Posts Tagged: structure

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Hmm, getting a bit difficult to crowbar the admittedly dreadful pun into the title.

Today’s post is kind of a split between yesterday’s one and tomorrow, but I feel it’s important enough to talk about in its own right.  I’m going to talk about the structural framework of the script.

This one comes down very much to personal preference.  There is no right way or wrong way to write a script.  There are a lot of theories out there, and while there might be a number of established methods that work, it’s not an exact science.  You can write a script based on every formula and rule that you’ve ever read about screenwriting, or you can ignore them entirely.  You can ignore the basics (characters, dialogue, action) because that’s how scripts are written, but themes, structure and their ilk are personal preference.

That being said, good luck to you if you try and write one without things like that, because there are very important reasons why they’re established methods of screenwriting – they work.  A theme will bring unity to your film, and will help to leave an impact in an audience’s mind, which is very important if you want your film to have lasting appeal, and potentially, replay value.

From wikimedia commons

"Look, Ferrell, your Christmas shenanigans are entertaining, but why am I not being forced to think hard about the human condition?"

I guess to a point this includes things like the three-act structure or the hero’s journey interpretations of narrative, but the important thing to remember with those is that they derived from analysing stories after they were created, and have become popular because a lot of stories (if not all of them) can be broken down in these ways.  What this means, unlike the theme and structure stuff, is that these can also be incredibly harmful to your story if you adhere to these methods slavishly, particularly the hero’s journey stuff.  Everyone will talk about three-act structures in film, but don’t freak out if you don’t feel your story matches that – there’s got to be peaks and troughs, and escalation and the like, but don’t let these methods destroy your story because you think you have to stick to them.

The importance of structure comes down mainly to how well the final film will work.  The more effort you put into making the plot work, and have plot points set up and paid off, and deliver information at the right stages in the right amount, the stronger your narrative will be.  How you do this is another matter, it’s all about learning that through trial and error, but a good structure will really support your story.

From Wikimedia Commons

Make your own judgement-based joke, I’ve punned enough for this entry.

The structure pass of a script is all about making sure this works, particularly with the balance of your scenes and subplots.  As I said the other day, your main plot is your core, which you weave everything else around, and it’s the exact placing that becomes important.  There’s a lot of different factors, like the imparting of information on plot or character development, or finding the right scenes to play together, for tone or pacing reasons, or to juxtapose together to help push your theme forward.

There’s not a great deal to add to our example from this, other than knowing, as this is the stage where you have to pitch the balance of scenes, and also ensure the subplots run through all of their logical steps, things at this stage will include making sure there are enough scenes of Alice to show the Bob-Alice relationship so that the audience will actually invest in it, but not too many as to strain the reality, as Alice does not go on the journey with Jed (unless we change Alice’s journey through the film).

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So, now that you have your characters defined, they can talk to each other, and your plot is prepared, what next?  Well, I’ve identified some other important factors, but the order from this point is relatively fluid.  The topic I’m going to talk about today is structure.

I can’t talk about structure without referencing the many writers that have talked about structure and formula, like Campbell’s Hero With A Thousand Faces, but I actually owe a lot to Community’s Dan Harmon and his musings on Channel 101 (I know I reference Community a lot, but, trust me, Harmon’s work demonstrates someone who cares about structure and story and character in a way that appeals to the narrative geek inside me, and I don’t feel right covering subjects he has done so closely and not reference how influential his writing is on my way of thinking).  Harmon talks about how we as human beings crave story structure subconsciously.  We as human beings look for patterns in the wild, structure to the chaos we perceive around us.

From Wikimedia Commons

All I see is rectangle, rectangle, triangle, trapezoid, squiggle.

However, before I could finish this post, I started reading some of Film Crit Hulk’s writing at http://filmcrithulk.wordpress.com/.  And he writes some very interesting things about how the three act structure and the Hero’s Journey have become like a crutch for scriptwriting.  I’m still making my way through a lot of his stuff, but I can say at this stage, I think there is some stuff worth remembering.  There’s so much writing out there about structure, and formula, and how to’s for scripting that it is often easy to forget that scriptwriting doesn’t have a right or wrong answer. These works are guides, useful to help put you in the right frame of mind, or to help identify the important elements of scripting.  But, just like this blog, these are opinions only.

But Hulk makes a valuable point about how the Hero’s Journey is a pattern recognised over many, many stories for the thematic changes in the characters, and that is the important thing for me about structure.  Slavishly following a three-act structure or the Hero’s Journey just because it is the done thing, is the wrong reason to tell a story.  You should tell a story in the way that suits it best – don’t crowbar in a mentor or a love interest or resurrection because it’s what everyone else is doing.

My advice is that you need some sort of structure – you can’t freewheel the entire narrative and declare it a masterpiece (though this will work for an exceptional story, it’s going to be rare examples that can do it).  Being a narrative geek, one of the most appealing things for me about film and TV is about how it channels reality through narrative filters, providing arcs and resolution for characters, which analogise the growth people make through their lives over many, many years.  Stories help us to understand one another and structuring them makes it easier for us to break them down.

From Wikimedia Commons

"Excuse me, do you know the way to the bank?" "What?" "(sigh) Once upon a time, there was three brothers …"

Structure is also an important point for helping to write scripts.  Without a map to follow, your plot can essentially meander and disappear off in directions you don’t intend.  Building a scaffolding to support your narrative will allow you to push every scene, every character, every choice to its full extension.  A good example is the planting/pay-off example.  In a film’s climactic scene, when your hero looks beaten and the evil scientist/wizard/tax collector is monologuing, if the hero pulls out a hidden bazooka and blows the villain up, it looks like a deus ex machina – essentially, a cheat to get you out of a narrative hole.  If the hero uses his trusty bazooka that he explained to his sidekick was a family heirloom in their early character scene, it sets the reveal up, and gives it justification.  If you can expand the plant/pay-off system to bigger things, like character moments and narrative direction, you can reinforce the whole narrative.

What I’m learning from reading other writers’ work on the subject is that there are a lot of guidelines to take into consideration for what makes a good script, and that structure is incredibly important, but don’t let that force you into shaping your narrative to conform to patterns that might not actually be of benefit to your story.  I’ll probably come back to this after I’ve scoured more of Hulk’s writing.