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Screen Play Elements (Story) – Part 2

In my previous post Screen Play Elements – Part 1, I talked about the importance of the Three Act Structure. In this post, I’ll talk about STORY, what it means and how it’s used in the Three Act Structure. I’ll cover what makes Act One important, how Act Two is used to tell story, and Act Three’s role in ending the story.

ACT 1 – The Beginning
The first few moments during the beginning of the movie are critical to get right. The first moments establish viewer expectations wherein the writer is making a promise to tell a specific type of story. The genre, crime, comedy, drama, thriller, horror, fantasy or science fiction, must to be established up front. You can’t promise a comedy and somewhere in the script change it into a drama. Those first moments signal what type of story to expect and viewers will expect the conventions of that genre to be followed. For example, magic is acceptable in fantasy but not as a device to solve a crime in a modern setting (unless of course it’s urban fantasy).

If it’s an action story, start with action. If it’s a comedy, start with something comedic and light (including the music), if it’s a horror, start with something dark and horrible and scary. Establish the world your story takes place in. The beginning moments set tone, style and mood. Once we know what type of story to expect, the rest of Act One sets up the CENTRAL conflict and what motivates the protagonist to move forward into Act 2.

Remember the dreaded info dump that we’re told not to do at the beginning of a story? You know, explaining the world, explaining who the character is, what his or her issues are and what their favorite ice cream is? Same thing with the screen. In screen writing class, I learned a cool trick to approaching a beginning without info dumping. The trick is this:

MAKE THE AUDIENCE COME AND ASK YOU QUESTIONS

It’s that simple. Show the world, build the mood, put the protagonist into a situation or onto a course of action or set them in their regular routine but add something out of the ordinary to signal that there is a problem or to show a juxtaposition which makes us wonder WHY or WHAT IS HAPPENING? Even with an action or thriller, the first scenes may be unrelated to the central conflict, but they show action, attitude, and we are left wondering what the hero’s next dilemma will be.

Info dumping or shoveling information makes an author or screen writer look desperate – as if we’re trying to convince people to stay. It appears as if we’re desperately trying to show how much effort we’ve put into our special world and how much thought we’ve put into the character. It’s not about us. It’s about the story. STORY is what convinces viewers and readers to stay. Story is the hook. Info dumps are a NEEDY opening because it TELLS rather than shows. A CONFIDENT opening SHOWS without revealing everything. It makes us want more. Humans are curious by nature. We want to know what will happen next. If everything is explained up front, there is no reason to keep watching.

James Bond movies illustrate this point well. The opening scenes of a James Bond thriller have him involved in an action scene where the stakes are high and he’s outsmarting the villain. We don’t know the story behind this – this opening scene is there to captivate and intrigue us while setting the expectation for the type of movie we’ll see. In the next scene, James is getting his next assignment. Even then, we don’t get much information. The information we need to understand the villain and the dire situation, is meted out through the story. As James learns, so do we.

ACT 2 – The Middle
Act One establishes the plot – the genre, the world, the theme, the protagonist, the problem and the inciting incident. Unlike Act One, Act Two starts with us knowing the theme, the story and the problem. It has a clear mission for the plot.

This means that Act Two explores the ideas established in Act One. The exploration of these ideas is theme. Theme can be as simple as good versus evil, if that’s what your script is about. It can be about how people deal with death, if it’s drama. It can be about sacrifice for true love if it’s a love story. Whatever it is, understanding theme creates conflict and helps throw those proverbial rocks at the protagonist.

And throw those rocks we must, for that is how theme is explored and how action retains its momentum. The rocks get bigger, the hero is thrown into more dire situations and the issues surrounding theme become more evident. Half way through Act Two, there is the midpoint. At this midpoint, there is the AHA moment when something clicks or coalesces for our protagonist. The unsolvable problem has a solution. The protagonist beaten and thus far defeated by the villain, finds a way to beat the villain, or if inner resolve or confidence is lacking, the confidence begins to shine. The tables have turned and the protagonist finds a way to stop those rocks from being thrown. The protagonist becomes more active in his fate than merely reactive. The protagonist makes a CHOICE and that choice moves us toward Act Three and the final outcome. However, that doesn’t mean that there are no rocks left to throw because that is where the story would end and we would be missing Act Three.

The midpoint turn is structurally the fulcrum of the entire movie – the moment where the story stops being what it was at the beginning and starts becoming what it will be at the end. It is where chaos finally has a chance to become order and lack of control can become control.

But what is STORY?

Story deals with the issues which make a character sympathetic and they hook the reader into the character’s struggles. Story tells us why those rocks hurt so much. Story forms the character arc and informs the character’s choices.

Remember when I said to make your audience want more, to come and ask you questions? In Act One, through the opening scenes we get a hint of personality, a hint of background we don’t know but are curious enough to stay with the show. We know the character is somehow broken but we don’t understand why or how. In the second Act we learn more, bit by bit although we may not yet fully understand. Act Two reveals the past, the inner conflict, and explores the fear or issue the character is in denial of. Fears explore theme, inform the character arc, and make those rocks hurt even more. The elements of theme, character background, and character arc are designed to emotionally hook viewers. and collectively they are known as STORY.

Act 3-The End
We’ve talked about moving from chaos to order and from lack of control to control. These are the important points of plot and they will be wrapped up in Act Three. The villain is caught, the murder solved, the world is saved from the evil wizard. Solve the plot issues and you’ve got a good movie. Right?

Wrong.

Story, the part which forms theme and forms the character arc and the inner conflict the protagonist suffers from, must be wrapped up satisfactorily in Act Three.

 

Here’s an example to illustrate what I mean:

#1 – A plot is completed in Act Three
The boy lost his dog. (Act One). The boy searched for the dog. (Act Two). The boy found the dog. (Act Three).

#2 – Plot and story (theme and character arc) are both resolved in Act Three
Tommy is having a hard time because his mother is dying. When his dog Sam goes missing, he chooses to look for Sam rather than spending time with his mother. (Act One) On his journey, Sam feels guilty for not being with his mom but he also wants to find his dog. He gets into situations and meets people who give him a differnt perspective on life. (Act Two)

The plot arc here is the hero’s journey during which Tommy enters the world of the unfamiliar and returns to the familiar a changed person. Tommy’s character arc must take him from denial to acceptance of death. Dealing with the death of someone you love is the theme. Here, story is about Tommy’s inner conflict of dealing with his mother’s impending death, the things he experiences and the lessons he learns about life as he searches for his dog and perhaps there may be some physical danger.

How do we wrap up this story in Act Three which wraps up both plot and story??
Tommy returns home. (He’s a kid and the hero’s journey dictates he return home.)

Perhaps the dog Sam doesn’t exist but is a metaphor for the loss Tommy is about to experience. So, Tommy never finds Sam, has to deal with that reality and he returns home and is more comfortable about being with his dying mother. OR, Sam is real, and Tommy finds Sam and has hope his mother will get better. If that hope is not realized you have a character who has to face a painful reality. OR, Tommy does or doesn’t find Sam and he returns home and learns his mother has died. That’s a huge tragedy and I’m bawling my eyes out! How Tommy handles the situation upon his return will illustrate how he has changed.

See the difference in examples #1 and #2? That’s the difference between a satisfying script creating a satisfying movie. That satisfaction comes from completing Tommy’s emotional journey and his character arc. We in turn feel either happy or sad depending on the final outcome.

A great ending must also be both surprising and inevitable. The clues must be there for the viewer to feel the conclusion is logical. At the end the audience must feel they had the ability to solve the ending all along. For example, while Tommy is looking for Sam, he tells someone that Sam is the best, loyal dog in the world, or he wishes he was. If in the end we learn that Sam isn’t real, it’s a surprise but also inevitable because we were given the clue that Sam isn’t real.

Screen writing and the movie industry have some very valuable lessons for writers on using the Three Act Structure to tell a story. Here are my three take-aways:

Act One is best used to make the audience ask questions and want more;

Act Two is where theme, inner conflict and character arc make rocks hurt a lot; and

Act Three is where the story ends in both a surprising and inevitable way, and a satisfying ending is created when both plot and story are resolved.

Whether writing a acreen play or a novel, the Three Act Structure is a great tool to help us tell our stories in a compelling and memorable way.

 

Screen Play Elements – Part 1

I have no trouble suspending disbelief when I watch a movie or a television show so I wasn’t good at analyzing how movies are structured. To better understand how big screen movies, made for television movies, and television shows are structured, I took an on-line screen writing course withi Bill Radkin. During this course, I came to appreciate what is involved in creating a compelling screen play.

If I asked you what are the two key points to writing a screen play, what would you say?
Strong plot. I agree. It’s important.
Snappy dialogue. Yes, that too.
Using formatting specific to screen plays. Absolutely.
Great characters. Of course.

All these things are important but there are two things which pull this list together to make a memorable movie. These are a having a good STORY and the THREE ACT STRUCTURE.

Today, I’ll explain the Three Act Structure from a screen writer’s perspective. You may understand the Three Act Structure for novels and have a general idea about how to use it, but for screen writing it is a specific formula. STORY has a specific definition and use within the Three Act Structure. I will delve into this in tomorrow’s post Screen Play Elements (Story) – Part 2.

In the following table, I have condensed the key elements of screen plays.

Key Elements of the Three Act Structure

Act 1 Act 2 Act 3
Beginning Middle End
25%

50% (25% + midpoint + 25%)

25%

Set up

Protagonist gets up a tree

Complication

Rocks are thrown at the protagonist

Resolution

Protagonist gets down the tree

Chaos More chaos Order
Lack of control/information Lack of control– midpoint AHA moment – control begins to be established Control
Central problem with inciting incident established. Ends with a major turning point in the plot/problem complicated and stakes raised by end of Act 1 More complications, major turning point around the middle of the act which is a reversal. Ends with a major turning point (taking charge of situation but not resolving issues), complication or escalation Final confrontation. Protagonist resolves problem /overcomes issues (depends if tragic or happy ending) and order is restored.
Plot oriented (you know where to begin) Story oriented (where theme and ideas are explored) Plot oriented (you know where it ends)

The TREE refers to putting the protagonist into a threatening situation.

The ROCKS are CONFLICT. Conflict takes two forms: external and internal.

External conflict is plot oriented and forms the action. It is the problem, disaster, or situation the protagonist will try to solve, get away from, or realize.

Internal conflict happens when a character deals with internal issues and some type of change occurs (not always. James Bond is always James Bond.) Character change or growth creates the character arc. Internal conflict means fear. The protagonist is afraid of something such as losing someone (family, society); losing something like wealth, prestige, treasure, or a job; or is afraid of change as brought about by an antagonist (the world as it is known, a societal or political change).

Every movie has one major or CENTRAL conflict which creates the SET UP in Act One. The problem is evident, the solution seems impossible, and the stakes are so high that the protagonist is compelled to do something. Once the protagonist is compelled to do something, that moves the story from Act One to Act Two. The Set Up occurs in the first 25% of the movie.

Having a strong central conflict helps avoid the murky middle of Act Two. All scenes must directly involve the central conflict. If they don’t, they’re not adding to the story problems and the story is going in the wrong direction. In other words, they’re not throwing rocks at the protagonist and making matters bad enough that he or she needs to finally figure it out and find some inner resolve to overcome the problem. This is a good point to remember when revising your novel.

A strong central conflict is also used to explore THEME whether it be as simple as good versus evil, the development of a person into a hero, or privilege and income disparity. All characters, reflect the theme as they are either for, against or ambivalent towards it. In every good movie, you’ll see this is true. We stay focused on the central problem and we’re hoping for a triumphant outcome until the end.

How do you know if you’re throwing rocks at the central problem or if the story has gone in the wrong direction? Outline. If you don’t like to outline from the start, do it when you’re finished. Write one line about each scene and focus on the rock. Then decide if the one-line description illustrates the central conflict. If it does, great. If not, either delete that scene or change it.

In the first half of Act Two, the protagonist’s problem keeps getting worse and worse and there seems to be no way to resolve it. The protagonist is missing information, is the hunted or the villain untouchable and keeps jeopardising the protagonist’s mission. Then, in the middle of the act, the MID POINT TURN occurs. Almost exactly (time it, and you’ll see). That is when the protagonist has an AHA moment in which he changes from the pursues to the pursuer, from the victim to the victor. Fortunes change at this point and chaos begins to turn into order. However, it is still a dangerous time for the protagonist because although fortunes have changed, the resolution is not easy. Rocks are still thrown, but they don’t hurt quite as much.

Act Three is where the resolution occurs. The protagonist is the victor except perhaps in a tragedy but the central conflict is resolved or explored to completion. Every question or issue which was set up in Act One is resolved and order is restored.

Pick a favorite movie and with these elements from the Three Act Structure in mind, time it. Do this for the great novels which have been turned into screen plays. Do this only once or twice otherwise, movies may become predictable and it’ll be hard to suspend disbelief and enjoy them. After all, the goal of a novel or movie is to take us to another world for a short time. By understanding how movies work, it’ll empower us as writers to tell compelling stories which readers will flock to.

Join me tomorrow when I discuss STORY.

Adapting Story to the Screen – Big Jackpot or Nothing?

Does your story have the potential to be a big blockbuster? Will it ever be possible to get your story on the screen? What makes a story good for an adaptation?

Like the revolution which happened in the book industry, from book stores to ebooks, from big and medium press publishers to indie publishing, the film industry is undergoing a similar revolution. Why?

  • Production costs have plummeted
  • Post-production is cheap – there are many options for picture and sound editing software
  • Distribution is available on several web sites or you can host your own

These changes have increased the opportunities for your story to be made into a movie.

Yes, your story, novel or short, can be scripted for the screen, whether it’s the big screen or a small one, or on the internet. It’s a big undertaking, but it can be done. Consider this though: not everyone is a writer and there are people who are looking for scripts for the small screen. For example, NetFlix has created a world of story production that wasn’t previously available. Production companies of all sizes, including independent producers, are looking for scripts so there are opportunities outside of Hollywood. Film festivals are resplendent with short films and they’re a good venue through which to get noticed – for you the writer and the producer.

When I write, I always see my stories as a movie. But does that mean my stories can be adapted into a movie? I needed to know so I took an online course with famed screen writer Bill Rabkin. Many of my points and examples are taken from that course. Thank you Bill! I knew that a good story is necessary, but what makes a story compelling enough to be made into a movie? Many of the things we know about good writing are also true in scripts, but here are a few things to be aware of when writing a script:

1) A great concept which makes the audience ask What happens next? is a must. An example: A nerdy teenager is bitten by a radioactive spider and gets superpowers.

2) Compelling characters embody what your story is about and are defined by his or her central conflict. All character details must relate to conflict because character is conflict and conflict is character. The only way we understand any character is by the choice he or she makes in pursuit of a goal.

3) Film is a visual medium much like a cartoon with a caption. This means that the internal monologue, the heavy thinking, all the pages of lovely prose, and all the long passages of dialogue are gone! Everything must be conveyed externally. In short – write what can be seen. Therefore, the conflict, the choices a character makes must be conveyed externally.

4) Most films follow the Three Act Structure: ACT 1 the set up with a disorganizing event (which can happen off screen and sometimes isn’t revealed until the end), the central problem, and inciting incident (which kicks the story into motion) which ends in a major turning point in the plot(25 pages); ACT 2 the complications with a major turning point in the middle with a big reversal. It doesn’t simply continue the ideas found in Act 1 – it explores and enriches them thus taking on depth and meaning/theme (50 pages); and ACT 3 the resolution (25 pages). And yes, movie scripts are approximately 100 pages long. The most important thing to know about structure is that following structure by itself doesn’t guarantee a good script – it is used to convey the meaning of your story.

4) Scripts have a format which must be followed exactly. There are lots of examples online but it’s easiest to use software. For free writing software check out programs like Celtx.

Now that we have some of the basics, let’s talk about adaptations. We’ve all seen some that work and others that don’t. Adaptations don’t work for me, not because of plot or setting changes, but when characters aren’t close to what I imagined when I read the book. For example, I was disappointed in a made for television movie of The Walkers of Dembly, an Agatha Raisin novel by MC Beaton. The protagonist was very different from the one I had imagined (in looks and character) in the series and another favorite character was missing. The convention of the cozy mystery weighs heavily on character and if those personalities are too different from the book, knowledgeable viewers won’t be happy. If plot or setting changes occur, viewers tend to be more forgiving if the characters’ actions have a ring of truth about them. That is why some stories adapt well to television series and can go for seasons ‘based on’ the original on with plots which were never written in the books. Other series that have adapted successfully due to acting, script writing and direction are Murdoch Mysteries, Rizzoli and Isles and the British drama series, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot.

Character and dialogue (along with setting) create the tone of the movie and getting that tone right is what makes for a good adaptation. Screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson’s expressed it best when she said “…it’s really all about figuring out what I can add to create a tone that‘s filmically the same as the literary tone, because tone is the most important thing, and I almost think you could do anything you want, after that.” Wilson wrote the script for The Girl on the Train and the reviews have been great. You can find Andrew Bloomenthal’s interview at SCRIPT (Division of The Writers Store) by clicking here: INTERVIEW: Screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson Brings ‘The Girl on the Train’ to Life.

We’re familiar with novels and trilogies and series making it to television or to the big screen. Take heart short story writers – if you have a compelling concept, memorable characters mired in conflict, and great plot, your concept can make it to the screen too. Check out Ted Chiang’s sci fi story “Story of Your Life” then see the movie Arrival. After you’ve compared the similarities and the differences, and see how the story was adapted, perhaps you’ll be inspired to adapt your creations for the screen.

It’s not the big jackpot or nothing! There are as many opportunities in books and film as we have imagination. We’ve been practicing the art of storytelling and now all we need to do is to learn the conventions of script writing and the film industry and a whole new world of possibilities will unfold.