Story Structure

You might not guess from our scripts, but both of us are formally trained screenwriters – by which I mean, we both took the one screenwriting course offered at our college (or, more truthfully, at the college adjacent to our college).  It was a good class, but it didn’t offer much in terms of story structure.  The instructor summed it up as follows:

  • Act One: Get your characters up a tree
  • Act Two: Throw rocks at them.
  • Act Three: Get them down

Not a bad summary, I guess, but I ended up writing a lot of scripts following it that just didn’t feel right.  A couple of years ago, I started encountering more rigid guidelines for screenwriting, particularly the “Nine Point Clothesline” from How to Write a Movie in 21 Days or Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! method.  Both of these methods provide fairly fixed rules on what sort of thing has to happen on what page, then provide a whole mess of examples to back up their structure.

It’s basically reverse-engineering how films work, and, maybe because I am a computer programmer in my day job, it’s an approach that makes total sense to me.  When Matthew and I began our collaboration, we expanded our pre-writing outlining from act summaries to detailed scene breakdowns that try to hit the right moments at the right times.

I understand the objections to this method.  It certainly makes screenwriting feel more like Mad Libs than like creative writing, but it also produces scripts that feel like actual movies.  There have certainly been times when we have felt constrained by the formula, and, at least once, gone off and tried writing something without finishing the prep work.

It did not go well.  After we finished the thing, neither of us could bring ourselves to re-read it.  We shelved it for a year and are only now going back in to fix it and try to make all the beats hit when they should.  It would have been much less painful to just map it all out thoroughly first.

Having learned our lesson, we start every script with the same blank template.  Sure, sometimes we fudge a scene here and there, or leave a couple blank patches, but in general, if we can’t fill out our scene breakdown, then we don’t move on to write the script.

Here’s how it works.  We figure we want the script to come in around 110 pages (though they always run long), and assume that each scene is going to average about 3 pages.  One of the biggest things I’ve learned from the formula-style writing guides is that the second act should be roughly the same length as the first and third acts combined, so that gives us nine scenes in Act One, eighteen scenes in Act Two, and nine scenes in Act Three.

Here are the points we have to hit:

  • Act 1, Scene 1: Opening Image
  • Act 1, Scene 2: Theme Stated
  • Act 1, Scene 5: The Catalyst
  • Act 1, Scene 6 – Act 1, Scene 8: Debate
  • Act 1, Scene 9: End of Debate, Pivot into Act 2
  • Act 2, Scene 1 – Act 2, Scene 8: Fun & Games
  • Act 2, Scene 9 – Act 2, Scene 15: Bad Guys Close In
  • Act 2, Scene 16: All is Lost
  • Act 2, Scene 18: Pivot into Act 3

Again, this is all taken pretty directly from Synder’s guidelines and has worked very well for us so far.  We try to hit these points, that fill in the scenes between them.

Here are some examples from our scripts:

Henchman

  • Act 1, Scene 1: Martin at work, under attack from a super-gorilla
  • Act 1, Scene 2: Flashback framing voiceover about henching
  • Act 1, Scene 5: Martin goes to the henchman employment agency
  • Act 1, Scene 6 – Act 1, Scene 8: A series of horrible henchman placements
  • Act 1, Scene 9: Placed at ARC.  Loves it.
  • Act 2, Scene 1 – Act 2, Scene 8: Work goes really well.  Get to know coworkers, life of a henchman, first field operation
  • Act 2, Scene 9 – Act 2, Scene 15: Betrayal of ARC, on the run
  • Act 2, Scene 16: Captured by ARC, scheduled to become test subjects
  • Act 2, Scene 18: Escape from ARC, need to recover MacGuffin from Basket Case, leads directly into Act 3

The Zig-Zag Bangs Play Music for Spying

  • Act 1, Scene 1: The Bangs as spies, infiltrating a snooty party
  • Act 1, Scene 2: Escape from party, play a show, sets up general spy/band premise
  • Act 1, Scene 5: Band gets assignment from their boss
  • Act 1, Scene 6 – Act 1, Scene 8: Not so much debate as it is set up of mission
  • Act 1, Scene 9: They realize their tourmates are also spies and mission is massively more convoluted than it seems
  • Act 2, Scene 1 – Act 2, Scene 8: Assorted spy hi-jinks as they try to figure out what’s going, invade Chinese embassy, etc.
  • Act 2, Scene 9 – Act 2, Scene 15: Russians and Chinese close in, grab the scientist they’re supposed to be escorted, make off with classified data
  • Act 2, Scene 16: Brought in by boss, chewed out, taken off case, replaced by super-spy/celebrity Gwyneth Paltrow
  • Act 2, Scene 18: Realize they need to stop Paltrow, recover the data themselves, save country

You know, The Zig-Zag Bangs… sounds extra-crazy when you describe it like that, but I think it gets the point across.  I’m not saying it’s easy to write a script if you follow a guideline like this, but it certainly helps keep you from veering too far off-course.

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