Breaking In: Cracking the Screenwriting Code

Lately, I get a lot of nervous questions from writers about the advice given in a certain popular screenwriting book. If you’re getting nervous too about which “rule book” you should follow, today’s blog may help you chill out.
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King Tut's first screenplay

King Tut's first screenplay

Many screenwriters come to me in a state of distress because their script doesn’t follow the “formula” mapped out in some screenwriting book, which they are struggling to follow by rote. Lately, I get a lot of nervous questions about the advice given in a certain popular screenwriting book written by a guy whose last name rhymes with "divider." If you’re getting nervous too about which “rule book” you should follow, today’s blog may help you chill out.

No, it’s not necessary to follow the instructions or particular method advocated by any author of screenwriting “how to” books, in order to sell your script in Hollywood. Script readers like me don’t sit here with a writing manual by this author or that one, and check your script against it to make sure you’re “doing it right." But, yes, you do have to follow three-act story structure, which none of these guys or gals invented. How you come to understand that structure is up to you.

The difficulty that many writers have in learning how to structure a screenplay reminds me of the dilemma faced by the linguists who tried to crack the mystery of the Rosetta Stone, the ancient tablet that held the secret of interpreting Egyptian hieroglyphs.

There are a lot of different routes one can follow to get to the same destination. The route to solving the longstanding mystery of how to interpret Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics was not a direct one, and took a very long time to travel.

In the case of screenwriting, the destination for writers is a properly structured plot. And despite the simplicity of the three-act structure -- which is the best, oldest, and simplest blueprint anyone can give you for building a screenplay -- it’s not so easy to grasp the concept. It may take you a while -- and numerous detours -- before you get there. That’s why there are so many screenwriting books and teachers out there. But the way the mystery of Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics was finally solved can tell you a lot about how to master plot structure in screenwriting.

STONE COLD CASE

The Rosetta Stone, inscribed in l96 B.C., was discovered by Napoleon’s troops in Egypt in 1799. The stone has the same message (basically, “Hurray for our terrific Pharaoh! Look at all the great things he’s done!”) engraved on it in two languages, Egyptian and Greek, in three forms of script (hieroglyphics, demotic, and Greek). But for years nobody could figure out how to translate Egyptian hieroglyphics, and without being able to read that ancient language much of the history of that great civilization seemed lost forever.

By the time Jean-Francois Champollion cracked the “code” of the Rosetta Stone in 1822, scholars had already been working on deciphering hieroglyphics for hundreds of years. Champollion, who could read Greek and Coptic, spent years making a comparison of the known languages with the unknown one (Egyptian hieroglyphics) and eventually found the solution. By figuring out what some of the hieroglyphics on the Rosetta Stone stood for, he was able to fill in the missing pieces to the puzzle and decipher others by comparing them to the known languages. In other words, instead of trying to understand hieroglyphics directly, he took an indirect route to his goal.

THE SHORTEST DISTANCE BETWEEN TWO POINTS IS NOT ALWAYS A STRAIGHT LINE

So, what does this tell us about the best way to learn how to structure a screenplay? Use what you already know -- and what you know about yourself, including which learning methods work best for you -- to find the best route to cracking the code of three-act structure. Study classic screenplays and the successful movies based on them. If you can’t understand what makes them work by looking directly for their three-act structure, try to crack their “code” by finding indirect methods of understanding what a story is that work for you.

If books about three-act story structure or the methodology advocated by the latest “hot” screenwriting guru don’t resonate with you, keep studying and reading excellent screenplays until you find a way of understanding them that does. If the notion of the “inciting incident” is “all Greek” (or Ancient Egyptian) to you, find a way to teach yourself traditional screenplay structure that makes sense to you. If structuring your story using “40 beats” makes you want to beat your head against a wall, find another way.

WRITER’S INTUITION

Your goal is to develop an intuitive — not a mechanical — sense of story. It’s not simply a matter of putting an inciting incident on page 17 (or wherever) of your script because you’ve read in a screenwriting book that you are “supposed” to do this. Instead, you really need to “osmose” an instinctive understanding of what a story must do. If you don’t intuitively understand what a film story really is, following anybody’s “map” will be useless to you.

Once you know what drama and conflict are, anything that isn’t dramatic in your own stories will not “feel” like a story to you anymore. Some writers are born with this skill, and others have to learn it. Remember that most of the great Hollywood screenplays were written before “film school” or screenwriting books were invented. These writers understood three-act structure just as we do today. But they understood it in their bones from studying what writers had done in countless previous movies and plays to generate drama, conflict, and suspense. They didn’t have to read a book in order to learn how to write.

Movies as a whole used to be much more melodramatic than they are today. I highly recommend melodrama. It’s a lost art. And it will teach you lessons about what drama and conflict really are -- because melodrama is simply an exaggerated version of both. Most aspiring screenwriters today wouldn’t know a dramatic conflict if it jumped up and bit them like Bruce the Shark in Jaws. The best way to learn dramatic writing? Watch great dramas (or comedies, if that’s your genre). Read great scripts and study them. Study the classics. Don’t forget to watch old “silent” movies, too -- which will show you just how clear and dramatic a story can be without using any dialogue at all (except for a few title cards).

Keep studying great scripts until, like Helen Keller’s epiphany that finally allowed her to connect water to the hand-sign that symbolized it, one day you will suddenly, intuitively understand what three-act structure really is. From then on, it will be something you can feel in your bones.

Don’t get me wrong: Reading screenwriting books can be very helpful. Several really helped me when I was a young writer starting out. But if these books’ theories and concepts don’t make sense to you, you are going to have to become your own screenwriting teacher until you find a way of understanding three-act structure that does.

ACTIVE LEARNING VS. PASSIVE LEARNING

Don’t simply passively read scripts or watch movies, but actually study them. You should come to each script or movie with a set of questions. Those questions might be things like the following:

What is the hero doing when we first meet him and what does this tell us about him? In Casablanca, for example, when we first meet Rick, he is in his nightclub office, playing chess by himself. Wow! That certainly tells us a lot about him -- all of which will become very important later in the story.

How does the writer set up the hero’s “problem” (conflict) and goal? How soon in the script does the hero’s central problem or conflict emerge, and what does the hero want? What, or who, stands in the way of his achieving his goal? How soon in the story does the antagonist appear? What does the writer do to make us like and care about the hero? How does the writer reveal exposition and backstory without resorting to flashbacks? Why did the writer choose to start his story at this particular juncture in his characters’ lives? How late in the story does it “look darkest before the dawn” for the hero? How does solving his “inner flaw” or inner conflict enable the hero to deal with his external problem and accomplish his goal? How quickly does the story end after the hero solves his main problem (or doesn’t)?

WHEN IN DOUBT … LEAVE IT OUT

One of the main things you will learn by actually reading screenplays is what to leave out. It’s amazing how little you really need to put on the page in order to convey all the drama and conflict in a story, as long as you make the right choices about what to include and what to leave out.

You can “assign” yourself whatever screenwriting topics you think you need to learn, and look at classic screenplays and the movies based on them in order to teach yourself those particular things. It’s important to read many scripts, not just a few. They should be recognized classics -- some old, and some more recent. They should all be in “your” genre.

When you see movies, watch them once just for fun. Then see them again, take them apart, and, like a watchmaker, find out exactly what makes them tick. I learn something new and notice new things every time I watch the same classic movie or read its screenplay. It can be very helpful to see a movie more than once.

“THERE IS NOTHING NEW UNDER THE SUN.”

Your purpose in studying screenplays should be to teach yourself how to write three-act story structure. You should also learn how to generate suspense, maintain pacing and conflict, provide necessary exposition unobtrusively (and without being boring -- writer-director Billy Wilder used to say that “Don’t be boring” was the first rule in making movies), and get your audience to root for your hero. In truth, there is no other approach to writing a successful movie for mainstream American film audiences than building the three-act story structure. And there never will be. No matter what you think you know, or what you’ve read or been told, there is no such thing as a “different” way to structure a Hollywood movie for the big screen. There are only different ways of describing the three-act structure.

I don’t care whether you’re “saving the cat” or slaying the dragon. A story is a story, and since back when we were all living in caves, what feels to us like a story has always been the same. It’s got conflict and obstacles for the hero in attempting to achieve his goal. It’s got a hero with a goal, and something that happens that sets the ball rolling and presents him with a dilemma. It’s got a high point and a final confrontation of some kind with his antagonist (human or otherwise). The stakes are high and the hero is in jeopardy -- emotionally, physically, or both. It’s darkest before the dawn. The hero either succeeds or fails in his mission. It’s got a beginning, a middle, and an end. That was true in Og the Caveman’s time, and Aristotle’s. It was true in King Tut’s time. And it’s still true in ours.

By the way, learning the three-act structure does not necessarily result in writing formulaic scripts any more than learning how the chess pieces can move inevitably results in being a boring or lousy chess player. You have to learn the moves in order to play the game.

Keep pitching. See you next month.