This week I’ve been planning stories and writing treatments for a drama series pitch, which required revisiting the screenwriting books I’ve read in the past. There’s loads of great information to be found out there on story structure, so I thought I’d give you guys a run down of what I’ve rediscovered during my writing phase this week.
It was Aristotle who first introduced the three act narrative structure, back in Ancient Greece. He explains that you can test the unity of a work by removing a part or reordering parts. If the plot’s meaning and sense survive, the work is not unified; it has superfluous parts. In a good plot, every occurrence results from the previous occurrence. Every portion is crucial to the plot’s development. Incompleteness is no better than excess, but if a plot has a beginning, middle and end, it is whole.
Despite this structure having been established in Ancient Greece, it wasn’t much applied to film scripts until Syd Field’s seminal book Screenplay was published in 1979. Field’s most notable contribution is his articulation of the ideal Paradigm “three act structure“. In this structure, a film’s plot is set up within the first twenty to thirty minutes. Then the main character protagonist experiences a ‘plot point’ that provides a goal to achieve. About half the movie’s running time focuses on the character’s struggle to achieve this goal. This second act is the ‘Confrontation’ period. The final third (the third act) of the film depicts a climactic struggle by the protagonist to finally achieve (or not achieve) his or her goal and the aftermath of this struggle.
Since then, numerous books have been written on screenplay structure. Some prefer 3 acts, some 5 some even 8. Robert McKee’s book ‘Story’ and his seminar of the same name, are practically required reading for anyone hoping to write Hollywood screenplays – which may shed some light on why some current releases give the audience a strong sense of de-ja-vu. One of the most popular books at present is Blake Snyder’s save the cat.
Snyder suggests that within the 3 act structure are 15 plot points, which he calls story beats. And he narrows this down to which page of a 110p script each beat should occur on:
BLAKE SNYDER’S BEATS
Opening Image – A visual that represents the struggle & tone of the story.
Set-up – Presenting the main character’s world as it is
The Theme Stated (which happens during the Set-up) but the protagonist doesn’t understand the truth yet.
The Catalyst – What McKee called the inciting incident – The moment where life as it is changes. The Debate –the main character doubts the journey they must take.
Break Into Two– The main character makes a choice and the journey begins, and we enter Act Two.
B Story – This is when there’s a discussion about the Theme – the nugget of truth.
The Promise of the Premise –This is when the main character explores the new world and the audience is entertained by the premise they have been promised.
Midpoint –The main character gets everything they think they want.
Bad Guys Close In –Foes both physical and emotional regroup to defeat the main character’s goal
All is Lost –The moment that the main character realizes they’ve lost everything they gained
Dark Night of the Soul –The Why hast thou forsaken me, Lord? moment.
Break Into Three (Choosing Act Three) – Thanks to new inspiration from the B Story (usually the love interest), the main character chooses to try again.
Finale – This time around, the main character incorporates the Theme – the nugget of truth that now makes sense to them – into their fight for the goal
Final Image – opposite of Opening Image, proving, visually, that a change has occurred within the character.
This all of course sounds very mathematical – can that be all a story is?
In his book, ‘In To the Woods’ John Yorke tries to answer the question – why do we tell story? He uses the outline seen in many fairy stories to explain this: our hero leaves the safety of the village, journeys into the wood, finds the elixir he is looking for, brings it out of the wood, and returns it to his village. Yorke prefers the five act structure, where what would normally be considered the second act is split into 3 acts. But in reality the structure is the same. In the final chapter of the book, Yorke says: The abject horror of meaningless existence is too much to bare. The idea that we are here and then we die, that all circumstances are random and all achievements are finally futile, is too overwhelming to contemplate. He theorises that in all stories, our protagonist learns an important lesson that he can share with the hero back home, and in doing so, teaches us, the audience something, which in turn gives us a meaning of our own. York suggests that because of this reason for telling stories, the three act structure is ingrained in us, as the most efficient method of learning the lesson that the protagonist encapsulates.
In my experience this week, I would suggest that Blake Snyder’s beats are a great way of getting the premise off the ground and giving it shape. But it’s important to remember why you’re telling this story, otherwise it’s very easy to end up with a run of the mill, clichéd script – which may be where Hollywood is going wrong.