Story Threads: Same Thing, New Angle

September 4, 2009

If you ask three people to describe an event they all witnessed or were a part of, what do you think the odds are that you’ll hear the same description from all three? For instance…

I remember one family vacation…

It was several years ago. From our Kansas City home, we trekked westward in our minivan for famed Yellowstone and Grand Teton national Parks, with a brief stop en route at Mount Rushmore. I was shocked when, a couple years later, the four of us were describing that vacation to our relatives. You would have thought we were describing four completely different trips!

  • I remember it as breathtaking, majestic, full of adventure, and loaded with quality one-on-one time.
  • My son described the two-week trip as being two weeks too long.
  • My daughter described it as torturous entrapment.
  • And my wife remembered enjoying the natural wonders, but being too exhausted (dealing with CFS at the time) to enjoy much of it, and finding the cabin accommodations too “rustic.”

One experience, but four radically different remembrances. Which is a roundabout way of explaining the value of knowing well your story threads, because…

Story threads are just like that

Sometimes, separate story threads are describing the same event, but from a different point of view. For example, here are two of the story threads i developed:

Joe’s Son — since Joe is a single dad, a pivotal character is his young-adult son, Sean, who is also a rookie officer under Joe’s authority. He often influences what Joe does or says, or what happens to Joe. So, I’ve got about 15 cards in the “Joe’s son” thread representing 15 story beats that involve Sean.

Spring Breakers — it would be a plot spoiler to explain why a group of American college students on spring break are important enough to the story that I’ve developed a story thread just for them. What I can share: Sandy, one of the students, becomes romantically involved with Joe’s son Sean. Though not as interwoven into the story as Sean is, I’ve got about 10 cards in the “Spring Breakers” thread, representing key moments in the story that involve the students or their parents.

Watch how these threads intersect

Here is the same scene as described on one card from each of these two story threads; it’s the same moment, but from unique perspectives. Notice the differences here:

image image

When I finally write the one scene described on these two cards, we will see this moment revealed primarily from Sean’s perspective. But we will also see what Sandy sees — perhaps how she reacts when Sean isn’t looking.

But remember: Sean and Sandy only exist in this story to push the protagonist or the plot forward. So, we need to understand this event from the perspective of a third character in the scene – Joe. The way I envision the scene unfolding, I want us to notice when Joe first notices the rapidly developing romantic chemistry between Sean and Sandy. I suspect we will be aware of Joe’s feelings about this before the other characters are.

There you have it: one moment within one scene, affecting three different people in three different ways.

Okay, different perspectives… so what?

So, while almost all screenplays are written from a particular character’s point of view (usually the hero’s), the medium of film is so multidimensional that it’s dramaturgical suicide when a writer forces the viewer to see the story unfold through only one character’s eyes.

As a writer — and as a director — I feel it’s important to create scenes that consider what is happening to other characters and to represent, if I feel it’s appropriate to the story, how other characters are viewing the unfolding drama.

An example from this story:

There’s a Family Gathering scene in the first act that introduces us to some of Joe’s relatives. In that moment, it’s important for us to see, among other things, that Joe loves and respects his mother and that she strongly affects Joe’s sense of right and wrong.

At the same time that this is being revealed, Joe’s older brother — the primary antagonist — is there, revealing to us his insecurities. We see that, while he is politically one of the strongest people in the country and is viewed by the family as an authority figure (since he is, by many years, the eldest brother), he nonetheless feels like the lesser brother around the family, and therefore harbors jealousy. We see this when he subtly belittles Joe as his mother praises little brother for some recent accomplishment. But his lame effort to look superior by making Joe look inferior backfires when their elderly mother scolds him briefly and returns her attention to Joe again. This leaves the older brother smoldering with a growing hatred for Joe.

What we see the older brother going through in that moment is hardly noticed by anyone else in the crowded home, even though it affects the man so much that it becomes a pivotal event in his life, planting the seed for revenge. Meanwhile, we see that Joe leaves that family gathering feeling both encouraged by his mom to not give up his vision, and challenged by her vision for what Joe is capable of doing for the good of the country.

See? One event, but two radically different viewpoints

And, because they are both leading characters, my responsibility as a writer is to make sure that we understand both characters’ psyche in that moment.

Creating not only the primary story line but also planning out a story thread for Joe’s mom and brother has helped me to retain their importance in the story and the pace of their character revelation as I craft the screenplay.

For a future post, I’ll come up with an example or two from an existing movie of how well-constructed story threads create better drama.

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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: