Paul Peditto dives into story structure and opines while writers try to hit their structural marks, they shouldn't lose sight of the prize—storytelling. He examines the classical structure in The Matrix by way of Syd Field.
Paul Peditto authored the book The DIY Filmmaker: Life Lessons for Surviving Outside Hollywood, wrote and directed the award-winning film, Jane Doe, starring Calista Flockhart and has optioned multiple scripts to major companies. He teaches screenwriting at Columbia College-Chicago and has professionally consulted on thousands of screenplays since 2002. Follow Paul at www.scriptgodsmustdie.com and on Twitter @scriptgods.
Centipedes freak me out. They belong in deep woods, or in a David Lynch Eraserhead sequence. Can’t tell the difference between the head and tail, an all those freaking squiggly legs! They are a nightmare, and that was before I ever watched The Human Centipede.
Writing is storytelling. This goes for a three-line 5-7-5 haiku or a 1,000-page novel. Somewhere in between is the 100-page screenplay. Structure is critical to screenplays because you’re dealing, by necessity, with a finite number of pages. A novel can be 350 pages or 700 pages. A screenplay doesn’t have that flexibility. Dealing with the rough measure of one page per minute, it doesn’t take a math whiz to see that you have somewhere between 90 and 120 pages to finish your script. Why?
Before you remind me of the 450-minute Satantango, I know there are exceptions, but… Seen many four-hour movies lately? How about three-hour epics? Sure, you could name quite a few that go past the second hour, but movies are generally between 90 and 120 minutes. Genre enters into this: A comedy is often shorter, ideally 90-100 pages. Dramas can go the 120 pages, but would be more appealing at the 100-110 range. These aren’t “rules,” they’re guidelines. Can you write a 130-page comedy? Sure. Can you write a 160-page drama? Sure. But it better be as good as The Social Network. 164 pages—good luck getting your script read, let alone sold, if it weighs in at 164 and isn’t spectacular.
All this necessity for keeping an eye on page count has created the growth industry of screenplay structural systems.
Now, there are systems and there are systems, oh so many systems!
Because—surprise!—there’s money in writing structure books! Lots and lots and LOTS of folks looking for advice on how to write a screenplay. Is every screenwriting beat sheet or structural system a scam? Not at all. Hundreds of thousands of writers (or is it millions by now?) have used Save The Cat and it’s really helped. Does that mean you have to go buy the book? Nope. Your mileage may vary, just because it worked for them…
Me? I started on the Syd Field paradigm and still use it to this day. To a degree. What’s that mean? It means I’m concerned about structural needs, but not at the expense of the storytelling process. I refuse to be so freaked out by hitting structural points that I lose sight of what’s important—the story.
So, let’s say you’re walking along and you observe a centipede, chugging along. Like this…
I took this picture myself. Little bugger is motoring along outside the 7/11 not noticing the six motorcycles parked there, one of which will likely squish him in minutes. Blessedly, he’s unaware of mortality. Oh wait, that’s a millipede!
Fun over, back to screenwriting... You watch it motor along, and you’re amazed. You ask him: “Dude, how the hell do you move those 101 legs at one time?” And so, he stops…and thinks about it. Guess what happens next? He locks up, immobilized, trying to explain how he accomplishes this miracle so naturally. Now he’s pondering about it and he can’t fathom it. Even worse, he can't move!
This is what you should never happen with screenwriting. Don’t over-analyze. And don’t mythicize the makers of story-telling systems. One look at their IMDb credits and you’ll see the Wizard behind the curtain. Not to say there isn’t a need for teaching, but storytelling is about more than hitting plot points.
Dissecting story with structural analysis may be a necessary evil, but if you’re sweating your Plot Point 1 coming five pages too late, you’re likely defeating your own purpose. Try to hit your structural marks, but don’t lose sight of the prize—The story.
The old expression learn it, then forget it seems appropriate here. So, let’s look quickly at classical structure—The Matrix by way of Syd Field. Here's how Syd's system breaks down:
Syd Field didn’t create 3-Act dramatic structure. The whole Setup-Confrontation-Resolution thing has held up just fine through the centuries since Aristotle dreamed it up. But million-dollar ideas often dazzle in their simplicity. Therein lies the simple genius in Syd’s paradigm, adapting the Greek 3-act structure to screenplays.
I follow this system—or used to. Let’s forget one moment that his book Screenplay makes it a mandatory requirement that you must know your ending before you start (ever hear the story about how they came up with ending to Casablanca? Hint: They didn't figure it out ahead of time). Telling us that every other creative process but yours is BS is an absurdity. If you want a more organic approach, an approach more akin to playwrights or poets, you might not choose to know every plot twist ahead of time. Maybe you want discoveries along the way, you want your characters to surprise you. Who the hell takes a vacation and plots out every hour of the trip, every road that will be taken, every restaurant meal eaten? Many writers choose not to outline. Process is the individual writer's call. You needn’t kiss Syd Field’s ring nor bow down to his structural method.
Back to The Matrix and Syd’s paradigm. Here are the key signposts:
– Page 10-15: INCITING INCIDENT: The event that kicks the movie into action. The straw that stirs the drink. The thing that will fundamentally change the world you just spent 10 minutes establishing.
– Page 25: PLOT POINT 1: Linchpin scene. Scene that takes you out of the First Act. You know you’re in a Plot Point scene because there is no movie without it.
– Page 50: MIDPOINT: A key scene, though not as essential as either Plot Point scene. It approximates the end of rising action, moving the story into descent, placing the protagonist(s) in grave danger, culminating in…
– Page 75: PLOT POINT 2: “All is lost” moment. “Dark night of the soul” (oops, wrong system!) Movie and character low points should be end of the second act. This is another linchpin scene to the essential degree of: There is no movie without it. 100-page model, it comes here. If the movie is 120 pages, it would come closer to page 90. Second Act ends here.
– Page 100: CLIMAX: Story and character arcs end in an inevitable, plausible manner. Resolution is not required. Happy endings are not required. Character growth is. The thematic journey complete.
Thus, Act 1 = 1-25, Act 2=25-75, Third Act=75-100. Balance and order amidst the chaos of creation… Lovely! Let’s look at how The Matrix breaks down according to the Syd Field system.
The opening sequence was the revolutionary chase sequence and Trinity’s escape. Then we meet Neo. He gets a strange message on his computer. He’s given a mysterious clue and ends up at a party, contacted by Trinity. ‘You want to meet Morpheus, c’mon, admit it. Yes or no, cause I’m here to make it happen, Hotshot.’ Ah screw it, here’s the script itself, Inciting Incident:
NEO: The Matrix. What is the Matrix?
TRINITY: Twelve years ago I met a man, a great man, who said that no one could be told the answer to that question. That they had to see it, to believe it….
There is a hypnotic quality to her voice and Neo feels the words like a drug, seeping into him.
TRINITY: The truth is out there, Neo. It's looking for you and it will find you, if you want it to.
PLOT POINT 1
Neo meets Morpheus, who makes him an offer:
Outside, the WIND BATTERS a loose PANE of glass.
MORPHEUS: Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.
MORPHEUS: Hold out your hands.
In Neo's right hand, Morpheus drops a red pill.
MORPHEUS: This is your last chance. After this, there is no going back.
In his left, a blue pill.
MORPHEUS: You take the blue pill and the story ends. You wake in your bed and you believe whatever you want to believe.
The pills in his open hands are reflected in the glasses.
MORPHEUS: You take the red pill and you stay in Wonderland and I show you how
deep the rabbit-hole goes.
Neo opens his mouth and swallows the red pill. The Cheshire smile returns.
MORPHEUS: Follow me.
If Neo takes the blue pill…there’s no movie! He has to take the red pill.
He takes the red pill and we go off into Wonderland. That's how you know this is the plot point scene, and that we’re out of the first act. There is no movie without it.
PLOT POINT 2
What do you think it is? The scene where there’s no movie without it... I’d suggest that it’s after Cypher’s betrayal. Most of the crew is dead. Neo and Trinity are back in the ship, injured, beaten down, Morpheus taken by Agents. Low point of the movie. So, what does Neo do?
INT. MAIN DECK
Trinity and Neo hang motionless in the suspension unit. Tank is at the operations station.
TANK: Okay. Store's open. What do you need?
TRINITY (V.O.): Guns. Lots of guns.
TANK: Coming right up.
He loads the weapons disk.
Racks of weapons appear and Neo and Trinity arm themselves.
TRINITY: No one has ever done anything like this.
He snap cocks an Uzi.
NEO: That's why it's going to work.
If they don’t try to rescue Morpheus…there’s no movie! Imagine if they had gotten back to the ship and Neo looks over to Trinity. “You know, Trinity, you’re looking mighty fine tonight in that black latex. What we should do is…forget Morpheus. He’s going to a better place. Let's go grab some Chinese from that place you like on 9th Street, come back here and chill. I know it’s fake but it tastes real enough. Morpheus will be fine and beside, those Agents move too fast, we can't do anything against their Awesomeness."
They have to rescue Morpheus. The entire third act is one long action sequence to free him. When they decide to do that, the Second Act is over, the Third begins, leading to…
“Now do you believe, Trinity?” Morpheus is saved. Trinity about to die in the helicopter, also saved by Neo. When Neo bitch slaps Agent Smith, a New World Order arrives and two really bad sequels are upon the horizon.
Using a structural system is your call. Never forget that.
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