What do we mean when we talk about the “structure” of a screenplay?
“Structure” isn’t the same as an outline or a beat sheet, though outlines and beat sheets are tools you can use to develop a structure.
Structure is like a framework or a skeleton. It’s what holds your script together and keeps it from being a pile of word mush.
Structure involves a lot of elements. For example, it can encompass:
- Causation: THIS causes THAT
- Dramatic Questions/Suspense: What’s going to happen next? What’s really going on here?
- Pace: How fast/slow does the story move?
- Variation: in scene length, intensity, etc.
- Obstacles: what problems do the characters bump into?
- Reversals: changes in direction/goals/wants, good-to-bad and vice-verse, etc.
- Plants (clues), Reveals (surprises), and Callbacks (references to earlier events)
- Framing Devices (prologues, epilogues, stories-within-stories, etc.)
Structure Doesn’t Mean Formula
I don’t believe in any “one-size-fits-all” theory of structure. Also, I’m highly suspicious of any overelaborate structure model, because that can lead to formulaic, paint-by-numbers scripts.
I don’t believe that if you do X by page 10 and Y by page 24 you’re well on your way to a great script. That’s just silly (but too many screenwriting books are based on such silliness).
But if you’re not applying any structural thinking to your script, you can end up with mush.
So here are some ways of thinking about structure.
This happens and then this happens and then…
Beginning screenwriters often write scripts that are basically “this happens and then this happens and then this happens” or (worse) “these people talk and then those people talk and then some other people talk.”
When a story lacks structure, it’s often called “episodic” – and that’s “bad.”
(This is confusing, because “episodic” also simply means a story told in episodes – like a TV series.)
The “bad” kind of episodic is when a story is just a series of events that are loosely tied together. There are some good examples here.
Episodic stories are usually boring – even if each event is something “entertaining” like sex, violence, spectacle, pratfalls, etc.
- If all you have is sex, you have porn.
- If all you have is violence, you’ve got a boxing match, or a bullfight, or whatever.
- If all you’ve got is spectacle, you’ve got a fireworks display.
- If all you have is pratfalls, you’ve got clowns in a circus.
Those things may be entertaining – but they’re not movies or TV shows. They’re not stories.
Even if you combine sex, violence, spectacle, and pratfalls, you STILL don’t have a plot for a movie or TV show — unless these things take place within some kind of structure. (And it will still be boring unless we care about the people involved.)
Therefore and But
Episodic screenplays are all “and then,” as Trey Parker and Matt Stone (the creators of South Park) discuss in this talk:
We can take these beats, which are basically the beats of your outline, and if the words ‘and then’ belong between those beats, you’re fucked. Basically. You’ve got something pretty boring.
What should happen between every beat that you’ve written down, is either the word ‘therefore’ or ‘but’. So what I’m saying is that you come up with an idea, and it’s like ‘so this happens’ right? And then this happens,’ no no no no, It should be ‘this happens, and therefore this happens. But this happens, therefore this happens.’
“Because” is about causation.
“But” is about reversals.
Stories and Plots
E.M Forster, the English novelist who wrote A Room with a View (1908), Howard’s End (1910) and A Passage to India (all of which have been adapted into movies and/or series) famously wrote:
A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality – “The king died and then the queen died” is a story.’ But ‘“the king died and then the queen died of grief” is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it.
Again, he’s talking about causation.
He also wrote that a story “can only have one merit: that of making the audience want to know what happens next.”
He’s talking about suspense – about raising questions that the audience wants to have answered.
Suspense and Dramatic Questions
A leading cause of mushy screenplays is the lack of a series of dramatic questions.
The answers to big dramatic questions are usually obvious and thus boring.
- In a superhero movie, will the hero(s) prevail in the end? Of course!
- In a rom-com, will the couple end up together? #duh!
Often, the audience knows HOW the story is going to end when they go into the theater or sit down on the sofa.
What makes it interesting is all the little dramatic questions and answers along the way.
For example, imagine you’re seeing Star Wars for the first time. Here are some of the dramatic questions you’ll be encountering:
- Why is this big spaceship chasing this little spaceship?
- Who’s the lady with the weird hair and the blaster?
- What’s she doing with that droid?
- Why is this Luke guy living with his aunt and uncle? What happened to his parents?
- Who’s Obi Wan Kenobi and why is he the only one who can help?
- What’s up with “The Force”?
- What’s Han going to do about Greedo?
- How is Luke going to rescue the princess?
- How’s the gang going to get out of that trash compactor?
- Where does blue milk come from?
Some of the questions are answered soon after they’re raised. Others don’t get answered until the end of the movie – or even in other movies.
Episodic (in the good way) TV shows are all about the dramatic questions – including ones than can span multiple seasons:
- Who are Jon Snow’s real parents?
- How can our heroes fight the Night King?
- Who’s going to sit on the Iron Throne?
Audiences can love or hate how you answer the questions – but if you don’t even ask those questions, they’ll get bored.
If you don’t have at least one dramatic question “running” at all times, your story stops dead. Or it’s just coasting along with the engine off until you raise another one.
A really old (but still useful) model of story-telling structure involves three acts:
- Act 1: A character (or group) is in a situation. A problem/goal arises.
- Act 2: The character/group confronts that problem/goal. Complications ensue.
- Act 3: The character/group succeeds or fails.
Occasionally, like with Job in the Bible, shit just happens to a character. But it’s usually much more interesting when a character actively tries to solve a problem or achieve some goal.
Probably the most famous explainer of the three-act structure for screenwriting is Syd Field in Screenplay.
A similar model is in How to Write a Movie in 21 Days by Viki King.
Another really old (but still useful) model of structure involves a “hero’s journey.”
Joseph Campbell is often associated with this model, but it’s as old as story-telling.
Basically, the hero’s journey
This model was applied to screenwriting in The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler.
“Save the Cat”
Save the Cat is a series of books started by the late Blake Snyder. Some people love these books; others hate or sneer at them.
The famous/infamous Blake Snyder Beat Sheet (BSBS) is formulaic. It can also be useful in helping you start to mold your mush into a story. I often use a BSBS at the very early stages of figuring out a script. That doesn’t mean I’m wedded to it or obsess about what happens on what page. (Also, I loathe his page 5 beat.)
It’s all about theme
Craig Mazin (HBO’s Chernobyl and the Scriptnotes podcast) says structure is all about theme.
He says it’s about asking what your character believes at the beginning, and what you want that character to believe at the end.
The structure of a script thus arises out of the character confronting, and wrestling with, that thematic question.
He talks about it here.
The Unified Theory of Screenwriting
In this interview, I talked with Ashley Miller (Thor, X-Men First Class). Here’s what he had to say about structure:
I’m not a fan of anything that smacks of formula—“If you do this, your screenplay will work.”
I don’t care if you’re talking about Christopher Vogler, or if you’re talking about Robert McKee, or if you’re talking about Blake Snyder. I don’t believe that’s how the creation process works.
What they’ve each identified is an analytical tool. They’ve identified a way of looking at a product in retrospect and telling you what the parts are.
In other words, many structure models are autopsies – but they’re not recipes.
Miller combined a bunch of different structure models into a chart that he could apply to his own work – as a diagnostic tool AFTER he wrote one or more drafts.
I’m not saying, “This isn’t working because it fails to meet any of these standards.”
What I’m asking is, “Am I getting an insight about what’s making me feel this bump in the story?
What’s making me hear and smell the gears grinding?”
You can see the chart at the link above.
There isn’t one best answer to “how do I structure a screenplay?”
Understanding different ideas about structure can give you tools that can make your script better.