CHECKING THE STRUCTURE (Classic Post)

---Sleeper---Nick from PA asks:

I’ve just finished rewriting (mostly compressing) my script. It was 135 pages long, now it’s 112.
The acts break down like this:
Act 1 – 32 pages
Act 2 – 62 pages
Act 3 – 18 pages;
Now, obviously, the exposition seems to be too long. Is this slow start a problem?
I tried to shorten it, but just couldn’t. I still need every scene in it. Should I nevertheless cut it down, or I could use such detailed setup and ‘get away’ with it?

Analyzing a story in terms of pure structural paradigms is dangerous business. It’s not that structure is unimportant. On the contrary, structure is critical. The problem is, solid structure arises from many other aspects of the writing. Simply looking at act breaks provides no insight into whether a story works nor does it assist the writer much in improving the story unless other central issues are well understood.

Structure is dictated by the needs of the story. For example, in “The Sixth Sense”, the inciting incident is simply announced; Malcolm tells Cole he is there to help him. Somewhere between Malcolm being shot and Malcolm meeting Cole, something happened to incite him, but we never know what it is. And there is no first act break to speak of, either. Yet, because the story is very focused around its central theme and maintains escalating tensions and stakes, it is structurally sound.

Similarly, in “Casablanca”, we do not even meet Rick until well into the first act. We do not meet or know anything about Ilsa until the second act. We do not know of the connection between Ilsa and Rick until after that. Yet, the story is very structurally sound.

In your story, you need to examine more than just act breaks. What happens in the first 32 pages? What keeps the audience engaged? When do you create a “contract” with the audience, to use Alex Epstein’s terminology? All of these issues and more play into whether a story works. The fact that the first act break is on page 32 means nothing in the abstract.

One clue to whether your story works is in the wording of your question. It suggests you already believe it does not work. You mention a “slow start” and “getting away with it.” I have found two things to be true. First, I will always doubt my work. And, second, most of my doubts are well-founded. The trick is to push the story as far as you can, which is always much further than you think you can (and many more drafts), and then live with its imperfections. Based upon your question, my guess is that you are not there yet.

Category: The Craft


A FEW SCENE CONSTRUCTION BASICS (Classic Post)

STORY CUBE GIFSteve from Los Angeles asks:

So I’m going to the big screenwriting expo this weekend. I just signed up for it a few days back with no intentions other than checking out a lot of seminars. This morning, I was perusing the site and took a gander at the screenwriting tournament. You probably know that they give you a scenario and then you have 90 minutes to pen a 2-3 page scene. I LOVE working on deadline. I got excited. Really excited. I read some of the scenarios from past contests and felt the ideas come. Even more exciting. Then, I took a deep breath and realized, these are premises for a SINGLE scene.… In the past, I’ve tried to do too much in too small a space. I don’t want to do that again. Since the contest is on deadline, there’s no time for wasted minutes. Any suggestions as to how to approach a contest like this?

I can only suggest you remember a few basics of scene construction:

1. Get into the scene as late as possible. It’s usually later than you think. Chop off the first part and see if the scene still works.

2. Get out as early as possible. It’s usually earlier than you think. As soon as you have accomplished what you intended, get out.

3. Unless it is the last scene in the picture, make sure it leaves something incomplete. The reader should want to know what is next. One way to do this, is to have characters talk around an issue between them, unable to talk about it directly, and move on with the thing still hanging in the air.

4. Scenes also have a beginning, middle and end. They should have movement. No wasted action – everything directly in service of the movement.

5. Clean professional dialogue. See this column on dialogue to understand how I approach dialogue. For me, this approach tends to generate reasonable dialogue fairly quickly.

Good luck. Let us know how it goes.

Category: The Craft


Amazon Lets People Screw With Your Script (Classic Post)

Amazon Man

flickr|sⓘndy°

How’s this for a deal:
(1) Upload your script (or feature length film) to Amazon.com
(2) Give Amazon a free 18 month option
(3) Amazon lets anyone in the entire world rewrite your script (or re-edit your film) to try to sell their version
(4) You hope to be picked out of the millions of scripts (and films) to win some dough and a meeting with some real live Hollywood studio executives.

If this is your idea of a great deal, then Amazon Studios is the place for you.


COMPETING WITH JUNK (Classic Post)

In commenting on another post, Mark (last name unknown) shared with us that he is eight years out of a UCLA MFA in screenwriting, has a large body of scripts and has four of them currently in the market. He expressed his frustration at being a starving artist, but says:

“I wrote because I’m a writer, and to get good at it…you gotta write.

I wish more so called writers realized this, but they don’t.
Sad thing…some of those that don’t are selling scripts and writing in Hollywood now, and are part of the reason there’s so much junk being made.”

First, hats off for hanging in, Mark. A lot of aspiring writers are envious of your degree and your ability to focus on your writing. Good luck with the scripts currently out in the market. I picked out your comment because it fits in exactly with the post I’ve been working on and helped me a great deal to focus it.

As a pre-amble, I want to say for serious writers who have been at it awhile and are looking for a break, the answer is frequently to bring the writing up a notch. Keep in mind, I’m not saying Mark needs to do this. I haven’t read his writing. Hopefully, we’ll read about him in the trades next week with three out of the four scripts having been picked up in huge sales. What I am saying is that, if you work hard at your writing, you circulate it regularly in the mainstream Hollywood community, and still it’s not somehow getting real attention (e.g. sales, options, significant mainstream attachments of producers or other real objective elements that establish some degree of acceptance – and don’t fool yourself, you know the difference between real attachments and fluff), then you should consider what you need to do to the writing to get to the next level in your career.

No surprise, I have a suggestion on where you might turn for an answer. Read (or reread, as the case may be) Terry Rossio’s brilliant columns at Wordplayer. Not just a few of them, but all of them. Terry Rossio and his partner Ted Elliott are two prolific screenwriters at the top of their game. They’ve done it all and love to share, in eloquent and extremely helpful terms, the secrets to their success. To me, these columns are particularly useful to writers who’ve already been at it a while, writers who have a solid appreciation for the challenges of writing and a burning desire to get better. Consider the columns an advanced course for turning good writers into great writers.

But enough kissing up to Terry. That’s not really the purpose of this post. Rather, the purpose is to talk about junk screenplays. Mark expressed a frustration that is common, and understandable, among writers at Mark’s level. Namely, that crappy writers seem to get breaks when serious writers work for years without them. There is no question that every producer in town is inundated with total garbage scripts. They clog the system and make it hard to get any script even looked at.

But that’s the business -

and that’s not who we’re competing with. Continue reading