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Screenplay structure, part 1

Screenplay Structure, there's a pattern behind the madness

First, Some Important Background

You can buy Final Draft and get right on with writing your screenplay -- OR you can save a lot of time by reading what follows.

Filmmaking is a unique art form. It's not a novel or a short story any more than it is a water color painting or a ballet performance. Films are, in fact, one of the most narrowly defined forms of art.

Films are one subset of the artistic activities called "storytelling" but movies have their own broadly recognized and somewhat rigid set of characteristics known as screenplay "structure".

Writing with an understanding of the recognized structure of films is important if you want your audience to feel that they are really watching a film.

Over the years many filmmakers have tried to stretch the boundaries of what is a movie (e.g. Andy Warhol's Sleep which shows a man sleeping for 6 1/2 hours) but none of these have been financial successes and few have been considered artistic filmmaking successes.

The fact that stories have a structure was first formalized by Aristotle in approximately 350 BC in his essay entitled Poetics. Despite the title the work has nothing to do with poetry as we recognize it today.

You may be wondering why I am talking about something written more than 2000 years ago. The reason is that the structure described in the Poetics is considered to be the basis of modern screenplay writing and anyone in a Hollywood story meeting today would be assumed to have at least a passing understanding of what Aristotle had to say.

Aristotle pointed out the now somewhat obvious fact that stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. The beginning introduces the characters and situation of the story. The middle follows the characters through a conflict until it gets resolved in the end. He pointed out the pleasure an audience feels while observing the comedy and tragedy of the characters. He also describes some variations from the basic story such as the "epic".

The work is a bit antiquated and dry and Aristotle references popular plays of his day that have long since been lost.

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Some of what Aristotle said is disputed. He asserted that a story is driven from the outside by the plot. This reflects the belief of his time that the Gods controlled all human destiny. Today it is felt that stories are driven from the inside by the characters. Although "the Gods" can cause unexpected things to happen, it is the actions of the characters in response to those things that make a story interesting.

The next book that is considered basic to the understanding of modern screenplay writing is The Art of Dramatic Wr!t!ng by Lajos Egri, first published in 1947. Although the intended audience was writers of stage plays, the book is just as relevant to screenplay writers.

He covers four areas of importance to all filmmakers as follows.

  1. Every story needs at least one premise, a statement of some fact about human existence that the audience can relate to and learn from.
  2. A story is created out of the different personalities of the story's characters.
  3. A constant rising conflict is necessary to maintain the interest of the audience.
  4. He also lists a selection of about a dozen of the most important smaller points that need to be understood by tellers of dramatic stories.

The writing style is a little dated but the content isn't.

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Another book that is absolutely essential to filmmaking and the understanding of screenplay structure is Syd Field's Screenplay - The Foundations of Screenwriting, first published in 1979 and recently updated. Mr. Field outlines the entire process of building a correctly formatted and structured screenplay.

Most of the present day understanding of screenplay structure and terminology derives from Mr. Field's book. Aristotle's three story parts, beginning middle and end, became the three acts. The junction between them are the plot points, and so on.

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The final book that is considered seminal to modern screenwriting is Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Mr. Campbell, one of the most brilliant thinkers of the 20th Century, spent most of his life analyzing and distilling the myths and stories of all the world's cultures and recognized a structure quite different from that of Aristotle and Field's three acts.

Campell saw stories as the telling of a journey of personal experience. Although his vision is very different from the classic three act structure it is completely complementary and will only add to your understanding of how to tell interesting and important stories.

Campbell's contribution is more recent to screenwriting and was first thoroughly used by George Lucas to provide the structure for his Star Wars saga. The soundness of Campbell's storytelling theories has been widely recognized in Hollywood ever since. Money is very convincing.

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Screenplay Gurus

An entire sub-industry in filmmaking has grown up around the teaching of screenplay structure. A dozen gurus declare that they are the only teacher of the true way to screenwriting success. Most of these teachers have never actually sold a screenplay or made a significant amount of money doing anything in Hollywood except teaching.

In all fairness, the best of these teachers are inspiring and have a lot of knowledge to offer, but once you learn the basics, the best teacher is experience. To get better: write, write, write.

Probably the best know of the screenplay gurus is Robert McKee whose character was featured in the movie Adaptation. His three-day weekend seminar is pricey but his graduates have racked up an impressive list of Academy and Emmy Award wins. It seems that just about everybody in Hollywood takes his seminar eventually.

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A cheaper way to learn his message is through his book. You save a lot of money but don't get the colorful delivery of his live seminar.

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Don't get too stuck on structure. It's a necessary basis of screenplays but not as complex or as precise as some of the screenplay gurus would like you to believe. Use it as a powerful aid to outline your stories, then concentrate of emotion and entertainment.

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