“Structure is the most important element in the screenplay. It is the force that holds everything together.” Syd Field
Today is the first day of spring and that signals a change. (Not so much here in Iowa, because the forecast is we’ll get 2-6 inches of snow tomorrow.)
If you’ve been thinking about writing a screenplay why not begin today? This blog is on structure and is a fitting place to begin.
The more scripts you write and the more movies you see the more you’ll understand structure and why it’s a vital part of screenwriting. I’m going to limit this blog on good old western culture traditional structure. You don’t get more basic than this:
Act 1 – Beginning
Act 2 – Middle
Act 3 – End
Syd Field became the modern-day screenwriting pioneer when he wrote Screenplay back in the 1974. Field had been a reader and development executive at various studios and after reading 10,000 scripts he felt he really knew what made a good script.
He even broke it down into page counts.
Act 1 1-30 (setup)
Act 2 30-90 (confrontation)
Act 3 90-120 (resolution)
There’s nothing wrong with a script coming in between 90 and 100 pages either. He’s how a 100 pages script might look like:
Act 1 1-25
Act 2 26-80
Act 3 81-100
Now if this were the sixties I could hear someone saying, “Hey, man, that’s just not my scene.” But these things aren’t written in stone either.
Sure we can look at many films like Memento which turned structure upside down, and Pulp Fiction and Magnolia that mixed structure up. And let’s not forget about the famous quote by Goddard “I believe in a beginning, a middle, and an end — just not in that order.”
How do I answer those? Let me start with the Goddard quote. According to Lew Hunter who later asked Goddard about his famous quote it was simply an off-hand comment at a cocktail party.
As for the film exceptions? It is hard enough to write a solid screenplay, get an agent, and get the film made. The concept of a beginning, middle and end are universal because that is the way most of us of our lives;
We wake up
We go about our work or school
We eat dinner
We go to bed
We’re born, we live, and we die.
Throughout history that is the cycle civilization has lived. Humans around the world have also made sure that life is not predictable. Love, war, new inventions and discoveries help insure that within the human tradition there are millions of variations.
Traditional structure is the most understood form of storytelling which is one of the reasons it is the most commercial as well.
It’s as basic as one writer said; Get your hero up a try, throw rocks and him and get him down. That’s structure 101.
Many screenwriting books have different ways of breaking down structure but here’s a common one that Robert Mckee has landed on based on the people that went before him:
1) Inciting Incident
2) Progressive Complication (Rising Conflict)
If you can understand those five areas of structure (one for every finger one hand) it will save you some frustration. We’ll look at these in detail at another blog, but for now it’s enough for you to understand that this structure fits most successful films. (Even if you want to flip structure inside out it’s best to understand structure. Check out Picasso’s early paintings to see what I mean.)
There is always that rebel in us that says. “I don’t want to do it the way it’s always been done. I want to do my own thing man. I want freedom!”
But keep in mind what poet Robert Frost said, “Writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net.”
There is freedom in structure. Embrace it. When the limits are set, great things can happen. Performing within certain boundaries helps us understand the greatness Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong, and LeBron James.
Think of all the structure that goes into:
Making Movies. The script is written and then budgeted. Actors are hired who you want to show up on time. Sets are built and props are found. Cameras are rented and crews are hired. Caterers cook food. Drivers drive trucks. People work, people get paid. There is a lot of structure in place to make a film.
Making Music. Before a concert becomes a reality many logistics have to have taken place. Travel arrangements, tickets sold, money transacted, bathrooms working, electricity flowing, stages constructed, lights hung, usher in place, security in place, green M&Ms in place. There’s a lot of structure there. So you can smile the next time a lead singer screams for anarchy because that’s the last thing he wants at his concert.
There really is freedom in structure.
“I’m a structuralist myself. We believe in discipline, hard work, and architecture. Writing is like carpentry.” Dan O’Bannon, screenwriter (Alien)
Playwright/screenwriter David Mamet compares ignoring structure to the countercultural design movement in the 60′s:
“I was a student in the turbulent sixties in Vermont at a countercultural college. In that time in place, there flourished something called the Countercultural Architecture. Some people back then thought that the traditional architecture had been too stifling. And so they designed and built countercultural buildings. These buildings proved unlivable. Their design didn’t begin with the idea of the building’s purpose; it began with the idea of how the architect “felt.”“As those architects looked at their countercultural buildings over the years, they may have reflected that there is a reason for traditional design. There’s a reason that doors are placed in a certain way.
“All those countercultural buildings may have expressed the intention of the architect, but they didn’t serve the purpose of the inhabitants. They all either fell down or are falling down or should be torn down. They’re a blot on the landscape and they don’t age gracefully and every passing year underscores the jejune folly of those countercultural architects.”
Because I want to hammer this point home take a look at the cars you see today. Cars could be made with three wheels or five wheels but most cars are still made with four wheels because engineers and car builders have decided that is what works best.
Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith
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