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:

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Screenwriting: A Garden of Forking Paths

August 12, 2009

Writing a story as potentially complicated as this one is a process fraught with risks–things that can distract the writer from completing the story or from telling it well.

To illustrate the challenge, consider first the 1941 story The Garden of Forking Paths, in which writer Jorge Luis Borges suggests that life is like a garden with intertwining paths, and that we are each on a path, one that may (or may not) cross the path of another person. Those crossings may be brief, such as when you are waiting in a checkout line at a store, or the paths may join up for a longer, more meaningful time, such as the shared path of a mutual family member, friend, or coworker, before eventually separating again because of death, a geographical move, a falling out, a change in common interests, or whatever.

Inevitably, we never cross paths with the vast majority of other people because of the limits of time and space (if we disregard the quantum physics tangent Borges plays with in his story). Much of our lives then are heavily influenced by the relatively few people whose paths cross or align meaningfully with our own paths through this world.

Using this analogy, building a story — a screenplay, in this case — is like creating a garden (the universe, theme, motif, plot, etc. of your story) and creating characters whose paths shall cross into that garden; you’re choosing how long each will tarry, whose paths they will join up with, and how they will influence the others in your “garden” — your story.

For a story with a much simpler plot, the index card deconstruction process I use may be overkill: just an impressive “pencil sharpening” distraction. Example:

A martial arts instructor sets out to destroy the powerful crime
boss responsible the murder of the man’s wife and children.

That’s a simple enough plotline that I might encourage the writer to get started on the script without wasting time in any detailed analysis (other than analyzing whether or not the story is worth telling at all).

But if your story, like this one, has significant character development,  a large universe, necessary subplots, numerous plot twists, or a large cast of characters, a dramaturgical deconstruction process such as I’ve been describing in this blog can help you tend to your dramaturgical “garden,” so to speak.  I’ll pick up on this “gardening” business in a later blog entry.


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.