What began as a simple premise – the idea that crafting a screenplay was similar to making a pizza – has spiraled into a multi-part series. I can only hope that you’re still hungry for more!
In Part One, we started with the crust.
Focusing on the foundation first –
the big decisions,
the ones that shape and support your story.
Pizza Project Part Two explored the idea of theme as the richly flavored and long simmered sauce that makes story delicious.
And we got a taste of A-List screenwriters and the themes that draw them to stories time and again.
Find new quotes in Screenwriters Speak.
What’s next in our recipe? Cheese of course!
I am confident I’m not the only person who wouldn’t consider a pizza to truly be a pizza without the richness of melted cheese permeating each bite. The layer of cheese melds everything together, the crust, the sauce, and the toppings. In my extended metaphor of a screenplay as a pizza:
Cheese = Structure
No matter what type of cheese you choose, it melts into the sauce in the way that theme is baked into the plot – the events that make up your story. Cheese serves the essential function of connecting those events – ensuring that all the tasty toppings are exactly where they should be. Otherwise, they would slide right off and never make it into your mouth!
Screenplay structure serves an essential function. To keep your reader and audience engaged in the story from start to finish. Gurus may use different terminology, but the concepts and the goal are the same, and have been since the first story structure expert, Aristotle, put pen to papyrus more than two thousand years ago.
Beginning – Middle – End Structure is how our brains understand story.
I know some writers resist the push for structuring a screenplay according to someone’s “rules.” And I support finding whatever works for you. But you cannot ignore structure. And you should not ignore structure. It’s your friend, not your foe.
When writing the ten-page treatment that sold in a pre-emptive deal to Warner Bros. in four hours, I was fortunate have a structure savant as my co-writer. Since then, I’ve studied structure, spoken with the great structure gurus, written about structure, and taught structure. Why? Because structure was my weakness. Therefore, I knew I needed to overcome my fears and turn structure into a strength. As with many big changes, the first step is acceptance. Structure is necessary.
My favorite arguments in favor of accepting structure as vital to screenplay success is by Christopher Riley, screenwriter and screenwriting format book author, in his article, “Why Story Structure Matters, Even If You Don’t Want It To.” I love his analogy using airplanes:
I wonder if airplane designers debate whether the laws of aerodynamics matter. If they entertain the notion of casting aside those outmoded, restrictive physical laws that mandate things like thrust and lift, and that result in a dull sameness among aircraft, each with some form of motor and wing.
Structure encompasses the principles that enable stories to take flight.
You can read his full article here.
The structure contains all the events in your story that propel it forward. It advances the narrative, escalates conflict, ups stakes, and pushes the hero to change. Structure is “What happens next?”
A quote that has been in circulation for over 100 years, and attributed to many famous writers, with its origin unknown, sums up the essence of dramatic structure:
First Act – Get your hero up a tree. Second Act – Throw rocks at him. Third Act – Get him down.
Structure reveals who your hero is. Act One establishes their world, as well as what think and what they believe – their flaw or problem. The events of the second act are ever larger obstacles that impact the hero. They force them to adapt and alter their path. Act Three shows us how they have evolved and changed because of the events of the story that enables them to triumph in the end.
The structure of the plot illustrates the arc. Therefore, like the sauce and the cheese, theme and structure are inextricably interwoven. Arc provides the answer to “Why does it happen?”
Effective and impactful plot points – and the biggest beats of your structure – should accomplish two things: advance the narrative and further your hero’s arc. We look for scenes that “push” one to the next.
Because this happens > as a result this happens.
This is the key to a focused narrative through line.
Examine every scene in your script and see if it serves a purpose in the story. Think of a scene like a single card in a house of cards. If you removed that scene, would the story collapse?
Academy Award nominated screenwriter Hawk Otsby, known for Iron Man, Children of Men and the television series, The Expanse, with his writing partner, Mark Fergus, offered up these words of wisdom as a Guest Speaker at my Screenwriting Elevated Seminar Series:
Are all these scenes tied together with the same glue? Is this part of the story or is this just a cool scene that found its way in there?
If removing the scene does not crash the house of cards, it is not essential and should be rethought and reworked or cut.
Like cheese, structure is the glue that holds story together.
The ever articulate studio executive, Chip Diggins, now a successful producer, was a guest speaker when I first began teaching. He gave this example to help my class of aspiring writers and producers understand studio development:
Imagine a group of ten of us go out to dinner. After dinner we’re going to order dessert: ice cream. But we all have to agree on the flavor. What do you think it will be?
Rocky Road perhaps? Black Raspberry Chocolate Chip Gelato? (hint, hint) Nope. Of course the answer is… vanilla.
Chip’s apt analogy underscores that in studio development, with many opinions and the responsibility to get the film made, when everyone in the room has to agree, the result is likely to be bland rather exotic. It is the dynamics of consensus.
As you begin to work with others on your script, from coverage and consultants, to producers and studio executives, you will receive a lot of ideas and input. It is your job as the writer to consider underlying meaning of the note, and to evaluate what will strengthen your script and preserving the original flavor of your story.
While you are working on your script on your own, it is easy to get carried away with the many options in the hopes of spicing things up for a reader to excite their palate.
Inspired by Mr. Diggins, here is my pizza analogy:
Imagine going out with a group of friends and ordering one, giant pizza topped with everyone’s favorites. It would be piled high with pepperoni and green pepper, black olives, pineapple and onion, bacon and more bacon, meatballs and mozzarella, artichoke and anchovies, spinach, jalapeños, mushrooms, and more!
Can you see yourself taking a bite?
If you wanted a taste, could you even lift a slice and get it into your mouth?
We already have a pretty tasty pizza following this recipe. As you contemplate adding more elements to your story, your job is to pick and choose wisely.
Showcase Each Flavor
Everyone has their favorite pizza topping combos. I won’t mention mine here – unless you are thinking of sending one my way – but I would estimate the perfect combination would be about three delicious added ingredients. Resist the temptation to go overboard. Because if they are really good on their own, and the flavors compliment each other, the final product will be greater than the sum of its parts. That is your goal in crafting an elevated story.
One of the most fundamental yet difficult writing principles to adhere to is: “Less is more.”
Obviously, I have trouble practicing what I preach. After all, this pizza concept began as an idea for a single column, but I delved so deeply into the metaphor that here we are on Part Three.
Nevertheless, please believe me when I say:
Less is truly absolutely, certainly, definitely, indubitably, manifestly, positively, undeniably more.
In case my own tendency to be verbose falls short of convincing you, I’ll let a few other voices chime in.
After 10 years in the film business toiling as an assistant and script reader, with $25,000 in savings, the New York University film school grad decided to take a stab at writing his first professional screenplay in 1999. He quit his job. He holed up in his cheap Brooklyn apartment and knocked out six stories. Six of them didn't sing. The seventh did. "It was the most simple story," Arndt says. "That's a mistake a lot of scripts make: Their plots are too complicated, so you don't have time for characters."
“‘Closet screenwriter’ Arndt comes into the light,” by Anne Thompson, The Hollywood Reporter
The renowned Robert McKee advocates for “rich simplicity.”
My advice to most writers is to design relatively simple yet complex stories… “Relatively simple” doesn’t mean simplistic. It means beautifully turned and told stories restrained by two principles: Do not proliferate characters; do not multiply locations. Rather than hopscotching through time, space, and people, discipline yourself to a reasonably contained cast and world, while you concentrate on creating a rich simplicity.
Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting, Robert McKee
Story toppings might swamp your story. Your goal is to enhance, not overwhelm.
As I’ve written here before, in Keep it Simple Storytelling:
When I can’t figure out the story – assuming the writer grasps the fundamentals of craft – often it’s because I’m being treated to a magic show instead of storytelling. The writer is determined to capture the readers’ interest. They lack faith in the power of storytelling to do that, and play “the hand is quicker than the eye.” We’re bombarded by endless razzle-dazzle: Massive action sequences, scores of characters, complications upon complications, devices that feel like devices, a flood of flashbacks, fantasies, hidden agendas, red herrings, improbable reveals, and the truly sad, “here’s what really happened,” explanation at the end.
There are plenty of options on the menu:
- Supporting Characters
- Voice Over
The key is:
Choose only what enhances and elevates your story, never inundate it an effort to make it enticing.
Next, I’ll offer a How-To Guide to help you determine which toppings are right for your story.
We will examine story devices from a menu of options and give you the tools to determine what will make your story delicious without overwhelming our taste buds.
Indeed, it seems I have ordered an XXL Pizza!