October 9

CHECKING THE STRUCTURE

---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.




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Posted October 9, 2006 by TW in category "The Craft

6 COMMENTS :

  1. By christina on

    I think readers will put up with a slow start if they’re suprised along the way. For example, Something Wild takes a long time to bring in the antagonist – the psychotic ex-husband played by Ray Liotta. But because we’re entertained by surprises along the way, it doesn’t seem like he enters that late. But he enters late. Trust me. I’ve timed it.

  2. By Dante Kleinberg on

    The best advice I ever heard about “breaking the rules” is that you can do it, as long as no one notices. Be good enough and you can do any crazy damn thing.

  3. By Sean M. on

    “I see act breaks…”

    Actually, I think the Sixth Sense does have a Act I break. Not a huge obvious one, admittedly, because the kid is clearly a mess and already Dr Cole’s patient. But he does say around the 30m mark, “I don’t want to be scared anymore,” giving Dr Cole a specific goal to their sessions.

  4. By Devin B. on

    Thanks again for your insight. I recently came to the conclusion that my first (and most ambitious) script needs an overhaul — a ‘re-imagining’, if you will. I now concede to having tried too hard to keep it locked in the structure while tossing far too many gimmicks and contrivances into the mix without adequate character development. What I was left with was fun, yet flat. My wife and I are expecting a daughter in January (our first child), so the writing has taken a backseat for now. I still find myself jotting down ideas and actually writing a revised spec over my lunch-breaks, which all seems to be going well. I like the new direction the story is moving, and I think it improves the once non-existent ‘character arc’. I’m stripping down a lot of the superfluous characters and scenes in favor of a more focused, character-driven yarn. Reflecting on the movies I enjoyed the most, there were always strong characters and not necessarily a lot of ‘eye candy’ propelling it along. I want to emulate that. So it’s back to the ole’ PC for sporadic moments of pecking away on Final Draft 7.

    Best Regards,
    Devin

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