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Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Special Project

Script readers tend to use other films as examples to illustrate a point. Makes sense, right? I can only speak for myself when I say that I found that I was using the same examples over and over again. So I asked one of my readers, Gideon Cross, to do a special project for me. I asked him to list out the inciting incident, first plot point, midpoint, second plot point and battle scene of 10 movies. I wanted him to draw from the classics as well as much more current films. When Gideon was done, I distributed his list to all of our readers as a refresher and a reference point so we can be sure to be using current examples and/or examples that change up the tried and true. It took Gideon a few weeks and a whole lot of video rentals but he did it. I asked him to write about the experience and he has done so here today:


In my experience as a screenplay analyst, I’ve found that structure is by far the most common “trouble” area in screenplays. Luckily, these mistakes are generally fixable, and structure is quite learnable. Sometimes a screenplay just isn’t very well written, or there’s no heart in it, or the dialogue doesn’t sound real – problems that are difficult to correct. I won’t say these aspects of writing are not learnable, but they can be very difficult to learn. Structure’s not like that. It’s pretty straightforward...yet, more writers mess it up than any other category.

I recently re-watched a number of classic and successful modern movies to create a reference sheet of key structural points for The Script Department. The experience reaffirmed for me how much of a formula structure really is. I know creative people generally don’t like the word “formula,” but think of it this way: The formula creates a framework that will support all of the exceptional, original, creative content that is going to fit inside. In CRASH, which seems on the surface as if it has a sort-of unorthodox free-flowing multi-story structure, I was a bit surprised to find all of the standard structural points not only arriving on cue, but arriving en masse.

You see, CRASH follows about 67 storylines (a rough estimate), and when these plot points hit, they hit in story after story. For example at the midpoint, there’s a reversal for every character: John (Matt Dillon’s racist cop) apologizes to Shaniqua, Graham and Ria (Don Cheadle and Jennifer Esposito) discover a break in their case that leads them in a new direction, Tom (Ryan Phillippe) gets reassigned, etc. Woody Allen’s WHATEVER WORKS, which I saw in the theater recently, also hits all of the standard plot points, sometimes with real in-your-face oomph. In that movie, lead character Boris (Larry David) is fervently against marriage and commitment, often ranting about what a horrible idea it would be for him to marry female lead Melody (Evan Rachel Wood). Guess what Boris does at the midpoint? If you guessed something other than “He marries Melody,” stop, take a deep breath, and re-read up to this point.

I’ve heard writers say, “I know all those big Hollywood movies hit the same structural points, but I want to do something independent and more personal and meaningful…more like (fill in the blank with Jarmusch, Allen, Altman, Stillman, Soderbergh, etc.).” Well, Woody Allen hits those same structural points! My guess is that Allen has no idea that there’s technically “supposed” to be a midpoint reversal, or what “plot point two” is, or that the “inciting incident” should occur within the first 10 pages (maybe 12-15 if you really need that extra set-up time). However, WHATEVER WORKS and VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA - which I also mapped out for this project - hit all of those points.

That’s because these are organic storytelling elements:

A significant event or occurrence changes the hero’s world (inciting incident); the hero sets out on his or her mission (end of first act/point of attack/plot point one); the hero reaches a point of no turning back (midpoint/reversal/point of no return); all seems lost (end of second act/low point/plot point two); the hero recommits to his or her goal; the hero fights his/her climactic battle; and finally, the hero achieves resolution.

Doesn’t that seem completely natural? It does to me. Just start telling stories. Any stories you can think of – from a novel, a movie, a fairy tale…you’re going to find that formula. I think most writers know that if they want to write the next THE HANGOVER or TRANSFORMERS they should follow standard structural guidelines. What many fail to understand is that if they want to write the next MANHATTAN or TRAFFIC, they should still follow standard structural guidelines. Now, if you want to write the next LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD, that might be a whole ‘nother article.

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