Saturday, July 21, 2007


A friend of mine is adapting a short story of hers into a movie for a well-known indie filmmaker. She's never done this sort of thing before and has put in a lot of time over the last few months struggling with film structure. As a short story writer, plot isn't necessarily an important part of the work -- not to the extent that it is in most films, anyway. I think she's doing an admirable job wrestling the thing into something workable, but she asked me a question the other day that made me realize how artificial the writing advice for film is.

When writing the first draft, DO NOT WORRY ABOUT STRUCTURE. There are people out there throwing up their hands and proclaiming that's bs. Don't listen to them. If you are an absolute beginning screenwriter, someone who is still learning, there is absolutely no reason to beat yourself about the head and neck with 3, 5, 7 or 9-act structure talk, let alone the 8 sequence or reel method that you find bandied about the internet unless you know your story cold.

I know there are people out there who work from character charts, outlines, and arcane algorithms of their own devising. I'm not talking to the 2% of you who do that. You probably go around figuring tip in your spare time or adding things up for fun. God bless you. No, I'm talking to the rest of us who need a flashlight to see in the dark and who double the tax and add a couple bucks when the check comes.

The chances that you are going to sit down and on your first pass pound out a structurally balanced film are pretty doggone slim. No matter how many notecards you go through. I've seen enough failed screenplays and met with many aspiring writers who crashed and burned and went back to their day jobs to know this. No, for the vast majority of newbie writers, the best method to write a screenplay is 1) learn how to write a short story; 2) learn how to write a scene and then 3) write a first draft of your short story as a screenplay without stopping to think about structure.

I'm not pulling this out of my you-know-where.

By their very nature short stories contain around about the amount of story information you need for a screenplay. They have the added advantage of being a story-form that most people (or rather, most of those who went to highschool in the U.S.) have had the (mis)fortune of having to attempt at least at the 9th grade level. No need to learn anything new in order to get out the most important thing for any movie -- the story itself. In film this would be called a treatment. But don't think of it that way, close your eyes, take yourself back to the raging hormones of your early teen years and the smell of chalk and sweaty sneakers, and pound out a short story version of the movie you want to make.

Got that done? OK, now, go through the short story and pick out the scenes: flashbacks, plot-related scenes, characterization scenes, all of them. A scene is a unit of action within a film/play/book that typically takes place in one location (although you could argue that a character moving from the living room to the kitchen is one scene, or conversely, that a movement from dressing table to the bed would constitute a new scene, for my purposes here we're gonna go with the broad definition above). At this point, it may make sense to you to outline. I say may, not that you absolutely have to outline. I mean that. You are trying to stay focused on the story not the container you are going to pour it into. Check over the scenes and make sure there is a narrative flow, that things make sense to you.

Finally, crack open your screenwriting software/template/notepad and have at it. Write all the way through to the end. Do not stop. Do not think about act breaks, just follow the story you have assembled thus far. Done? Good. Make a clean printout/copy. Put it away for a few days.

NOW, get out a chart with the acts broken down by structural element. Not with your story content, but with whatever method you are trying to use. 3-act, 5-act, 7-act, 9-act, 8-sequence, reels (I have no idea how this works, sorry Chris Soth, I haven't bought your book yet, shame on me, I'm sure it's fabulous). Fill it out as best you can based on what you remember. Do not reference your first draft. Don't do it. If you can't remember, fake it.

Pull out that first draft. Read all the way through to the end. Mark-up anything that feels like it doesn't belong with a giant red 'X'. Mark up anything you want to keep. NOW pull out the structure outline you made, and start your second draft outline combining the two. I like to use QUICKPLOT because it lets you see the structural element next to the actual scene work, but use notecards and lined paper if that works best for you. You are on your way to a complete story that is also structurally balanced.

There's nothing worse than leaving money on the table. I'm sure we've all seen movies and felt that nagging suspicion that something could have been better explored, better exploited. by using this method you can really get "underneath" your characters in a way that won't distract you from your real purpose -- storytelling. As you become more adept at screenwriting, you can let go of the short story "crutch" and start leaning on the outline method more, and learn how to incorporate the structural elements into your process sooner. Some very talented filmmakers work this way.

Some of these structures are foreign to the way that people actually tell stories. Listen to any of your friends telling a story and you'll find digressions, tangents, false climaxes that have nothing to do with the story, etc. Even in someone who is a great oral story teller. Don't beat yourself up wondering why your first draft (or any subsequent ones, for that matter) aren't structured like a Frank Lloyd Wright house. The truth is that in the filmmaking process, structure takes a beating. Half of the executives and filmmakers you'll come across don't know anything about it. They can tell when something's off (if they've ever made a hit, that is, and let me tell you, that list is pretty damn short), but most of the time, they just have a hunger for something, and they'll know if your story is feeding it.

Because screenplay writing methods are such religiously held beliefs, I'm sure there are folks out there with a burning desire to prove me wrong. Go for it. Feel free to leave questions, comments, hate mail and death threats. But if you brick me on your blog I want a shout-out. I love it when people brick me. No such thing as bad publicity. :-)

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