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.
Poor Aristotle. He is either praised or blamed for the condition of today’s screenplays or novels. Fortunately this condition has nothing to do with Aristotle and his Poetics, but, more to do with the “one size fits all” formulaic academic training of would be scribes. Please review Part 1 and Part 2 in this series if you have not already done so.
The linear ‘3-Act’ method, even if presented as ‘Act 1’; ‘Act 2A’; ‘Act 2B’; ‘Act 3’, leaves a lot of heavy lifting in the middle. It also leaves a tremendous amount of room for your story to get lost. It’s an acknowledged fact that the closing scenes and parts of the opening scenes are all that will be remembered from many films, unless there is anything of value in ‘Act-2’ or ‘Act-2A’ and ‘Act-2B’.
Today the linear story writing technique for screenplays is exemplified by a reintroduction of the sequence writing method that has its roots as far back as 1897 when movie reels were 10-15 minutes long. It is represented today by Chris Soth’s modified Mini Movie Method, a synergy of Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach by Paul Joseph Gulino and parts of Gulino’s USC lectures. Better yet, review John Truby’s The Anatomy Of Story and his genre specific Blockbuster screenwriting software. He not only covers in detail linear and nonlinear screenwriting but various other writing techniques and styles.
In the sequence approach each sequence sets increasing value in the story world. Think story sequences that lead to the progression of a story. Regard each sequence as an aspect of the character’s story that unfolds as each progressive obstacle to the goal is circumvented, succumbed to or overcome.
Each completed, self-contained yet thematically linked sequence can be adjusted and moved within the screenplay as necessary.
Consider that for the majority of today’s attention spans an ideal scene length is three quarters to one and a half pages. This allows for approximately 8-13 scenes in a 10-12 minute sequence structure. Don’t beat yourself up if your page count doesn’t match the ‘book’.
It is easier to write 8, 10 or 13, 10-12 minute stories that are thematically linked than a 100-120 page story. It is also important to have milestones with more frequency than every 25 pages in a 100 page script. This is not a rule it is a strong suggestion and there are notable exceptions.
Sequence is more useful than ‘Act 1’; ‘Act 2A’; ‘Act 2B’ and ‘Act 3’ style, regardless of how you parse them. I’m acquainted with the arguments that attempt to “map” sequences on the “3-Act” paradigm.
The ‘3-Acts’ in western storytelling is an unfortunate myth based on the assumption that, as pattern seeking mammals, our brains are hard wired to find patterns in everything. To apply this logic to all story genre in the same way is a travesty.
Consider this: All any reader/audience wants is emersion in an emotional journey. However, it’s not always a Joseph Campbell monomyth. And, yes, there is a tying and untying (See Part 1. You did read Poetics, right?) to that style of journey. In ‘non-Campbell-esque adventures’ a tying and untying happens in each sequence. They are 10-12 minute thematically linked vignettes that evolve in different places and times for each genre. Remember, they are milestones not mile markers, acts or page counts.
What promulgated the ‘3-Act’ structure myth was a story analyst’s ‘post-scriptive’ movie dissection / evaluation (possibly influence by Syd Field’s earlier work of the late 1970’s) of one particular film. This finding was then promulgated by a parsimonious studio executive who felt it was a great way to turn out relatively inexpensive cookie cutter blockbuster films. He could create prequel after / before sequel that results in minimal long term “qual”. Some worked, many didn’t. All designed to either stagnate or drain the creative well.
Even the original Star Wars (1977 later subtitled Episode IV: A New Hope) (George Lucas) (121 min) was a mash-up of 6 previous films from as far back as 1927.
Stephen Spielberg says it best: “People have forgotten how to tell story. Stories don’t have a beginning, middle or end anymore. They usually have a beginning that never stops beginning.”
I can’t stress enough that a scribe should first learn the art-of-story then explore format. More and more viewers today watch their entertainment on portable devices. They can pause, stop, rewind and fast forward at will. They watch what holds their short attention span.
Well written stories are not formulaic black and white. They, like human behavior, adapt and evolve. Many times this evolution is via indefinite and / or mysterious ways. However, I will grant that stories, like behavior, may have some ‘predictability’ to them.
Behavioral psychologists, humanists and Syd Field, a strong advocate of the ‘3-Act’ with plot points concept, share that with us. What none of them, including Syd Field, says, is at what age, in what location or on which page, this ‘predictability’ occurs. Field comes the closest. Even when a range is provided there are many notable exceptions. Discernable patterns in some stories, just like some people, can be obvious. Unfortunately, many of these repeat formulaic films score low on Rotten Tomatoes.
While genre specific traits and content are in many cases expected, it is the unexpected that piques our interest. A repetitive routine bores. Even the “Fanboys / Fangirls” grow weary and move on when they feel sucked dry.
Notice the recent 100K reduction in tweets and the franchise low $$ return for the oppressive languor of Hunger Games- Mocking Jay Part 2, (Peter Craig, Dany Strong, Suzanne Collins) (137 min) (The Wrap, Nov.22, 2015). Review the demographic in the article.
It’s reminiscent of the ratings decline by part 2 & 3 of the formulaic Matrix Trilogy.
Formulas don’t work. Professional writers don’t use them. Their product may start the same way a chef starts from a recipe (think potato salad). They then modify that recipe to make it their own. A novice scribe would do well to consider a “writing formula” as you would a favorite recipe. Start with the basics then develop a technique that makes it your own. As I mentioned in Part 2, Freytag’s Pyramid provides a great grade school starting place.
It is a fact that there are certain conventions associated with various genre and writing styles that may be either cultural or point in time specific.
However, do not equate conventions with requirements or with rules. Conventions evolve to meet the needs of the author(s), whereas requirements and rules are slow to vary. Requirements and rules include such things as grammar, spelling, word meaning, or word usage etc. Think Old English vs. Modern English i.e. a longer time frame for change.
As Hal Ackerman proffers in his book Writing Screenplays That Sell, and I paraphrase; what happens must come from the character’s objective not the writer’s objective (this includes who chases whose cat, dog or mouse up which tree and on what page). In my opinion this is an inviolable tenant in writing.
In part 4 we will address Beginning, Middle, End and structure in a screenplay.
A Big Thanks to Paul Chitlik for his peer review of this series.