Bringing Structure to Your Story
Your characters, acting within the constraints of their environments, determine the trajectory of your narrative. The action of the script must be an organic extension of those rules, but finding your arc often takes deliberate planning. The following ideas will help you think about your script’s bigger picture.
1. Thinking in Timelines
How do you imagine your screenplay’s story? If you’re a visual person—and many moviemakers are—a timeline may be a good pictorial tool for creating the chronological outlines of your characters’ lives.
Create a timeline for the internal and external events in your character’s life from the beginning to the end of your story. Internal events are things that happen to your character inside his or her mind or body. External events are those that happen physically (i.e. meeting people, going places, etc.).
2. Movie Breakdown
Closely observing and deconstructing existing films can provide a window into the art of storytelling.
1. Pick one movie and watch it twice.
2. Make a list of every character.
3. Make a list of every scene, chronicling where the scene takes place, and composing a very brief description of the scene’s purpose. Is it purely for character development, or does it also move the plot forward?
4. Describe in a paragraph the arcs of each of the main characters. In another paragraph, describe the trajectory of the entire film.
3. The Three-Act Structure
The three-act structure has been one of the most influential tools for screenplay development. Researching and attaining an understanding of its history and applicability is essential to the burgeoning screenwriter.
1. Research the three-act structure, tracing it back to its Aristotelian roots. I won’t tell you where to start, because searching is part of the learning process.
2. Write a four-page (2,000-word) essay on the three-act structure based on your findings. What are its most basic tenets, and how do most writers apply it? What are its limitations? What are some of the challenges against it? What are some of the movies that use it best? Has it developed over time? If so, how has it changed?
3. Finally, take your favorite film and see if you can break it into its particular acts.
Re-Writing Your Script
The first draft is the biggest hurdle to clear during the screenwriting process. But it’s far from the last. Once you’ve composed the preliminary iteration of your script, you have to hone it into something filmable. Editing may be a daunting prospect, but the tips below will make it considerably more manageable.
1. The Interview
You’ve finished a draft of your script. Congratulations! Now it’s time to re-write. But before you start, get someone to help you clarify your thoughts by interviewing you about the screenplay.
Have a trustworthy, intelligent friend interview you about your script.
Here are some questions he or she should as you:
• Can you describe the story?
• What do you like about your work?
• What do you want to change?
• What should you never change? Why?
• How do you feel about yourself as a writer?
• If you had to give up your script to a production company today, what would you be embarrassed about? Conversely, what are you most proud of?
2. Editing for Character Consistency
Sometimes we get so into the challenge of finishing our screenplays that we forget to go back and make sure our characters have a consistent voice.
1. Read a screenplay that you or someone else has written.
2. Get into the mindset of one character and read the script while thinking only from her perspective.
3. Consider what sounds natural, and what sounds awkward. In what ways is the character well-conceived, and in what ways is she superficial? What could make her actions more consistent?
3. Re-Imagining the Scenario
The art of re-writing lives in your ability to let go of key concepts in your original work. As you edit, you may well excise more than you add. Letting go of your artistic ego and opening yourself up to criticism is invaluable to achieving a successful second draft.
1. Pick a scene that involves one protagonist, one antagonist, and a neutral third person.
2. Switch the roles of the characters (the antagonist becomes neutral, the protagonist becomes the antagonist, the neutral party becomes the protagonist), and re-write the scene.
3. Write a one-page exploration of how the scene changed when the roles got reversed. MM
For more exercises, ideas, and information—as well as links for downloading the full book—visit ScreenwritersToolkit.com. This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Complete Guide to Making Movies 2014.