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-

Suspense in Terminator script

Suspense in Terminator

    

 

The story structure creates the backbone of the suspense in this film because the stakes are as high as possible. Not only are the protagonists unprepared and unbelieved, but they also have to kill an invincible killing machine. The Terminator is extremely well armed, inside and out, and the more damage he receives the more unstoppable he appears (p.54). This is a great man vs. machine film and the script emphasizes the animal nature of Reese. He is repeatedly described as feral and a lot of attention is paid to his instincts and quick reflexes (p.18). While Reese’s story gives us some hope, the existence of mankind is at stake and much of the suspense comes from this against-all-odds situation.

            The characters develop very slowly in the script and of course the Terminator does not experience any character growth. This creates suspense because until the very end of the film, Sarah is scared, confused, and weak.  Reese goes in the opposite direction, becoming more human in the end but then we question how that will affect his battle with the machine.

            The screen directions  written in the script are great and it is a shame the director did not get to use them all. The first directions that add to the suspense are the low angle dolly or handheld shots (starting p.5). This makes us feel small and scared particularly when cut with ECUs of the Terminator. Another shot that creates immediate suspense is the POV shot looking into the barrel of a gun.

            The suspense created by the production design comes mainly in the chase and fight sequences. One line sticks out in the chases because it seems all encompassing; “RELENTLESS FORWARD MOTION”. The audience is put right in the middle of everything with a lot of danger and confusion all around. We are in the normal world but the stakes are reiterated with the flash-forwards of the future. The images of a war torn future builds suspense around the Terminator because it shows what a terminator is made to do and what it could do in our normal world. The script also has the best apparent defeat ever as the smoking steel skeleton rises from the ashes.   

 

Indiana Jones 4 opening scene – as it should have been

              Indiana Jones IV

 

FADE IN:

Int. desert cave—DAY

 

A figure resembling INDIANA JONES walks down a long hallway with two guides flanking him holding flashlights and looking nervous.  They have been walking for a while and the passage is becoming more dusty and full of cobwebs.

 

One of the guides ARI stops to take a rock out of his shoe.

 

ARI

Ouch! Why is this passage

so long? And why is it

getting colder?

 

The figure resembling Indiana stops and throws a level on the ground. He turns around to face the other two and is revealed to be JASON, a twenty-something kid with a cowboy pistol instead of a whip.

 

JASON (laughing)

We’re getting deeper guys,

so bundle up.

 

ARI

If you knew it was going to

be cold why didn’t we bring

torches instead of these things?

 

JASON

I’ll never understand this

obsession with torches people

have. You’re just like my dad,

living in the past.

 

ARI

Archaeologists are supposed

to live in the past. Where

is your father anyway? I would

feel much safer with him here.

 

Jason is indignant and turns away without responding.

 

CUT TO:

 

INDIANA JONES is sitting in bed drinking coffee and reading the paper. He has a sprained ankle. SALLAH enters and pours himself some coffee.

 

SALLAH

So Indy, do you know where

your son is this morning?

 

INDIANA

Probably sleeping one off.

 

SALLAH

Well Indy, you can be happy

young Jason isn’t quite the

drunk you think although in

this case you may wish he was.

 

Indiana get up and starts getting dressed in a hurry.

 

INDIANA

Alright Sallah what did he

do now? He hasn’t been

gambling again, has he?

 

SALLAH

No, no nothing like that.

He has simply stolen three

of my best camels and two

of my worst guides.

 

Indiana looks alarmed and starts looking through his luggage.

 

SALLAH

He headed southwest

apparently into the desert

so I thought-

 

INDIANA (holding up an empty briefcase)

The ruins of Bedua.

 

CUT TO:

 

 

INT. Desert cave—DAY

 

Jason and guides have come to a stone wall blocking the passage and are examining everything nearby with flashlights.

 

ARI

Maybe this is a sign.

 

JASON (irritated)

A sign of what exactly?

 

GUIDE #2

We shouldn’t be here.

 

 

JASON

You should be more concerned

with what we can do not what

you think we should.

 

The two guides look at each other uneasily.

 

CUT TO:

EXT. Entrance to ruins of Bedua—DAY

 

Five Arab men with rifles sit on camels in front of the entrance.

 

ARAB #1

Do you think they will figure

out how to open the chamber door?

 

Arab #2

Perhaps not but he is American,

no? He will blow the door up to

get what he wants.

 

Arab #3

Now what makes you think

Americans are so destructive?

 

The group starts laughing loudly at the joke.

 

CUT TO:

 

 

Indiana and Sallah are riding through the desert.

 

INDIANA (curious)

Sallah how do you know where

we’re going?

 

SALLAH (coughs)

Well Indy I’ve been keeping

copies of your maps because

you do have a rather strong

tendency to get captured.

 

They suddenly hear the sound of laughter and pull the horses to a stop. They crawl up to the top of a sand dune and see the five Arabs.

 

EXT. Cave entrance–Continuous

 

The Arab men sit under some ruins next to the cave entrance. Some of them start loading and cleaning their rifles.

 

CUT TO:

 

INT. Blocked passage—DAY

 

ARI (shining his flash light down a hole)

I think I see a lever down

there but we’re going to need

a long stick to reach it.

 

JASON (rolling eyes)

Oh yes there are plenty of

long sticks in the desert.

 

Jason thinks for a moment and takes his pistol out and shoots into the hole. The door starts to rise.

 

EXT. Cave Entrance—DAY

 

ARAB #2

See what I told you!

 

EXT. Top of sand dune—Continuous

 

INDIANA (muttering)

Any excuse to use his gun.

 

SALLAH

You know Indy I think they

will be shot at when they

leave the cave.

 

INDIANA

Yeah I get that same feeling.

 

Indiana sees the camels Jason has brought and decides to create a diversion.

 

INT. Cavern—DAY

 

Jason and guides have entered a large elaborate cavern and they stand there speechless shining flashlights up and down the wall. After a few seconds the door behind them starts to close. They all run for the door and make it out just in time.

 

                        ARI (looking at the broken lever)

              Well this has been a productive

              day.

 

EXT. Cave Entrance—DAY

 

Jason’s group emerges into bright sunlight and chaos. Camels are running around wildly, with Arabs chasing them. Bullets are also flying from the few Arabs not chasing camels. Indiana and Sallah ride in and grab Jason and the guides and escape through the mazelike ruins.

 

INDIANA (yelling over the noise)

You’re a real pain in the

ass kiddo!

 

JASON

At least I haven’t been gambling!

             

 

 

FADE OUT.

Jim and Ed

                 

 

VIDEO

AUDIO

FADE UP TO MS: Jim, sitting in a car reading a magazine.

Stereo:  Bob Marley “Lion in Zion”

 

CUT TO LS: Ed, getting in the car

 

Ed: Hey whatsup man

CUT TO LS: Car drives off

CUT TO CU, POV backseat: Jim changes the song and yawns.

                                  

 

 

 

Ed: so you gonna finish that story man?

 

CU, POV backseat: Jim rubs his head with a frustrated look.

 

Jim: I’m tired and that story is the story of my life

 

CUT TO MS POV in front of car: Ed looks at Jim

 

 

Ed: get on with it then. Ain’t like I got anything better to do.

 

CUT TO CU: Jim talking staring at the road.

 

Jim: Ever think that I might have something better to do?

 

CUT TO CU POV Jim: Ed, grinning

 

Ed: No

 

CUT TO CU: Jim talking staring at the road.

 

Jim: Ok so what was I talking about then smart guy?

 

CUT TO CU: Ed, thinking

 

Ed: I think you were talking about jamaca

 

CUT TO MS: Jim looks over at Ed

 

Jim: Oh…right. I dropped anchor right off this little beach on the east side of the island and decided to go check out the jungle

 

CUT TO CU: Ed

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ed: you know that’s fuckin stupid right, Jamacas dangerous

 

CUT TO CU: Jim gives a long sigh

 

Jim: yeah I know that now but of course it seemed like a fantastic idea at the time.  It turned to be maroon territory too.

 

CUT TO MS: Ed looks at Jim curiously

 

Ed: What does that mean?

 

CUT TO CU: Jim turns and smiles.

Jim: Marroons are kinda like clans that are all descendants of escaped slaves which basically means they’re tough as nails.

 

CUT TO MS: Ed looking incredulously at Jim. 

 

Ed: what did they fuck you up or something?

 

CUT TO CU: Jim looks forward

 

Jim: I walk into the jungle right and after a few minutes I see a little clearing and when I walk into it they are like 5 guys chillin, smoking cheba and they all have machetes

CUT TO MS.  Ed looks amazed, staring at Jim

 

 

Ed:  So were they like some crazy rastas or what?

 

 

 

 

 

CU JIM WITH EYEBROW RAISED:

JIM: They were not friendly and actually ended up robbing me.

CU ED LOOKING CURIOUS:

ED: that sucks dude. Anything good happen in Jamaica?

MS BOTH ED AND JIM:

JIM: Well they got me real high before they robbed me plus I only had ten bucks so aside from the whole being threatened with machetes thing, really wasn’t a bad transaction.

CU ED:  Amazed

ED: has anyone ever told you you’re a lunatic?

CU JIM: smiling

Jim:  Not infrequently

 

Drunk Biking PSA

                                                WZBC

                             PSA: BIKES AND BOOZE—30 SECOND

Begin with testimony:  SO I SHOULDN’T EVEN HAVE BEEN WALKING BUT I NEVER HEARD OF A DUI FOR BIKES, PLUS I WASN’T EVEN GOING THAT FAST…..BUT YEAH I RAN RIGHT INTO A CURB AND LANDED ON MY FACE.

“Sound of bicycle skidding”

EVERYONE HAS BEEN TOLD HUNDREDS OF TIMES NOT TO DRINK AND DRIVE.  YOU’VE SEEN THE VIDEOS.  YOU’VE HEARD THE STATISTICS AND HOPEFULLY IF YOU ARE DRUNK YOU WON’T GET BEHIND THE WHEEL.  BUT HOW MANY TIMES HAVE YOU THOUGHT ABOUT THE DANGERS OF DRUNKEN BICYCLE RIDING?  REMEMBER KIDS, BIKING DRUNK IS NOT A SAFE ALTERNATIVE TO DRIVING DRUNK.  SO THE NEXT TIME YOU’RE THINKING ABOUT PEDALING HOME DRUNK, JUST THINK ABOUT HOW MUCH HARDER IT IS TO BALANCE ON TWO WHEELS WHEN YOU CAN’T EVEN BALANCE ON TWO FEET. 

Ad for student cleaners

:60 second radio spot, Student Solutions

 MUSIC “LOVE AND MARRIAGE” UP AND UNDER 

VOICE ONE               Hey everybody this is your house speaking and I’m sorry to say I

 

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front hall has a stain on the carpet….(VOICE FADEOUT)

 

VOICE TWO              Does your house complain too much?  Does it whine about the dirt

 

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VOICE ONE               Student Solutions! Oh you shouldn’t have, but I certainly do

 

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VOICE TWO              So if you need help around the house or yard please give us a call

 

Ad for the MBTA

:60 second Radio spot,  The MBTA

 SFX TRAFFIC, CAR HORNS, SCREECHING, PEOPLE YELLING 

SARAH           This traffic makes me want to buy a bulldozer and go through this

 

gridlock like a bowling ball.

 

JEN                 That’s not a bad idea (PAUSE) we would probably get to work on time.

 

SARAH           Oh no!  We ARE going to be late and I was late for class yesterday too.

 

JEN                 I suppose we could always take the T

 

SARAH           Yeah but the T is so slow and crowded, plus it smells funny sometimes.

 

JEN                 Well it’s not exactly the Ritz but it can’t be any worse than where

 

 we are now.

 

SARAH           It’s not that bad

 

JEN                 Are you kidding? (INCREDULOUS) We have moved five feet in the last

 

 Ten minutes, your air conditioner is broken-

 

SARAH           (INTERUPPTING) No it’s not broken, I just don’t want to use up my gas

 

sitting in traffic.

 

JEN                 Ok whatever, you’re still breathing in exhaust like its some kind of

 

Aromatherapy and you’re still wasting gas.
 

 

SARAH           Yeah I know but things could get better

 

JEN                 Oh? What do you see happening that would make this commute better?

 

SARAH           Gas prices could go down, they could finish the big dig…

 

JEN                 So you are waiting for peace in the Middle East and the largest

 

 construction screw up in history to work itself out?

 

SARAH           Fine, lets try the T and see how it works out, I can’t afford any more tickets anyway.

 

ANNOUCER   Riding the T will save you time and headache as well as ease the stain on

 

 your wallet. Look for a coupon valid for a free day on the T in this Sunday’s Globe and

 

Herald.