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:

Act I is the Set-Up. It introduces the context and characters, encouraging us to invest in the film. If we don’t invest swiftly the movie could well be dead in the water. After about 20 to 30 minutes (20-30 pages) comes the so-called plot point 1 or inciting incident. This is where the true action is kickstarted; it is the tipping point, the no-going-back moment. I checked my watch during a cinema presentation of Jurassic World (2015) and, sure enough, at exactly twenty minutes, after the main participants are introduced, an emergency presents itself: the apparent escape of Indominus Rex launches the heart-stopping thrills. In Stephen Daldry’s The Reader (2008) this is when Hanna seduces Michael, and their emotions become inextricably intertwined. In Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys (1995) this is when Cole, who has been sent into the past, realises he has arrived in the wrong year and ended up in an asylum.

Act II is the Confrontation (50-60 minutes/pages long). Field tells us that it is all about conflict and obstacles confronted and overcome. There’s a midpoint (the ‘first culmination’) up to which the action builds, but the whole Act is largely about the chief character’s dramatic need (“what he or she wants to win, gain, get, or achieve”). The midpoint of The Reader, I guess, is where the enigmatic character Hanna disappears, with her young lover Michael needing to find her, if only to understand what her guilty secret is; there is a sea change in the tone of the film at this point. At the end of Act II comes plot point 2, the moment of truth that arises from the escalating conflict of Act II. (In The Reader this could be the moment that brings Michael’s own guilt to the fore.)

Act III is the Resolution (around 30 pages/minutes). In Twelve Monkeys I gauge this to be when we realise that the sinister red-haired man at the book-signing is in fact also embedded in the laboratory where the deadly virus is being created. The several plotlines in Twelve Monkeys that have intertwined without obviously relating to each other through the film now have to be somehow tied together, which they do with inevitability and not a little poignancy.

In planning my own story breakdown I decided, for the sake of time, to adapt an existing short story: I settled on Ursula Le Guin’s “The First Contact with the Gorgonids“. Now I know that the author has had a difficult time with film and TV adaptations of her Earthsea novels (the film-makers have not always shown the sensitivity that her complex and profound storytelling demands); but, armed with the knowledge that it would never be optioned as a movie, my story breakdown nevertheless kept very close not only to her narrative but also to the backstories hinted at in the text.

I also calculated that it would be easier to expand a short story than try to cut down on a novel — witness the reservations Austen aficionados express over film adaptations of their favourite romances, or the near impossibility of condensing works with the length and complexity of, for example, War and Peace into two or even three hours.

To round off this brief survey of how to approach screenwriting I shall be looking at character breakdown, along with ten key questions about editing a script which have been impressed on us aspiring writers in our classes. With any luck (but mostly due diligence) I’ll have addressed all these issues in my assignment! And I’ve already gained not a few insights into what also makes a successful and satisfying narrative, useful for gauging why novels work well (or not, as the case may be).

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