Writing Screenplays Is not Painting by Numbers

Lisa Rosenberg November 30, 2010

Contemporary perspectives on screenplay structure deem it the quantifiable backbone of dramatic writing. Screenwriters are instructed to methodically insert particular events in specific places in the script—“inciting incidents” and “turning points”, “stages” and “beats”—around which to build their dramatic stories.

But an overly slavish devotion to increasingly specific and sometimes rigid systems of structure can imprison a writer in a paint-by-number approach to creative work—crowding out aspects of story that may evolve intuitively. A strong narrative structure is more effectively achieved by approaching such guidelines as useful but flexible, as well as by trusting one’s own sense of the directions the story seems to want to take.

Some 40 years of screenwriting academies and self-appointed gurus have produced a
variety of theories of screenplay structure—from Syd Fields’ screenwriting paradigm (Screenplay: the Basics of Film Writing), to Christopher Vogler’s 12 stages of the hero’s journey (The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers), to Blake Snyder’s 15 essential story beats (Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need)—each of them, claiming to be the last word on guiding writers in constructing viable screenplays.

But long before these modern theorists, in the 4th century B.C., the brilliant Greek philosopher and polymath Aristotle expounded in his Poetics upon certain basic elements that had to be present to spark and sustain a dramatic story. Unlike modern screenplay theorists, Aristotle did not determine specific, ironclad intervals within the story when turns of fortune or events absolutely had to occur.

His elements included characters whose fortunes are determined by their actions; a complex plot (action) in which the narrative drive moves inexorably forward through external events and the force of character actions, encompassing inevitable complications, reversals, and surprise twists; a theme or idea, some meaning expressed by the story that was greater than its plot; language— evocative dialogue that reveals the inner workings of the characters and moves the action forward; music—both the rhythms of speech and music that enhances the movement of the plot; and spectacle—the power of the visual to evoke the emotions of the audience. Applying Aristotle’s theories of drama to contemporary screenwriting offers the most open-ended interpretation of the narrative course of action in a screenplay, allowing a writer to steer the creative process between externally applied ideas about structure and the internally arrived at path his or her story takes on its own.

Among modern approaches to structure, Fields’ system is the least complicated, arguing that major shifts in the direction of dramatic action must occur at just a few specific and more or less predictable points in the story, knocking the characters off their feet and keeping the audience engaged. Vogler’s theory of stages of the hero’s journey builds on master mythologist and writer Joseph Campbell’s study of international myths, and Campbell’s conviction that these myths follow a remarkably similar structure in telling the stories that reflect our shared human experience. Snyder breaks down sections of a screenplay’s storyline into digestible bites, offering frequent checkpoints to the writer to insure that the drama is on track—revving up, deepening, becoming dire and heading toward the big showdown at precise intervals.

Where does that leave the contemporary screenwriter? With a wealth of options by which to measure whether the story is up and running in a convincing way, and the action is proceeding with fireworks as well as depth. A writer can use the tools of any one of the aforementioned theorists to outline the key events of a story in advance of actually writing it—or, simply keep basic ideas of structure in mind to assist in getting the first draft onto the page—or, decide to save the most intensive focus on structure for the second draft of the script, when the true shape of the story will begin to emerge.

Both a contemporary classic screenplay such as The Godfather (1972, co-writer/director Francis Ford Coppola, co-writer Mario Puzo), and a recent independent screenplay, White Wedding (2009, co-writer/director Jann Turner, co-writers Kenneth Nkosi and Rapulana Seiphemo), follow the ancient rules of introducing a story rife with conflict, presenting compelling characters, keeping the action moving and unpredictable, bringing forth a theme that is about something greater than the plot, and delivering a meaningful, dramatically satisfying conclusion. At the same time, they pass the tests of any of the most subscribed to modern theories of screenplay structure.

In The Godfather, lead character Michael Corleone, a young, handsome war hero, introduces us to his “ordinary world,” that of the favorite son of a powerful Italian mafia don. Faced with what seems a future of limitless possibilities, he is actually a man at a crossroads; but he is shielded from facing this truth about his life until the "first act turning point" (Fields’ term), or "Crossing the First Threshold" (Vogler’s term), or "Debate" (Snyder’s term) around the end of Act I, when his father, the seemingly omnipotent Don Corleone, is shot on orders from a rival family. As Act I ends, Michael pledges to stand by his father, which means literally standing guard at the hospital, where the local police are more than willing to step aside to allow a second gunman to finish the job. But Michael doesn’t define what “stand by” will come to mean for his future. He’s out of his element, and definitely launched on a journey into the unknown.

Act II—the major journey of the story—begins with much jostling for position among the five crime families, but more pointedly within Michael’s family as well, with no-one singling him out to assume his father’s mantle despite his obvious qualifications. But at the story’s "midpoint" (Snyder’s term) or "Midpoint Confrontation" (Fields’ term) in the middle of the second act, Michael takes up arms for the first time and kills the police chief and his father’s would-be assassin. Now a wanted man, he flees to Sicily. In Sicily throughout the second half of Act II, he falls in love with a local beauty, marries her, and seems poised to consider the different road he might take—a tamer but also emotionally fulfilling life path—if he does not return to America. But when his wife is killed by a car bomb intended for him, the life he might have shared with her becomes the road not taken. He takes stock of his situation and "seizes the sword" (Vogler’s term), or regroups from his “All is lost” moment around the end of Act II (Snyder’s term), or responds to his "Second Act Turning Point" (Fields’ term) by returning to America to succeed his father in leading the family “business”. Because The Godfather is essentially a tragic story—the man of so much promise ascends to a position of great power, but ultimately loses his humanity—his thrust at the beginning of Act III is toward assertion of power, but also away from the more balanced, emotionally sustaining life he might have had.

In Act III, Michael overcomes the enemies that his father warned him about, and restores his family to the most powerful position in the underworld. In his last action of the film, Michael lies to his new wife—the former girlfriend from the first act—and literally and figuratively shuts the door on the broad options his life held when the story began. The story’s conclusion is meaningful, insightful and satisfying, if also tragic.

White Wedding, a romantic comedy, buddy film and road picture set in South Africa, traces what should have been the simple journey of Elvis, a young, black South African man heading home to his native village where he is set to marry his fiancée. But along the way, he undergoes an odyssey of obstacles, from a missed bus to a crashed car, a possibly deranged, white female hitchhiker to an obligation to transport a sheep and the unsettling arrival of his intended’s former boyfriend to a harrowing evening spent in an Afrikaner bar.

The language is unusually melodic and varied, incorporating several African languages and dialects as well as Dutch-inflected and British English. Especially as it winds into its conclusion, when Elvis’ love for his fiancée receives its greatest test, the story reveals itself to be about something greater than the many calamities that demarcate the plot: the power of pure love to overcome preconceptions, mistrust, and all manner of setbacks.

The subplot, or “B” story, follows both the hitchhiker and Elvis’ best friend as they traverse their internal emotional minefields, to arrive at a point where they are also receptive to love. Structurally, their individual transformational arcs follow Elvis’ character arc as it proceeds through the story.

Though a simpler, more modest story than The Godfather, White Wedding passes both old and newer tests of structure, in that it takes the characters on a wild ride, keeps the action varied and engaging, offers music and spectacle, proposes questions of the meaning and importance of its events, and finally delivers to the audience a gratifying and wholly dramatic conclusion.

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