Screenwriting : Too Structured?? by Becca-Chris M

Becca-Chris M

Too Structured??

A reader recently told my co-writer and I "the story is structured so by the book that it is hard not to see the beats coming long before they hit." Anyone have thoughts on this? Where is that fine line between having your script structured as it needs to be, but still allowing the reader to be surprised at the direction it goes?

D Marcus

I can't tell you exactly where the line is, but I know it when I see it. One readers opinion. Does it ring true to you? If it does time for a rewrite. Have a few others read it. If they all say the same thing you have a lot of work to do. Perhaps it is just one readers opinion.

Preston Poulter

Did you structure it using any particular system?

C. D-Broughton

I think, Becca, that if you read between the lines, your reviewer is trying to tell you that the script doesn't offer up any surprises - i.e. it's all been done before a million times over and every twist could be seen coming a mile off. Of course, I could be completely wrong, but since you asked...

William Martell

These are two different things: structure and being predictable. You want to lead your reader down the wrong path, so that the right path is unexpected.

John Garrett

I know I have seen movies that are so cliche that after the first 5 - 10 minutes of the movie, I already know the story and I usually then sit through it hoping I will be wrong at some point, and then looking for other aspects of the film to pay attention to. This is why I am not a big horror fan. A large number of horror movies are interchangeable. Sure the way people die is different, but the movies typically don't hold me as they are pretty much the same. I haven't read your script, so I have no idea if it would be one of those. But that is where I would start. I would start listing all the impossible things that couldn't happen and see if I could make any of them actually get into the story.

Mike Romoth

I agree with William. Distraction, diversion, and outright lies are your friend when it comes to keeping people guessing. Your dialogue can do a lot to keep the audience guessing even as the plot hits each and every structural milepost.

Tony Lewis

Try watching some Japenese and South Korean movies, to really know how to surprise the reader.

Jean-Pierre Chapoteau

@ Tony, I try to tell people... They don't play.

Phillip "No Parenthetical" Hardy

I say worry less about structure and more about telling a compelling story. If you have an interesting story to tell, with a good angle on how to convey it, the beats should be organic. I think it was Aaron Sorkin who advised there should be conflict in every scene. For me, If a scene does not have conflict, it should still add value to the story. If a scene doesn't set up a future event or conflict or move the story along, consider trimming it.

A. S. Templeton

I think what most of the commentators here so far are missing is what was meant by "structured as it needs to be". Sounds to me like somebody has been writing to a Save The Cat beat sheet, with so-called beats having to occur within a narrow page range. If so, the setups will be seen a mile away. There goes your dramatic unpredictability!

Jack Vandagriff

I agree with Phillip. I've optioned 8 screenplays, have won and placed in over a dozen screenplay competitions, have two in pre-production and one sale almost finalized, and I have never paid any attention to beats and beat sheets. I believe if you tell a good solid story, the beats will take care of themselves. Like Phillip said, "...the beats should be organic." Good luck, Nicholas!

Phillip "No Parenthetical" Hardy

Lose the cat but save yourself a few kittens.

Danny Manus

Yea I agree with D Marcus and others, its hard to put a finger on but you can tell immediately when you see it. and it doesn't mean take the beats out or move them, it means make sure the story is flowing & that the scenes are building your story, not just building your structure to hit certain moments at certain times. If they notice your structure that clearly it usually means the characters or story or dialogue aren't compelling enough to pull them out of that mindset.

Regina Lee

STRUCTURE is like the wood frame inside your house that holds up EVERYTHING in your house. Structure is vital and often pretty standardized or conventional (not in a BAD way!!). But if your STORYTELLING is strong, no one will even notice the structure, just like no one will notice the internal framing hidden within the walls of your house.

Regina Lee

My guess is that the Story Analyst misused his words... He might have meant, "The story is [OMIT] so by the book that it is hard not to see the beats coming long before they hit."

Cherie Grant

the beats come when you learn how to tell a story. In my case i hope that is true. I don't bother with beat sheets ever. i worry about the story.

E.C. McMullen Jr.

There is a huge difference between "beats" and formula. Everyone sees the formula coming from a long way off. Nobody knows what you are planning to use for your beat. Also, it's most important to not write for beats, but write your story first. There is tons of editing and polish between your final draft and your final polish. That editing can and usually does wipe out your beats. Don't become so enthralled by the notion of beats that you will do anything to keep them in place. The story has to flow and that includes re-arranging the beats. The pace of your story trumps "beats" every time.

Regina Lee

Here's what I tell filmmakers who disdain structure: Let's compare a night at the movies to a night at a fancy restaurant. Both have a very clear structure that customers EXPECT. You arrive at the restaurant. You are able to find parking within x minutes. You are seated within x minutes. You are served your ice water within x minutes. Your waiter introduces himself within x minutes and gives you the menu and the specials. He returns in x minutes to take your orders. Your appetizers arrives within x minutes. Your drink is refilled within x minutes. Your entrees arrives within x minutes. Your desserts arrives within x minutes. Your bill arrives within x minutes. Your credit card is picked up within x minutes. Your credit card is returned to you within x minutes. It's the same way with a movie. You expect the protagonist to be introduced within x minutes. You expect the inciting incident to occur within x minutes. You expect to understand what/who his antagonist is within x minutes. Etc. Both NEED structure and timing that comes from structure. Customers at a restaurant, ticket buyers at a movie, subscribers of a TV show all have an innate sense of TIMING, which was developed when we first started eating at restaurants and when we first started consuming movies/TV. If the movie doesn't "starts its story engine" within a certain amount of time, you start looking at your watch. If you're a layperson, you may not understand WHY you're bored, but you know that you are bored. If your entrees don't come within a certain amount of time, you complain to the waiter. The question of whether the STORYTELLING is predictable may or may NOT be a function of a structural flaw. Because every movie (except for experimental movies) NEEDS structure.

Regina Lee

"Screenplays are structure." - Bill Goldman

Regina Lee

"Films are architecture." - Jane Anderson, same video

Regina Lee

Any that ambiguously written line in the OP's reader's report is yet another example of why you often get what you pay for when you choose simple coverage (no offense to the OP). If anyone hasn't read this epic thread with my comments about professional script analysis, it may be both nauseating and educational. I recommend script consulting which includes a conversation. In a conversation, the filmmaker can establish his intent and ask questions, and there is a two-way dialogue, which greatly decrease the chances for these types of misunderstandings. As a producer, obviously, I meet with every writer I develop with. As a consultant, I have Skype video call(s) or phone call(s) with every single client. You don't have to choose me, but choose someone who will do more good than harm.

Becca-Chris M

Thanks for the comments, everyone.

Becca-Chris M

D Marcus - I agree, it may just be this reader. My co-writer and I have had this script read by other readers and this comment was never made.

Becca-Chris M

Preston - Save the Cat is something that was used at some point in the rewrites.

Becca-Chris M

C. D-Broughton - It is something my co-writer and I will be looking at.

Becca-Chris M

Jack - Thank you for the experienced words!

Lamar Faulk

Might want to get it between 90 and 100 pages.

Preston Poulter

Save the Cat = no bueno IMHO. I recommend Screenplay Structure by Dan O'Bannon.

Baljinder Singh Gill

It's a delicate line where you want to avoid a by the numbers execution but to also hit all the right beats. Me personally I make sure my inciting incident happens within the first 15 pages, preferably by page number 12 and then let the characters take the story where it goes but keeping in mind conflict and reveal in every scene.

A. S. Templeton

No-one here is disdaining structure per se. It's the canned, write-by-numbers approach reiterated here by True Believers. There are plenty of fine movies that have no hit-you-on-the-head inciting event between minutes 12 and 15, and plenty of sucky ones (especially many recent cookie-cutter flicks) that do. Especially in period pieces that first quarter-hour must be well spent building a world that would otherwise be unfamiliar or disorienting to reader and viewer alike. For the intended audience of, say, MARIE'S NUTCRACKER, my 1815-set family/ animation triple finalist in recent screenplay competitions (see my S32 bio), there are: plenty of eye candy for the kiddies; sibling conflict for the middle-graders; for YA & adults the intro of the protagonist's "flaw" (such as can be in an 11-year-old girl) and a marked coming-of-age theme; and for everyone, just enough story building of a lush but bygone world set at Christmastime. The "trigger" starting the protagonist on her thematic journey occurs on page 16. Yet for the typical short-attention span reader conditioned, or even schooled, in assembly-line methods and structure checklists, this is out of bounds, demanding at the very least a rewrite cutting 3-4 minutes from the opening or earning an instant PASS. And some producers state openly that they want to be basically grabbed by the gonads within the first two pages. Obviously this screenplay would be of no interest to those readers or producers. Thus the challenge for this writer becomes one of not deforming the story to meet their conditioned expectations, but rather finding the relatively few players "on the inside" who might get how this story could profitably fit into the historically underserved family-friendly market. Hollywood players are not all of one heart and mind, thank goodness! But when it comes to getting, I do indeed get that Hollywood has recently been more interested in turning grade-school kids into zombies, or depicting deleriously profane tween assassins that drop the F-bomb every other sentence, than showing a wholesome story that doesn't leave viewers scarred. So, I've my work cut out for me; again, not in f*cking up the story, but just getting it into the right hands.

Al Anderson

Try reading some Linwood Barclay. Just when you think you know exactly what's happening the plot goes off in an entirely different direction.

Craig D Griffiths

There may be a natural pattern that we as humans recognise as comforting. A start, middle and end. But other than that I don't think of structure very much. Look at the difference between US and UK films. The US film is all about the change in the person. That isn't needed in a UK film. I think of a single incident, normally near the end and write towards that. Sometimes I need a lot to happen. Sometimes I a jumping back and forth planting seeds in the start to harvest at the end. I had two people read the same script. One said the characters were too perfect and nothing happened till mum died, then it got good. The second reader said he loved the characters and the story lost its way once mum died. Exact opposites. So service your story, not a formula and then find the audience.

Jenny Masterton

No such thing as "too structured." It only seems "too structured" if it's obvious.

D Marcus

So there IS such thing as ""too structured". If it's obvious it's "too structured".

Preston Poulter

@D Marcus My thoughts exactly.

Mark Walker

I think there can be confusion between "structure" and "story". I am not an expert, but I agree with Regina - every story needs structure of some form, whether that is 3-Acts, 5-Acts, 7-Acts, linear, non-linear etc etc - it's the skeleton you hang the meat of your story from. If you like Save the Cat and use that as your structure, or prefer McKee, then so what? It doesn't matter what structure you use as long as it supports your story. And that is where the pitfalls are - if your story is predictable, then the structure won't make a difference. But, like I said, I'm no expert....I'm making this up as I go along! ;-)

A. S. Templeton

The point that I and others have tried to make here is that the act of casting a story into a "classic" narrative stucture necessitates radical surgery to the story itself, glaringly obvious to anyone (like me) who has screenwritten an adaptation, or indeed compared a screenplay with its based-on novel. In forcing a square-peg story into a round "hero's journey", "save the fcking cat", or Shakespearean 5-act narrative hole to meet their respective structural requirements, at the very least corners are gonna get shaved off, and many contrivances will have to be intoduced to, say, fulfill the so-called four-quadrant appeal that today's producers claim is essential. So many *de novo stories written for the screen have the exact same clichéd Hero's Journey or beat-sheet structure, differing from each other only in characters, details, settings, and the ever-greater extremes taken to make each story seem "new".

Tony Cella

It's difficult to judge. A script is too structured if scenes end early to fit the page count requirements of Save The Cat. If it happens to follow some portions of Joseph Campbell's heroes arch, it's probably the reader looking for reasons to dismiss your script. When one person says the script is too structured, ignore it. When everyone says the script is too structured, give it some thought. Either way, it's your story. The decision rests with you.

Becca-Chris M

Tony, I agree with your saying "if one person says it, ignore it." I've noticed each reader has their own opinion on certain matters.

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