December 4, 2011

Structure - tips from Scriptchat

We're born, we do shit, we die. There's our three act structure.
But when it comes to the stories we tell, it gets more complicated, because we must play God and be the architect of our characters' fates.

Structure is a tricky thing - so set in stone in some ways, so loose and 'anything is possible' in others. And it's something you'll be lucky if they teach in a screenwriting course (I am scowling at my university as I write).

Here are some gems shared by the brains trust of Scriptchat. I hope you find some helpful wisdom in here.

STRUCTURE 30th October 2011

* There’s overall structure and individual scene structure.
* When writing a scene ask yourself “What do I want this scene to be about?” Let that guide how you construct the scene.
* Start with a solid structure (don’t overthink it!) then let your characters run free so the structure becomes organic.
* Once the outline is written, stop stressing on structure and have fun with the story.
* Think of your script in quarters (like 4 acts).
* The midpoint is a thematic break, rather than a plot break. This is why 3 acts can often seem like 4.
* Think of the midpoint as page 60 of a 120 page script. A major plot decision that highlights the theme.
* Focus on set-ups and pay-offs.
* A good guide for scenes: they should be on average 2 minutes long. 7 in the first act, up to page 28-ish. Proceeds accordingly. (The maths on this doesn’t add up – maybe the person who suggested this tip could clarify?)
* Try to focus on plot events rather than acts when charting your A, B, and C strands.
* The major key to cracking structure is figuring out what events drive the plot. Not comprise it, but CAUSE IT.
* Do extensive character work, really get to know these people in and out, and the plot points you devise will be organic to your characters and believable to the audience.
* What’s your character’s goal? Their obstacles? Don’t prescribe, LISTEN!
* Don’t be married to your outline or you won’t embrace changes.
* Plotting: ‘Veni, vidi, vici – I came, I saw, I conquered’.
* Be sure that your lead character drives the action, despite you having ‘outlined their fate’.
* Characters should always be making choices true to the character. Bring ‘em to their breaking point honestly.
* You could break plot into 7 – 8 blocks with a dramatic question for each, and plot points spinning the story in a new direction (even if your story is linear, it shouldn’t walk a straight line!)
* Inciting incidents tend to appear earlier now than they used to in films, now occurring between page 5 – 10.
* Conflict drives story. Never forget that. Dexter was at its best when you were constantly fearing Dex getting caught. The Big Lebowski is funnier when Walter is yelling at Donnie.
* By page 5, the reader should know who the main character is and what they want. Why they can’t get it should follow soon after.
* The best scenes have three layers of conflict: intrapersonal (inside the character), interpersonal (between characters), and circumstantial (conflicting with their environment/situation/the greater world or order).
* Always know what all of your characters want, and how those desires clash, and there’s your tension.
* Your inciting incident should never be the most exciting thing in your script. The conflict should.
* DVD recommendation: ‘Heroes 2 Journeys’ (structure & character development)
* Book recommendations: ‘How to write a movie in 21 days’. ‘Myth & the movies’ by Stuart Voytilla (myth structures for 50 top films). Books written by David Howard, including ‘How to build a great screenplay’, and Paul Joseph Gulino, including ‘Screenwriting: the sequence approach’.

I don't know about you, but I think there's a lot of gold written above. Structure of plot and scenes intimidates me, but I think some of these tips will help me to move forward.

Next time I'll share some notes I made listening to a podcast. Yes, you could listen to the podcast yourself, but not everyone has 45 minutes to give their full attention over to a sound file. The topic will be scene writing, and it should be a nice little follow-up to this post on structure.

Screenwriters Anonymous - where a narcissistic, egotistical God complex with features of grandeur delusions is absolutely mandatory.

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