Form, Structure, Formula.

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by Fin Wheeler

Even the most experimental, non-linear screenplay has structure. No screenwriter simply types a hundred one-page scenes and then throws them up in the air in front of the reader. We order our scenes, and there’s (hopefully) meticulous reasoning behind the choices we make. The reader/viewer is given information in the first scene, then another layer of information is added with the next scene, and so on.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a fan of formulaic screenwriting. To pronounce that plot point X must happen on page Y is to completely misunderstand the nature of writing. Even in series television, which by its nature must conform to very strict page and scene counts, breaking the story is usually an organic process.

Confused? Here’s how legendary screenwriting teacher Robert McKee puts it:

Yet form does not mean ‘formula’. There is no screenplay-writing recipe that guarantees your cake will rise. Story is far too rich in mystery, complexity, and flexibility to be reduced to a formula. Only a fool would try. Rather a writer must grasp story form.

How do we do that?

Oral storytelling and painting pictures that tell stories are two of the oldest art forms we humans have. As kids we’re told fairy stories, and then we learn to read and continue reading for ourselves. We know in our bones that every story has an A story where the protagonist goes after a MacGuffin, entwined with a B story which charts the moral and emotional growth of our hero.

Our early attempts at telling short stories, drawing and writing them, come easy, because that classic story form is so ingrained. But when we sit down to write long-form, we realize with panic that a sprint and a marathon are totally different beasts. To sustain our feature-length stories we can’t just rely on our subconscious knowledge of story-form. When we develop and create the initial premise and outline of our screenplay, we need to know exactly why we’re putting certain dramatic events in and why it’s more effective to put them in that order.

If your screenplay is optioned or sold, you’ll also be expected to be able to articulate the plot points of your screenplay’s story in creative meetings.

So, how do we develop this knowledge of story order and form?

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Many aspiring screenwriters believe that screenwriting manuals such as Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat are the one-stop answer. I enjoy reading screenwriting manuals as much as the next person, but they alone aren’t the answer. Millions are spent, by hundreds of thousands of would-be scribes, on screenwriting manuals each year. But according to the Writers’ Guild of America, each year there’re only about ten people who earn half a million or more from their screenwriting.

Others believe that film school and/or a Creative Writing MFA will spoon feed you all you need to gain success. Film school can be helpful to some, but you will still have to do most of the work on your own. At any given university, art college, or film school usually an average of only one student every two years makes it big.

So who can teach us?

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Great writers. The most popular English-language writer of all-time, William Shakespeare, worked in forms just as complex and rule-bound as ours. Each of his Elizabethan plays had to be a certain length and had to have five acts. All the tragedies had to conform strictly to that genre, as did his comedies and history plays. He had broadcast standards and censors, just as we do. He didn’t have the benefit of schooling, and there were no how-to manuals in those days. By reading and studying classic, great and popular works, Shakespeare was able to develop as a writer.

An effective, inspiring writer is someone who truly understands their craft, from the inside out and you can only do that by reading and writing.

If you’ve read a lot of classic literature (and at least a few hundred screenplays) then when you’re listening to interviews given by produced screenwriters, or you’re reading a screenwriting manual, you’re not just nodding along desperately hoping that some of the concepts get stuck in your head. You’re able to really think about what they’re saying, hold up examples and test the theory they espouse.

Earlier this year I was reading yet another screenwriting manual borrowed from the library, a bookmark fell out with five questions written on it:

  1. Did this make me gasp?

  2. Do I wish I’d thought of it?

  3. Is it unique?

  4. Does it fit the strategy (genre) perfectly?

  5. Could it still be used in 50 year? (Is it timeless?)

If you can’t think of at least a dozen books and screenplays that get five yeses, then you need to read a lot more. Sunset Boulevard has great structure and a killer story — I’d start there.

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A good screenplay, one that makes the reader keep turning pages, is one with a strong underlying structure. It’s universal but unique. Fresh but familiar. Maybe we know what the outcome will be, but we’re surprised, shocked and delighted by the route it takes getting there.

In order to write such a screenplay, we need to have a deep understanding of our craft, know the markers of the genre we’re working in and why they’re important, and we need to know how structure can give us the freedom to be original yet still accessible with our screen stories.

If you’re looking for a little concrete guidance on how to structure your feature screenplay, and you’ve found that the Save the Cat method isn’t for you, I’d recommend Cut to the Chase: Writing Feature Films with the Pros at UCLA, edited by Linda Venis. I prefer the 40 card methodology outlined there to the Snyder approach.

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Fin Wheeler is a member of the Australian Writers’ Guild and has a feature in development.

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