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Screenwriting Structure Series Part 4: Memento & Pulp Fiction Non-Linear Story Telling

By The Unknown Screenwriter

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Previous Article in series.

I've had many a discussion with many a screenwriter and more importantly - MANY A PRODUCER only to find that approximately half of these entities look at screenwriting more as craft than art and that's only because most screenwriters I know feel that they are in fact creating art. Many a producer on the other hand, prefer to look at screenwriting more as a craft...

Like hiring a guy to do your lawn.

But even those guys can be artists. I too look at screenwriting more as an art form than a craft. To me, the craft part has more to do with formatting, writing a scene, knowing where your acts break, plot points, etc. Just as a painter has to have an idea for a painting, the paint, the brushes, the media on which he or she paints on, so does the screenwriter possess his or own myriad of tools to write a screenplay.

Structure is one of those tools.

Structure is like your roadmap. You know you're going on a trip. You know you want to go through several areas along the way and hit specific landmarks but until you sit down and pull out your roadmap, you're not really sure what route or routes to take to give you the best trip possible and get all those landmarks into your trip. Imagine taking a trip from point A to point B. You already know that the freeway near your home will get you to point B in a few days but it won't be a particularly pleasing trip. Sure, you'll get off for some fast food along the way. Stop for some gas and tinkle at the convenience store gas stations but will it be memorable?

Uh... Probably not.

On the other hand, one can, with just a little planning and preparation, pull out a roadmap and start plotting out a much more memorable trip. Sure, it might take a little longer to get there but it'll be so much more fun and memorable! You can stop along the way and see those cool landmarks you've always wanted to see. You can stop and eat at some of those famous little diners and restaurants. Drive through those small Americana towns that you've always wanted to cruise through.

Makes me want to plan a road trip right now...

And while one size might not fit all, you'd be surprised how close it can actually come but rest assured it's no formula. Screenwriting becomes formula when, in my own humble opinion, we start ripping each other off so much that what we're reading or looking at on the screen is derivative. Of course DERIVATIVE is in the eye of the beholder as so many things are. Going back to a previous post on my site where I talked about 8MM being derivative of HARDCORE - sure, I enjoyed 8MM. I like Nicolas Cage and Joaquin Phoenix... They're always worth watching but there's still something inside me that says 8MM is just TOO DERIVATIVE of HARDCORE but that's what happens when you're a successful screenwriter - you can do this kind of derivative stuff and sell it.

Make no mistake, there are those professional screenwriters out there that excel at writing derivative stuff and make a decent living doing so but hey, that's their pigeonhole. That's what a lot of them are known for. That's what a lot of producers GO TO THEM FOR. Sure it's easier to sell derivative stuff these days because the ticket-buying demographic has never even heard of movies like HARDCORE so who gives a crap, RIGHT? Well I do and I always try NOT to be derivative because pretty much: DERIVATIVE = FORMULA

Again, that's just the way I see it - you may see it differently and that's cool... It's a free country - at least that's what they keep telling me.

If you recall when Pulp Fiction came out, quite a few movies attempted to re-bottle the non-linear formula and do what Quentin Tarantino did and most of them failed miserably. One that didn't however, was Memento.


Both screenplays tell their stories in a non-linear fashion but they're certainly not derivative. Lots of reviewers have compared Memento to Pulp Fiction because of its non-linear storytelling but Christopher Nolan didn't didn't rip PF off. Rather, he went down a similar road that Tarantino did i.e., both created their structure from what they'd seen done in novels and as he got further into the script, he realized that he wanted the audience to more or less share Lenny's point of view, so he tweaked his structure to reflect that by weaving in more voice-over as well as utilizing camera angles that enabled US to see things through Lenny's (the Protagonist) eyes.

I point both of these films out because let's be honest... They both PUSH the boundaries of screenwriting structure and both will certainly go down in screenwriting history as having done so. From the interview above, Christopher Nolan totally NAILS screenwriting stucture with the following quote:

"It really is a question of finding the most suitable order for releasing information to the audience and not feeling any responsibility to do it chronologically, just like we don't in life." -Christopher Nolan

In other words, there are no rules. Sure, some ways of telling a story work better than others and when in doubt, certainly go back to the rules or guidelines to get your head back on straight if that's what you need to progress, especially if and when you get lost.

Structure however, can be (I might even go so far as to say, SHOULD BE) continuously tweaked to have the story perform the way you want it to perform because after all, the real definition of a good story is that it is a WELL TOLD STORY. Well told meaning that the story elicits the emotion that YOU want it to elicit.

Which brings me to yet another interesting debacle I consistently see when reading screenplays. I often ask the screenwriter what emotion he or she wanted a particular scene to elicit from me, the reader - and all I get is the standard pregnant pause...

Not good.

You've gotta have some kind of idea of the kind of emotion you want from every scene you write even if it's just neutrality.

Structure helps you with that.

Without the thread that strings your story along with actual purpose that elicits emotion and causes dramatic tension, you just end up with (hopefully) a lot of cool little scenes that really don't make a whole hell of a lot of sense.

You don't want that do you?

Of course not.

So you've got to sit down and create your roadmap but not before you decide what landmarks you want to catch on the way to your destination. Destination being the key element here because in order to actually GET SOMEWHERE YOU WANT TO BE, you gots to have a DESTINATION.

Where is my DESTINATION? In other words, what is the ending to my story?

Figure this one out before sitting down to write and you'll be light years ahead of your competition. The wonderful thing about knowing the ending to your story is that you do not actually have to know every detail. The details grow and change as you hit your landmarks on the way to your destination so that by the time you are at your ending, you KNOW WHAT HAS TO HAPPEN even though you may not know how it has to happen - YET. As you learn more and more about your characters and plot, the ending will very likely begin to manifest itself in many different ways so be prepared to somehow record all those different ways should they appear to you.

What is the beginning of my story?

Also very important and a story element that I see muffed up way too often. Figure out how you can get into your story with a BANG to hook your reader and your eventual audience. Get them interested in your Protagonist as soon as possible so that they WANT to go on your road trip.

Once you know these two story elements, it's time to plan your screenwriting structure OR maybe a better way to put it so it has even more impact on YOU is like this:

A delicate balance of story elements whose overall purpose is to elicit the consummate emotional effect from an audience.

Of course that's just my definition but I created that definition to help propel ME through the screenwriting process. If it works for you - outstanding. If not, I highly recommend defining screenwriting structure for yourself in such a way that the definition means something to YOU and propels YOU through your story.

So once you know the ending and the beginning, how the hell do you get from the beginning to the end?

Ah... That's structure and it's coming up.

Next Article in series.

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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