Structure for Screenwriters
Twelvepoint Magazine

Monica Solon went to Charles Harris’ workshop at Euroscript
to learn something more about structure.

Once Upon A Time in America, Robert De Niro, James Woods

Flashback from crisis to crisis. Once Upon A Time in America, Robert De Niro, James Woods

When I was reading unsolicited scripts (the slush pile) during my work experience at Blake Friedmann, I noticed that many incoming scripts had the same problem: the structure was either absent, clunky or unclear.

Apparently, the ‘beginning, middle, end’ concept is not as intuitive as people like to believe. Even for a fairly inexperienced reader such as myself, it was quite easy to detect in the first ten pages of a script.

TNT

The first thing to be learned from Euroscript’s workshop Structure for Screenwriters was why structure is important. Infilm, Charles Harris, the workshop’s tutor says, it is a crucial element: it is the skeleton of the script’s body. However, it cannot stand alone; it needs flesh, muscles, blood and organs.

The structure’s main functions are to draw you into the story, to keep you interested in watching it till the end and to give you a sense of where you are in the story. The tricky thing about structure is that there’s no right one. Harris reminds us that new forms of structure can be found that might be the best for your story.

Thereforeone of the rules of this workshop is the TNT approach: ‘Tools Not Totems‘. The idea is not to find formulas; it is to play with the tools, take risks, step outside the comfort zone, and find a voice.

GOATS

To understandstructure better one needs to understand what make up the main elements of a story. Harris introduces us to a neat take on story analysis: GOATS (things a protagonist needs): Goal, Obstacles, Action, Tactics, Stakes. The first three (GOA) are vital; the last two (TS) are important but less crucial.

According to Harris, most stories’ problems lie in one of these five elements, usually in one of the first three. The elements apply to the two strands that should be running together: the outer story, which is what the story is about, and the protagonist’s inner story, which is what the story is really about.

Some genres, however, don’t have inner stories like adventure or satire, or rudimentary ones like in action (after all, you don’t really go to watch a James Bond or Indiana Jones movie to see how they deal with their inner flaws).

Three Acts 

The structure underpins the story and has some basic ‘rules’. Harris points out that ‘99.9% of feature films, 90-120 minute television dramas and television drama episodes work best in three acts’.

Most screen stories have three acts with a ‘central’ question at the heart that moves the story forward geared by concrete external positive motivation, a life and death problem, focused opposition, and one to three subplots. The standard three acts will normally follow the pattern:

Act 1 is the setting of the world and the story when an inciting incident disrupts normality. The act ends with a surprise/climax/first turning point, i.e. a decision made by the protagonist that flips the story into a new direction.

Act 2 starts with the denial of change followed by a symbolic acceptance of change. Commitment to change grows into total commitment followed by a (often) romantic interlude. The crisis escalates leading to frustration and another climax or the second turning point. As in Act 1, a key decision takes the story to a new level of crisis/tension and leads to Act 3.

Act 3 is the final battle. It focuses and reflects Act 1 but ends with an irreversible change. The first engagement in the battle leads to a false ending; then there’s a re-engagement, the climax and the resolution.

It’s not where you think it is

When Harris makes us think about our own stories in relation to this ‘standard’ structure, he gives us a hint about Act 1: usually, the first turning point is not where we think it is.

The inciting incident disrupts the world of the protagonist, who reacts to it and tries to get on with their plan to restore normality, but then they can’t carry on and have to re-adjust their strategy, which is the first turning point. It’s a significant decisionbut it’s only an external change.

The internal and real change only happens at the end, such as with Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie where he is a caring, good actor who can’t find a job because of his temper and nobody wants to work with him.

His ‘sex change’ is the first turning point of the storybut it’s not a real change; it’s an external one. The revelation of his true identity at the end of the story is more than a physical transformation; it shows the character’s inner change.

Another interesting notion Harris introduces is the ‘Second Act project’ when the protagonist devises a plan to achieve their goal, which has a number of stages.

For instance, in Almodóvar’s All About My Mother, the death of a boy is a powerful inciting incident. Act 2 is the boy’s mother’s attempt to deal with his death by taking a road trip to find the boy’s father. What she’s really trying to do is to remain in denial but, as the story progresses, life will not allow her to do so and she will slowly but steadily come to terms with it.

Sub-plots

Sub-plot structures will follow the same basic pattern, sometimes more loosely, and will often provide dimension and emotional depth to the main story. Their turning points should coincide with or be closely lined up with the ones of the main plot.

However, it is crucial to ascertain whether they really need to be there. What would happen to the story if they were removed? If they can be removed at all, just do it. Harris pointed out some useful devices to connect sub-plots to the main plot, for instance, repetition of motifs, themes and places. Another device to help makesub-plots work better is to try and keep turning points happening at the same time as the main plot.

The outer story is what the story is about and the protagonist’s inner story is what the story is really about.

Breaking the rules

Non-linear structures can take any shape. Usually flashbacks are used to breaklinearity, to increment the story and to reveal more details about the story. Expositional or incremental flashbacks contribute to the understanding of the main timeline, as in Slumdog Millionaire.

However, this is quite tricky in that exposition using flashback needs to be fully dramatised or it will weaken the script. If in doubt, don’t use it.

The Usual Suspects offers another type of clever use of non-linear structure. It starts the story at the end of Act 3, the climax, then tells the story in flashback. The antagonist of the ‘now’ timeline is the protagonist of the flashback, which offers an interesting inversion.

One can argue that most scriptwriting books will do the job of teaching you how to deal withstructure. Once the writer is aware of the basic Three Act structure, it is possible to produce a viable script. 

Some writers will venture through more dangerous waters and try to subvert the rule – some will achieve interesting results, others won’t. The trouble is not in deciding which structure best fits your story; it is that many writers are not even aware of what kind of structure they are using or want to use, so they cannot make it work to its best potential.

A flashback also has to be carefully placed in the structure. If you’re using multiple timelines, like in Once Upon a Time in America, you shouldn’t simply flashback from any point to any point of the story; you should always go from a high point to a high point, from crisis to crisis, as is brilliantly achieved in the Sergio Leone’s epic. A big cliffhanger grabs the attention and avoids a drop in the audience’s concentration.

Harris’ TNT approach paid off for me. It was an intense working day trying to apply the rules to my own projectsbut there was certainly a positive outcome. I now have a deeper understanding of how structure works and more elements to play with. I also know how to take better advantage of them.

(c) Monica Solon, Twelvepoint

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