For beginning screenwriters, structure is intimidating and slightly mysterious. To more experienced writers, it is one-hand-tied-behind-the-back easy. I think the same would be true of most screenwriting elements – the learning curve is steep but once you get it, you get it forever and your problem becomes not whether your character HAS an arc or whether your script HAS a theme, or whether your script HAS a structure that works, but whether your premise is totally unique and fresh. And that is something that cannot be taught. That takes instincts and creative chops and an encyclopedic awareness of other movies that have come before yours. It’s luck, it’s genius, it’s the Holy Grail. But I digress.
Beginning screenwriters generally write a script or two that basically has no discernible structure. The story just spoooools out like an errant ball of yarn until you finally find it under the couch, covered in dust. The story just goes and goes and goes til it ends, mercifully. I doubt there’s a successful screenwriter alive who has not written that script in the early days. It happens. Then you pick up a book or three and learn where the turning points should be. So then you plug that knowledge in and you have a new problem – your turning points are soft. So your midpoint might be when the couple gets in a fight. Which, you know, in all but a masterfully written piece is probably pretty damn boring.
So you know where the turning points should be, but now you have to learn how to make those plot points BIG enough to escalate your story. That thought used to intimidate me – what do you mean BIG? Like – how big are we talkin’? It feels like one is being asked to write plot points that escalate the story into ridiculousness. No, no, no, get all of that out of your mind. Let’s go back to a fundamental understanding of structure for a moment:
Structure is like the bass guitar – it keeps the rhythm. It’s the 1-2-3 and a 1-2-3 of your script. And it is best plotted out in your outline first. As in a dance, the rhythm is obvious and yet subtle at the same time. You may not notice it but you feel it. It drives the dance.
So when you’re looking at your outline (or your script, but for the sake of efficiency, let’s look at the outline – please god, tell me you have one) you’re going to ask of it, what’s the rhythm here? Is this a fast dance? Or a slow burn? What is the tone relative to the genre? Obviously, in an action script, the rhythm will be fast and furious – which doesn’t mean the classic structure is different – but it will FEEL different because the highs will be higher and the lows will be lower. If you’re writing a psychological thriller, the rhythm will be slow burn, which will escalate, getting more and more intense as the story unfurls.
Think of a pop song that you really like. Listen to it. Can you hear the rhythm in it? Can you hear how the rhythm shifts, changes and escalates? There’s the beginning, there’s the chorus, the bridge and the chorus and another verse and a bridge and the chorus – and it’s all designed to lead you forward tantalizingly. Because you LOVE the chorus and you can’t wait to sing along to that part. Music is all about build.
Use that model when thinking about the structure of your story. Because while a pop song is approximately three minutes long, it’s doing the exact same thing as a script. It’s about something or someone – it has a premise. It has a theme. It has an introduction and a midpoint and a climax. It tells a story in three minutes flat and does so in such a way that you the listener are pulled along by the rhythm and the melody.
If the structure is the rhythm, the melody is the narrative. Narrative in this usage means the story, yes – the plot itself – but more than that, the WAY the plot is being told. So imagine listening to a song say for children: “The Wheels on the Bus,” that’s a good one.
The wheels on the bus go round and round, ROUND and round, ROUND and round. The wheels on the bus go round and round, all through the town. The people on the bus go up and down, UP and down, UP and down, the people on the bus go up and down, all through the town. The. Wipers on the bus go swish swish swish. SWISH swish swish. SWISH swish swish. The wipers on the bus go SWISH swish swish, all through the town. The. Baby on the bus goes wah wah wah. WAH wah wah. WAH wah - are you ready to kill me yet? God I think I just had a really weird flashback of MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE proportions.
The song is repetitious, right? Not really going anywhere. That’s right, because this is for preschoolers. There’s no build here, there’s no mystery – we’re just going to basically catalog stuff on a bus. The premise is stuff on a bus. The theme is – that there’s stuff on a bus (or for more sophisticated kids: Life is like a bus ride, maaaan!) and the melody is exactly in synch with the lyrics. So there’s no tension in this narrative. I plan to send a letter to the ignominious author of this annoying song, claiming long term Tune-Stuck-in-Head issues requiring therapy.
Now let’s take another set of lyrics – one you are probably very familiar with. I’m pretty sure 99% of you can summon the music that goes with this song just by reading the lyrics…
Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today…
Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one
Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can…
- and you can see how this narrative is told using rhythm, repetition and anticipation. How many of you couldn’t help but sing the chorus that follows the last set of lyrics there? I couldn’t. It’s addictive. I want the song to play out. I need the song to play out. It’s a weird imperative.
And that’s how I should feel when I read your script or watch your movie. There should be a compelling rhythm to it, a pattern that pulls me forward inevitably, a tension that makes me crave the outcome.
So yes, structure is technical – as is music. It’s math. But its job is create a feeling in your reader – an imperative, a rhythm, an addiction to what will happen next. Study up on your plot points, and which pages they should fall on – but don’t forget that your story is a musical composition with a pattern that builds upon itself, growing and growing so that the reader is compelled to follow along, with that very basic human need for completion making it impossible not to sing along with you. With a sense that what happens next HAD to happen next.
She’s got a smile that it seems to me
Reminds me of childhood memories
Was as fresh as the bright blue sky
Whoah oh oh oh...how does the rest go? We can’t resist. We want to sing along. And that’s how your script should be. I hear the opening riffs to “Sweet Child O Mine” and instantly I go oooooh I love this song. I can’t wait to hear it. I can’t wait for the build. Maybe you hate that song. Whatever, man. Think of a song you love. Think of the first few seconds of a new song you hear on the radio that you are instantly drawn to. You turn it up. You gotta hear it. That’s the first couple of pages of your script, my friends. That’s exactly how it works.
Structure may sound boring or confining or technical but it’s actually quite sexy in its functionality – it is the rhythm that imbues the experience of reading your script with that delicious feeling of – can’t – get – enoughness. I want to go with you. I need to go with you. I HAVE to see where this story is going. It’s math, it’s music, it’s storytelling.
If you’d like to buckle down and learn how to structure your outline in a simple, very fun, extremely effective way that makes the blog post above simply an appetizer, I seriously do encourage you to do some personalized writing coaching with yours truly. Nuff said.