Stepping On to Act III

January 5, 2010

Just completed the step outline for Act II. And the story still feels solid, which means that stepping out the third act will be a piece of cake, at least by comparison. From way back to the initial six-page story synopsis, the vision for how the third act should play out was already solid. The tough stuff was figuring out how to get us there (i.e., stepping out Act I and Act II).

I expect then to complete the step outline by the the end of the week, not only because it’s the shortest act, but because it’s fully formed in my mind already.

Few steps to the finish line

One strong advantage of a solid step outline is that it saves a ton of missteps by giving you a solid and objective understanding of the drama, front to back. This means that, when you get to the heavy lifting of the screenplay’s first draft, it isn’t that heavy at all, because you know what to write; the step outline informs you.

I hear the some writers (Stephen King being one of them) throw themselves into a first draft of their story without first planning out what the story is that they want to tell, and then end up throwing out half of what they wrote in future drafts.  I contend this is because they didn’t map out their route in advance, which may yield some unexpected delights on the side roads, but will put a ton of wear and tear on their schedule. 

I don’t know about you, but I barely have time to write out the story from beginning to end when I know exactly where I’m going. I would find the process too painful and frustratingly inefficient if I was regularly throwing out half of what I wrote, which is likely to happen without a step outline or some other pre-screenplay mapping process.

Also, the way I create the step outline (you can read about the process here and here), it’s very much a substantial iteration toward a finished screenplay—all the scenes either suggested or already designed, minus dialogue. The outline will probably end up at 30 pages in length. And with the finished screenplay likely coming in around 105 pages, I’m virtually a third of the way to a first draft of the screenplay when I’ve wrapped up the step outline. image

So, though no laurels to rest upon yet, I’m nonetheless tickled to have hit this progress marker.

Or, to quote my son: "Woot!"

The final moment of Act II…

This moment, just written, is where Joe awakens to his true calling and accepts his destiny as a leader of the people, not just a leader of the police. It marks the end of Joe’s police role and his resurrection as a statesman—as the one potential candidate most qualified on a moral basis to run for the top office and make a solid effort to reform the country’s government … that’s *if* he can win the election, when he is coming up against a dangerous, determined, and powerful incumbency.  Which is the core plotline of the third act.

Plant, Nurture, and Release

September 6, 2009

Cotton freshly-picked from the plant is not nearly as useful to us as cotton that has been formed into threads. As a thread, it has tensile strength and can then be interwoven with other threads to form fabric. Similarly…

A story thread packs more punch than a story event

To create a story thread, I consider how a story character or other element will be more emotionally engaging or satisfying to the audience if I structured it the way you structure a story: in three acts. Here’s that three-act structure in a nutshell:

  • The first act introduces
  • The second act develops
  • The third act releases

Similarly, take any single story element and give it a similar structure: introduce it into the story, nurture it by interweaving it into the plotline, and then deliver it. Pay it out. Release it. Resolve it. That’s a story thread with tensile strength.

Simple example:

Let’s say you’ve got a story about (Act I) a timid, abused woman who finally decides (Act II) to stand up for herself. But the harder she tries, the harder it seems to get. Finally, she summons all her willpower and creativity to (Act III) launch one last desperate attempt to change her destiny. In a climatic face-to-face moment with her abusive husband where, for the first time, she has the power, the woman slaps him in the face before walking away, victorious.

We are as surprised as he is by that slap — a powerful dramatic event. But rather than make it a standalone event, here’s how you could pump up the drama by making it part of a Physical Abuse story thread:

  1. SETUP: In the first act, we see the husband slap the woman. It catches us by surprise. We see more physical abuse, and we become more alarmed or frustrated when she just takes it.
  2. NURTURE: Now, when she decides to do something about it (launching Act II) we are both excited for her and a little scared, too. As the story develops, we think she’s making some headway but then she gets slapped around by the man again, maybe even more abusively, which makes us more afraid for her and angry at him.
  3. PAYOFF: Finally, when her last great effort to win over the abusive man succeeds, we are not simply surprised when the victory moment is punctuated as she slaps him; we are enthralled and cheering for her.

In this story about a woman learning how to stand up for herself, the drama is much more intense if we interweave the abusiveness into the developing storyline. By having her get slapped early in the story, we establish abusiveness as the status quo. Because we are not comfortable with that state, we are totally on board when she finally decides to do something about it. And because we have seen how vicious the husband can be, we respect the tremendous risk she is putting herself in by going against her husband. This creates tremendous tension for us as we empathize with her, hoping that we could be so brave while also knowing how much we don’t like being slapped, which keeps happening to her.

Good stuff… dramaturgically speaking.

It then becomes great dramaturgical stuff when, after all of this terrible abuse, the husband finally gets what he’s got coming to him, as punctuated by that great reversal when she slaps him. It allows us to feel what she feels: vindicated. In fact, when she slaps him, the act becomes a symbol, proving that she has finally overcome her timidity. That’s why I like to plan out and carefully deploy story threads, because…

Surprise is nice but suspense is tense

And intensity is the heart and soul of drama — that heart-wrenching tension between what is happening and what we want to happen.

Something that I recall Oscar award-winning director-screenwriter Milos Forman mentioning more than once in his class at USC’s school of Cinema is that, while surprise is a nice tool in the screenwriter’s toolbox, it cannot compare to the power of suspense. When we know that something is going to happen and we don’t want it to but we are powerless to stop it (that’s suspense), we are considerably more emotionally invested in the drama than when we are surprised by an unexpected event.

And that’s why I dig threads. 🙂 A writer can ensure that the influencing and influenced story elements enrich the story and grip the heart and mind of the viewer (or reader) if they give the element a life, not just a moment; if they set it up, nurture it, and then release it into the protagonist’s world, giving the element its big dramatic moment – the payoff.

That’s the power of the story thread.

Finished the Step Outline for Act I

August 22, 2009

The step outline for the first act of the screenplay is done. And, I gotta tell ya, it feels good!

It’s at about this point in the screenplay’s development that…

One of two situations will emerge:

Either previously hidden story problems begin to reveal themselves, sending the writer back to the screenplay summary to make repairs, or the story begins to flow out easily, with all those little bits and pieces of the deconstruction and analysis phase finding their respective homes within each step of the developing narrative, weaving harmoniously and showing the story’s potential.

Happily, it’s the latter that’s taken place over the last couple of days, as I’ve watched the narrative flow taking shape. What’s particularly nice about this is that it makes the screenplay process all the more enjoyable, which can sometimes get laborious or frustrating if the story isn’t coming together smoothly.

But it is. And so the pace of the story development seems to accelerate a bit more every day, spurring me on.

Before I can get too exuberant however…

I need to press on, completing the step outline for the second and third act. Only then can I be confident that the story will be sufficiently compelling and structurally sound.

So, while it’s tempting to dive right into writing the screenplay, I will hold back for now and finish stepping out the acts.

First thing tomorrow, I will:

  • Print out the step outline onto large index cards
  • Begin rearranging the story thread index cards on the corkboard, aligning each story element to one of the step outline cards, looking for oversights and opportunities to better complete the Act 1 steps
  • Make any necessary tweaks to the first act’s step outline

Then, if the day is not yet done, I will launch right into the step outline for the second act.

Good times.

Trust me.  🙂

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:

Playing with “Judas”

August 7, 2009

I’ve been looking forward to planning out this thread. I’ve known since one of the earliest story summaries that I wanted to turn up the heat on our hero Joe by creating a “Judas” — a trusted member of his team who eventually proves to be untrustworthy. Up until this morning, it was merely a sticky note reminder to test out the idea.

The goal is to create a character who, like Jesus’ disciple Judas, starts out as a follower or supporter, but ultimately reveals that he cannot be trusted. My dramaturgical motive is to increase the story tension by establishing that Joe doesn’t know who to trust anymore.

With each story thread I plan out, I look for opportunities to give them their own 3-act structure of sorts: to set up, nurture, and pay off the thread. This structural exercise helps me to weed out weaker story threads. If an idea for the story does not fit well into a rise-and-fall dramatic arc, it usually turns out that the element wasn’t worth developing: that it doesn’t do enough to thicken the plot, to move it forward, or to develop the main characters.

Happily, this thread is not only following a nice story arc, but it’s also proving useful in several unexpected places, answering questions I had about how to cause certain things to happen that, as yet, didn’t have the right setup or motive to justify them. 

The solutions presented themselves to me when I considered how a person would react when ousted from the group because his treachery has been revealed. How would he feel? Would he want revenge or to slink away in disgrace? Playing on the possibilities that would add the most tension to the story, I added an element that Joe, when he sees that he nearly lost an officer as a result of this character’s traitorous actions, goes ballistic, severely hurting the man.  Since we’ve already established that Joe is a passionate man who values loyalty, it’s a believable action. Now, I can use Joe’s harsh reaction; it comes back to bite him later in the story when the spurned traitor’s anger turns to revenge. In fact, this reaction allows the traitor to heighten the jeopardy for Joe in three critical plot points later in the story.

Exciting stuff.  Can’t wait to layer this in to the actual script.