Stewart Farquhar holds Screenwriting and Advanced Screenwriting certificates from the Professional Program at The UCLA School of Theatre Film and Television. Stewart has analyzed over 6,500 scripts for private and studio clients. Follow Stewart on Twitter @stewartfarquhar.
The discussion I opened in Part 1 of this series postulates that Aristotle’s legacy suffers the indignity of many ‘post-scriptive’ macerations or scholarly ‘interpretations’ from those who have never studied the philosophy, the culture or the context in which his lectures were presented. I am not offering an apologia for them. I explicitly exclude scholarly translations of Poetics from the Ancient Greek.
It is now coming to light that the ‘generic one formula fits all’ approach to the creation of a screenplay is one of the worst travesties to have befallen the screenwriting craft. A universal ‘what happens on what page’ does not fit all genres or writing styles. It may if you write comic books, graphic novels or mindless video games for the big screen. In ‘cash cow’ movies the ‘Hero’ changes costume or sex and relives a retread of the last blockbuster. Rocky 14, Fast & Furious 15, or Super Man / Girl / Woman anyone? It is rare that true originality gets promoted by today’s corporate environment, majority controlled by bottom-liners.
Breakout movies aren't written by cookbook formulas, page location, and number of ‘acts’ or ‘act’ content. They are neither plays nor pulp fiction magazines. Certain genre specific elements are expected by the audience. It is how and where you place these elements and with what focus that creates your unique story. George Elliot’s Middlemarch is a testament to this convention of ‘unconvention.’
If you want to pen ‘true to life’ human stories that entice the reader to finish your work, don’t try to fit all of them to a single generic page count or formula. It can be argued that there is a story structure much the same way as a human body has a skeletal structure. However, just as each person is unique each genre is not a set number of ‘acts’ or elements that always occur on specific pages or at particular times. In other words, for your story to remain viable, it is in your best interest to make sure a story ‘structure’ is not visible. Just as it is with people many stories can still function without all parts. Conceal the structure to make your story’s appearance and content unique.
In my personal coaching sessions I have seen firsthand how ‘Formulaic Writing’ has discouraged more screenwriters and novelists than ‘writer's block.’ Corey Mandell cites a client in one of his coaching sessions who broke down as a result of her attempt to force fit a story to events on a specific page location. The infamous pages 17, 25, 45, 60, 75, 90 ad nauseum.
One of the more engaging films in the early 1990’s was penned by someone who never graduated high school or went to film school. He never entered a writing contest or cared much for convention. Instead he worked in a video store, watched movies and dreamed up stories. One of his first creations combines three stories with the major characters of one appearing as minor characters in the other two. And, yes, the original was almost three hours long.
Who is this writer?
It is unfortunate that today this lack of a writer’s professional education and / or failure to enter then place in several vetted contests many times works against the novice writer. It appears to limit ways for a writer to both make professional contacts and get work noticed. There are those rare exceptions.
Given this new paradigm, it is unfortunate that there are less than 10 screenwriting contests that have any worldwide cachet. These contest evaluate a script in 10 or more criteria. If you were to assume that these specific criteria along with story non sequiturs plus typos, margins and fonts have been addressed, it is the scribe with a unique story, who then attains semifinal status in a quality screenwriting contest, who is noticed as a potential professional screenwriter regardless of academic pedigree.
If your script reaches a reader in the semi-final round in one of these contests many times you are then in the hands of someone who is actually looking for a break-out writer to sign to a representation deal.
It is a sad fact that a non-vetted novice scribe without connections has a one half of one percent chance of winning in such a contest each year. These top contests receive 7,000 plus entries. The odds of success are severely reduced if the scribe force fits a story to a formula based on page count. It is also an unfortunate fact that many scribes submit disjointed scripts in every genre based solely on the discredited ‘3-Act structure fits all’ formula that many erroneously claim is based on Aristotle’s Poetics.
From a reader’s perspective today, you no longer have 15, 10, or even 5 pages to impress. With the flood of ‘scripts’ sent for evaluation (over 75,000 registered with WGAw last year) a writer is lucky if you get half a page before your tome is tossed regardless of how many minor contests the scribe has won.
Write using the ‘standard 3 acts’ as you develop your story creation skills then graduate to the big leagues if you want any hope of being considered. Better yet, study films of the sixties and earlier when story vs. gimmicky formula was king. Review films by Akira Kurosawa for more on story and film structure. Study how he covers movement. You will learn that it is how you write along with what you write that provides the other professionals clues about the way you wish your story presented. Bear in mind, it is the ‘drama’ of the story not the narrative that compels. This is the show vs. tell argument.
“If you tell me, it’s an essay. If you show me, it’s a story.” Barbara Greene
A scriptwriter crafts an invitation to participate not a literary masterpiece.
For a good starting point review Freytag’s Pyramid. Though it was primarily designed to address aspects of tragedy, it helps. If you ever expect success as a screenwriter I encourage you to graduate from this method as fast as possible. Even this technique may have 5 or 6 or 7 or 9 or 11 ‘acts’, not 3, depending on which diagram you accept and how you ‘define’ an ‘act’.
A story is best delivered with significant events that occur with more frequency than is implied by Freytag’s Pyramid (Triangle) in his Technik des Dramas (1863).
What we are undergoing is the slow turning of a juggernaut. Story structure is under a constant evolution. What was acceptable in the days of The Man Who Knew Too Much, Sunset Boulevard, Chinatown or even The Chronicles of Narnia no longer work today. It has little to do with the storytelling skills, it reflects the fact that today’s market has fallen prey to the short attention span that has become our mind set.
I encourage the study of the above scripts and their ilk for the craft of storytelling but NOT spec script format or structure in today’s market. Do not subject any of them to a ‘post-scriptive” formulaic breakdown and then attempt to apply their structure to your story.
The goal is for the scribe to move the complex characters in a story from his or her imagination via the intermediaries to the audience’s imagination. The first audience is the reader.
“Those who do not have power over the story that dominates their lives, the power to retell it, rethink it, deconstruct it, joke about it, and change it as times change, truly are powerless, because they cannot think new thoughts.” Salman Rushdie.
I would suggest reading as many recent SPEC scripts you can find then view successful classic non formulaic films in order to understand what story style (not genre) sold. The internet is of small help. Almost all online scripts are production or shooting scripts.
More in Part 3 for a way out of this quandary.
A big thanks to Paul Chitlik for his peer review of this series.
- More articles by Stewart Farquhar
- Story Structure: The Four Act Structure
- Story Structure: The Evolution of an Idea Into a Script
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