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Screenwriting Structure Series Part 1 by The Unknown Screenwriter

By The Unknown Screenwriter

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Out of everything there has to do with screenwriting, I think STRUCTURE is the nearest and dearest to my heart. I am in constant search of the perfect structure and to be honest, I use my own version that works pretty well for me. Might not work for anyone else but I like it and I keep tweaking it as I write new material.

Something that I highly recommend everyone do and if not, get to know the structure that YOU DO USE like you know the back of your hand. Don't know the back of your hand? Take a look at it right now... LOL.

So Part 1 of screenwriting structure is going to be fast and loose...

How many screenwriting articles and screenwriting books have you read where they tell you something like, "structure is like building a house" or "you gotta lay the foundation before you can build." ?

Too many times if you ask me.

The above statements are TRUE of course but come on, too much reading between the lines so let's take that a little further. Let's go ahead and use the "building the house" metaphor and talk about what structure is - just like building a house, you start by FRAMING the house. Okay, let's stop right there. Think about all the houses you've seen being built at this stage. They pretty much all look alike, right? Just framing. Sure, some are higher. Some are taller. Some are longer, some are shorter.

Whatever.

But basically, when you visualize the frame of a house, you probably visualize just one picture in your mind's eye...

Cool. Let's go inside...

Now that we're inside this house being framed, we can see the individual construction elements, however, we have NO CLUE how this house is going to look once it's completed...

Ya follow?

Cool. Let's walk around...

Walking over to a wall structure, we can see that to have a sound wall, we need studs, headers for windows or doors, cripple studs, sills, blah blah blah blah blah... In other words, these are the things you probably need 98% of the time to build a good strong wall.

Of course if we don't have windows or doors, we won't need a header. We won't need cripple studs. I personally like to use fire stops in my own construction but hey, everybody's different.

But this is cool. Think of screenwriting like construction. As you complete certain steps of the building process, you gotta call the code inspector and he or she's gotta sign off on your structure before you can continue.

Right?

Right.

Suffice to say that different kinds of houses and maybe even more specifically, different kinds of rooms within that house are going to require different building elements. What the hell does this have to do with screenwriting?

EVERYTHING.

Most GOOD movies and even most bad movies have structure. Those story elements that you really just gotta have until someone reinvents the wheel i.e., comes up with something new that works.

For instance, how about your inciting incident? You really gotta have that. How about a climax? Gots to have one. How about introductions of characters? How about reversals, plot points, act breaks, etc.?

All parts of structure and when you put them all together in a certain sequence, they help form the WHOLE. In other words, there's some things YOU JUST GOTTA HAVE!

And that's where we are at Part 1 today. What are the screenwriting structure elements that we just gotta have NO MATTER WHAT? No matter what kinda movie you're writing. No matter what kind of characters you have or what kind of ending you end up with. There's just some things that you GOTTA HAVE so we can see that you're building a movie. Not a book. Not a magazine article...

A MOVIE.

Most great movies do share common structural elements but it's the HANDLING of those elements that can separate the men and women from the boys and girls.

An outstanding definition of structure that I came across last month was something Laura Reyna wrote over at her blog, WRITING & BUILDING: "Structure is the arrangement of a story's elements into a particular shape, with the purpose of eliciting maximum emotion from an audience ... or ... The shape or design of a movie that is experienced by the audience."

If you think about it, any time a movie fails to elicit maximum emotion from its audience, that fact TENDS to take us right out of the story. If and when THAT HAPPENS, the movie generally has to work even HARDER to get us BACK into the story.

Do you really want to have to do that?

I sure as hell DO NOT.

Which is why I tend to approach screenplay structure as an extension of character development i.e., my Protagonist goes through a series of MODES and within each mode, he or she must deal with conflict and through their decisions and resulting actions that deal with that conflict, we watch the Protagonist change, grow, and transform.

Of course screenplay structure ALONE, doesn't guarantee this process but I will say that if you start out with a good SOLID structure that has your Protagonist's transformational character arc BUILT-IN, you're starting out way ahead of the pack.

So how the hell do we do that?

First, we start out with those common screenplay structural elements that we just gotta have no matter what. Just like building a house or a wall within a house, we've got to have some structural elements to get the job done, NO MATTER WHAT. Same with writing a screenplay.

Your list may or may not be similar or identical, it doesn't matter. The point here is that YOU decide what structural elements YOU feel that you need to have in your own screenplay BEFORE you even begin to write.

I'm simply sharing mine:
  1. Introduce your Protagonist - set up your Protagonist's ORDINARY WORLD.
  2. Thematic Message
  3. Introduce the rest of your main characters
  4. Inciting Incident
  5. Protagonist's CALL TO ACTION DILEMMA
  6. Protagonist's voluntary entrance into the NEW WORLD
  7. Subplots
  8. Mid-point - Your Protagonist's point-of-no-return
  9. Protagonist is HOPELESS
  10. Protagonist is HOPELESS times 2 - he or she is at their lowest point in the story
  11. Beginning of the END - Protagonist finally figures out how to beat the Antagonist
  12. Beginning of the END times 2 - Protagonist has learned all lessons of this new world - transformation complete
There you have it, a simple little list that I have memorized for any screenplay that I might write. Please take note that this is NOT the actual screenplay structure I use, these are simply plot points that "I FEEL" I really gotta have to even THINK about writing a screenplay. I guess you could call it a variation of the Hero's Journey although I find the Hero's Journey a little stiff for my taste.

The point here is knowing that you must, at an absolute minimum, have some absolute structural points before you start writing. I almost look at it a little like animation... i.e., once I have these main structural points figured out, I can now proceed to the TWEENING stage where I can now generate even more structural elements to make the overall structure evolve in a realistic manner for my Protagonist and his or her story.

And yes, I have lots of "tweening stages."

But that's for next time...

About The Unknown Screenwriter

A working screenwriter and producer, The Unknown Screenwriter makes his home in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Northern California and somewhere in the state of New Mexico with just a little bit of Los Angeles thrown in when he feels he can breathe the air.

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