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, has professionally consulted on thousands of screenplays since 2002. Follow Paul at www.scriptgodsmustdie.com and on Twitter @scriptgods.
“I never get to . . . the index cards. I’ve never done that. I should, probably. I start with theme and character and, sometimes, ideas for scenes and dialogue, and I get a sense thematically of what I want to explore and accomplish. Basically I’m too immature to actually work it all out in my head before I start for some reason. So I actually start and just let the screenplay sort of guide me as to where it’s going. Sometimes I hit walls, and then I go back and I start from the beginning, because I always find that wall has been built because something hasn’t been seeded correctly, something hasn’t been developed. . . . I also find that by approaching writing that way as opposed to outlining, you come up with incredibly original work, because you’re not using formulas and you’re not mapping out plot lines that can’t help but be sourced from a million movies you’ve seen.”
“Although knowledge of structure is helpful, real creativity comes from leaps of faith in which you jump to something illogical. But those leaps form the memorable moments in movies.”
--Francis Ford Coppola
Let’s talk about Syd Field. Syd the Empire, Syd the mindset. Syd, God of structure.
With his book Screenplay, and his ensuing parade of books, he built a dynasty updating Greek 3-act structure, adapting it for the world of screenplays. Old School as Greece itself, he called this invention: The Paradigm.
It involves a “card” system whereby each scene is put on a 3 X 5 index card. Scenes are examined for necessity. Essential scenes are kept, non-essential scenes tossed. This is also called outlining.
You, Good Reader, will need to make a choice about outlining. This is a process choice. Syd, who recently died, would have told you there is no choice: You must outline. You must know the ending of your movie before you begin.
Let me repeat that. In the World According To Syd, you must know the ending of your movie before you begin.
This is 100%, fat-free, BS.
Now I’m really going to confuse you. I began with the Syd Field method. I still use a variation of it. Most of my screenplays are written outlining every scene on Final Draft software. Final Draft creates “cards” for you (when you type in a slugline, it creates a “card.” All you need do (for Final Draft) is go to Scene Navigator. Is it hypocrisy that I outline myself but I tell you don’t have to? Not at all.
Let’s be clear: I don’t have a problem with Syd as Cottage Industry. The problem is his inflexibility. His system dictates that there is only one way to write a movie. And that is loco.
You think Fellini worried about Plot Points? Did Altman—Cassavetes—Wells—Coppola or Kurosawa agonize over hitting marks in 3-act structure?
- “Inciting Incident, Plot Point 1, Midpoint, Plot Point 2”…
- The “45 & 75 page complication”…
- The “Awakening” and “Call To Action”, the “Push To The Breaking Point” and “Fall From Grace”, "Dark Night Of The Soul" and “Transformational Moment”…
So many structural systems, so little time. Doesn’t your head swim with them?
I am not advising you to forget about page count. A novel can be 300 pages or 600 pages. A screenplay doesn’t have that flexibility. Because a movie’s run time is limited, screenplay structure is rigid and regimented. The “page-a-minute rule” is imperfect, but works as a general guideline. Ideal length for a comedy is 90-100 pages. Drama: 100-110. Hand in a 155-page spec script and the first thing the reader will do is feel how heavy it is, flip to the back page, see it’s 155 pages, groan like an Egyptian mud-brick builder, and likely stash it with the other paperweights in the recycle bin.
Yes, I know Benjamin Button went over 2 ½ hours. Lord of The Rings, Apocalypse Now… Many movies go 2+ hours. Those scripts can be 150 pages, so why can’t yours?
Because professionals get away with things you, The Unknown Screenwriter, can’t.
Aaron Sorkin gets 150 pages if he needs it. David Benioff (Troy) gets 150. David Goyer (Batman Begins, Blade) gets 150. Aaron Sorkin can also write it in aquamarine crayon or COPPERPLATE GOTHIC BOLD if he chooses. Dude could bind it on seven-hole punch paper with seven brads—literally, he could punch 7-holes in the thing. He’d still get read and paid. William Goldman used CUT TO’s as sluglines…why can’t you?
Because professionals get away with things you, The Unknown Screenwriter, can’t. Control what you can control. Structure is important. But over-conceptualization isn’t needed, just common sense. Don’t be paralyzed by structural systems. Don’t over-think this stuff!
THE MOVIE CLOCK:
Does your story start at the beginning and run straight through? Do you pick it up late, and double back to tell the tale?
Think of structure as the movie clock. Conventional stories are told in linear fashion, from 12:01am to midnight. Sure, there can be flashbacks, but these serve to conventionally drive the story forward. An example of this is The Babe. Pick up The Bambino being dropped off by daddy at Catholic school. Follow the fat, unpopular boy through school; see him pick up the bat for the first time, his first baseball contract, his time in Boston, then the New York fame, a best-of series of golden moments until his death.
More unconventionally is Tarantino in Pulp Fiction. He uses non-linear structure, agile transpositions in time, advancing story out of order.
How about Citizen Kane? The movie picks up at 11:30pm on the clock, very near the end. Kane’s “Rosebud” death scene leads to the investigation of what the word Rosebud meant, which leads to a linear structure following the life of Kane, the glorious rise and fall. The whole movie, then, is told in linear flashback. The search for the meaning of the word Rosebud doesn’t come full circle until the final image of the sled in the fire. The movie clock chimes midnight, and we have gone full circle.
The method of starting the movie at or near the end is often used. Two old Pacino movies I like to compare structurally are Carlito’s Way and Serpico. They are identical—spoilers on 20 year old movies!-- opening with Pacino shot and on a gurney, one as a PR drug lord, and another as valiant real-life cop Frank Serpico. Both movies show how the men were shot, the story behind the shootings. This is useful when the movie is a real life story. Milk opens the same way. Documentary footage of Milk’s assassination opens the movie. Why? Because it’s common knowledge the man was shot. Everyone paying a ticket knows that. What they didn’t know is the how, the story behind the story. Who was Dan White and how did this terrible event happen? This is what the movie delivers.
This movie was written by Dustin Lance Black, who is a meticulous outliner, and who won the Oscar for best screenplay for Milk. Check out his process " target="_blank">here.
Some movies defy conventional structural boundaries. Mulholland Drive and Memento obliterate standard linear storytelling. In the case of Memento, the story of a man with selective memory disease should play out from a tortured, non-linear POV.
When choosing a time frame for you story, keep in mind there are many patterns beside the standard linear progression. Find what works best for you, and write the hell out of it. One of the best book on structure I ever read was by Linda Aronson, called the 21st Century Screenplay. It makes Syd’s theory look like a comic book.
“What make screenplays difficult are the things that require the most discipline and care and are just not seen by most people. I’m talking about movement — screenwriting is related to math and music, and if you zig here, you know you have to zag there. It’s like the descriptions for a piece of music — you go fast or slow or with feeling. It’s the same.” –Robert Towne
Beautiful thought from a man whose movies will be around 100 years from now. He’s talking about balance, about setups and payoffs, and about structure.
This leads us to the question of outlining. You’ll need to make your own choice on outlining.
But make it your choice.
- More articles by Paul Peditto
- Script Gods Must Die: 10 Tips for the Unknown Screenwriter, Part 2
- Script Industry Expert: Meet Paul Peditto of Script Gods Must Die
Get more help from Paul Peditto in his online classes at Screenwriters University
Learn from the comfort of your own home!