Monday, October 24, 2005

Screenplay Basics - Plot and Structure

Plot... Structure... Plot structure... Story structure... Storytelling... Plot Point... Turning Points... Crisis... Resolution... Inciting Incident... Three acts... Non-linear... Two Goal Structure...

How is a person supposed to learn THE RULES when they keep changing them around? And how is a body ever supposed to keep track of all the latest buzzwords?

What does it all mean?

Create a picture in your mind of a road leading off into the distance. That road is the journey your main character (of your screenplay or novel or story) must take in order to get your story told. Their journey IS your story.

But, that road is not a straight and simple line. It has potholes and bumps and twists and turns and eek! detours and forks and turn-outs and all manner of possible distraction and confusion for your audience or reader. Not to mention that main character who must somehow find his/her way until they reach The End.

It helps me keep things straight in my mind to imagine that STRUCTURE becomes the road signs that tell you and your audience where that main character needs to be headed along that road. Structure, to me, is the progression of dramatic underpinnings or lynchpins upon which the actions done by and to your main character is PLOTTED OUT.

That's just my opinion and my own way of muddling through the work of crafting a good story. You may have a different approach and if it helps you to create work that propels you toward success, then stick with the methods and ways of thinking that work best for you.

You see, there are no real rules engraved in stone when it comes to dramatic writing. It will help a new writer greatly to not only find a writing method that works for them but to also make sure it "works" just as well for their intended target (which is usually a Hollywood reader or agent or prodco, etc.). And that's why most folks that are in the movie-making business appreciate a standard of communication that everyone can comprehend - i.e., "the rules," such as they are. There's a reason for having what's called "standard" format or "standard" structure. People can follow along when you do that.

Note to Would-be Rebels: Heck yeah, don't go from point A to point B, don't even have a main character, don't have conflict, don't have drama, don't even print things out nice and pretty. Scribble your magnum opus down on toilet paper. Use purple crayon. I sure wouldn't dream of shattering your visionary genius and taking away your fun.

So while Junior is over there in the corner playing with his crayons, let's have a look at what some folks who know what the heck they are talking about have to say on the important subjects of plot and story and structure.

Christopher Vogler's, "The Writer's Journey," is an absolute must-read for ANY writer of stories, no matter what form they might take. He explains the mythic understructure of ALL well-told stories and he uses movies that have actually made it to screen as his examples. Once you've absorbed every word he put into that volume, you will understand your own stories that much better and you will be able to make them shine as dramatic works.

I intend to do an extensive discussion of Vogler's book at some point so I won't try to mash it all down into one sentence or even one paragraph here. That would be doing a disservice to anyone who wants to understand what the man has to say.

So, my first "lesson" on structure and plot is, "GET VOGLER'S BOOK AND READ IT THEN READ IT AGAIN! AND AGAIN!"

Michael Hauge is another of the screenwriting gurus who knows his stuff. I had the good fortune to be his screenwriting student at U.C.L.A. For the enormous amount of information and learning that went on in his class, it was never boring and you never once felt compelled to glance at the clock to see how much time was left. This guy is great. A non-boring professor. It doesn't get better than that.

Mr. Hauge has his own website where he shares some of his knowledge and wisdom with anyone who cares to drop by and I recommend that you do just that.

Mr. Hauge has created a model for screenplay structure that develops around six basic stages and five key turning points. He uses a graphic image to show how all the elements fall into place. His model for dramatic structure is worth printing out and sticking to the shelf or wall above your computer screen.

Mr. Hauge's six basic stages are: Setup, New situation, Progress, Complications & Higher Stakes, Final Push, and Aftermath. His five key turning points (remember those "lynchpins" or "road signs" I was talking about?) fall into place along the way, between or during one of the six basic stages. The five key turning points are: Point #1 "Opportunity" (About 10% into the story and between Setup and New situation); Point #2 "Change of Plans" (25% into the story and between New Situation and Progress); Point #3 "Point of No Return" (at the 50% halfway mark in your story between Progress and Complications/Higher stakes); #4 "Major Setback" (75% of the way through your story); and #5 "Climax" (90-99% into your story).

As YOU write, if you can strive to meet those goals, you will discover that your story actually does "hang together." And it will make sense to whoever reads it. Please do visit Mr. Hauge's website for more detailed descriptions of these elements.

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