Screenplay Structure

8.  Screenwriter William Goldman, a two-time Academy Award winner, has long preached that “screenplays are structure.” What is he talking about? 

A) If he’s referring to a particular story-telling model, describe that in detail.

B) If there are multiple models, what are the most influential ones and how do they differ?

C) And how has story structure evolved through the centuries?

Use examples from the 2008 Oscar nominees to illustrate your points.

 

When William Goldman says that “screenplays are structure” he is talking about how a story is actually put together.  A story may have excellent dialogue, and loveable characters, but if the structure is not fully developed then you may as well forget it. The structure of any story focuses on how beat by beat and scene by scene it is ultimately laid out.  A story can use any type of story-telling model, but focusing on the structure or the foundation of the story is vital. Goldman believes that screenwriting is a lot like carpentry.  If you put together some wood, nails, and glue to build a bookcase, you better have established a sound foundation.  If not, you have might have created something really beautiful, but it won’t work as a bookcase.  As a screenwriter you must first decide what the proper structure should be for the particular screenplay you are writing. To do this you have to know the spine.

Goldman believes that it is absolutely crucial to know the spine of your story above anything else.  A spine can be rather simple such as “boy meets girl, loses girl, finds her again,” or something much more complex.  That spine is then developed further, taking a broad idea and digging deeper into the story scene by scene. After finding exactly what the spine of your story is, a writer must protect it at all costs.  It is easy to lose focus of what is really important in a story when you’re 80 pages in.  Goldman insists that strictly sticking to the ultimate spine of a story will drive that script to success. Without a well-developed spine, a screenplay is pretty much doomed.

-Contributed by Mackenzie G.-

 

 

 

 

Part B

The most influential story structure models include Aristotle’s Three Acts, Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, Field’s Paradigm, and Daniels’ Sequence.

 

The basic “Three Act” model of a screenplay starts with establishing the setting and characters (Beginning).  At the end of this first act, the introduction of a problem (or inciting incident) makes the story progress to the rising action (The middle or “Second Act”).  During this part of the story, the protagonist attempts to solve the conflict created by the inciting incident.  The second act ends with a climax in which the tension of the rising action reaches its greatest intensity.  Here, the protagonist either wins or loses against the problems he/she faces.  The third act, or denoumenet, is spent showing what has happened to the characters since the climax and ties up all the story’s remaining loose ends.  Though it is part of a larger trilogy of films, The Bourne Ultimatum follows this basic structure.  The inciting incident in the story is when Jason Bourne finds himself tracked by the CIA again after attempting to gain knowledge of a top-secret operation he was once a part of.  The climax arrives when Bourne confronts the members of the CIA he once served under as part of the operation.  Finally, the denoumenet shows Bourne surviving the encounter and escaping.

 

Joseph Campbell’s concept of the Hero’s Journey involves a more complicated story structure.  Studying many ancient myths, Campbell constructed the idea of a universal “monomyth” with several common structural features.  The monomyth starts with a “Call to Adventure” – an event that entices the hero to leave all that is familiar to them.  In the film “Across the Universe,” this happens when Jude leaves for the United States in search of his biological father.  The hero then encounters a “Road of Trials” – a series of challenges to which the hero either defeats or succumbs.  For example, Jude’s relationship with Lucy weakens throughout the story.  He later attempts to save her from policemen at an anti-war protest gone violent only to get arrested and deported back to England – separated from her.  The hero’s victory or failure of navigating the Road of Trials leaves him/her with a “boon” or vital new knowledge about the world, leaving the hero a stronger and wiser person than he/she was before the “Call to Adventure.”  Finally, the hero returns to the life they left behind with this new boon.  The hero then has the chance to apply this new boon to the original world from the beginning of the story.  This happens when Jude legally moves to the States and reconciles with Lucy.

 

The Paradigm – as developed by Syd Field – took Aristotle’s Three Acts and divided the middle into two sub-acts – Act 2a and Act 2b.  In addition, it introduced the concept of plot points – important moments that occur around the same time in almost all good screenplays.  These include the opening image at the start of the screenplay (an image believed to sum up the film in one shot) and “pinches” (Scenes occurring halfway through Acts 2a and 2b designed to remind the viewer of the story’s main conflicts).  No Country for Old Men has a great opening image of the desert in Texas, setting the grim, desolate, isolated tone that the story takes.  Two “pinches” that occur in Act 2a and Act 2b also remind us that the hero – Llewelyn Moss – is constantly being pursued by the ruthless antagonist – Anton Chigurh.  The first “pinch” occurs when Chigurh nearly catches up to Moss at a motel.  The second “pinch” comes when Chigurh attempts to call Carson Wells only to find Chigurh on the other end of the line, threatening the life of his wife.

 

Frank Daniel’s Sequence Structure is based off of early film reels only having 10 minutes of film on them.  This limiting factor influenced a style of screenplay structure that still holds up to this very day.  Each 10 minute “sequence” of film was effectively a miniature version of a movie with its own three act structure.  Sequences 1-2 can then come together to form the film’s overaching beginning, 3-6 become the middle, and 7-8 are the end.  In the film adaption of Sweeney Todd, one of the two sequences at the start of the film tells its own self-contained story.  A corrupt judge lusts after Todd’s wife, trumps up false charges against him, rapes his wife, then “adopts” the child.  Though a tragic story, it has its own beginning, middle, and end.

-Contributed by Nick R.-

Part C

 Philosopher Aristotle had his own views on story-telling and story structure, which he exercised in his poems.  He believed that stories should explore choices and moral decisions.  “The development of a fable should arise out of the fable itself, and not depend on machinery.”  He believed that characters are not as important as the story.  One thing that he did think about the protagonist is that he should be flawed.  “In a proper tragedy, the protagonist recognizes that his own error has caused his downfall.”  He was big on writing the plot believing that that characters follow the actions.

                Lagos Egri( 1888-1967), author of “The Art of Dramatic Writing”,  had a different perspective.  He preached that characters were the driving force behind a good story.   He believed that stories were based on human psychology.  “You must have a premise- a premise that which will lead you unmistakably to the goal your play hopes to reach…The premise should be a conviction of your own, so that you may prove it wholeheartedly.”  He thought it was important to focus on character transitions.: define goals, values, and a plan.  Egri believed that actions followed character decisions.

                These two had differing views and Hollywood has seen both.  The only similarity was that the story always had a three-act structure: 1st Act , 2nd, and 3rd Act which were previously described.  Early films were were silent.  The audience did not get a chance to learn the characters on a deep level.  As a result the stories were centered on the plot and actions.  The story structure was very basic.  Once the “silents” became the “talkies”,  plots could no longer be simplistic.  Actors had to talk, which meant that the characters needed to appeal to the audience.   Authors such as William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, and John Steinbeck were drafted by the studios to write screenplays.    In most novels, the reader gets connected to the book characters and studio execs knew that these authors could translate that to the screen.  This was the beginning of character driven plots. 

                For the most part, story structure in Hollywood has remained faithful to the 3-Act structure.  However, there are small differences  in the story nowadays.  Loglines for story’s are not even the same.  Most stories have a one-sentence logline, which tells what the story is about.  However, in 1937, screenwriter Francis Marion was quoted, “If you cannot state the gist of a play in three lines, it lacks backbone.”  Nowadays three lines is considered to be too long.

                Plots and characters are no longer simplistic.  The characters and the plots are now much more dynamic and interesting than those in earlier days.  There is still some debate over if plot-driven is better than character driven.  For the most part, current screenwriters use both the plot and the characters to drive the story.

-Contributed by Ashleigh-

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