The only script I’ve written ever made into a movie is The Impossible Murder. However, I have written at least ten full length scripts and ten short film scripts since I began writing in 1999. I don’t claim to be an expert, and these are my views on the subject:
The Three Act Structure
What is the Three act structure, commonly attributed to being formulated by Aristotle?
Simply put, it means that everything must have a beginning, middle and an end. This is in fact a tautology of sorts, since every type of art must start and end. It applies to life and death, the seasons, day and night, ad nauseam.
However, what defines its practical utility is in trying to explain a beginning after the logical beginning, and an ending before the logical end. This is shown in the image above, where the logical middle is divided into the beginning, middle and end. This analogy from life which Aristotle drew, has given rise to countless interpretations among various ‘experts’, but basically they all say the same thing. Which is:
Every screenplay must have a beginning, middle and end. The middle starts when the story can no longer go back to the beginning, and the end begins, when the story can longer go back to the middle.
This is formulated by a paradigm created by Syd Field in his seminal book Screenplay (1979). He basically marks the point joined by the beginning and middle as Plot Point One; and the point joined by the middle and the end as Plot Point Two. This paradigm is the most used in Hollywood to estimate and judge the structure of a screenplay. Many screenwriters follow this paradigm to a T. For those wishing to learn about this paradigm, I strongly suggest buying and reading the book. There is no better book for a writer.
Character and Story
What about an alternate view? This is advocated by Richard Walter, a professor at UCLA, in his famous book Screenwriting: The Art, Craft, and Business of Film and Television Writing. What he basically says is this:
One can write anything as long as with every step forward (action or dialog), we either learn something new about the character, or the story.
In this case, there is no need to worry about a structure, and the story doesn’t need to have a point or a ‘solution’. The closest example of this type of writing is in poetry, where you just enjoy the moment, and forget about plot and story.
What if we marry both?
We can incorporate both methods for powerful personal storytelling. This is what I follow in my writing. I haven’t read any screenwriting books other than the ones I’ve mentioned. If a screenplay or script avoids these ‘rules’, then it is doomed from the start. The worst that can be said of a screenplay is that it is boring.
The Hero’s Journey
Another powerful paradigm often referred to in the annals of scriptwriting is the hero’s journey, or the Monomyth. Joseph Campbell, in his book A hero with a thousand faces, outlined a basic structure for all mythical (or mythological) storytelling, which he ‘discovered’ after studying ancient texts from all over the world. This is summarized as:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
Even though this sounds very strange, it can be used (and is used), for almost every type of screenplay. By careful study, one can incorporate some of these ideas into any screenplay. I use the monomyth mainly to find flaws in the screenplay, or to help bring out the characters better.
I find sticking to too many rules stifles the personalization of my screenplay. Otherwise it will seem like anyone could have written it. However, if personalization is not your thing, and art is the last thing on your mind, then feel free to follow Syd Field’s paradigm strictly. At least you’ll have a readable script if nothing else.
Once you have written a script, now what? Whom do you show it to?
The last person you should show it to is someone who does not know how to read a script. Unfortunately, for must of us in India, it means hardly anybody. This is proven by the fact that most movies made in India have very weak structures. One way to get around this problem is to hire a consultant. But what if you don’t have money?
Try Trigger Street, a web based community providing a platform for undiscovered talent to showcase their work and receive peer feedback and criticism. You can submit your script here, where other screenwriters will assess and review your work, and you get the chance to review theirs in return. Don’t forget to protect your work prior to submission. If you are lucky, they might even buy your script.
For further reading, try Phil Gladwin’s book.
For a one stop shop software that will allow you to take all the story ideas dancing in your head and transform them into fully-developed short stories, novels, and screenplays, try StoryCraft.
All the best!