I would ask, is it necessary to change the oil in your car every 4,000 miles? Is it necessary to stretch your muscles before going for a run? Is it necessary to stop and smell the roses along the way?

Of course, none of these things is “necessary.” But they are all considered wise.

Likewise, writing a screenplay with careful attention to its dramaturgical structure from the get-go is a good idea, even if it’s not necessary. This is perhaps more the case with screenwriting than other forms of writing because…

Screenplays are unique

At first blush, screenplays and novels may appear very similar. But actually the novel is a much more flexible narrative form, both in structural design and overall length. For two of those reasons in particular, careful thought to the structural elements is essential to the success of the screenplay.

  • First, other forms are more structurally forgiving
    The percentage of successful novels that ignore the fundamental theories of the narrative form is considerably higher than the percentage of successful movies that have broken from standard dramaturgical constructs. By comparison, nearly every movie that has done well at the box office conforms to certain dramaturgical standards (three acts, built around a primary conflict, ending with a resolution of the conflict, adhering to the genre expectations, and so forth).
  • Second, the screenplay is rigidly constricted by length
    When writing a novel, there really is no set length requirements. If you can tell your whole story in 100 pages that’s okay. If you need 500 pages to tell it, that might be okay also. However, go to a Blockbuster store and browse through the new releases, noting the duration of each movie. I would be shocked if you find one that is less than 88 minutes or more than 130 minutes.There’s a good half dozen reasons as to why this is, but the point is that any story idea, no matter how great, must be structured by the screenwriter so that it conforms to the standard movie length, playing out at no less than 90 minutes and no more than 120 minutes.  Following the standard screenplay format, that means 90 to 120 pages.

Perhaps the most unique characteristic of the screenplay compared to other literary forms is that it isn’t written to be read by the consumer; it’s a blueprint for building a movie. Because of this, it’s generally accepted that…

Screenplays are structure

When I say that screenplays are structure, I’m quoting famed screenwriter and novelist William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Marathon Man, All the President’s Men, Heat, The Princess Bride…). Most other screenwriters concur. Rather than belabor the point — you’re welcome to do your own research on it (I’ve provided some links at the end of this blog entry to get you started) — just know that my reasons for carefully planning the structure of the screenplay are based on my personal experience and on this premise that a good screenplay is built on a solid, familiar structure.

In his book Screenwriting 434, Lew Hunter explains that, while “in life, things happen one after the other,   in structure [i.e., the structured writing of a screenplay] one thing happens because of the other.”  In other words, the screenwriter structures the sequential “happenings” to propel the story forward. Renowned author Syd Field states that “Structure is the most important element in the screenplay.  It is the force that holds everything together; it is the skeleton, the spine, the foundation.”  So, when it comes to the process of structuring, does this necessarily mean that…

It’s my way or the highway?

No. It’s my personal experience that the structural exercises I’ve been describing, and that I’m about to move through, are a valuable time investment in the development of a screenplay.

If these methods don’t work for you, that’s fine. Perhaps you have one of those rare minds that can juggle dozens of concepts simultaneously over a period of days or weeks without losing track of each individual bit. And perhaps you’ve got a gift for maintaining a visual map in your mind that allows you to objectively see how those individual component pieces that make up each of those story concepts can or should complement one another, and thereby analyze their relative importance to the story — all while enveloping your most creative mental processes on breathing life the poetic beauty of the story’s telling.

If your brain works in that rare and fortune away, you can probably just sit down and start typing. But if your mind is more like mine, you may get value in using these structural mapping processes that I employ in your own writing. The process creates a physical representation of the story elements that you can see with your eyes, touch with your fingers, and refer to while you write.

Even a fairly simple screenplay will inevitably have many secondary themes or subplots or supporting character developments that weave their way as story threads through the fabric of the screenplay. Without a good mental map of your story, it’s easy to end up with incomplete story threads that will annoy the moviegoer. Worse, you may lose the balance of the story, getting lost on the trail of an interesting subplot within the universe of your story. It’s hard enough to keep the story to 100 pages even when you have a razor-sharp focus on the needs of your main storyline. Losing yourself in something off the beaten track muddies your narrative and forces you to either completely restructure the story, or delete much of what you’ve just written because it was ultimately unnecessary. So, when writing a screenplay, it’s helpful to remember that…

Screenwriting is both a subjective and objective process

If you enjoy the process of writing fiction, you most likely find it addictively engrossing and necessarily subjective. How then can you keep one hand on the wheel of the story’s structural requirements while you are purposely submersed deep within the scene and within the minds of the characters you are creating?

That’s the trick, you see. To be a successful screenwriter, you need to be both subjective and objective as you create your story. Writing fiction is a naturally subjective process. Conforming that creative process to the time-boxed and convention-laden strictures of the screenplay requires that you never lose your objectivity even as you delve into the creative, subjective process of writing.

For this reason, I recommend that you try it before you knock it; if you want to write a screenplay, try using the visual mapping processes I’m describing in this blog, particularly if you haven’t yet successfully written a complete screenplay or if you have written one but were not happy with the result.

Researching Screenplay Structure

If you want to learn more about the structural standards of screenwriting, these links may help:

A Toast to the End of Deconstruction

August 10, 2009

I feel it’s time to celebrate; not because I just added “The People” as a story thread, shown here… Citizens-Thread-Added

…but because it is the last and final story thread I intend to develop and break down on the corkboard with this deconstruction process.

What comes next really gets my blood pumping (in a good way) and my brain synapticating (of course it’s a real word) — the launch of the story construction stage. This is where the story structuring board process earns its merit badge. Up to now, the board has helped me to analyze the story by deconstruction — representing (as a series of individual index cards) any story thread important enough to the fabric of the tale to be identified and broken down into its component parts.

But now, it’s time to build.

Using what I’ve discovered from the deconstruction process, the board will now help me define the scenes and shape their content as I sort and sift, regrouping the cards on the board and assigning them to key events or moments on the timeline of the story.

More on this later.  But now, it’s time to toast.  🙂

Construct Something, THEN Deconstruct

August 6, 2009

A few of you who happen to also be writers, or are so inclined, have expressed interest in the story structuring board and the process I’m using with it. If it motivates you to try using index cards like this to break down the story analytically to aid in structuring a story, that’s cool, but let me first say something important about the way I’m using it.

My tabula ain’t rasa

I first use the story structuring board as a deconstruction tool . . . which of course implies (correctly) that I have already constructed something. In other words, the board is not Step One for me in creating a story. 

In this project, for instance, I’ve already created an eight-page summary (not quite a step sheet but more than a regular one-page synopsis) that tells the story from beginning to end.  In that sense, the story is complete, even if only at a very high level; I know how I want it to start, how I want it to end, and who the primary characters are. I have a general idea of how the story needs to play out to reach its conclusion. 

So, where does the board come in?

Once I complete a summarized version of a story, and type it out into something I think I can sell (or that has persuaded someone to hire me to develop the full story from the concept), it’s time to expand that into a full story.  This is when writing gets trickier, and when I gain the most value in using the index cards to analytically develop, deconstruct, and order the story’s dramaturgical elements.

But, first, I suggest that you solidify your story summary before trying this deconstruction process. Without that as your first step, your index cards could turn into a granulation nightmare — a thousand points of light when all you needed to tell your story was a few dozen.

No story structuring board? No worries, mate.

August 5, 2009

While the massive 4-by-8 corkboard has made it easy for me to deconstruct and plan out the story (see how to make your own here), don’t fret if you haven’t one and haven’t the means to make or buy one for your own story development.  Because:

  • This deconstruction process I use may not be “your thing.” It helps me tremendously, but my brain and your brain may not work the same.
  • Even without the wall space or a big corkboard to mount on it, an open area of flooring works just fine, as you can see here:

floor version

In fact, depending on the room size, this could be a better solution for you than a corkboard.  I’m house-sitting this week for a friend, so I needed to move my story structuring cards to the new location so i could keep working on it. With his one open-spaced room, this is no problem.

The disadvantages of doing this on the floor: your cards could be more easily disturbed by wind, pets, kids, or other family members.  But it’s a fine next-best solution.

Build your own story structuring board? Sure!

August 4, 2009

I’ve had a couple of writers who, intrigued by the deconstruction process I’ve employed with this screenplay, ask me about the board itself – where did I get it? How much did it cost? So, here’s the scoop.

First, about the board itself . . .

You can read more about why I built rather than bought this story structuring board in the post “Fertile ground for story structure visualization.” If your situation and reasons are similar to mine and you want therefore to build a board to do your own story structuring, here’s how. 

I threw this together in my workshop, spending less than $20 in supplies and less than five hours of labor.  You can make it for even less time and cost if you skip the frame. It may not hold up beyond the one-time use though, so build the frame if you plan to use it more than once. Here’s what the finished board looks like:

 4x8 Board

The mock corkboard material:

A sheet of real cork big enough to fit my plans would have been a bit costly.  Instead, I chose a 4’ x 8’ slab of half-inch sound dampening insulation sheet material, which I picked up at my local home center for just $11.  This spongy material is normally used in wall or floor construction, attached behind the outer wall board (or under the flooring) to reduce sounds from passing through from adjacent rooms. But it has worked beautifully as a cheap alternative to cork, holding pushpins as firmly as cork, and is just as easy to pull the pins back out of.

Building the frame:

The wood frame is simple 1” x 3” pine, sometimes called furring strips. Cheap and sturdy stuff. 🙂 In fact, the better-grade pine boards in stock at my local home store were all warped or twisted, so I ended up buying the $.99 1 x 3 furring strips, which, strangely, were more “true” than the more expensive pine stock.  So, I’ll get no awards for the design, but it was delightfully cheap. You could get a higher grade of pine for about four times as much – or spend considerably more for a hardwood material if you want to get real fancy. But the cheapest stuff in stock has worked just fine for my purposes.

  1. Saw the stiles (the upright frame pieces) to 4 feet (since the board you’re framing is 4’ by 8’). If you want to get a bit fancier with the corners I like did (truly unnecessary), you can make your stiles a bit longer so it matches the total top-to-bottom length of your finished bulletin board.  It takes a bit more math than I care to go into here, especially since it’s an optional thing.
  2. Your rails should be 8 feet in length already, so there’s nothing to cut there.
  3. Ideally, create a “lip” by routing out about a half-inch by half-inch channel in all four rail pieces, which will keep the bulletin board material penned in against the wall. If you don’t have a router or table saw, you can skip this step by using my workaround, described below.
  4. Sand the four frame pieces. I suppose you could skip this step if your frame pieces are smooth enough. With the cheaper grade lumber, it probably isn’t.


I purposely chose not to join the frame pieces to each other, as one normally would in traditional joinery, because I had never worked with this mock “corkboard” material, and  I wanted to be able to easily replace it in case it turned out to lack durability (Side note: I’ve been using it heavily for several months now, and it’s going strong).  However, if you’re into woodworking and are familiar with joinery techniques, and want to build this in a more conventional fashion, knock yourself out. As for the rest of us…

  1. Decide how high you want to mount the board on the wall. Your primary concern is to not mounted so high that you can’t easily post things on it. For me, that meant mounting it so the bottom of the finished board was about knee-high.
  2. Mark that bottom edge position with a piece of masking tape near each end of where you plan to mount the board.
  3. Screw this bottom rail piece to the wall, making sure that you are screwing into one of the wall studs.
  4. Carefully rest the 4 x 8 mock corkboard sheet on top of this bottom rail. The material is fairly lightweight, but it’s hard to work with by yourself because of the size, so get the help of a friend, who can also hold it up against the wall while you do the next step.
  5. Hold one of your stiles (the upright) up against the left side of the cork board, and then screw it into the wall. Repeat the process for the right side stile, and then the top rail.
  6. Unaided, the mock corkboard will likely stay in place while you’re surrounding it with the rails and stiles, even if you had routed in a “lip” (not unlike the one you would have a picture frame) on the frame pieces. If you did build that lip, your story structuring board is done. If you didn’t have the tools to build the lip, you can also secure the corkboard by attaching a thinner material, such as a half-inch by 2-inch strip of wood, to your frame pieces so that it overlaps the cork board, pinning it in against the wall.

The nice thing about this design is that, if you ever want to move the board to a new location, simply unscrew the frame pieces, carry everything individually, and reassemble it. And, as cheap as the mock cork material was, if it starts to wear out, just toss it, and replace it with another by unscrewing the top rail and one of the side pieces, sliding in the new corkboard, and screwing the two pieces back on.

As for my angled frame corners: an interesting story . . . 

To keep the project cheap, I bought a total of three of those 1″ x 3″ furring strips. Which, if you think about it, doesn’t really make it possible to surround a 4′ x 8′ sheet with standard framing, because the total width and height won’t be 4′ x 8′ but rather 4′ x 8′ PLUS the width of the frame pieces. So, the only attractive solution was to angle the edges to mask that “design flaw” by making the 45-degree corners, like so: 

Board corner detail

I’m sure there’s some logical, mathematical way to calculate the way to get the side stiles just right so the horizontal and vertical frame pieces match up seamlessly, but I didn’t know of any mathematical method. So, I just carefully guessed, eyeballing it. Happily, it worked.

A crumbling social infrastructure plagues hopes for betterment

August 3, 2009

As the story opens, we see that the economy and much of the country’s infrastructure is in a dangerous and degenerating state. Our story’s hero, Joe Cameron, believes he can pinpoint the cause and the solution to many of his beloved island nation’s social woes. The problem is that, even though he’s risen to a high level in the country’s police force, there’s a limit to how much he can realistically do about these pervasive concerns in his current position. Meanwhile, due to crumbling a economy, his officers are under-staffed and lack the equipment or technology to do their jobs effectively.

So, with these pressing stresses and with Joe’s attempts to do something about them, I created a story thread of sorts (see below) to represent the development of his efforts from the first act setup of this antagonistic situation to the final act’s payoff, which may not be a resolution of the country’s socioeconomic trials, but will at least show the positive effect that Joe’s actions have wrought upon them.

I wish I could say that these are purely hypothetical circumstances.  Unfortunately, the country we anticipate shooting this movie in, Trinidad & Tobago, is having some vexing economic and infrastructural issues along these lines.  Hopefully, the movie can provide some inspiration by presenting some legitimate options for improving the situation.  The thread:


Positing a Political Riptide

August 1, 2009

Politics and politicians are a bold thread in the fabric of this story, influencing the culture, the opinions of the public, and occasionally directly thwarting our protagonist’s good intentions.  This thread is now up on the story structuring board: Adding the politic story threadWith the exception of a few key political instigators, such as Joe Cameron’s older brother, the way I plan to treat the politics (elections, governmental structure) for the majority of the story is as a backdrop, rather than an overt storyline. I expect it to be more of a pervasive presence throughout, and often the implied root cause of many of the country’s socioeconomic woes.  It will act as a symbol … like a riptide or undertow: a dangerous, often subliminal undercurrent that influences the masses.

Further in the dramaturgical foreground is the human element – the elected officials who collectively act as an antagonistic force, frustrating Joe Cameron’s efforts. The politicians’ rhetoric and actions often appear benign or even helpful to the public, yet, like a riptide, is actually dragging the citizens away from solid ground, and into a disastrous future.

To the fore of the storyline are “The Instigators.” These are the key political antagonists, whom we will know by name. They are lead by Joe’s elder brother, the story’s primary antagonist.

One fun twist – I’m not yet sure how bold or subtle an element this will be – is “The Exceptions” – those government officials who want to serve with integrity, but are greatly outnumbered and generally too frightened to speak out against their less honorable equals.  However, far into the second act, their importance to the plotline leaps out when they are galvanized by Joe’s unexpected influence in a surprising story twist . . . not to be revealed yet.  😉

Sleep Cycle Symbolizes Joe’s Psyche

July 31, 2009

This thread, just drawn up and added to the story structuring board, represents a symbolic device I may employ to visually represent Joe’s emotional health. It’s a mostly subliminal thread that, if the audience doesn’t pick up on it, won’t hurt their ability to understand the story, but will add great value to the understanding of those viewers who either consciously or subconsciously pick up on it.

emo-thread-addedThe concept is to simply show that, when protagonist Joe Cameron is living by his principles, he sleeps soundly. But during those phases in the story where he compromises his principles to achieve the desired result, he is plagued with insomnia.