Ray Morton is a writer, senior contributor to Script Magazine and script consultant. His new book A Quick Guide to Screenwriting is now available online and in bookstores. Follow Ray on Twitter: @RayMorton1
One of the most common problems I encounter in the spec scripts I read is the failure of the screenwriter to craft a proper dramatic narrative.
Fiction feature-film screenwriting is dramatic writing and drama is a very specific form of storytelling – one centered on a conflict between a protagonist and an antagonist that escalates continuously until it reaches a point of climax, catharsis, and resolution that brings about a permanent transformation in the protagonist. This type of storytelling requires a very specific and formal narrative construction. Scripts that lack that story structure may contain lots of interesting ideas, characters, and scenes but without a solid framework to arrange them and give them purpose, they will fail to gel into a cohesive and satisfying whole.
This process of constructing an effective dramatic narrative begins with the conception of the story’s premise. The premise is the core concept of your story. Most premises begin as a very general idea or notion – e.g. a giant shark attacks a bunch of swimmers and the protagonist has to confront and kill it. This is obviously a very cool notion, but it is too general – it lacks detail and specificity. Unfortunately, this is where a lot of spec writers stop. They never develop their ideas beyond the broad strokes and so, in the case of our example, they end up penning scripts that are full of shark-on-man and man-on-shark action but that never tell any actually stories.
When devising a premise, you must go beyond general and make your concept as detailed and specific as possible so that it lays out the arc of the entire story you want to tell. In the case of our example: When a giant shark attacks a swimmer in the waters off of a small New England beach town, the local police chief wants to close the beaches and hire a professional shark hunter to track down the beast down and kill it. However, the town leaders – worried that news of a shark attack might scare off summer tourists and imperil the town’s economy -- pressure the chief to keep quiet and he acquiesces. After the shark kills more swimmers, the chief finally stands up to the town leaders, closes the beaches, and sets out to hunt down the aquatic killer.
This is a much better developed and much more specific premise that doesn’t just tell you the idea, but also tells you what the movie will be. This is something you can work from to build a complete narrative.
Once you have the detailed premise worked out, you must construct the plot. There are certain elements that a plot must contain – an inciting incident, a first major plot twist, rising action (containing suspense, surprise, and reversals), a second major plot twist, a climax, a resolution, and so on -- in order to be considered drama. Here is a concise paradigm of a dramatic narrative incorporating all of the major/required elements:
- A protagonist is introduced in his/her specific world.
- Something happens (the inciting incident) that provokes a crisis that sends the protagonist and the narrative in a new and unexpected direction. This is the first major plot twist.
- As a result of the crisis, the protagonist develops a strong goal.
- The protagonist sets out to accomplish his goal. Along the way, he encounters and overcomes a series of increasingly difficult obstacles, usually including opposition from a strong antagonist (who also has a goal – one that is just as strong as the protagonist’s but that is in direct opposition to it). As the protagonist overcomes these obstacles, he makes steady progress toward achieving his goal.
- But then he encounters an obstacle that appears impossible to overcome. This obstacle often appears as an unexpected surprise. The protagonist’s quest is derailed, seemingly permanently, and all hope appears to be lost. This is the second major plot twist.
- When things are at their bleakest, something happens to inspire the protagonist to rally. With his vigor renewed, the protagonist finds a way to overcome the seemingly insurmountable obstacle (often by engaging in a climactic showdown with the antagonist) and finally accomplishes his goal.
- At the end of the story, the protagonist – as a result of his experiences in the story – undergoes a profound and permanent transformation (fulfills a dream; resolves a longstanding problem; has a change in outlook, philosophy, or personality; etc.).
Once you have worked out your plot, you must structure your story. All effective dramatic stories follow a basic three-act structure.
I know there are some out there that will object to this statement and say not all dramatic stories have to be told in three acts; that the three-act structure is old fashioned notion; and so on. I did not make the statement to be dogmatic – to insist that you must use the three-act structure or else. I am simply offering the observation that every successful dramatic work organizes itself in this fashion – primarily because the two major plot twists that every dramatic story requires naturally separates a narrative into three sections. There are certainly one, two, four, and five act dramatic narratives in existence, but the stories in one and two-act plays are constructed in the exact same fashion as a three-act narrative, they are just presented to the audience in shorter bits. The same goes for most four and five-act plays, which are essentially just three-act plays with an extended prologue and/or epilogue attached.
The three-act dramatic narrative lays out as follows:
- The world of the story is introduced.
- The protagonist is introduced.
- The starting point of the protagonist’s arc is introduced (for example, if the protagonist is going to transform from a coward into a hero in the course of the story, Act I will show the protagonist acting in a cowardly fashion).
- The Inciting Incident occurs and leads to the first major plot twist – a crisis that sends the protagonist and the narrative in a new and unexpected direction.
- The first major plot twist presents the protagonist with a dilemma he must resolve.
- To resolve this dilemma, the protagonist develops a goal he is determined to accomplish.
- The protagonist comes up with a plan for accomplishing his goal.
- He begins to carry out his plan.
- The protagonist initially finds it difficult to carry out his plan, but eventually finds his feet and begins making progress.
- As the protagonist carries out his plan, he encounters and overcomes a series of increasingly difficult obstacles, usually including opposition from the antagonist (who can be a person, but can also be circumstances or the protagonist’s inner demons).
- As the protagonist overcomes these obstacles, he makes steady progress toward achieving his goal.
- He also begins to transform from the person he is at the beginning of the story into the one he will be at the end.
- But then the protagonist encounters an obstacle that appears impossible to overcome. His quest to achieve his goal is derailed, seemingly permanently.
- All hope appears to be lost.
- But then something happens that inspires the protagonist to rally.
- With his vigor renewed, the protagonist either continues to carry out his original plan or he abandons that plan and devises an entirely new course of action.
- The protagonist finds a way to overcome the seemingly insurmountable obstacle, usually by engaging in a climactic showdown of some sort with the antagonist.
- The protagonist finally accomplishes his goal (or fails to accomplish it, if that it what the story requires) and completes his personal transformation.
- As the story resolves, the protagonist does something that displays the profound transformation he has undergone in the course of the story.
And that is pretty much the essence of dramatic structure. Every creatively successful dramatic narrative follows this same basic paradigm (if you don’t believe me, pick any great movie or play and analyze its structure and you will see that I am right). Yours should too.
Some of you may reject that notion and feel that in proposing it I am insisting you stick to a rigid and inflexible formula, but that is not what I am doing at all. It is true that this paradigm is a formula in the sense that it lays out the elements and structure required for a tale to be considered drama (in the same way that a poem must contain specific elements and a specific structure to be considered a sonnet or that eggs, flour, water, and baking soda must be mixed and baked in a specific way to be considered a cake). But – as I have said before and will likely say again -- it is a formula that is anything but rigid or inflexible. The dramatic paradigm can be adapted for any genre and subject matter; it can be irised in to tell intimate, personal stories and opened up to tell epic tales with the vastest of scopes; it can be utilized in a straightforward, linear fashion or it can be chopped up, twisted and/or turned around in any number of non-linear approaches. It is an incredibly versatile model that can be employed in every imaginable way. But it must be employed if you want your script to be successful.
If you construct your narrative in accordance with the paradigm outlined above, you will give it the precise shape, the specific focus, the continuous build, and the exhilarating momentum all great drama requires – all of the elements that grip an audience, pull it into the story, and hold its attention as you take it on an exciting and moving ride.
Copyright © 2015 by Ray Morton
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