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Friday, February 8, 2008

Review: Structure, Stakes & Conflict

A feature script is written in three acts and usually has about 100 pages. The three act structure of a script also includes certain points in the script when the story has some major complications or reversals for the main character. Very often, newbie scripts are linear in nature. That is to say that things happen and then more things happen and then we reach the end. There’s no tension – there’s nothing we wonder and worry about. Movies have to have something hanging in the balance – something wonderful that might not happen if the hero doesn’t get there on time OR something awful that might happen if the hero doesn’t get there on time.

Many writers (including myself) use the 4 act structure which goes something approximating this:

Act One pages 1 thru 25
Act Two pages 25 thu 50
Act Three pages 50 through 75
Act Four pages 75 through 100

One of the most fundamental tenets of drama is: stasis – change – stasis. That is to say that you establish the world of your script and then you throw something at that situation which rocks the boat. For example, here’s Jim Carrey and his lovely wife and he’s going to work but – why are people acting funny? Was that a camera following me? And we have THE TRUMAN SHOW. Another example: Here’s Roy Scheider and his lovely wife and kids and they move into this lovely seaside resort and A GIANT SHARK EATS SOMEONE. Now, in the case of JAWS when the “inciting incident” (that which rocks the boat) happens is artfully done first thing in the movie. Except that nobody saw it happen but you, the audience member. So a wonderful kind of tension is set in motion. Because we know that shark is out there but other people don’t. They still keep swimming. We’re biting our nails.

So the fundamental nature of a script is that we have conflict. How will your characters overcome a challenge? What is the “ticking clock” or time limit on overcoming that challenge? What will happen if they don’t succeed? These things are called stakes, obstacles and conflict and these are the things that create a narrative of escalating tension.

Stakes is what hangs in the balance if our hero doesn’t succeed. It’s established at the beginning of the movie and with each obstacle, the stakes become harder and harder to save. Conflict is what drives your story forward like an engine.

Now, in a three- act script, there are certain accepted points in the script when conflict rises and there are twists in the story. Those points are page 10, page 30, page 60 and page 90. Or, as you may have read, page 10 (the inciting incident) page 30 (the first plot point which leads us into the second act) page 60 (the midpoint; the middle of the second act) and page 90 (the second plot point before the big climax in the third act). See the slightly different page number indications above, in the 4-act structure.

Without conflict and without a ticking clock of some kind, your script will be totally dull. Movies are about conflict. Even if that conflict is funny. Things go wrong.

Imagine this: a friend says to you – you’ll never guess what happened today! I was headed to the grocery store and the traffic was really bad! O-kay. But try it a different way: I was headed to my wedding and the traffic was really bad! Now we are left with a pressing question: did you make it on time? Now we are interested in the outcome because something was at stake and it wasn’t the price of cantaloupe.

Stakes in your screenplay are about exciting outcomes. An outcome is not exciting unless either something bad might happen if it doesn’t work out or something really great will NOT happen. If there’s nothing at stake then we have an ordinary day in real life. Gee, hope I make it to the gym before they close. Yawn.

Real life is often quite pedestrian. But movies are about conflict. Without conflict, your script will be labeled “soft”, stamped with a PASS and tossed into the recycling bin. Verily, Rouge Wavers would be surprised how often newer writers just don’t have enough in the way of stakes in their scripts. Memorize this: movies are about conflict. Something always has to be at stake. What if the little animals in OVER THE HEDGE can’t get back to safety? Will Woody be reunited with the little boy who loves him in TOY STORY? Stakes are – tell me what happened? Did he make it? Did she find out? Did they catch the train on time?? They are why we sit in our seats until the credits roll. They are what happens in the end.

Stakes are the engine that drives your story forward toward its inevitable end. Stakes, conflicts and obstacles are always relative to the premise of your story and to your main character. The stakes, conflicts and obstacles present in PIRATES III are excitingly appropriate for that particular premise. The stakes and conflicts in FREAKY FRIDAY are relative to that premise. And BRIGADOON. And DISTURBIA.

In SOPHIE’S CHOICE, Sophie must choose between one of her two babies in a Nazi concentration camp. Stakes don’t get bigger than that. But stakes can be funny too: what is at stake for Derek Zoolander in ZOOLANDER? Only his life’s work, his identity and his ego. That’s pretty huge for Derek.

Stakes can be the end of the world, telling the person you love that you love them, saving a life, stopping a killer, restoring an important relationship, saving the nation from nuclear war. The size and scope, the bigness of the stakes in your story should be a relative match for the premise and your main character. It would be ludicrous if the stakes in DISTURBIA, for example, were the end of the world – that’s totally outside of the premise. And remember, if you execute your pages beautifully, that an old woman’s garden will wilt and die can be a huge set of stakes – for that character. Think about the genre. Are you writing an action picture? Okay the garden really isn’t going to work. But it worked beautifully (if campily) in SILENT RUNNING.

Do some homework; watch some of your favorite movies. Press the pause button in the early part of the movie and ask yourself what seems to be at stake for the main character. Is it clear to you what the main character’s goal is? Now watch for a while longer and pause again – what is the character’s flaw? What conflicts is the character facing? What will happen if he or she doesn’t reach their goal through whatever narrative is in motion?

Remember the fundamental tenet of drama: stasis – change – stasis. Movies ARE conflict. Nobody will pay nine dollars and sit still for two hours to watch a story in which nothing significant is at stake. Check your premise; it is right there, before you start writing pages, that you need to make sure you have stakes that will drive your story. How funny it was that time you and your buddies went to Vegas doesn’t sound that interesting. Unless you went there to kill yourself. Unless you went there to count cards. Unless you went there to steal a billion dollars from the casino vault. Those are stakes.

ShowHype: hype it up!

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rachel said...

there goes my screenplay about a girl trying to get to the gym before it closes.....110 pages wasted! ;-)

seriously, thanks for the timely reminder about stakes. one of the hardest elements to get right.

Belzecue said...

Julie, I could kiss you on your cupcakes for giving four-act structure a shout-out. You've visited my site so you know what a four-act nutcase I am, and how keen I am to eighty-six the three-act model.

rachel -- "there goes my screenplay about a girl trying to get to the gym before it closes" No, seriously, you've got me hooked: WHAT HAPPENS if she doesn't make it before closing? You've already got the ticking clock, so what are the stakes? You've just elegantly illustrated Julie's post!

rachel said...

Well seeing as you asked!
It’s all about her brand new ipod, which she left in the sauna. Trouble is it's been fitted with an improvised explosive device. (Guess that explains why she got it so cheap...) and the guy at the pub who sold it to her has had a change of heart about blowing up the ATM that sucked up his card. Which is nothing compared to how ripped off she’ll be to lose her collection of REM rarities and b-sides … The reason she can't get to the gym is because the guy from the pub has shown up to get the ipod back. But those bootlegs are priceless and she's not giving up without a fight!

Belzecue said...

Notes from Stu DioHoncho...

>> It’s all about her brand new ipod

Microsoft offered us a big ol' bundle for the game rights if we change it to a Zune. So... you know, just use your best judgement then do a search-replace, okeydoke? Remember, there's no 'I' in 'team' but there is in 'meat pie.' Shaun of the Dead. Our studio is totally remaking that next year. Eddie Murphy's interested. We figure he'll play all the roles like he did in Norbit and the Klumps. You don't waste talent like that.

>> which she left in the sauna

I love it. The sizzle of water on the hot rocks, the tension hanging thick in the steamy air, slick bodies barely covered by flimsy towels... Love it. Gotta change it. We want Kidman and she can't sweat. I don't mean she's got a clause in her contract saying she won't do scenes requiring her to sweat. I mean she can't physically sweat. Except for the soles of her feet, so... not very visual. Side-effect from Botox use, says Google. Hmmm? Oh yeah, sure we could fake the sweat, but we're trying to stay away from computer effects. The producers want to do this old school, practical all the way. You know, keep it simple.

>> Trouble is it's been fitted with an improvised explosive device

I can't tell you how much this excited the Producers. I was pitching your script, telling them about this scene with the Ipod -- no, no -- the Zune, and how it's been fitted with an IUD. Man, they were grinning from ear to ear. They GOT it.

OK, more notes later. Remember, technically this is just a polish to the touch-up of the seventh revision of the third draft so we can't technically pay you for the changes, but we do love your work. Oh, and you remember the guy we brought in last week to punch up the funeral scene? Yeah. Well, he wants to take it to arbitration for sole screenwriting credit and he'll probably get it because he's Mr Silver's pool cleaner, so... You gonna eat that muffin, or...

Anonymous said...

I hope you meant it was fitted with an IED, not an IUD ... unless you're afraid the zune will come home knocked up. That's an entirely different story. ;-)

rachel said...

ah belzecue...your notes made me laugh! i am reminded of the delish story this week of Kidman inadvertantly donating a swimsuit to charity in sweden. It went like this: she shut the local pool down to get her laps in for one of those lars von trier romantic comedies she's so fond of, left the togs behind, Swen tried to return them but by now Kidman wasn't returning calls, so he donated them to a charity. Who auctioned them. The Salvation Army then bought them. Swen bought them back at auction. Waited 5 years. Then framed them (in formaldehyde perhaps?) and donated them to another charity in India. A charity that buys cows. The togs had managed to get enough kronor to buy 5 cows in india. And you thought kronor was beer...

Belzecue said...

Rachel: You win, LOL.

"Then framed them (in formaldehyde perhaps?)"

Sure, sure. That was my first thought too... (Children, back away from the nice lady, get in the car and roll up the windows...)



Anon: "I hope you meant it was fitted with an IED, not an IUD"

Truthfully, I backed off a bit with that joke. IED's aren't so funny when you see on YouTube what's happening in Iraq.

On the other hand, did you hear the one about the squad of marines pinned down by a sniper in a tower, where the gunnery sergeant asks for the RPG and gets handed a copy of World of Warcraft? BA-DUM, TCHHHHHH! I am SO going to acronym Hell ASAP, ROFL.

rachel said...

The knocked up mp3 movie will be out next summer. It's called Zuno...

Belzecue said...

Rachel: hehe, "Zuno..."


Coincidentally, I'm reading the Juno screenplay now (have seen film; mostly liked it, despite the de rigeur indy song with every scene). Diablo's use of italics is making my teeth grind, but there's no denying the deft wordsmithing. Pulling me along like a colourful kite on a breezy, sunny day.

I agree with someone's observation that Cody isn't a stripper-turned-writer, but a writer who stripped.

Certainly when I get famous I don't want to be known as "that Rouge-Waver-turned-writer" -- no offense, Julie, LOL.

I hear Shyamalan once told E! Online he was a Rogue Waver, and then he went away and wrote Lady in the Water. I don't want to draw any obvious connections... you know... but... Julie may have killed his career.

Now, hang on, before you read too much into that, let me say this... yeah, she totally did. But you didn't hear it from me. And if Julie quizzes you about it, give her a pensive-slash-wistful look then point at THAT guy over there. Je Accuse! (that's Spanish for "Your donkey ate my passport!")

rarry said...

LOL ! I liked juno v. much but agree the constant indie songs (*hey, didnt they play that one already?*) made me feel old. just like the credits. napoleon dynamite wants his texta's back.

and as for the RW = Death of Career - i have to agree with you, belzecue....too many cupcakes clearly sunk M Night's career (oh, that was bad...)