Shortly after posting Part Two of this article, I received the following email:
Dear Corey, I’m hoping you can help me. I used to write to the Save the Cat paradigm and was always told my scripts felt formulaic with many of the plot points not seeming organic enough. I also got dinged for having somewhat flat characters. So I switched to writing from my gut, letting the characters do and say what the characters would really do and say. People who read these scripts said the characters were strong but the structure was weak, and while the first 20 to 30 pages were good, the story lost momentum after that. You say professional writers know how to create strong, organic non-formulaic structure. How the hell do they do that? And more importantly, how the hell can I learn to do that? Thank you in advance for your response.
Story structure is hard. Anyone who has ever tried to write a screenplay knows this. And as the above email illustrates, most aspiring writers tend to take one of two approaches.
Some become students of structure. They read books, take seminars and classes, learning as much as they can. They want to understand and utilize the universal paradigms and structural beats needed to tell a compelling story. But unfortunately, more often then not, this path does not lead to success.
Others take a more intuitive approach. They eschew the popular paradigms on the grounds that, no matter what claims are made, they are all basically cookie-cutter formulas that deprive adherents from creating original material. These writers strive to produce unique, character-driven scripts that will succeed based on the freshness of the stories and characters. But unfortunately, more often then not, this path does not lead to success.
I would like to offer an explanation for why both approaches are so damn hard to pull-off and present a third option with better odds of success. But first I will start with a metaphor illustrating the true challenge of story structure.
THE WINE GLASS
Imagine you just sold a script for a million dollars and an outrageous celebration is in order. You invite your favorite person to an expensive restaurant and decide to go all out. When the sommelier presents the wine list you throw caution to the wind and order a $3,500 bottle of Petrus Pomerol.
Now imagine you and your companion are driving home after dinner discussing the meal and the subject of the wine comes up. What might that conversation sound like?
You might rave about how truly special it was, the subtle hint of berries, vanilla, mocha and oak–the perfect compliment to an exquisite meal. Or perhaps you say you can’t believe they had the nerve to charge $3,500 for wine that didn’t really taste any better then the Trader Joe’s two-buck chuck you recently consumed. Or you might comment on how much you drank (hopefully you’re not the one driving). There’s a whole bunch of things that might be discussed, but there’s one thing you probably won’t be talking about….
The wine glass.
Unless there was something wrong with it.
I know this is absurd, but imagine the waiter informs you that, in order to cut costs, the restaurant is no longer using actual wine glasses, which need to be washed after each use. Instead it is using disposable Dixie Cups. And after explaining this, he proceeds to pour your $3,500 Petrus Pomeral into tiny wax-lined paper cups.
Or employing even more aggressive cost-cutting measures, the restaurant had stopped buying Dixie Cups and the waiter plops the bottle of wine in the middle of the table, instructing you guys to swig away. This would probably warrant a place in the post-meal discussion.
This is the sad plight of the wine glass. If it does its job correctly it never gets noticed. It only gets attention when something is wrong with it.
In screenwriting, story structure is like the wine glass.
And the wine is the reason we all want to be writers. The wine is our characters, dialogue, subtext, themes and emotional connections. It is what makes stories memorable and meaningful. It is why we go to the movies.
The job of structure is to contain this wine in an appropriately designed vessel to allow the reader/viewer to fully experience and enjoy it. When the structure does its job properly, we tend not to notice it. But when it doesn’t do its job, we aren’t able to fully experience and appreciate the wine.
With this in mind, I’d like to explain why the two commonly taken approaches to structure are so difficult to pull off.
THE WINE-DRIVEN APPROACH
Imagine you are dining at a restaurant with a great wine list but no wineglasses, so when you order wine they simply pour it over you and your companion. No matter how amazing that wine might be, you’re probably not going to go back.
This is the problem writers tend to encounter when they write from an intuitive, character-driven perspective.
They might create great “wine,” but it’s not being properly contained in a “glass.” So these writers often have unique, well-drawn characters wandering about in search of a compelling story that they never quite seem to find.
It’s no surprise that these writers tend to have a drawer full of aborted half-scripts that started out strong enough but couldn’t go the distance. And the scripts they do complete aren’t usually successful. These writers receive praise for their original characters, dialogue and overall voice, but are told it doesn’t add up to anything. The story lacks the narrative momentum required to sustain a reader’s interest. This is because they have great wine but lack a strong wineglass.
These writers are told they need to learn structure if they want to have a career.
After hearing that enough times, many of them throw in the towel on the intuitive approach and start forcing their scripts to adhere to the popular story paradigms, no matter how creatively frustrating or constipating such an approach might be. But unfortunately that path leads to it’s own type of failure.
THE ONE-SIZE-FITS-ALL APPROACH
Imagine you’re opening a new restaurant and need to buy glasses. As you’re looking over a vendor’s cost sheet you notice that shot glasses are a heck of a lot cheaper then other kinds of glasses, so you decide to buy a whole bunch of shot glasses and nothing else. So when your customers order red wine they will get it served in a shot glass. When someone wants an after-dinner coffee, it will come in a shot glass. The same with champagne, cocktails and water: everything delivered in a shot glass.
Of course you would never actually do this. Sure, you’d save some money in glass procurement expenses, but it’s going to be terribly hard to keep your customers coming back after they tried to drink hot coffee in a shot glass.
Because we don’t live in a world with a one-size-fits-all approach to glasses.
There are different shapes and sizes of glasses designed for different kinds of beverages. And it’s not just aesthetics, there are important functional reasons for these different designs.
It’s the same with screenwriting.
Every story has its own unique type of wine that needs to be contained in a custom-shaped glass designed to best support and enhance this particular wine.
That’s why, as discussed in Part Two of this article, the agents and managers who come to my UCLA classes always warn my students not to use the formulas. They lead to boring, predictable, homogeneous scripts populated by puppet-like characters forced to say and do things to serve pre-ordained plot points.
The story structure paradigms are blueprints for a one-size-fits-all wineglass. And prostituting our wine to make it fit a generic, one-size-fits-all glass, is a terrible way to write a screenplay.
Because nobody walks into a restaurant and orders a wine glass.
Just like nobody goes to see When Harry Met Sally because of its structure. We go because it’s funny, smart and romantic, and it has great characters we want to spend time with.
We go for the wine.
But in order to fully experience and enjoy that wine it must be served in a wineglass custom-designed to support and enhance it.
When Harry Met Sally doesn’t fit the popular story paradigms. There’s no page 17 inciting incident. No big event happening on page 25. No page 30 act-break. When Harry Met Sally has a uniquely shaped wineglass specifically designed to support and enhance it’s own type of wine.
The same is true with The Social Network and King’s Speech, and countless other great scripts. This is what successful writers do.
Successful writers learn how to design and build custom-structured glasses that best support and enhance their own flavor of wine, whatever that might be.
A BETTER APPROACH
In Adventures in the Screen Trade, William Goldman writes, “Yes, nifty dialogue helps one hell of a lot; sure, it’s nice if you can bring your characters to life. But you can have terrific characters sprouting just swell talk to each other, and if the structure is unsound, forget it.”
That is obviously true. But it would be equally true if the quote were rewritten to say:
Yes, having a well-executed structure helps one hell of a lot. But if you can’t bring your characters to life, and you don’t have compelling dialogue, and your individual scenes are boring and flat, forget it.
Because we need both: great characters and great structure. Wine and wineglass.
And following the paradigms usually leads to neither.
Forcing our characters and stories to serve some pre-ordained one-size-fits-all structure means corrupting our wine in order to make it fit into a highly predictable, formulaic glass. Which is why the agents and managers who come to my UCLA classes warn against this approach. It is also why professional writers don’t use the paradigms, no matter what those who make a living selling story formulas would like us to believe.
The key to success is knowing how to create strong, organic, non-formulaic wineglasses specifically custom-designed to support and enhance our unique type of wine.
How can this be done?
I’ll answer that in the next, and last, part of this blog post.
Posted in Corey’s Blog | April 7, 2011