Screenplay Structure

William Goldman said something along the lines of, “The three things you need to know about screenwriting are structure, structure and structure.” Is this enouncement hyperbole? Or mere overstatement? The answer is obvious.

Goldman has more to say about screenwriting than that quip about structure, enough to fill 1105 other pages, so far. Presumably, if structure were all you needed to know about the art of writing for film, his books would have been much, much shorter. They’re worth reading, by the way, both for fun and information and industry backstory.

Books on screenplay structure abound. Just a few: “The Writer’s Journey,” (Chris Vogler), “Save the Cat,” (Blake Snyder), Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting (Syd Field), along with works by David Howard, Robert McKee and countless others. I’ll resist the temptation to summarize the various schools of thought and just address the questions: “Are these structural theories valid? Or do they merely hamper creativity? Which one is best?

The answers are Yes, No, and I don’t know.

Ken Levine recently posed the question of whether the epidemic sameness of much of Hollywood’s recent output can be blamed on a plague of books on structure, Save the Cat in particular, and other works containing structural templates in general. Mr. Levine feels that these templates have affected the originality of scripts. Worse, according to Levine:

“…the greater danger is that producers and studios rely on these templates as if they were the Ten Commandments. Why? Because most of them can’t write themselves.”

I’ve heard as gospel that some execs immediately flip a script to page sixty and consign it to outer darkness if a “Supreme Ordeal” is not smack in front of them. If so, Levine may be right.

I suspect screenwriters are more flexible about these templates than many a studio ex. And many, if not most, of the authors of those screenwriting books add a disclaimer that considerable deviation from their template is permissible, should the story demand it.

My own theory is that older, six beat templates aren’t that different from newer, fifteen beat ones. The evolution from the former to the latter is mostly logical. Sometime I’ll show how one largely morphs into the other.

I am convinced after reading Vogler and Snyder et alii that Jung’s universal unconscious contains “hooks” (or archetypes) that let the reader/listener/viewer relate to major story elements. For example, an Act III ‘twist’ in the story line is engrossing and, ultimately, satisfying because last-minute upsetting turns of events resonate with something in our psyche.

I can imagine a dozen or two primitive people sitting around the fire, rapt in the late stages of the evening story. The shaman (or designated teller of stories) says, “Suddenly…” and the people know what’s coming–the Hero is about to face a just-when-you-think-he’s-home-safely disaster. A collective “Ummmh?!” rises from the throng in anticipation.

And so it is for each of the beats. The precise location isn’t as important as the fact that they are present. We aren’t doomed to experience nearly the same story over and over. I’m a believer in structure, in following the “rules” and coloring inside the lines. But I also believe in following my instinct. If something doesn’t feel right, I look for ways to fix it, even if bending a rule is necessary.

Considerations that override structure may include:

  • How do my main characters want their stories told?
  • Are their entrances satisfying and thematic?
  • Have they touched the audience?
  • Have they each participated in memorable moments?
  • Are the beats consistent with their character arc?
  • Do events spring from character, rather than the template?
  • Is the dialogue necessary, coherent and true?
  • Are my characters’ secrets revealed at the proper time?
  • Is my story line clear, unmuddled by flashbacks?
  • Is there backstory that needs to be deleted/shown?


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