Screenplay structures

screenplay structure

The assignment for the first module on Screenwriting was to “produce a written Story Breakdown, including premise, controlling idea and character breakdowns”. A key task for this Creative Writing class was to be able to come up with a structured story; luckily Syd Field, in The Screenwriter’s Workbook, gives guidelines that successful Hollywood screenplays nearly always adhere to, what he calls ‘the paradigm’.

As traditional stories have a beginning, a middle and an end, Field classifies these as Act I, Act II and, of course, Act III. Given that the average Hollywood movie now lasts around two hours it’s not only possible but preferable to structure the screenplay to a tight timetable. So, if a page of screenplay approximates to a minute of screen time, the one hundred and twenty-odd pages of the film can then be precisely divided up into the three acts that the paradigm demands. Here’s how it might work:
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Guilt and misery


Jane Austen Mansfield Park Penguin Popular Classics 1994 (1814)

Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody, not greatly in fault themselves, to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest.

I’ve noted before Austen’s predilection for inserting her authorial voice into her novels: in Sense and Sensibility she speaks in chapter XXXVI, and in Pride and Prejudice she appears at the beginning of the final chapter. And here she is at it again in Mansfield Park, at the start of chapter XLVIII (yes, the final chapter again) giving a succinct if ironic set of observations about the previous forty-seven chapters. She says it’s about the ‘odious’ subjects of guilt and misery; and those who have suffered from such miseries, though not totally innocent, will come to some sort of happy ending, while those who have peddled the misery and turned the knife in feelings of guilt will get their more or less just deserts. Have I committed the unpardonable sin of introducing spoilers or, this being a classic romance, is this what readers of the genre hope for and expect?

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Dream-like and disorientating


Carlos Ruiz Zafón The Prince of Mist
Orion Children’s Books 2010
Translated from the Spanish by Lucia Graves
(El principe de la niebla 1993)

The fiction of Ruiz Zafón reminds me of dreams bordering on nightmare. Everything is vague: geography (even when set in a well-known city like Barcelona), supporting characters (especially when they appear able to anticipate the protagonist’s mood and thoughts) and time (even when we’re given a specific year and month in which the story takes place). Disjointed places and sequences cause confusion and disquiet in dreams; in novels they can also be frustrating and irritating. Ultimately I found The Prince of Mist — the author’s first novel, in this instance for a young adult readership — as unsatisfying as the dream-like adult novels he is more famous for; unsatisfying because they are full of manufactured mysteries as insubstantial to the grasp as shadows, winds and mists. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.

It is June, 1943, and it is Max Carver’s 13th birthday. His father Maximilian, a watchmaker, gives his family some unwelcome news: they all — Maximilian and wife Andrea, along with Alicia, Max and Irina — have to leave the city and relocate to a small village on what appears to be the Atlantic coast. At journey’s end, after three hours on the train, they arrive at a seaside station — only to be joined by a mysterious stray cat, who seems to have adopted them.

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Screenplay concepts


We may like to fondly imagine that the good films we see are made by creative artistic types who just want to share their dreams and visions with us, and would even do it only for the love of it. Well, if we were so foolish, Michael Hauge’s Writing Screenplays That Sell (2011) gives the lie to that, as the screenwriting class I’ve been attending makes clear. What are films about? It’s about the money, stupid.

The Hollywood movie needs essential ingredients in order to get the movie-goer to consume the product. But some ingredients — five in particular, Hauge suggests — are essential for both artistic and commercial success. In other words, it doesn’t matter whether you want to make a film that makes money or wins critical acclaim, certain criteria will decide whether it rises to the surface or sinks without trace: “no movie,” he tells us, “can succeed without these five qualities.” Continue reading “Screenplay concepts”

The mask of hindsight

Haverfordwest gorsedd circle
Not Charter Stones but Haverfordwest’s gorsedd circle for the 1972 National Eisteddfod

Garth Nix Clariel Hot Key Books 2014

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, especially when it comes to prequels. You’d think, with Clariel preceding the action in Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom trilogy, that it would be easy to predict the way events will go, and that the end result is a foregone conclusion. If you did, you’d be wrong. As, indeed, was I.

Set centuries before the events Sabriel, Lirael and Abhorsen, Nix’s novel opens unprepossessingly with an old fisherman, Marral, who beachcombs the shore in front of the city of Belisaere, but who then picks up an object he shouldn’t. We then cut to young Clariel who has been brought against her will to this byzantine metropolis by her parents when all she wants to do is live a life in the Great Forest. But, increasingly, she finds herself hemmed in by circumstances and political machinations; and, to add to the usual teenage growing pains, she is subject to virtually uncontrollable rages when she is pushed towards and beyond the threshold of her dangerous temper.

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