Updated: Dec 23, 2019
No, I'm not talking about the Three Act-structure. Nor, am I talking about any of the models found in the books of Syd Field, Robert McKee, Blake Snyder or any other Script Gurus out there.
This article is not about formulas.
This is about the screenwriting structure found in all professional screenplays, yet not mentioned in any of those books and therefore, ignored by virtually all spec writers.
In all my years as a screenplay reader for studios, and still to this day - our offices would get, literally flooded with screenplays, floor to ceiling. Needless to say, most of them - the vast, vast majority of them, ended up as fodder for the Schleicher cross-cut, paper shredder.
This happens for a lot of reasons, but one of the most common I can think of, is the lack of this basic internal structure, that I am referring to here.
Let me explain by means of an example. Here is an excerpt from a beat sheet. Try to See, if you can see anything wrong with it.
The story begins with an explosion at a chemical plant. Dangerous toxins splatter all over the nearby graveyard, causing zombies to come alive and invade a metropolis.
Right after, we cut to the main character and this is where I jump into the beat sheet;
"We cut to Jasper, a thirteen-year-old kid who is plagued by nightmares of Zombies.
His father is an auto mechanic and as we meet him, he is repairing their own car in the garage. Jasper feels sad, scared and lonely - misses his mom.
Flashback to; Two years earlier. - Jasper´s mom is killed in a car crash. After the funeral, Jaspers dad, Bill, is unable to take care of him and leaves Jasper to live with his grandparents Although grief-stricken, Jasper forms a strong bond with his granddad, Mr. Jones, who often takes him out to the lake, where Jasper learns to fish.
Back to the present. Jasper and his dad are shopping at the local mall. Something is going on. People are running around, screaming. Jasper´s dad dismisses it. Jasper is waiting outside on a bench, when he meets, Emilie. They talk and Jasper falls in love.
Later, Jasper is having dinner with his dad. They are, as always, arguing about the cleaning.
Next day, Jasper is at school. His teacher, Mr. Olowsky"
Anyway, I do not want to bore you with the rest of the Act.
I, however, hope you were able to spot some problems with it. Big problems - Problems so big that no Studio would ever buy or option it, no matter how great the story or the idea is.
Let me break it down for you. What you have just read is not the story at all. It reads more like random scenes - a slice of life. We see the character's back story. We have to endure scenes where he shops, falls in love, learns to fish, and we even get to meet his school teacher. This is just information, exposition, loosely disguised as a story. - How is that a story?
If that is a story, then anything could be a story. All you would have to do to become a successful screenwriter would be to scribble down scenes of what you did yesterday; Went shopping talked with mom on the phone, went to work, picked up the kids, watched television. - and you would have a hell of a screenplay, right?
The problem is not It´s that these scenes lack drama and suspense.
The writer could have thrown some entertaining conflicts in there, some turning points, surprises, reversals, suspense, some funny lines or iconic wisecracks, and it would have helped zero, zilch.
The problem is that these scenes lack coherence but not just any kind of coherence. I am talking about a special kind of coherence - the kind that defines every single story ever told.
Let us look at a brief outline of a movie we all know; E.T - the extraterrestrial.
As you know,
the story begins when a group of aliens lands their spaceship in a forest to gather plants from earth. All of a sudden, government agents appear at the scene, forcing the aliens to flee but in such a hurry that they leave one behind. This, tiny, timid alien seeks refuge in a garden shed behind a suburban house.
And this is where Elliot comes in. Elliot is about ten years old and it is he, that lives in the house, along with his two siblings and his mother. One night, when he returns after having picked up Pizza, he hears a strange noise from the shed. Eventually, he investigates it and, much to his shock, discovers what he believes to be a goblin, living there. Scared out of his wits he runs home and pleads with his family to help. His friends and family mock and ridicule him, which is why he decides to prove them wrong by luring the goblin out of his hiding. He does this, brilliantly, by means of a bag of Reese's Pieces and eventually makes contact with the hungry alien.
Well, you all know the rest. But notice how easily and unhindered the story flows. Every single scene, every beat, connects to the next.
There is a secret structure that connects these dots and you may find it in all stories, all genres.
That structure is; Causality - cause and effect. Action, reaction.
Every scene is a direct consequence of the preceding scene and that consequence, then becomes a cause for the next scene. In short, Each scene causes the next to happen.
The keyword here - the word that forms the heartbeat of this structure, is the magic word "Because"
It is Because the government turns up at the forest scene, that E.T´s fellow aliens, escape. and it is Because they have to flee in a hurry, that they leave him behind. It is Because their continuous presence at the scene that E.T flees into the shed and it is because Elliot hears noise from the shed that he becomes aware of E.T. It is also Because his family refuses to believe him that he becomes defiant and decides to prove them wrong.
So, as you hopefully can see, every single beat, every scene, and every sequence is ruled by the magic of "Because". Every scene, with no exception, occurs as a direct consequence of the scene that came before it. quite simply; every scene happens because of the one that precedes it. That is indeed, what makes a story, a story rather than a series of scenes.
This is not an advanced theory. This is the very, basic definition of what makes a story.
So, imagine the disappointment that Studio readers, such as myself, feel when we read, yet another screenplay that seems to fumble this, the most basic fact about stories.
It's like being served an omelet from a chef who claims to be a professional and yet, is unaware of the fact that omelets need eggs. It's is not only disappointing but rather, it is grounds for immediate dismissal.
But there is much more to it than that.
Scenes, as we have discussed, are connected by causality. But this is not merely a matter of connecting one scene to the other. Scenes and sequences can be connected without becoming a story. This is what I see in spec scripts most of the time. Let me give an example.
Imagine you read a story about a woman.
When we first meet her, she is fired from her job as a store clerk, because she refuses the all too sexual advanced of the store manager. Depressed and angry she goes home to find her teenage son playing video games, rather than doing his homework. Still fueled by the anger of what happened to her, she unleashes it all on him. A fight ensues culminating in his leaving the house. Now, she is damned; She and her husband are expecting important dinner guests, tonight and she needed her son to help with some final, but very important grocery shopping. The guests are her husband's important business customers. He was negotiating a deal with them and the dinner was an important part of his plan to land the deal. - The deal of his lifetime.
Now, that she can´t go shopping and cooking for the meal, at the same time - she has put that business meeting in jeopardy. As a consequence, she ruins the dinner leaves the guests disappointed and the business deal is eventually canceled. This is the last straw for her husband. She has let him down one too many times and now, he argues for a divorce.
And so on...
As you can see, all these events are perfectly connected. Her firing leads to her anger and Because of that, she estranged her son. Because she did that, she is unable to cook the perfect dinner and because of that, her husband seeks a divorce.
On the surface, it looks like any story you might find - every event, serves as either a cause or an effect, or both.
But there is still a problem with it. A big one. The biggest.
All though all the scenes are connected to each other, like pearls on a string, the story still fails to come across as one single, coherent story. What we see here is a series of conflicts and that is, contrary to what most spec writers believe, not how stories work.
A story is one conflict. Period. That´s it. Not two conflicts, not a million conflicts - one single conflict.
Think only of the movie, we have already discussed; E.T. The conflict begins in the very first scene where he is abandoned on earth and this very conflict, develops, beat after beat, scene after scene, act after act until it is finally resolved in the very last scene of the movie.
In the beginning, he is abandoned, far away from home. In the end, he is, finally on his way home.
The same can be said about virtually every successful story ever told. In another Spielberg movie, Jaws, we see the same pattern. The movie begins with a shark attack - this causes a problem. That problem is resolved when the shark is finally killed, yes, the last scene.
Star Wars begins with the kidnapping of Princess Leia (problem) and ends with the destruction of the death star (problem resolved)
Hangover begins when Doug goes missing and ends with his return.
All though the protagonists in these stories fight multiple obstacles, encounter multiple problems and adversaries, all these obstacles stem from the same source: The Inciting incident, found within the first 10 pages of any screenplay.
And this is what I hope that any and every spec writer will learn; Conflicts in stories, come from one single source, only. This conflict begins in the opening (or as close to it as you can get), then develops throughout the movie and is resolved, only, at the very end.
I am positive, you get this. Most people do, whether they are writers or not. For instance, most people would recognize that this is not a story;
"A man opens a letter. A mirror is smashed. A woman cries."
But most people would also agree that this is somehow closer to a story;
"A man opens a letter. In it, he learns that his brother has emptied his bank account. Because he is angry he smashes the mirror. Because the mirror was her only heirloom from her mother, the woman cries"
Once again, it is by the magic of because these, seemingly disjointed events become a story.
So, if most writers know this, why is it then, that spec writers often ends up with miles of this un-connected non-story, scenes? and how can we avoid it in our own writing?
The answer is as simple as can be; Exposition.
Whenever a writer feels she needs to convey to us information, that is when the real trouble begins. - The trouble of rejected screenplays.
If you recall the first example that I used, you will now clearly see that exposition is the devil that babbled this problem into existence.
In those scenes, we learned a great deal about Jasper. We learned that Jasper is plagued by a nightmare. we learned about how Jasper lost his mother. We got to know his granddad and learned that Jasper was taught how to fish. We learned that his dad is an auto mechanic, that Jasper has a crush on a girl and much more.
Information might sometimes be necessary if we are to understand the story but information is not a story. In fact, it might be the very opposite of the story.
It reads more like a data sheet on a person than a coherent story. And the thing is; anyone can write a datasheet. Just write down random facts about the person in question and you´ve done the job. But few can write a story.
The real question here, the question all writers need to ask themselves is this;
1) is this information really necessary?
2) if it is, how do I then convert it into a story?
Let me address these questions briefly;
As for the first question:
Very, very little information is ever needed in a story.
Believe me when I say that most of the exposition in your screenplay is not needed at all. One of my favorite illustrations of this can be found in Sidney Lumet´s is a wonderful movie "12 Angry Men"
In the very last scene of that movie, one of the minor characters stops the main character on the street and asks him for his name. The protagonist (played by Henry Fonda) then introduces himself. as 'Davis". This is the first time we ever hear the name of the hero of this movie and it is the very lasts scene. But as though this is not enough; we don´t know anything else about him.
I am telling you all this to let you know that for most movies, exposition is utterly redundant. I gather that most spec writers may believe we need all this exposition about a character to be able to identify with him.
Not true at all.
The methods and tools to bring about identification with fictitious characters are many. Too many to mention here. But one thing is clear, none of all these methods involve exposition or any kind of information we might get about the character. In fact, exposition impedes audience identification. It never facilitates it. In fact; the less we know about a character, the more likely we are to identify with him.
As odd as this may seem, I will have to have to expand on this at a later time.
My point here, however, is this;
The first step for you should be: determine how little info you can get away with and delete all else.
The next step is this: Once you have boiled all expo down, take a hard look at what you have left -the absolutely vital exposition.
Now, prepare yourself to transform all this into a story. Not any story or just a story - but The Story
- the main story of your screenplay.
A story is really a rather simple mechanism; A character encounters an irreversible problem. Because of this, he now gets a goal. This goal, not surprisingly, revolves around two to solve his problem.
As he then ventures forth to achieve his goal, to solve his problem, he now encounters severe obstacles.
And that is all there is to it. These are the 3 main components of a dramatic story, Problem. The goal, Obstacles.
So, if anything in your screenplay needs to be part of this story, for instance, a piece of information that we might need to know, it then follows that it has to become transformed into either, the problem, the goal or the obstacle.
Let us remember Raiders of the lost Arc. As you will recall, that movie opened with quite a harrowing scene, in which Indiana Jones is fleeing for his life, narrowly pursued by a band of angry natives. Just as he is about to make it, by leaping into a water plane, he encounters a deadly obstacle in the shape of a poisonous snake.
Here we have all the elements of a story in its most simplistic glory; Indiana has a problem. His goal is to escape and his obstacle a snake.
When we see this, we read it as a story and therefore, do not see it for what it actually is; exposition.
Yes, this is nothing but a very well hidden example of exposition to let us know that Indy has a deep-rooted fear of snakes. This bit of info will come in handy later on when he is buried alive in a snake pit of crawling and hissing snakes.
Yes, that is indeed why this bit of info was handed to us at the beginning of the movie. But the point to take away from this is; we never saw it as exposition, we saw it as a story because it was disguised as an obstacle to Indiana´s goal.
And this is important for several reasons.
When exposition is not transformed into the story it acts as a very effective hindrance to story. As I said before; not only is exposition is NOT a story, but the harsh truth is that it hinders the flow of a story. Whenever we encounter information for information's sake, we immediately feel like we are in the hands of a storyteller who is wasting our time.
"get back to the story" - we might find ourselves thinking. And that is precisely why all exposition needs to be the story if it is ever to work.
In conclusion, let us summarize some principles to learn from this:
1) Get rid of as much exposition as you can
2) Transform the remaining bit into obstacles against the main character's goal
3) Make sure that every scene, every beat causes the next to happen by using the magic "Because"
4) make sure that the story stays on the same target from the first to the last scene.
If you can do all of this, you have immediately placed yourself among the very few, whose script will get read from beginning to end. And take this from a seasoned Studio screenplay reader; that is in itself, a very rare feat to behold.
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Happy writing !!!