Down to Earth Structure

This entry was posted on Friday, February 22nd, 20132013-02-22T08:22:00Zl, F jS, Y at 10:22 am2013-02-22T08:22:00Zg:i a

Structure is a topic that for many screenwriters, makes the blood run cold. Three acts or four? Inciting incident on page five or 10? First act break on page 25 or 30? Get character up in tree, throw rocks at character. Right? Forget all that stuff for a minute.

There is no element in screenwriting that can be discussed totally unto itself. Well, you could, and people try to, but it doesn’t make sense. Structure in particular is the hub of the wheel and is closely tied to character and premise. We know that the structure of a screenplay is roughly a three act proposition.

I personally like thinking of it in terms of four acts – but that’s hair splitting; four acts is just the second act divided in half. So we might have:

Act One: pages one-25
Act Two A: pages 25-50
Act Two B: pages 50-75
Act Three: pages 50-100*

*I am using the magical 100 page script here for two reasons. One, it’s not a bad page count to aspire to and two, it just makes the math easier. If you script has a longer page count, the ratios here still apply.

We know we have certain milestones in the three or four act structure:

The inciting incident which falls anywhere from page one to page 10 (latest, kids, latest). Another name for this milestone might be: Why did I buy a ticket to this movie? When is all the stuff I saw in the trailer going to start to happen?

The first act break, which falls right around page 25 or so. And we might call this: I forgot to buy M&Ms I’ll just be a minute – oh HEY, what’s this? I’ll get them later.

The midpoint, which falls, yup, dead center. And we might refer to this as the okay forget the M&MS, the Coke, forget everything, I cannot leave this seat, things just heated up – again!

The second act break, which falls just before the third act, so in the area of page 75 or so. And we most definitely can refer to this one as: I have to use the restroom but…but…I HAVE to see what happens now!

So we know this, right? Each portion of the structure ramps things up to engage the audience in more interesting and complicated ways. Sucking them into the story more and more. That’s looking at structure purely from an entertainment factor point of view, not a story point of view. This is not the gist of what I want to talk about today but it’s a useful way to think of structure. Every 25 pages or so you have to turn up the heat so that your audience is more committed, more curious and more entertained by what’s going on.

But of course, you cannot accomplish this by adding rhinoceros stampedes, BIGGER rhinoceros stampedes and flying monkeys – when you’ve written a romcom. Well, maybe you could.

Here’s the thing, once you understand structure from a purely academic point of view and with the use of my handy Audience-ometer Structure Guide (patent pending) as above, you have to design your structure in such a way that it makes sense for your premise and for your character. Structure and character arc are indelibly linked. Like Siamese twins.

Many new writers think okay I’m on page 25, something a bit bigger needs to happen here. It’s a sort of structure by numbers methodology. It is helpful to chart out your character’s arc relative to the structure. Things like rhino stampedes are only a good escalation for a certain type of character.

Maybe in JUMANJI this makes sense.

The escalation embedded in and implied by structure has to make sense. What is the worst thing that COULD happen for THIS character at THIS point of time given THIS premise?

Again, anybody can simply jot down what I indicated above:

Act One: pages one-25
Act Two A: pages 25-50
Act Two B: pages 50-75
Act Three: pages 50-100.

But this is only an academic understanding of structure. Again, what is the worst thing that could happen to your particular character at this point in the story? And are you going to be able to top that organically, within the premise, in another 25 pages?

I actually take some issue with the macro statement that you get your character in a tree and throw rocks at him. What character? In what tree? What kind of rocks are these? It’s all relative to the story you are telling and the type of character inhabiting this story. The act breaks for DIE HARD are in no way related to the act breaks in RAIN MAN. Yes, they fall in approximately the same places but that isn’t specific enough to be helpful.

So much of screenwriting is like that – we are all taught the academic perspective but one size does not fit all. And that’s part of the journey of being a screenwriter. We learn about the various elements from a macro view but it is only as you gain more experience that you can get a feel for the jumping off points and after you’ve written a few scripts, structure just starts to come naturally to you.

Imagine thinking of structure as a poker game for your main character – and he or she really doesn’t want to be there at all. Your main character doesn’t know how to play poker, never played a hand in his or her life and would much rather go home. But this is a movie and you the writer are God. You have literally thrown your character into a high stakes poker game against his or her will. There’s no going home there’s only winning or losing. Or is there a third way?

At each structural juncture, your character is more and more screwed in this imaginary poker game. At the midpoint, he or she is all in. With a bad hand. Audiences are conditioned to believe that your main character will in fact succeed. But with that hand? All in? It’s not possible. Or is it?

For many new screenwriters, structure, which is deceptively simple, is a very difficult thing to wrap their minds around. Try looking at it from three points of view: Academic, Audience-ometer and Character Arc.

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