Thursday, April 19, 2012

How Screenwriting Paradigms Help And Hinder The Screenwriter

Screenwriting tutors advocate a variety of useful screenwriting methods, but the trick is to know at what stage of the writing process to consult which of them.

In a recent episode of the On The Page screenwriting podcast, screenwriter Irving Belateche related how he changed his attitude to what he calls ‘screenwriting paradigms’ and the dramatic improvement this had on his writing. The essence of his story seems to me to encapsulate everything that’s good and bad about screenwriting templates: He discovered that he could write much more freely and creatively if he only started checking for plot points, sequence breaks, act breaks and the like, after he’d finished writing the story. He found that too much ‘thinking about the writing’ too soon, detracted from his ability to create.

I don’t believe there are any rules about whether it’s better to check for plot points before, during or after writing an outline or even a first draft. But I think it’s wise to be aware of the essential difference between a creative and an analytical mindset.

Creation Versus Analysis
Creative work is putting disparate things together to produce something new, while analytical work is taking something apart to identify it’s components. The two are complimentary aspects of screenwriting, but they’re fundamentally different. I like to move back and forth from creative to analytical modes, but trying to do both at the same time usually spells trouble. In other words, if I’m writing a scene and I’m trying to force it to have a particular function in the story, I remove myself from the flow of imaginative writing. On the other hand, it can be helpful going into a scene knowing in advance that this is where, say, the main character is going to make a really stupid decision that leads to a specific event further on in the story.

The various well-known screenwriting paradigms all defer at some level to the three-act structure paradigm, but they operate at different levels of abstractness or specificity and none of them is The Truth About How To Write A Screenplay. Knowing which model is appropriate to the current stage of a project, can make the difference between finding inspiration and encouragement or feeling discouraged and inadequate.

Here are some of the more famous models, and what I personally find useful (and dangerous) about them:

Three-Act Structure
Beginning - middle - end
Basically, the beginning, middle and end of a story. The simplest form of story structure. The usual division is 1%-25% first act, 26%-75% second act, and 76%-100% third act, but it’s not an exact science. I like to know in general terms how my story is going to end before I start outlining, although not all screenwriters do. But knowing what sets the story in motion and what complicates things in the middle, is also handy… I find the three act notion a helpful way of thinking about the very big, rough idea of the story, as you might describe it in a short synopsis or in a pitch to your auntie, rather than anything more detailed than that. It’s also handy to be able to tell people who want to hear these things, where you are in a story when you’re pitching it.

One disadvantage of this model is that it’s so ubiquitous, that it can prompt you to abandon what might be a really interesting idea because you can’t squeeze it into a three-act jacket from the get-go. Sometimes an idea for a story will start from a point that later turns out to be the ending, or perhaps the original inspirational scene or beat won’t survive into the final draft at all. If you’re too hung up on “it has to have three acts” from the moment you start brainstorming, you might miss out on some great ideas.

Five Major Turning Points
This is the model advocated by people like Syd Field, Michael Hauge and lots of others. It’s essentially the same three acts divided into two parts, with a major plot-changing event at each division. It’s just specific enough to be more than the basic idea, and it gives a little bit more flesh to the central personal conflict and the big dramatic question at the heart of the story. I find it a handy expansion on the basic beginning-middle-end form, and also something that can help put the basic story in place before adding much detail. Alternatively, it’s a way of looking at what you’ve already written to see if the story has a sense of rising stakes and tension as it progresses.

Eight Sequences
Also known as the mini-movie method, this is way of writing a screenplay that goes all the way back to the days when films literally consisted of eight reels of celluloid. The idea is to write towards a big dramatic moment or turning point every 10-15 pages or so, within the overall notion of a three-act structure. Each sequence contains three mini-acts too. Lots of people advocate this method because it allows the writer to focus on one short section of the screenplay at a time, which is easier to manage. It also ensures you have plenty of rising tension and dramatic moments, because each sequence builds towards its own climax, so the story takes at least seven major turns.

Example of a screwed creative mind
In abstract terms, each sequence has its own specific focus, from set-up and theme, through increasingly challenging obstacles and increasingly desperate attempts to solve the problems while avoiding the underlying emotional challenge, all the way to the final climax and resolution. Here’s one simple overview of the eight sequences, which right away demonstrates how going into this kind of detail before you start writing might screw your creative mind… I certainly find it inhibiting. One way of using this method in the outlining process that I do find useful, is just to summarize each sequence in a couple of sentences and then get on with inventing scenes. But equally, it’s a way of analysing something you’ve already written, enabling you to see where perhaps the story needs expanding or trimming.

Fifteen Beats: Save the Cat
Much-used book and accompanying software, STC is yet another expansion on the three act notion, but which pays more attention to visual aspects (opening and closing images, the “save the cat moment”), a B-story (subplot) and the antagonistic force in the story. The software actually helps you expand the basic beats into 40 main scenes, which then becomes a detailed outline from which to write a first draft. Some people criticize this approach as being too “writing by numbers,” but other screenwriters swear by it, and it can certainly help create a very tight outline as a jumping off point. The trick is not to take this approach too literally (e.g., in terms of page numbers), but to let it stimulate your imagination. However, I find this kind of paradigm can tempt you into being too analytical while you’re writing. On the site there are numerous analyses of blockbuster movies, broken down into the fifteen STC beats. It’s tempting to think this is how they were written too, but again, analysis after the fact isn’t the same as the creative work before it.

The Hero’s Journey
Also known as the mythical form, or the monomyth, this is another much-touted model for writing screenplays. It was originally formulated by Christopher Volger in his famous book The Writers Journey, but since then many people have adopted various form of the same model as their standard. For example, Stanley D. Williams, who uses an incredibly detailed graph called The Story Diamond to map out the steps of the hero’s journey in a screenplay. Personally, I’ve not been able (yet?) to get inspired by this model, as it feels too prescriptive for me. It’s also based on a psychological assumption that I don’t share, which is that individual willpower can overcome any adverse circumstances in life (call me European if you want to…). However, this is certainly a great model to consult if you are writing a story with a single hero setting out on a quest of some sort.

Twenty-Two Steps
Some of the 22 steps
This is the John Truby method, which again goes into far more detail than the previously mentioned models. Truby claims that his method is made for writers whereas other methods aren’t, and he offers different classes for different genres. What I find useful is his book The Anatomy of Story, which I dip into every now and then to remind myself, for example, that besides a behavioural flaw, my main character needs a moral flaw too. The danger of Truby (and this goes for Robert McKee too, I find) is that they use a lot of prescriptive and judgemental language. Phrases like, “…a good story must have…” or, “…a well-written character always has…” I find if I try and follow this kind of thinking while I’m inventing a story, it just makes me feel I’m doing stuff wrong all the time, because I like to explore possibilities and come to story decisions by encountering dead ends. I like my creative work messy. Still, Truby is very good at analysing current films, and I often find his observations inspiring. Again here, the danger is to imagine that whoever wrote the films he’s analysing, wrote them with his terminology in mind. Also, his admonition to acknowledge what kind of film (genre) you want to be writing and to familiarize yourself totally with its particular story beats, is in itself a valuable insight.

Non-linear structure
I’m a great fan of screenwriting teacher Linda Aronson, whose focus is on screenplays that don’t follow the standard chronological, linear model or have multiple main characters and storylines. Lots of big mainstream movies play around with structure, and it’s been a staple of TV scripts for ever. But as Aronson emphasizes, in the end, all the various story strands are themselves emotional stories with a beginning, middle and end. She also stresses that the form has to be appropriate for the type of story you want to tell, rather than a just gimmick. And indeed, the danger of this model is that you are tempted to mould an ordinary story in a fashionable but inappropriate form. Here, again, you might only discover in the course of writing that a traditional linear form isn’t the right one for your story, or you might start out with a non-linear form in mind and realize it’s not appropriate. I personally find it useful to “try” to tell a story in this kind of form at an early stage in the writing. It’s usually pretty clear quite soon whether, say, shifting the chronology around is going to increase the suspense or just create confusion. Still, it could equally be something to consider once a first draft is finished.

In the end, the only thing that counts is what works for each individual screenwriter. But merely knowing there’s an option to analyze later rather than sooner, might be enough to give your creative juices free rein. It’s liberating, but also reassuring: Whether you prefer to start with a shape and gradually fill it in, or start with bits and pieces that gradually become a shape, I think the main thing is to be aware that these are two sides of the same coin. And each new project dictates which method is most appropriate because ultimately, the method serves the screenplay, not the other way around.

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