Screenwriters and novelists, it’s not easy to turn out a good tale. A writer will get more criticism over story structure, plotting and free flow, than any other components. Why is structure so hard? I put the question to screenwriters, and unleashed a river of emotion. Here’s what stood out.
Don’t start: you are not here
Story is Beginning, Middle and End, right? Not necessarily. A linear story may be a good way to learn screenwriting basics you need to master, but it may not be the best way to bring your concept to life. There are a million and more ways to construct your story. It’s generally agreed that key elements such as the turning points and mid point are indispensible. On the other hand, what also came out in our discussion is there’s no fixed formula or template for “a good story”, but somehow we know what it is when we see it.
“Structure can be overthought. All hail the story. Story is all that matters.”
Save The Cat? We wish he’d strangled the beastly thing
Blake Snyder’s famous “Beat Sheet” method is like the famous oily spread in the dark jar: producers and directors either love it or hate it. Some writers swear by it for its guidance in achieving a tight story structure that the studio cannot pull apart and ruin.
“Fold the structure into your outline. Think in terms of a structural puzzle.”
William C. Martell advises not to judge a script by its movie; they often bear little resemblance. A writer’s fresh idea risks dying a slow and painful death in something called “development hell”. An unbreachable story structure is the best defence against it.
Others hold the beat sheet responsible for the reels of “cookie cutter” movies they claim have plagued Hollywood in recent decades.
“Structure must serve the story, not the other way round.”
However, there is no doubt that the Save The Cat approach forces a writer to give due importance to the major beats, above all to the crucial Mid Point. Oh yes, and it helps to know your ending first, it really does, so don’ t begin at the beginning; begin at the end.
“The two turning points are crucial for linking the beginning, middle and end together.”
Keep ’em guessing
Some insider info. When you pitch, they’ll consider your logline, and see if they can guess the plot. Try to make your story unpredictable, cut the clichés, and come up with great plot twists.
“Just as an emotional moment must be earned, so must the ending, otherwise what’s to keep the audience in their seats.”
Layers, sub plots and turning points
“A good way to avoid a predictable plot is to weave your plot layers. “
Plot A is the main story, the action.
Plot B is the relationship story, also called the emotional heart.
Plot C is the character arc, or how the character changes by the end of the story.
These should all interweave and impact on each other.
“A story’s major turning points are roadmap markers for structure.”
Producers and gatekeepers of the “means of production” don’t especially want to beat writers over the head with the “structure” of their script, but there must be common terms of reference. Definitions are by nature limiting, but there must be reference points to discuss the project in any meaningful way, and hence the usefulness of referring to story beats.
Slice it up
As a “rookie” screenwriter, I’ve found the 8-sequence structure useful too. In a three-act structure, this breaks down to 2 sequences (segments) in Act 1, four in Act 2 and two in Act 3. It’s a perfectly respectable way to organize your plot and helps a writer to stay on track while navigating from one major turning point to the next.
“Basically most movies can be broken down into 7 or 8 sequences.”
“Great formulaic writers deserve the same accolades as great writers who tweak the molds. The most important thing an artist can do is to be true to themselves and their beliefs, and true to their story.”
This is because there are ten million and one ways to skin Blake’s ferocious ginger bird-killer. I’m currently studying John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story. The screenwriter’s toolbox needs to be a shed because there’s a lot of learning to do.
“Just write from your heart and soul. If they like it, great, if not, write another one.”
And add it to the 100,000 scripts uploaded to the WGA annually.
The last words go to
“Screenplays are structure, and that’s all they are.” William Goldman, kindly quoted by William C. Martell.
And that’s why they’re hard to write, folks. It’s a lifetime’s work to master the craft of screenwriting, says John Truby.
“After a while, you need to stop trying to figure it out and just write.”
Quick List: Some commonly mentioned books screenwriters swear by (although not all of them, of course.) Check these out to help you with story structure, plotting and free flow of your narrative.
- The Screenwriters’ Bible by David Trottier
- Screenplay: The Foundation of Screenwriting By Syd Field
- Save the Cat (and sequels) by the late Blake Snyder
- The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler
- The Anatomy of Story by John Truby
- The Art of Dramatic Writing Egri Lajos
- Story: Substance, Style, Structure and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee
My heartfelt thanks go to my friends on Stage32.com for their experiences and valuable insights.
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