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Monday, January 5, 2009

Let's Talk About Structure and Also Poker


First, totally unrelated to structure - this from today's Variety Online: The record-breaking 2008 domestic box office proves Hollywood isn't as dependent on by-the-book franchises as everyone feared. It will also be remembered for prospering even as the economy collapsed.

To read the rest of the article, click HERE.

Now. I thought maybe we should get down to brass tacks. Let's talk about structure. A topic that for many makes the blood run cold. Three acts or four? Inciting incident on page five or 10? First act break on page 25 or 30? Get character up in tree, throw rocks at character. Right? Forget all that stuff for a minute.

There is no element in screenwriting that can be discussed totally unto itself. Well, you could, and people try to, but it doesn't make sense. Structure in particular is the hub of the wheel and is closely tied to character and premise. We know that the structure of a screenplay is roughly a three act proposition. I personally like thinking of it in terms of four acts - but that's hair splitting; four acts is just the second act divided in half. So we might have:

Act One: pages one-25
Act Two A: pages 25-50
Act Two B: pages 50-75
Act Three: pages 50-100*

*I am using the magical 100 page script here for two reasons. One, it's not a bad page count to aspire to and two, it just makes the math easier. If you script has a longer page count, the ratios here still apply.

We know we have certain milestones in the three or four act structure:

The inciting incident which falls anywhere from page one to page 10 (latest, kids, latest). Another name for this milestone might be: Why did I buy a ticket to this movie? When is all the stuff I saw in the trailer going to start to happen?

The first act break, which falls right around page 25 or so. And we might call this: I forgot to buy M&Ms I'll just be a minute - oh HEY, what's this? I'll get them later.

The midpoint, which falls, yup, dead center. And we might refer to this as the okay forget the M&MS, the Coke, forget everything, I cannot leave this seat, things just heated up - again!

The second act break, which falls just before the third act, so in the area of page 75 or so. And we most definitely can refer to this one as: I have to use the restroom but...but...I HAVE to see what happens now!

So we know this, right? Each portion of the structure ramps things up to engage the audience in more interesting and complicated ways. Sucking them into the story more and more. That's looking at structure purely from an entertainment factor point of view, not a story point of view. This is not the gist of what I want to talk about today but it's a useful way to think of structure. Every 25 pages or so you have to turn up the heat so that your audience is more committed, more curious and more entertained by what's going on.

But of course, you cannot accomplish this by adding rhinoceros stampedes, BIGGER rhinoceros stampedes and flying monkeys - when you've written a romcom. Well, maybe you could. Here's the thing, once you understand structure from a purely academic point of view and with the use of my handy Audience-ometer Structure Guide (patent pending) as above, you have to design your structure in such a way that it makes sense for your premise and for your character. Structure and character arc are indelibly linked. Like Siamese twins.

Many new writers think okay I'm on page 25, something a bit bigger needs to happen here. It's a sort of structure by numbers methodology. It is helpful to chart out your character's arc relative to the structure. Things like rhino stampedes are only a good escalation for a certain type of character. Maybe in JUMANJI this makes sense.

The escalation embedded in and implied by structure has to make sense. What is the worst thing that COULD happen for THIS character at THIS point of time given THIS premise?

Again, anybody can simply jot down what I indicated above:

Act One: pages one-25
Act Two A: pages 25-50
Act Two B: pages 50-75
Act Three: pages 50-100

But this is only an academic understanding of structure. Again, what is the worst thing that could happen to your particular character at this point in the story? And are you going to be able to top that organically, within the premise, in another 25 pages? I actually take some issue with the macro view statement that you get your character in a tree and throw rocks at him. What character? In what tree? What kind of rocks are these? It's all relative to the story you are telling and the type of character inhabiting this story. The act breaks for DIE HARD are in no way related to the act breaks in RAIN MAN. Yes, they fall in approximately the same places but that isn't specific enough to be helpful.

So much of screenwriting is like that - we are all taught the academic perspective but one size does not fit all. And that's part of the journey of being a screenwriter. We learn about the various elements from a macro view but it is only as you gain more experience that you can get a feel for the jumping off points and after you've written a few scripts, structure just starts to come naturally to you.

Imagine thinking of structure as a poker game for your main character - and he or she really doesn't want to be there at all. Your main character doesn't know how to play poker, never played a hand in his or her life and would much rather go home. But this is a movie and you the writer are God. You have literally thrown your character into a high stakes poker game against his or her will. There's no going home there's only winning or losing. Or is there a third way?

At each structural juncture, your character is more and more screwed in this imaginary poker game. At the midpoint, he or she is all in. With a bad hand. Audiences are conditioned to believe that your main character will in fact succeed. But with that hand? All in? It's not possible. Or is it?

Just some food for thought on this Monday when the holidays are behind us and the new year lies ahead. Maybe you already have structure nailed. But for many new screenwriters, structure, which is deceptively simple, is a very difficult thing to wrap their minds around. Try looking at it from three points of view: Academic, Audience-ometer and Character Arc.


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7 comments:

Joshua James said...

This is just a personal thing, but I wish folks would just out and out say, most movies have four acts, not three act with the second divided into two ... some films have three acts (the short comedies) and but most standard mainstream films have four (though they get described as having three, with the second divided in two) and some films even have five acts ...

Just my personal rant, so forgive me for it.

As a poker guy, the most important element in poker isn't the hand you hold, but your position.

That's an interesting way of thinking of character ... what's the worst position for this character to be in?

Nicholas said...

Story structure is something that has been bugging me for a while. The script I'm currently writing is almost best described as having six acts, although four actually works well too. My main issue is page count, though. Unfortunately the first half of my film is running far longer than it should, which is really screwing up my act breaks, and I'm having an impossible time taming it down.

Do you have any suggestions for reigning in runaway page count, other than the obvious of scene chopping solution?

Mike Scherer said...

The majority of movies – in my opinion – are really four acts.

The following is based on reading and incorporating the ideas of Jeffrey Alan Schechter, Scott Myers, and Unk (The Unknown Screenwriter):


Act I – Disunity, Orphan, Loner
Over the course of this act the protagonist finds himself emotionally, physically, spiritually alone.

Act II – Deconstruction, Wanderer, Explorer
In this act the protagonist acquires new skills to attack his problem, explores his new story world, and/or reinvents himself in order to confront the Main Story Question.

Act III – Reconstruction, Warrior, Activist
Now imbued with new skills, knowledge, etc. the protagonist sets out to conquer/resolve the Main Story Question.

Act IV – Unity, Martyr, Death
The protagonist has pulled his world together, conquered his Internal/External problem and the ‘old’ protagonist no longer exists.

Four distinct acts where the protagonist goes through four distinct stages.


That’s my bare-bones take on the Four Act Structure.

Keep Writing!

Judith said...

hey Julie,
I come to writing after a decade in improv theatre and now face the challenge of trying to get that lightning into the bottle.I really like the idea of linking structure to the premise and character arc.As I rewrite my fourth script and start a new one for 2009 I will definetly have your invaluable Audience-o-Meter above my desk.By the way do I buy those from Acme?
Cheers,
Judith

Buck said...

The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button -- a recent favorite of yours -- was a movie which I could not, for the life of me, decipher the structure. There seemed to be no act breaks, except maybe where he gets the inkling to go see her in New York and gets rejected (end of Act 2A?). The writer of that movie is pretty accomplished, and had little to adapt (the original was a short story!). Is this movie an exception to the rule?

PJ McIlvaine said...

I recently read a script where the first 60 or pages was merely set-up. Beautifully written. It should have been a novel. And this sold for big bucks. So there you go. If someone loves it and is willing to put their money where their mouth is...

Luzid said...

@ Nicholas:

"Do you have any suggestions for reigning in runaway page count, other than the obvious of scene chopping solution?"

Outline, outline, and outline some more.

I used to have the same problem, then I tumbled to the sequence approach, started outlining and BAM! Manageable page counts, to the point where I can now guesstimate a given beat's length on the page.