Screenwriting : Why is structure so hard? by Fiona Faith Ross

Fiona Faith Ross

Why is structure so hard?

I've been studying story structure for over a year now, both self-study and with a tutor. You know those optical illusion graphics where you have to defocus to see the hidden image? I feel that kind of blind when my tutor says, "Your structure isn't working here. Consider this." Now, I had an insight that defining "rising action" for your protagonist, is partly subjective. I say partly because a physical beating by the antagonist is serious for any protagonist. However, an obstacle's degree of severity also depends on the protagonist's goal (e.g. a serious setback for a sportsman might not be a serious setback for a musician or writer. The latter could still perform with a twisted ankle, albeit painfully.) I am struggling with "nailing it", although I am more competent than I was a year ago. Intuitively I understand that when I can nail the structure and make it really sound, "it will be harder for the means of production to pick it apart whatever they do to it", (if I may misquote the inspirational, late Blake Snyder). Why is it so difficult to get it right? Your thoughts. Your feedback is much appreciated. May I discuss your insights in a blog post I'm writing about this? (Anonymously of course. I don't need to quote names, only discuss the points raised.) If not, just add "Don't quote me" to your comment .

Rosalind Winton

Hi Fiona, I'm a literary editor and I help my clients with structure as part of the editing process. I believe, from what you've said, that you could be overthinking everything too much and it's actually hindering the creative process for you. My advice would be (and I tell this to all my clients), to just 'finish the book' - get down what is in your head onto the page, doesn't matter if it seems 'not quite right' to start with and then, when it's done, go back over everything and see what you want to change. I think that if you worry about every little thing as you are writing, you will never get it finished, you will constantly be going over and over it and that can drive you crazy. If you would like me to take a look at some of it for you, I would be pleased to help and you are welcome to include this in your blog. I'll send you my contact details in a private message.

Laurie Ashbourne

How do you write? Do you outline or use index cards or a plot planner? I'm not saying you have to use anything but it's true that if structure is not coming to you easily these things help make it more intuitive. Of course there are several tomes about story structure, I found that Pilar Allesandra's coffee break screenwriter book has some gems in it about how to build a solid structure and it is really easy to follow in small chunks of time, (hence the title).

John Garrett

I have to agree that structure can be overthought. Structure serves to tell the story... all hail the story...the story is all that matters ...etc. That structure has to serve the telling. Just as you saw in my latest post, I had to restructure because of how the story developed once there was actual dialogue. But that is how I write. My outline and index cards are a map, and sometime I end up in uncharted territory. When that happens I always have to go back and restructure, change things around, and get back to where it is solid. I have to redraw my "map." @ Laurie, thanks for the book tip. I am going to check that out.

Laurie Ashbourne

Do, John. She packs in a lot of approaches, you may not find all of them useful, but I'm willing to bet there is something in there for everyone.

Fiona Faith Ross

Thanks, Rosalind, John and Laurie. These days I take the germ of the story as far as the first stumbling block (as in, What happens next?). I generally know how the story ends before I start, and my theme usually emerges early on, because I find that my theme inspires me to start the story in the first place. I start with the characters. Then I outline in bullet points in Workflowy. I copy 'n paste from there into a writing app. At the same time, I mince my storyline through Dramatica Story Expert. I sketch out the story as far as writing a treatment, and then I move onto index cards (Blake Snyder's method). I prefer real cards, which get me off the computer environment and into a different method of working. Arranging the cards helps to throw up gaps, inconsistencies and problems with pacing. Also it identifies "duplicate" scenes (scenes that make the same point). I move in and out of free writing mode, so I will "day dream" a scene or scene sequence that inspires me and write it as long narrative. (Started using Scrivener for this.) This process throws up interesting insights and "what ifs". Then we trip over structure again, so it's back to the structural work and the treatment. (Aimed for 5 pages in current project, but think I prefer to do a 10-pager.) Once my treatment is sound, I will progress to creating scenes, and then to the index cards. The thing is, I have one novel, work-in-progress, which has been completely destroyed over the last 3 years by different methods, editorial input, analyses and goodness-knows what. It's a story that I love and it is in pieces. It's lost all its freshness. I shall resurrect it but right now I don't know where to start with it. One of the reasons for this post, is I want to ensure that my current project, which I also love, doesn't end up dismantled in the same way. Anyway, it's all part of the process, and it's useful stuff, so thanks everyone.

Laurie Ashbourne

For what it's worth, Fiona; I start with a logline that hovers on the plot and theme, then take that to outline then to treatment, then revise the logline. I use both the outline and treatment to write the first draft, there are things inherent in each that help along the way, treatments can be more fluid and include dialogue -- where the outline keeps the act structure and scene breaks right in front of you. All of my notes and ideas are on the outline document and I refer back to it a lot but only after I've let the process unfold organically. I find that when I don't refer to it and only go with the organics of writing, that's where structure problems arise.

Fiona Faith Ross

I love Save The Cat, Patricia. I must get round to reading Syd Field, too, since everyone bangs on about him all the time. Laurie, that's a good method. I might refine mine to be closer to yours.

Dan Guardino

Like Patricia I like to use Save the Cat. However structure is only a industry standard not a rule so I just use it as a guide line. Not all my stories are going to fit in to what most people consider the industry standard.

Fiona Faith Ross

Ha ha Jim, you can sense my hissy fit. I'm over it now. This is very good advice. We have the cool opening and ending, so gimme 30 minutes and I'll be back shortly with the rest of it, as per your list. Stampede of A-list stars wanting to be in it. Award winning movie. Job done. Thank you so much. PS Seriously, the devil is in the rising tension, I reckon. What is "rising tension" from one character's point of view, might not be so serious for another.

Steven Harris Anzelowitz

Just write from your heart and soul. K.I.S.S.(Keep It Simple Stupid) If they like the script great. If they don't write another one. Never give up!! Never Surrender!! You are part of a proud profession that dates back to Aristole.

Bill Costantini

The first trickiest thing to me about structure involves avoiding the obvious. When I did some face-to-face pitches a while back, and said my logline, a few of the better producers would sit there after I stated my logline, and "guess" at the plot. They would pretty much nail the advancement of the plot just from hearing my logline. That made me realize how easy it can be to come up with a very predictable structure; how half-empty a plot in itself could be; and how so many producers have pretty much "heard it all before" - even the twists. You really have to shake up your plot line and develop it in deeper and in multiple ways, to avoid the obvious. That's what great writers do, and is what makes great writing. The second trickiest thing about structure involves the lack of thematic development intertwined within the story as a whole, and also as a separate component. It's easy to write what I call "the surface structure", but intertwining the deeper meaning of the story - and those effects on my main characters - happens as the result of that deeper type of development. Sometimes they are all done in one scene continuously; sometimes it's separate scene; and sometimes it's a combination of both. Laurie Ashbourne, in one of her recent Creative Tip posts, put it very succinctly and brilliantly, using Casablanca as an example. "...Thematically it could be boiled down to the idea of needing each other. 1. The external set up for 'A' plot sets up the opportunity for Rick to be needed by being asked to save Lazlo from the Nazis. 2. In the 'B' story the theme is expressed by showing us what Rick lacks internally in terms of needing others. 3. The 'C' story; Rick's lack of valuing others leaves him alone and isolated, seeing Ilsa again drives him even further into isolation because of the way she hurt him, which in turn makes the 'A' plot feel even more unattainable. A feeds B feeds C feeds A ". Before devising and plotting any single scene, it's so essential to always ask yourself first "What does this scene mean to my theme?", and "does this scene successfully convey my theme, and reinforce my premise?" If it doesn't, it's not a necessary scene, and contributes to the demise of a script's importance and credibility.

Fiona Faith Ross

Brilliant, Bill. Thank you. These are insights an aspiring screenwriter wouldn't normally have access to. We should thank Stage32 for allowing us to rub shoulders with people who've got the battle scars. (Not that I'm suggesting...)

Alex Bloom

Hey Fiona, have you looked into approaching structure with sequences? Basically most movies can be broken down into 7 or 8 sequences -- 2 in Act One, 4 in Act Two and 1 or 2 in Act Three. Each sequence serves as a "mini-movie" with the same plot points you find in 3 Act Structure. Breaking down a script like this makes it that much more manageable, especially over the long terrain of Act 2. Paul Joseph Gulino has a great book on all this called The Sequence Approach: http://goo.gl/LBsbVK And we have one too! Master Screenplay Sequences http://www.scriptreaderpro.com/screenwriting-books/

Regina Lee

This is admittedly a tangential response to Fiona's question. A lot of development execs/consultants, myself included, would rather not put a ton of emphasis on structure. However, we have to find the tools/vocabulary to talk about a story, about a piece of art really, and we are therefore forced to break it down into its component parts. One of those components is structure. I like to talk about a story's major turning points, which are the roadmap markers for structure. Some writers I've worked with like to call these turning points "tentpole stakes" or "wireframe structure." My point is really more of an emotional one. As a development person, I don't want to hammer any writer on structure. It doesn't give me joy to hammer someone on structure. But how else can I analyze and discuss a story? I have no choice but to use structure as part of that discussion. And I bet Fiona is feeling an over-emphasis on the structural part of the discussion. I love the show Top Chef. Those judges have to find a vocabulary that allows them to talk about the food they're eating/judging with other people - with cheftestants and fellow judges. They have to break it down into its components. That's what we have to do too.

Fiona Faith Ross

Bill, Absolutely, when a story flows seamlessly (I'm thinking the Shrek trilogy here, or anything by the Elliott/Rossio partnership, just to give one example), it gives the false impression the storywriting process is easy, like it flowed onto the page in a couple of days. We writers know that's not the case. Alex, Interestingly enough, I discovered this method about six weeks ago on The Scriptlab site and yes, it is a very useful process - helps you to stay on track and stop the beats from straying off their markers. I'll check out your recommendations, too. Thanks for those. Regina, that's fair comment, but since I started this thread with the intention of extracting nuggets from the business of structure, I'll live with the over-emphasis. And yes, I agree, there has to be some kind of common vocabulary that execs and writers can both use to reference the same components. One expression that has leapt out of this whole thread for me is what Jim Jackson said. "Fold the structure into your outline." I shall sleep on this. It says a lot. Thanks again, everyone.

Tao Ryan Moua

Your structure is suppose to serve your story. NOT story serves structure. There is only one structure that we should know as storytellers and that is "The Beginning, Middle and Ending," as Aristotle put it. Everything else becomes formulas. I'm not an expert, but from watching hundreds of movies, this is what I have come to understand structure - as I tried to fit Aristotle's theory of "The Beginning, Middle and Ending" into these movies. Some people especially those with a theater background and studio executives go with ACT1, ACT 2 and ACT 3. You don't really need an Inciting Incident/Catalyst/Call to Adventure, but you do need Two Turning Points. These two turning points are very important because they are crucial to linking the beginning, middle and ending TOGETHER. The First Turning point connects the Beginning to the Middle, and the Second Turning Point connects the Middle to the Ending. The reason for being is that without these you wouldn't have a Beginning, Middle and Ending. Once you understand this simple structure, then you can break the rules however you want as long as it serves the story. Remember, structure is suppose to serve the story, not the opposite. To simply put it, all you need in your story is a Beginning, a turning point to break into the Middle, another turning point to break your story into the Ending. Here's an example: A lonely boy needs love (Beginning). He chases after a girl he is attracted to ( First Turning Point). But she plays hard to get (Middle). Finally, he talks to an experienced man who gives him tips and tools (Second Turning Point). He uses them on the girl and gets the girl (Ending).

Fiona Faith Ross

Jim, Thank you so much for these insights. Things changed for me over the last 48 hours and fragments fell into place. I am ROCKing my new novel. Screenplay follows fast. Amazing how a writer can go from 0 to 60 once the obstacle is removed. Ha.

Adam Revesz

I like how Syd Field puts it in his book 'Screenplay': use structure as a paradigm not a formula (this is NOT verbatim BTW)

Anthony Cawood

I've stopped focusing on structure in any organised way, I'm letting the writing come out and trying to just keep some semblance of beginning, middle and end... it's quite liberating ;-)

Adam Revesz

I forgot to mention Plot Control. It's software that helps organize your plot. Easy to use and better than a document where you have to cut and paste. Easy to move things around, see everything in front of you, etc. I'm sure there's others like it out there (I think Final Draft has cue cards), that just happens to be the one I like to use.

Tao Ryan Moua

Well said, Bill. And then you once you swim long enough like 5 years or more, you get a epiphany/revelation and go "Ah, I see."

Annie Mac

Bill, when I was in Art school, a lot of talk was about form vs content? Since then, I discovered that content defines form and not the other way around.

Bill Costantini

Tao - Time , maturation, and evolution....things that usually affect all artists. Annie - that debate has always been a good one, and I've certainly been on all three sides of it. One of my great teachers, artist Hugh Lifson, developed his own forms to follow his own functions. When we asked him the eternal question, "does form follow function, or does function follow form", he wisely answered "both". Heh-heh.

Sue Lange

Ha! "he wisely answered "both"" Ain't that the truth and why after a while, you need to stop trying to figure it out and just write. IMHO.

Fiona Faith Ross

Thanks Peter. I was trying to work through how let's say, "objective viewers" (readers) evaluate the rising tension in a story, so the "subjective viewer", (the writer) might order a series of events in increasing severity, and then their reader throws them by saying, "that one isn't serious enough". I always have problems trying to deal with that. So for example, take the "All is Lost" moment. An event pitches the protagonist into despair, and then if your "objective viewer" says it's not, let's say, "devastating enough", I would consider that to be an issue of structure, in order to achieve the lowest possible point in the story arc.

Sarah Gabrielle Baron

Ha! Fiona, I SO feel your pain! Killing your darlings to fit the form is so painful! Being lost in the doldrums of re-write is exhausting. But then the breakthrough comes and you're back in 'the flow'. Divine. I love this conversation's constant return to Blake Synder's Save The Cat. OMG I can't believe I've been writing specs for three years and I read STC...TODAY!!! That's right, folks. The man was brilliant. I am a convert. He's right about everything. I felt like we were sharing inside jokes. I want to email him (but he's passed on....bummer!). Today there are so many fancy computerized ways to set up plot points. Fuggedaboutit. We spend too much time in the glowing rectangle as it is. In your early post, Fiona, you sounded happiest about the times you broke out the old cue cards and coloured pens. It's that trip to the office supply store and all the fun time it wastes that gets you ready to stare at that blank Board. These are big decisions (what scene is the turning point, the 'break into two'? which scene is the 'all is lost'?), and damn it but deciding which card is which beat is extra hard when it means cutting up a story you thought was finished two years ago! Me, I'm thinking that it's important to always always refer back to your theme for these major turning points. Someone else mentioned the overall importance of theme too. Make sure your theme is primal, and your scene's conflicts are primal, and your audience will buy in. Thanks for hosting this thread, Fiona. I've been away from the lounge for a while (lost in the doldrums of re-writing). It's good to be reminded that I'm not alone. Good to read you guys again!

Fiona Faith Ross

SGB, Brilliant post. thank you so much. The man was brilliant. I am a convert. He's right about everything. I felt like we were sharing inside jokes. I want to email him (but he's passed on....bummer!). Right on. Inspirational, wasn't he? Killing darlings? I killed my magic hair salon on Tuesday. Broke my heart, but it had to go. Me, I'm thinking that it's important to always always refer back to your theme for these major turning points. Yes, I agree. Had a long discussion about this with my tutor, and as I now reference every scene back to the theme, things are starting to clarify for me, even since I started this thread.

Fiona Faith Ross

Fair enough, Peter. I'm learning here.

Regina Lee

"Why is it so difficult to get it right?" One reason is that a lot of screenwriters haven't been through the life cycle of a movie. If you've been say, a producer's assistant, you might have been given an inside look into the full life cycle of a movie - from conception to release. Seeing the whole process through allows many pieces to fall into place as you're learning. Screenplay execution is one of those pieces. Imagine if you've been asked to cook a 9-course meal if you've never been allowed to watch a professional do so. It would be "difficult to get right."

Richard Willett

Fiona, I'm cheered every year I go to the Austin Film Festival and hear so many established screenwriters say things like ""Yeah, I never understand all that structure stuff much." One of the best suggestions I've heard in Austin was from Jason A. Micallef, who wrote a magical little movie called BUTTER. He said something to the effect that he read a different one of "those books" every year, as a kind of reboot, because they're all pretty much the same in the end, but then more or less forgot them on a conscious level as he wrote. I myself was majorly influenced by Syd Field, Bob McKee, and Michael Arndt. But the best and most lucid influence I've found is Hal Croasmun and the ScreenwritingU ProSeries I've been enrolled in since last June. It's hard work, but boy has it changed my life. And you take away from the course so many wonderful exercises to strengthen almost any script.

Fiona Faith Ross

Thanks everyone for your insights and experience. The response to this thread has been amazing. I hadn't expected it. And I guess it could come down to the old chestunut, "If it was easy, everyone would be doing it." Er...

Sue Lange

CJ, excellent information here. I find it encouraging that you spent time absorbing the concepts of Save The Cat and that eventually you found your way to writing "tight structure" because of it. I'm wondering if in the meantime you changed the way you view films. Do you have less tolerance now for a more unstructured or experimental movie? Or has it opened up your mind to these things. What kinds of films did you like before compared to now?

Sue Lange

Interesting. So maybe the more you understand the rules, the more you appreciate when people break or just play around with them. That seems like a classic example of why education is enriching. Not so you can earn more money but because life becomes so much more interesting. I will never scoff at Save the Cat again.

Laurie Ashbourne

CJ's analogies are (as usual) spot on. As are some of the other responses. Structure and content are a dance with one another and it's not until the two can get through the song as partners that the story is complete. The biggest issue I see, is that most overviews of story and character, try to force a writer to work with a symmetrical arc of transformation; that graph we all have seen that looks like a rounded mountain. There's two issues with this: 1) it installs the idea that it is all downhill from the midpoint to the end, 2) that plot and character move along the same pattern of highs and lows at the same time. A true picture of effective structure looks more like this: Because we all know to start with the story in motion, our plot (external activity) starts higher and it takes our character a bit of fog lifting to catch up, they intersect along the way at major turning points but it is not until the end that they travel along the same line BUT a new line of normalcy. Playing the futures' market was one of the biggest factors in my understanding of the fundamentals of highs and lows along these lines. What goes up must come down, but there are patterns of how far to drop and rise that are undeniable. And further to Peter's point, if you were to zoom in on this DNA of a storyline, every scene would have a similar shape, of conflict and plateau. The interesting sidebar is that both Chris Vogler's approach to story structure and Blake Snyder's were born from the need to explain to executives at Disney why they made the choices they did when their projects were being 'noted' to death.

David Levy

A ton of excellent points and information in this thread. Thank you all for the great read! I have to ask am I one of the only people who has not read "Save The Cat"? I hear both sides of the coin (positive/Negative) on it and I have been very hesitant.

Sue Lange

So it seems, these formal guides to structure are a vehicle for communication about the story more than anything else. It's a way for us to analyze movies that are already made.

Bill Costantini

David - Many great screenplays were written prior to the Save the Cat teachings, and I'm sure that many great screenplays have been written after it's publication that don't utilize it as well. I think the Beat Sheet of Save the Cat keeps a story on point with regards to "structure and story", while at the same time, helps to fulfill the development of our characters, too. Not every story has "this happen" by page ten or "this happen" by page 25, etc. etc., though - nor should every story. At the end of the day, all screenwriting tools are or should be part of the same continuum: structure is story is characters is story is structure is characters fulfilling not just external goals, but internal goals, too - as well as theme, at least in my eyes. RIP Alan Rickman (February 21, 1946 - January 14, 2016)

Annie Mac

Absolutely! My experience as film lover, filmmaker, film teacher, script adviser, screenwriter, and story-teller to my students, children, and grand-children, continually teaches me that in Storytelling as in all Visual Arts, structure/ form/ matrix/ plot needs to be in service of STORY, not subservient to it. STRUCTURE is only a TOOL, albeit a great one, which seems to have been elevated to kinghood in Hollywood. As a French native, I wholeheartedly agree with BILL, we need to see this debate with a touch of humor. Foreign cinema and auteurs all over the world break sacro-saint structures with gusto and create their own, to often tell the most profound and affecting stories. True greatness or brilliance will always be rare, regardless of structure. With my partner we have seen countless mediocre movies, which followed to a T, the hailed structures. So, Fiona, keep writing with your heart, sweat, and guts and have the clarity to make enlightened choices when it comes to ... structure!

David Levy

CJ and Bill: Thanks! I think that is the reason why I have not read it. I've read and learned structure from other methods. Maybe I will destroy a copy, and tear out the pages you say . Like Bill said, many have written before the book was printed. In time I guess I will find out if I need to Save The Cat, or the Cat will need to save me.

Laurie Ashbourne

Sadly, some execs DO refer to and look for the beats outlined in STC. It helps them talk to writers about notes or their feelings of what doesn't work -- but as I said, that was the original intention until dear Blake got the idea to publish it. SO it does behoove you to be aware of it, but it should not take the place of the fundamental rythm of a solid story.

Laurie Ashbourne

True story: several years ago, some buddies of mine were directing a film for Disney; THE KING OF ELVES, based on one of Hollywood's favorite go to for source material, Philip K. Dick's short story of the same name. At the time, I was in Asheville doing a documentary and they came through town on a research trip. They were thrilled with how the story was going and produced a ton of visual development. They were also excited by the fact that John Lasseter and Pixar were now part of the Disney team and looked forward to the input that they would bring. About a year later, I was chatting with one of them after they had a particularly grueling notes session -- that basically tore the story to the ground. I jokingly said to him, you haven't read your copy of Save the Cat lately, pick it up and all of your 'suit' problems will be solved. In all seriousness, he said, that's how they got to the point they were now -- by being forced into that -- they story needed to go places that structure couldn't and the creative brain trust (at that time) couldn't understand that. The film shelved a full year later.

Sue Lange

Laurie, I had a similar experience with the Save the Cat. I was just starting to write screenplays after having numerous novels and short stories published. I was really cocky. I met Lisa Eichhorn (Yanks with Richard Gere) at our local film festival and promised I would write her a script. She told me to read Save the Cat. I did and I gave her a bunch of ideas for story lines. She picked a couple and I went to work with the 3x5s and everything. About half-way through structuring I had to stop. I was not used to writing to such a strict outline. I was inventing crap to meet the milestones that had nothing to do with my original intention for the story. It changed the theme and turned it into something that I was embarrassed about. It was like inserting deus ex machinas whenever I had to meet a page milestone. Terribly non-organic and just plain ugly. I never did come up with something for her.

Bill Costantini

One of the most important assets that I'm currently getting to re-experience now while I'm not working full-time for someone else is how my love and postive mental attitude greatly affect my ability to successfully be a creative writer. Having my 24 hours a day back to myself makes the entire "checklist of successful writing" flow together in a coalesced way that I don't get to experience when I have to work 60 hours a week for someone else. I don't have to compartmentalize aspects of my story in ways that I have to when I only have 2 - 4 hours a day and am already mentally fatigued before I even got down to trying to creatively write something effectively and potentially salable. All that I have learned about writing, human nature and life is all flowing together smoothly. Funny how that works, eh? So basically what I'm saying is two things: the rest of you should probably forget about entering the Page competition this year, because I'm pretty confident the Grand Prize is going to be mine. The second thing is this: if there are any women who would like to have me around from, say March or April to....forever...I could be available under the right conditions. Heck...that goes for you too, C.J. While I don't know anything about re-storing old cars, I'm sure you'd find me very helpful and inspiring. "Hey C.J....that's really a nice thingamajiggy. You sure know how to get jiggy with it! You're the best!" Or "hey C.J.....the way you did that thing to that big thing really completes me! You're the best!" Just throwing that out there.

Regina Lee

I've been employed as an exec by 3 studios, and no exec, no director, and no screenwriter I've worked with has ever referenced Save the Cat in my presence. The only professional colleague in my circle who has read it is a former Disney Animation junior exec who is now a writer. That is only my experience. Clearly, others have had a different experience. To each his own. All good. I've never read it. None of my bosses/colleagues have read it to my knowledge. Most execs in my circle have read (partially or wholly) Robert McKee, Syd Field, and Christopher Vogler. Two other popular ones are 20 Master Plots (our Moderator Beth has become a fan) and my Universal colleague Billy Mernit's Writing the Romantic Comedy, which I highly recommend as a very digestible book for beginners. It was the first screenwriting book I ever read! :-) In my personal experience, Save the Cat seems like a very popular, well-liked read outside the Hollywood community - not so much inside the community. Which is fine. Just an FYI about my personal experience, which might be worth even less than 2 cents!

Laurie Ashbourne

A really nice thingamjiggy is hard to come by.

Regina Lee

I have not read this entire thread. I definitely agree with CJ's points. As Robin Swicord says, "You first have to understand structure in order to subvert structure." Like I said, I haven't read Save the Cat, but my impression is that most Hollywood execs can skip the read because our first-hand experience in rooms with seasoned execs and filmmakers, reading scripts, reading script analysis written by veteran Story Analysts, serves much the same purpose as reading Save the Cat. That said, like I told Fiona, we have to find a common vocabulary to analyze and talk about the art of story, and that's where basic terms and (what I perceive to be) the fundamental analysis conveyed by Blake allow us to have a conversation. I echo CJ's comments, though my echo is much more shoddily composed!

Fiona Faith Ross

Great observations, CJ, and good advice. Thanks for that.

Regina Lee

Further to CJ's writing, "the problem with Save The Cat is it's sold on the premise that it's the single one-stop solution to all commercial movie storylines" -- To prove CJ's point, I recently spoke to a new writer who was trying to apply Blake's comedy structure to a thriller script. IMO, this was a mistake. While some of Blake's explanations for a script's turning points could apply from one genre to the next, not all of them do. Ideally, you're using a thriller breakdown to inform your own thriller breakdown, not using a comedy breakdown for that purpose. I don't know if Blake's book states that his comedy skeleton could apply to all genres (because I haven't read the book). If the book is misleading, then it could do more harm than good. This is why I believe in tailor-made development support if possible where people sit around a table (or Skype) and talk intent, skill set, career goals, marketplace, etc. in addition to craft. All that said, I don't blame Blake. It's obviously impossible for any book or for any instructor to teach the thousands of intricacies in screenwriting/filmmaking, to create a tailor-made approach for the thousands of practitioners out there. How could anyone expect a book to contain everything they need to know? Hopefully no one expects that. (This is the same reason that I find S32 Lounge advising so difficult. Partial info can and will be misinterpreted by all sides.) Ideally, you take your own steps forward as a writer, then you get some "real world" experience, then you go back to your desk. We all know this to be true. It's like Law School (or Med School). Learn from the best books and teachers available to you. Know that "school" in itself will not prepare you to be a lawyer/doctor. Then clerk at a law firm, for a judge, or similar (or do your medical internship and residency). Then work on your own skills. Now after years of training and hands-on experience, hopefully you're ready to try your own cases. That's the best way to acquire experience, knowledge, training, and craft we have at our disposal. I hope that if you're fully invested in working in Hollywood/London/Toronto/Singapore/etc., you can acquire the full experience. I also totally respect people like CJ who have made the clear decision that it's not their cup of tea. Or people in Anytown USA whose joy comes from being content creators and making YouTube content for their circle of friends. All good.

Bill Costantini

CJ - Awww, CJ....in my newfound positive transformative light of all that is righteous, salvagable and redeemable...it seems that my old conscience has decided to make a comeback. I implore you to not turn on the business card maker. Once our snake-oil business ended...I mean...once our well-intentioned and highly-reputable consultant partnership ended...I may have rigged the "on-button" with some nitro in a moment of well-guided - albeit misguided - anger. Call our old friend Vinnie three-fingers at the pub for proper removal - but I'm pretty sure you're an expert at that, too, if I recall correctly. I wish you were here, though - I just dropped $450 on a new radiatior. The old one blowed up really good yesterday. Aye-yah! :( At least the serpentine belt - or anything else - wasn't damaged from the spray of the coolant. I got the car back just now - and just in time for my second-favorite activity next to writing: all-you-can-eat sashimi at my favorite Japanese restaurant. I might be breaking my record today. Aye-yah! :) Laurie - uh...uh...that's what....uh...never mind. It's probably best to save my "blue" material for another post. And I still don't know how to address my reply to the people who responded to my "LOST" post. Aye-yah again.

Sue Lange

Bill, I'm jealous. Not of the radiator incident, though.

Laurie Ashbourne

Glad to be of service, Bill. ;-)

Tao Ryan Moua

Hey Fiona, after reading your last comments, just wanted to say, "glad you broke through that structure block." Whenever I get stuck, I usually take a long walk in nature, think about my plot then I find my way through it. Plot and structure are suppose to serve story. Not story to serve plot and structure. Happy writing.

Annie Mac

Glad to hear that Tao.

Fiona Faith Ross

Thanks Tao. A brainstorming session with my tutor did it. I had a storyline that I (sort of) liked, but the mentor figure arrived too late. I'm writing a teen fantasy, so this was a serious problem. Tutor sent me some notes, and I tried a new storyline with a different character serving as mentor, but he didn't appeal so much. Anyway, after some shuffling around, killing a couple of darlings and resurrecting one (it can happen), I have the original mentor now making his entrance in the first part of Act 2, and this works much better. The brainstorming sorted out three key global issues, before my tutor availability ran out (like Cinderella) at midnight, but I'm happier now, left to my own devices for a couple of weeks while I develop the story. And thanks again for your encouragement. I really appreciate it. Walks often break the block for me too, although also as I settle down at night, I'm speculating on the problem, and the next day possibilities arise. I'd like to say too, Regina makes a valuable point about getting practical experience and I'm painfully aware that this is something I must do. I haven't been "in the biz" for many years, so need to do a "refresher." Recently I've noticed quite a few S32 new members near me, so hoping to get together and contribute to local projects and get this experience. I think there are benefits in writing partnerships for this reason, that between you, you can thrash things out. I'd like to co-write something with someone one day. It would be fun. A general note for people, who, erm, might be looking for collaboration on something, Bill, I'm not good with broken down cars. I don't do tire-changing and I don't do car-pushing, either. Just to get that out. Up front. So there's no disappointment. :)

Fiona Faith Ross

@David Levy @Peter Corey As a bare minimum, read P.70 of Save The Cat. It summarises the 15 plot points of the Beat Sheet. You have the concept in a nutshell. The rest of the book is an enchanting conversation with a talented, charming and witty man whose words make you feel he is in the room with you.

Regina Lee

I'm going to stop boring everyone with my posts on this thread. From my side, it's as hard to effectively give instruction on story and structure as it is for a new practitioner to learn it. From moment one, it's hard to figure out what the new writer knows and doesn't know. To find a way to talk about complex ideas that aren't learned overnight. And it goes on from there.

Shari D. Frost

Great thread, everyone - thanks for all the insights! I'm a bit late to the party, but in case it's helpful to anyone, I'll add my thoughts... So, I'm a bit of a craft book junkie. I absolutely love reading them. (Maybe it's just a procrastination tactic...) And I think the good news about that is that in reading a variety, as opposed to focusing on only one, you begin to see the overlap and the patterns. Snyder really didn't say anything Syd Field didn't say first, he just said it glitzier, in a super digestible and accessible way. To Regina's point, they each have their own vocabulary for pretty much saying the same thing. To me, structure is a skeleton. And a skeleton is pretty boring, maybe even downright creepy, on it's own. It needs all the rest -- a heart, soul, blood, guts, personality, etc. -- to be a compelling human being. We all share a similar skeleton. They keep us functioning and moving forward. And I don't think any of us would say we're all identically alike as a result, or our arms are "forced" onto our torso. I come to screenwriting from a ballet background grounded in technique, and I can tell you there's nothing artistic or interesting about doing barre exercises everyday. But there's not a ballerina out there who can soar on stage without doing them everyday. That doesn't mean though, that each barre exercise is present in every piece of choreography. I don't believe the real damage comes from using beat sheets or giving our stories structure. The problems start when you try to force specific plot points onto specific page numbers. Or include every beat in every story. Some stories need more pirouettes, some need more leaps. The value in reading craft books and understanding structure, to me, is in honing our sense of story so we better understand what our particular stories need. My go-to beat sheet is a combination of Dara Marks, Blake Snyder and Chris Vogler. It's what works for me because each layer illuminates something about a character's journey that speaks to me, and that helps me connect with my character. But I'm still learning something new every day, and my beat sheet will most likely continue to evolve. Ultimately I think it's important to tell all kinds of stories in all kinds of ways. But, as I think was already mentioned, you need to understand structure to understand where you can depart from it. PS, if you have a favorite craft book, let me know! :0P It's an addiction. What can I say?

Sue Lange

V. cool, Shari. I like that you see the structure skeleton as creepy. That makes sense, right? FYI, I'm reading Paul Gulino's Sequence Approach right now. Check it out if you haven't yet. And for stage plays (because I know you write those too), I'm reading Gary Garrison's Perfect Ten for ten-minuters.

William Martell

“Screenplays are structure, and that’s all they are," William Goldman. That can be why.

Zorrawa Emily Ann Jefferson

Now, I don't want to be a booster but I've been told I'm pretty good at story structure when I barely even knew what it was. But keep trying. :)

Bill Costantini

I'm also a big fan of the 8-Sequence Approach to a film. My storyboards are actually broken up into 8 sequences. Talk about form follows function. Back in the old days of cinema....films were broken up into 8-10 minute reels. Most theaters only had one projector back then. As a result, the early studios demanded that the film directors break up their films into 8-minute segments, because it took the projectionist a minute or so to swap reels, and the studio heads didn't want to lose the interest of cinema patrons. If you watch any early films, you can clearly see how those sequences play out. One of the great filmmakers of the 1950's-1960's, Frank Daniel, embraced the 8-sequence approach and carried it into the modern years, with a few added minutes for each sequence. Each sequence has its own thematic heading, and they are broken up into three acts. He was a writer, director, film school dean, and screenwriting professor through the 1990's. Many of his students and disciples perpetuate those views in their writings and films to this day. Screenwriting, the Sequence Approach, by Paul Gulino, is a book that teaches those views, with appropriate disclaimers. Peter (or anyone else) - by any chance, were you one of Professor Daniel's students at USC? Edited to add...I'm aware of 7 or 8 dramatic structure paradigms/theories. From Aristotle to Shakespeare to Freytag to Campbell/Vogler to Daniel to Field to Snyder to Truby. I probably missed a couple. They're all great teaching tools. And how about that Aristotle? No computers....no electricity...no In-N-Out burgers...when I think about how much people like Aristotle, Plato, DaVinci, Galilieo, Shakespeare, Franklin, Tesla, Edison, Neitsche, Einstein, Curie (and others) changed the world...I could only be left with one conclusion....they were aliens!

Sue Lange

Emily, you probably have great instincts and watch a lot of movies. That too, is probably a good formula.

Fiona Faith Ross

Ha! I think I've pinned the slippery little B'tard. Blake Snyder triumphs again. "When you decide which midpoint your script is going to require, it's like nailing a spike into a wall good and hard. The clothesline that is your story can now be strung securely." Nailed it. :) Over to "8 Sequences" method (thescriptlabdotcom). Strung the line. :) And now to rearrange the pegs to see if it all holds up.

Annie Mac

Still as vital as the day he wrote it! Enjoy and keep writing... https://screencraft.org/2016/01/14/33-screenwriting-lessons-from-bruce-lee/

Fiona Faith Ross

I did enjoy that, thanks Annie. Inspirational.

Bill Costantini

Fiona - that's great. You know what they say about life (at least here in the U.S.)....."it all comes out in the wash." I'm really glad you got that clothesline (recycled material, I hope), and wish you the best.

Shari D. Frost

thanks, Sue! haven't read Paul Gulino's Sequence Approach, but it's on my list now. and how great is Gary???

Sue Lange

He's been great. A couple of writers in my critique group aren't that crazy about him, but he was good for me. A fun read and I am actually starting to get it, I think. I really enjoy writing these little plays. I just sent one to the Samuel French thingy. Are you doing that?

Bill Costantini

Oops...sorry Sue....I didn't notice you mentioned Paul Gulino's book before I did. I'm still a bit lightheaded after viewing Peter Corey's artistic rendering of my head on Nude Descending a Staircase. That Peter...I tell you....

Jorge J Prieto

Write, write, write. Is what a writer does and never be afraid to venture, through your characters into uncharted territory. Listen to your characters and now your starting and ending point, but knowing that the road has to get bumpy and messy, yet the destination(climax) can change to serve your story, your message. Your purpose for writing your screenplay (if a Spec) should never change. Amazing thread!

Jorge J Prieto

http://www.moviemaker.com/archives/moviemaking/screenwriting/first-draft... Check the above, fellow writers. It emphasizes a very simple philosophy: As writers WE need to TRUST our INSTINCTS. Plain and simple.

Annie Mac

Dear Fiona! As TS Elliot's poem suggests, I'm back where we started! I'm glad though that by now your question has been wrung, cut out to pieces, sewn back together, and ironed, and the challenge of STRUCTURE will continue to haunt us as long as we're convinced that our STORIES must be tweaked, twisted, and sometimes tortured, to fit any given form. If structure is one of the most fundamental and natural principle of storytelling, though the way stories unfold in Africa, or East Asia, maybe very different from the way they are constructed in North America, I still wonder why in SCREENWRITING, so much ink is devoted to it? As a parting comment, I'm happy that this healthy debate has perhaps contributed to an epiphany. I personally learned a great deal. Thank you to all the courteous, friendly, generous members of Stage 32 who shared tirelessly their views with clarity and passion. The very best to you, Fiona. Believe in yourself and write! I took a break from my screenplay and must look more closely at that STC beat sheet ;-)

Gary Green

The source of your writing should be you. After all, its your interpretation of life and all that it is composed of, that makes up what you see. Wow, is that too deep ?

Sue Lange

Peter, Thanks for the link to Tom Lehrer. Hilarious. And Jorge thanks for the note about trusting instincts. I think in the end if you do trust them, you'll probably structure half-way correctly. We've watched a ton of movies; we've been raised on the three-act structure, the 8-sequences, the beats. It's part of our fabric at this point. It's like listening to western music. You don't have to know a thing about music theory, but you'll hear it when someone hits a wrong note. You won't know what the wrong note is, or why it's wrong, but you'll hear something's out of key. Trust your instincts.

Annie Mac

@Peter, Thanks for wise and witty contribution, a good dose of laughter loosens the creative juice. What are you writing at the moment?

Annie Mac

Jorge, to trusting our instincts and being grateful for the gurus who pave the way!

Annie Mac

Best of luck for the euthanasia comedy -- do you have a title? I'd love to read the first 3 pages if you wish to share that. If not it's okay too. I am a compulsive first 3 pages reader!

Annie Mac

Cool. I like your spirit, Peter!

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