I’m doing another one of my screenwriting in an hour workshops in New Orleans this weekend, at Heather Graham’s Writers for New Orleans workshop. (Yes, and partying in New Orleans, too. I deserve it, okay?)
I know, it’s crazy, right? – what can you possibly teach anyone about anything in an hour?
Well, I can’t teach screenwriting in an hour, but I’ve found I can teach people how to start to teach THEMSELVES screenwriting in an hour. (And what I’m really teaching is story structure, and secretly I’m really teaching it to help novelists use screenwriting techniques to improve their own writing, because as I’ve said about a million times, if you’re not willing to commit to an actual career as a screen or TV writer, or have a source of independent financing for your movie, then it’s a waste of your time to write a script, except as a learning experience. Write a book instead.)
To teach yourself story structure, you start by making a list of 10 movies and books in the genre you’re writing in and/or that you feel are similar in structure to the story you want to write. From this list you are going to develop your own story structure workbook.
Then – write out the PREMISE or LOGLINE for each story on your list – as I’ve already talked about here, and compare your own story premise to those of your master list. The most important step of writing a book or a movie is to start with a solid, exciting, and I would say, commercial premise (because after all, we are making a living at this, aren’t we?)
Now we are going to step back and talk about basic film structure. Movies generally follow a three-act structure. That means that a 110-page script (and that’s 110 minutes of screen time – a script page is equal to one minute of film time) – is broken into an Act One of roughly 30 pages, an Act Two of roughly 60 pages, and an Act Three of roughly 20 pages, because as everyone knows, the climax of a story speeds up and condenses action. If you’re structuring a book, then you basically triple or quadruple the page count, depending on how long you tend to write.
Most everyone knows the Three Act structure. But the real secret of writing a script is that most movies are a Three Act, eight-sequence structure. Yes, most movies can be broken up into 8 discrete 15-minute sequences, each of which has a beginning, middle and end.
Try this with your master list. Watch a film, watching the time clock on your DVD player. At about 15 minutes into the film, there will be some sort of climax – an action scene, a revelation, a twist, a big set piece. It won’t be as big as the climax that comes 30 minutes into the film, which would be the Act One climax, but it will be an identifiable climax that will spin the action into the next sequence. Proceed through the movie, stopping to identify the beginning, middle and end of each sequence. Also make note of the bigger climaxes or turning points – Act One at 30 minutes, the Midpoint at 60 minutes (you could also say that a movie is really FOUR acts, breaking the long Act Two into two separate acts. Whichever works best for you.), Act Two at 90 minutes, and Act Three at whenever the movie ends.
In many movies a sequence will take place all in the same location, then move to another location at the climax of the sequence. The protagonist will generally be following just one line of action in a sequence, and then when s/he gets that vital bit of information in the climax of a sequence, s/he’ll move on to a completely different line of action. A good exercise is to title each sequence as you watch and analyze a movie – that gives you a great overall picture of the progression of action.
Also be advised that in big, sprawling movies like RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and THE WIZARD OF OZ, sequences may be longer or there may be a few extras. It’s a formula and it doesn’t always precisely fit, but as you work through your master list of films, unless you are a surrealist at heart, you will be shocked and amazed at how many movies precisely fit this 8-sequence format. When you’re working with as rigid a form as a two-hour movie, on the insane schedule that is film production, this kind of mathematical precision is kind of a lifesaver.
My advice is that you watch and analyze ALL TEN of your master list movies (and books) before you do anything else. Once you’ve watched a movie for basic overall structure, you should go back and watch it again and this time do a step outline, or scene outline – in which you write down the setting, action, conflict and revelation in each scene, as well as breaking the whole down into its three acts and eight sequences. After you’ve worked your way through at least three movies in this way to get this structure clearly in your head (although all ten is better) you’re probably ready to start working on your own story as well.
And the method I teach in my workshops is the tried and true index card method.
You can also use Post-Its, and the truly OCD among us use colored Post-Its to identify various subplots by color, but I find having to make those kinds of decisions just fritzes my brain. I like cards because they’re more durable and I can spread them out on the floor for me to crawl around and for the cats to walk over; it somehow feels less like work that way. Everyone has their own method – experiment and find what works best for you.
Get yourself a corkboard or sheet of cardboard big enough to lay out your index cards in either four vertical columns of 10-15 cards, or eight vertical columns of 5-8 cards, depending on whether you want to see your movie laid out in four acts or eight sequences. You can draw lines on the corkboard to make a grid of spaces the size of index cards if you’re very neat (I’m not) – or just pin a few marker cards up to structure your space. Write Act One at the top of the first column, Act Two at the top of the second (or third if you’re doing eight columns), Midpoint at the top of the third (or fifth), Act Three at the top of the fourth (or seventh).
Then write a card with Act One Climax and pin it at the bottom of column one, Midpoint Climax at the bottom of column two, Act Two Climax at the bottom of column three, and Climax at the very end. If you already know what those scenes are, then write a short description of them on the appropriate cards.
And now also label the beginning and end of where eight sequences will go. (In other words, you’re dividing your corkboard into eight sections – either 4 long columns with two sections each, or eight shorter columns).
Now you have your structure grid in front of you.
What you will start to do now is brainstorm scenes, and that you do with the index cards.
A movie has about 40 to 60 scenes (a drama more like 40, an action movie more like 60) so every scene goes on one card. This is the fun part, like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. All you do at first is write down all the scenes you know about your movie, one scene per card. You don’t have to put them in order yet, but if you know where they go, or approximately where they go, you can just pin them on your corkboard in approximately the right place. You can always move them around. And just like with a puzzle, once you have some scenes in place, you will naturally start to build other scenes around them.
I love the cards because they are such an overview. You can stick a bunch of vaguely related scenes together in a clump, rearrange one or two, and suddenly see a perfect progression of an entire sequence. You can throw away cards that aren’t working, or make several cards with the same scene and try them in different parts of your story board.
You will find it is often shockingly fast and simple to structure a whole movie this way.
Now obviously, if you’re structuring a novel this way, you will be approximately tripling the scene count, but I think that in most cases you’ll find that the number of sequences is not out of proportion to this formula.
Now, that’s about enough for this post, but in my next installment I’ll talk about how to plug various obligatory scenes into this formula to make the structuring go even more quickly – scenes that you’ll find in nearly all stories, like opening image, closing image, introduction of hero, inner and outer desire, stating the theme (as early in the story as possible), introduction of allies, love interest, mentor, opponent, hero’s and opponent’s plans, plants and reveals, setpieces, training sequence, dark night of the soul, sex at sixty, hero’s arc, moral decision, etc.
And for those of you who are reeling in horror at the idea of a formula… it’s just a way of analyzing dramatic structure. No matter how you create a story yourself, chances are it will organically follow this flow. Think of the human body – human beings (with very few exceptions) have the EXACT SAME skeleton underneath all the complicated flesh and muscles and nerves and coloring and neurons and emotions and essences that make up a human being. No two alike… and yet a skeleton is a skeleton – it’s the foundation of a human being.
And structure is the foundation of a story.
THE DARKER MASK, Heroes from the Shadows, came out this week from Tor Books – an anthology of noir superhero stories with an illustration for each story in the pulp style.
I’m proud to have a story in it and be in the company of such mystery and horror greats as Walter Mosley, Gar Haywood, Chris Chambers and Gary Phillips (co-editors), L. A. Banks, Lorenzo Carcaterra, Tananarive Due and Stephen Barnes, Mike Gonzales, Gar Anthony Haywood, Ann Nocenti, the late and much-missed Jerry Rodriguez, Reed Farrell Coleman, Doselle Young, Mat Johnson, Peter Spiegelman, Victor LaValle, and Wayne Wilson.
As you might guess from that lineup, these are not your standard white male superheroes (and no clingy helpless white female secretaries, strippers, or cheerleaders, either). THE DARKER MASK offers disenfranchised, marginalized characters who have to overcome personal and societal obstacles to grow into their extraordinary talents.
Read more about the book on Amazon, here:
But of course, as always, please order from your local independent bookstore!