Saturday, June 7, 2008

The Rules of Screenwriting #4, #5

4. Movies have one main dramatic question - it is a yes or no question - and the audience usually will know the answer before the movie begins, or in the first five minutes.

5. Movies have three acts, which contain seven main beats and an inciting incident.

I was going to lay more groundwork for these rules, but in the spirit of 'getting to it', I'm going to skip straight to the meat.

The typical movie follows a structure known as ‘the three act structure’. That’s just a fancy way of saying ‘beginning, middle and end’. All movies have a beginning, a middle and an end. Within the three act structure, most movies also have seven main beats and an inciting incident.

(Disclaimer: All page numbers specified below can and do vary somewhat depending on the script, but the 7-beat structure is generally the same in most movies.) A page of screenplay roughly translates to a minute of screen time. A two hour movie will usually have a 120 page script. Let’s break that down:

pages 1-30 = 1st act
pages 31-90 = 2nd act
pages 91-120 = 3rd act

That is further broken down as follows:

pages 1-5 = setup the world, character, and central dramatic question
Page 5 = inciting incident
Page 15 = first main turning point or beat
Page 30 = second main beat, end of 1st act, point of no return
Page 45 = third main beat, raises the stakes
Page 60 = fourth main beat, midpoint, great change
Page 75 = fifth main beat (usually highpoint)
Page 90 = sixth main beat, end of second act, emotional low-point
Page 105 = seventh main beat, physical low-point and/or resolution beat.

Let’s further break down each of these beats and let’s start with pages 1-5. This is where the filmmaker introduces the audience to the world of the movie, to the main character or characters involved, and to the central dramatic question of the film. The central dramatic question of a movie is an obvious ‘yes or no’ question that the audience usually ‘knows’ the answer to before the movie really gets going. In JERRY MAGUIRE, for example, the main driving narrative question is: “Will Jerry live up to his mission statement and develop personal relationships?” The audience ‘knows’ (or at least senses) the answer is YES before the movie begins because the movie is marketed as an “up” movie and because the tone of the film is set from the first line of dialogue, a joke: ”This is the world. There are six billion people on it. When I was a kid, there were three. It’s tough to keep up.” (Very few movies change tone in the middle of the film and succeed. Preston Sturges’s SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS is the only one I can think of.)

Another example of a main dramatic question is: “Will Harry get Sally?” Anybody going to see that film expects Harry and Sally to end up together. The main narrative question of THE BREAKFAST CLUB is “Will these different high school students drop their stereotypes and become friends?” Why, yes they will, of course, because this is a movie and characters change in movies.

In STAR WARS, the main dramatic question is: “Will Luke Skywalker rescue the princess and use the Force to destroy the Death Star?” (Yep.)

Sometimes, the audience may not ‘know’ or even sense what the main dramatic question is right away. Most audiences are surprisingly unaware of the mechanics of movies despite having seen hundreds of them. For example, it is not necessarily crystal clear to the audience from the opening of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE that the main dramatic question is: “Will the system ‘fix’ Alex?” (No.) However, all the information the audience receives in the opening reinforces the main dramatic question by showing us the ultra-violent boys in their natural broken environment. Obviously we need to see Alex as he was before the State intervenes in order to understand his journey and who he becomes. No matter what, the filmmaker should know the central dramatic question of the film, because it is what will make the film ‘hang together’. This simple, central dramatic yes or no question is indispensable to screenplay structure. This main plot question is what drives the narrative of the movie and is what connects the seven main beats.

Returning to Jerry Maguire for a moment. Obviously, in addition to the central dramatic question, this film raises many others: Will Rod get his contract? Will Marcy have her baby? Will Bob Sugar get his comeuppance? Will Dorothy be ‘inspired’ by a man who loves her back? Will Laurel approve of Jerry Maguire? Will Ray get to go to the zoo? On an even deeper level, Jerry Maguire poses questions like: What does it mean to be a man? What does it mean to be a father? What does it mean to be a husband? What does it mean to be a human being? These other dramatic questions (known as subplots and themes) all tie into the main dramatic question, but they do not dictate the overall structure of the film. Jerry Maguire, at its most boiled-down core, is about Jerry Maguire living up to his mission statement. So, that is where we look for our seven beat outline:

Page 5: The inciting incident is the first major thing that happens that starts the plot of a movie. In any good movie, this inciting incident is the cause of everything. Without this inciting incident, nothing else in the movie could possibly happen. In JERRY MAGUIRE, the hockey player’s kid says ‘fuck you’ and Jerry responds by writing the mission statement. Without that mission statement, nothing in the movie would happen. Jerry wouldn’t get fired, he wouldn’t break up with Avery, he wouldn’t get together with Dorothy, he wouldn’t become friends with Rod, etc., etc.

In STAR WARS, the inciting incident is that Princess Leia puts the plans for the Death Star into R2D2 and sends him to get help from Obi Wan Kenobi. Without that inciting incident, nothing else in the movie can happen. Sometimes, the inciting incident happens before the movie begins, like in the Breakfast Club, when the characters all earn detention for separate reasons. In WHEN HARRY MET SALLY, the inciting incident is simply Harry meets Sally. You can’t have When Harry Met Sally if they don’t meet.

Page 15: First main beat. This is the midpoint of the first act and it should be directly connected to the inciting incident. In fact, this first main beat helps propel a film by being the first guidepost toward answering the central dramatic question. It also dramatically raises the stakes for the main character. Jerry Maguire gets fired. Luke Skywalker finds his aunt and uncle murdered by agents of the Empire. Harry and Sally part after the ride to New York. This first main beat should force the character to make a choice (the best movie characters are active) that will lead directly to the next main beat:

Page 30: The second main beat is also known as the end of the first act. This is usually the point of no return for the main character. Here, Jerry goes off to start his own firm. Luke Skywalker blasts out of the desert spaceport aboard the Millenium Falcon. The other pages in the first act are used to set up the world, and all the characters and their wants and needs. (In 95% of movies, you meet all the characters in the first act.) I have heard people say that the moment Luke Skywalker finds his aunt and uncle dead is the point of no return. However, he could still choose to stay and be a dirt farmer at that point. That choice will no longer be possible once he blasts out of the spaceport while killing Imperial stormtroopers. Same with Jerry Maguire. When he is fired, he tries to fall back on the Jerry-of-old: “Oh, I’m over it. Now I want my clients and yours too.” It is only when it becomes clear that he can no longer be the shark in a suit he used to be that he chooses to try to live up to his mission statement for real. Once he and Dorothy walk out of that SMI office, he can never return.

Page 45: Third main beat. The key to identifying a major beat lies in the ways it is a signpost for the main dramatic question and how it connects directly to the main beats before and after it. “Will Jerry live up to his mission statement (fewer clients, less money) and develop personal relationships?” Since this is our central dramatic question, the next major beat in Jerry Maguire is: Jerry loses Cush and breaks up with Avery. This is a new low point for Jerry.

All the main beats must raise the stakes for the character. (There are lots of scenes in films where tension is released, but those are not usually main beat scenes. Tension release points usually fall just before or after the big turning points.) Sometimes, the third main beat can be a low-tension scene. For instance, in STAR WARS, this is the point where Luke learns about ‘the force’. It is not overly dramatic, but it is still a main beat because without this force, Luke cannot answer the film’s dramatic question. In the seven beat outline, the third and fifth beats are allowed to be a little less ‘dramatic’ than the others. But they may not ever stray from the obligation to act as signposts for the central dramatic question of the film.

Page 60: Fourth main beat or midpoint. This one is a biggie. It should be one of the biggest dramatic changes in the film, a major reversal. Whatever has come before this point is old news. From the midpoint on, the film should be sliding toward its inevitable conclusion. The midpoint finds Jerry Maguire and Dorothy hooking up. Once this happens, the on-screen relationships can’t go back to the way things were. There’s just no way around it. “This is going to change everything," says Jerry. “Promise?” responds Dorothy. Jerry and Dorothy are now an item - regardless of whether Jerry has yet to become the good person he wants to be. In Star Wars, the Millenium Falcon gets tractor-beamed onto the Death Star. This is the Death Star Luke must ultimately destroy. This is also the Death Star where the princess is being held prisoner. This is a major turning point, because now the band of heroes is trapped here unless they can find a way out.

Page 75: Fifth main beat - usually a high point. Remember, a major beat is a signpost for the central dramatic question and connects directly to the main beats before and after it. The fifth beat, more than any others up to this point, is usually a reflection of the ending of the movie. For example, in JERRY MAGUIRE, Jerry and Dorothy get married at the fifth beat. In STAR WARS, Luke finally rescues the Princess. The fifth beat is usually a happy beat because the end of the second act (the next main beat to follow) is usually an emotional low point. Still, this happy beat is NOT the end of the film. Even when Luke rescues the princess, they are all still trapped aboard the Death Star - there are still great challenges for the main character to face in order to answer the main dramatic question of the film. Similarly, even a married Jerry Maguire has not yet truly developed his personal relationships. Remember, he only asked Dorothy to marry him because he’s afraid of being alone and afraid of letting Dorothy and Ray move to San Diego, not because he realizes that she “completes him”. Same goes for Harry and Sally. The fifth main beat is also where Harry and Sally finally sleep together – a happy moment - one that the audience has been waiting for the entire film - but Harry’s inherent character flaws are still lurking beneath, ready to bubble to the surface and drive the two protagonists apart just in time for the emotional low point!

Page 90: Sixth main beat. End of 2nd Act. Emotional low point. In romantic comedies, like WHEN HARRY MET SALLY and JERRY MAGUIRE, this is usually the spot where the boy loses the girl. (A romantic comedy is usually some variation of boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl -- spread out over seven beats.) Here, Dorothy tells Jerry “I’m not built that way.” Sally slaps Harry at their friends’ wedding. Even in non-romantic comedies, this end of the second act is usually an emotional low point. In STAR WARS, Luke watches Obi Wan get struck down by Vader’s lightsaber just as they escape from the Death Star.

This ties into the central dramatic question of STAR WARS because as Obi Wan is killed, he becomes ‘one with the force’ and will eventually reappear to Luke at the seventh main beat. Also, as they blast off from the Death Star, they are trailed to the Rebel base, which sets up the 3rd act conflict.

Page 100-105: Seventh main beat. Physical low point. Resolution beat. The difference between the emotional and the physical low point is a difference of dramaturgy. The third act of a movie usually contains the most drama, and because this is a visual medium, that means ‘action’. This is certainly true of JERRY MAGUIRE. The seventh main beat is the moment Rod Tidwell gets hurt. If Tidwell doesn’t get up, his playing days will be over and Jerry will have failed in every way. At this moment, Jerry is physically as far from success as he can possibly be - that's why it is a physical low point. Incredibly, at that very same moment, Jerry does something that proves he has answered yes to his main dramatic question - to live up to his mission statement and develop personal relationships. He calls Marcy Tidwell. (Remember in the beginning, when the hockey player is hurt, Jerry doesn’t show up until the guy is already in the hospital and waking from a concussion. By contrast, now when his client is hurt, he is on the phone with the man’s family to soothe them as it is happening.)

In STAR WARS, this physical low point is the moment Darth Vader locks his laser onto Luke’s x-wing fighter and says “I have you now” at approximately the same moment the Death Star has reached full firing range upon the rebels. This is it. Luke has failed. At this point, the answer to the main dramatic question “Will Luke rescue the princess and use the force to defeat the Death Star?” appears to be a resounding “NO”, and the audience is stretched as far as it can be stretched before the final happy scenes of the movie. In When Harry Met Sally, the physical low point is the moment Harry decides to go get Sally, but he can’t find a cab anywhere.

In the rarer movies where the answer to the main dramatic question is “NO”, then this seventh main beat is usually the ‘highest,’ ‘happiest’ point of the film. (Physical high point.) In THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY, for example, the main dramatic question is “Will Ripley create the life he wants for himself and get away with murder?” At the seventh main beat, Ripley has happily set sail for America with his real lover and it appears to the audience that he has gotten away wealthy and scot-free. But then the girl who thinks he is Dickie sees him and we now know he can never live the life he wants to live. Ripley goes on to murder his lover to maintain the prison of illusions he has created for himself. In CHINATOWN, the main dramatic question is “Will Jake Gittes figure out the mystery, catch the bad guy, and save the girl (thus atoning for the incident in his past in Chinatown)?” No, he won't. So the seventh main beat is a highpoint: Gittes confronts Noah Cross with the evidence that proves Cross murdered Hollis Mulwray. But then Gittes is taken prisoner by Cross’s goon and the dark ending becomes inevitable.

The seventh main beat is also usually a resolution beat. That is, the moment that the change the main character has undergone finally forces another character to ‘resolve’ the movie. In CASABLANCA, for example, the central dramatic question is: “Will Rick give up Ilsa in order to fight the good fight?” The answer is yes. For the seventh beat, the physical low point is also a resolution beat. This is when the German commander has Victor, Ilsa and Rick at gunpoint and is about to arrest them all. But then Capt. Renault, having been inspired by Rick’s change, shoots the German commander, thereby resolving the movie. The same goes for Han Solo’s perfectly timed last second intervention: “Now let’s blow this thing and go home!”

GROUNDHOG DAY also has a ‘resolution beat’ as its seventh main beat, though it is not a physical low point. This is the point at which Phil’s dramatic change causes Rita to bid on him in an auction. I have thus far avoided discussing GROUNDHOG DAY because it seems like such a uniquely structured movie. However, despite the narrative rules GROUNDHOG DAY breaks (to great effect), it is structurally a simple seven beat movie. The central dramatic question is: “Will Phil get Rita and get out of Groundhog Day by becoming a good person?” Yes he will.

Below, I’ll break down a number of movies and what I see as their central dramatic questions, inciting incidents, and seven main beats.

“Will Phil become a good person, get Rita, and get out of Groundhog Day?” Answer: Yes.
Inciting incident: Phil and Rita go to Punxsutawney for Groundhog Day.
First beat: Phil wakes up stuck in Groundhog Day, is freaked out.
Second beat: (end of 1st act, point of no return) Phil wakes up in Groundhog Day again,
realizes he is really stuck. He begins his journey by taking advantage of the situation.
Third beat: Phil, having grasped the ego-centric power of being stuck in the same day,
begins to pursue Rita to no avail.
Fourth beat: (midpoint) Phil, stuck and miserable, tries to end his life and can’t.
Fifth beat: (highpoint) Phil, humbled, finally becomes friends with Rita. She urges him to self improve.
Sixth beat: (end of 2nd act, emotional low point) In the process of self-improvement,
Phil realizes that the old bum dies at the same time, no matter what Phil does to prevent it. As the bum dies in his arms yet again, Phil looks up to the heavens.
Seventh beat: (resolution beat) Phil has become great, and his greatness inspires Rita to bid on him at the Bachelor's auction.

“Will Jerry live up to his mission statement and develop personal relationships?”
Answer: yes.
Inciting incident: Kid says ‘fuck you’ and Jerry writes his mission statement.
First beat: Jerry is fired
Second beat: (end of 1st act, point of no return) Jerry and Dorothy leave to start a new company.
Third beat: Jerry loses Cush, breaks up with Avery
Fourth beat: (midpoint) Jerry hooks up with Dorothy
Fifth beat: (highpoint) Jerry marries Dorothy
Sixth beat: (end of 2nd act, emotional low point) Jerry and Dorothy break up.
Seventh beat: (physical low point) Tidwell is hurt.

“Will Luke Skywalker rescue the princess and use the force to defeat the Death Star?”
Answer: Yes.
Inciting incident: Princess Leia stashes the plans into R2D2 and sends him to find Obi Wan.
First beat: Luke finds his aunt and uncle murdered. Damn empire.
Second beat: (end of 1st act, point of no return) Luke blasts out of the spaceport aboard Millenium Falcon while killing stormtroopers.
Third beat: Luke learns about the force
Fourth beat: (midpoint) Millenium Falcon sucked into Death Star
Fifth beat: (highpoint) Luke rescues the princess
Sixth beat: (end of 2nd act, emotional low point) Luke watches Obi Wan get killed as they escape the Death Star.
Seventh beat: (physical low point, resolution beat) Luke and rebels about to be destroyed but Han Solo saves Luke.

“Will Marge Gunderson solve the crime, thus restoring normalcy to the heartland?”
Answer: Yes. (Fargo breaks a major rule because we don’t meet the protagonist until the beginning of the 2nd act. But that is the only appropriate time to meet her, and besides, her presence has been implied in the first act: A major crime has been committed. Someone is going to have to investigate.)
Inciting incident: Jerry Lundegaard hires thugs to kidnap his wife.
First beat: Thugs kidnap Mrs. Lundegaard.
Second beat: (end of 1st act, point of no return) Thugs kill three people in Brainerd.
Third beat: Marge gets a tip that the thugs went to the twin cities.
Fourth beat: (midpoint) Marge comes face to face with Jerry Lundegaard. He lies to her, saying that “no cars have gone missing from our lot, Ma’am.”
Fifth beat: Lundegaard’s father-in-law Gustafson killed by ‘funny looking’ thug in botched money drop. (The crime worsens.)
Sixth beat: (end of 2nd act) Marge returns to Lundegaard’s office and asks to speak to
Mr. Gustafson. Lundegaard flees the interview.
Seventh beat: (physical low point) Marge encounters Grismrud at the woodchipper.

“Will Bonnie and Clyde be gunned down for their transgressions?”
Answer: Yes. (A note here about bio-pics: because any story that follows a person from birth to death could potentially get tedious, a biopic is usually limited to being about the most famous story of that person. Because Bonnie and Clyde were most famously gunned down in a hail of bullets, that is what the central dramatic question of the movie is about. It would be odd to make a whole movie about Bonnie and Clyde’s weekend vacation in Arkansas.)
Inciting incident: Bonnie meets Clyde
First beat: Clyde tells farmer “We rob banks.”
Second beat: (end of 1st act, point of no return), Clyde kills a man while robbing a bank.
Third beat: Bonnie and Clyde gang try to settle down but can’t.
Fourth beat: (midpoint) Gang captures Sheriff Hamer and take picture with him, embarrassing him and causing him to track them down.
Fifth Beat: (highpoint) Gang picks up ‘civilians’, brings them along for fun until they
find out the guy is an undertaker and kick him out. (Foreshadowing their deaths).
Sixth beat: (end of 2nd act, emotional low point) Clyde’s brother killed. Bonnie and Clyde are shot up, escape.
Seventh beat: (physical lowpoint) Vindictive Sheriff Hamer sets the trap for the unsuspecting Bonnie and Clyde.

“Will Harry get Sally?” Answer: Yes.
Inciting incident: Harry and Sally meet.
First beat: Harry and Sally pose the question: ‘can men and women be friends?’
Definitely not. So they part at the end of the ride to New York.
Second beat: (end of 1st act, point of no return) Harry and Sally meet again and part a
second time saying ‘men and women probably can’t be friends’.
Third beat: Harry and Sally decide to become friends.
Fourth beat: (midpoint) Harry and Sally’s best friends become involved with each other
- raises the stakes for both.
Fifth beat: (highpoint) Harry and Sally sleep together.
Sixth beat: (end of 2nd act, emotional low point) Sally slaps Harry at friends’ wedding
Seventh beat: (physical low point) Harry wants Sally but can’t find a cab.

“Will Gittes figure out the mystery, catch the bad guy and save the girl (thus atoning for
the incident in his past in Chinatown)?” Answer: No.
Inciting incident: Fake Mrs. Mulwray hires Gittes
First beat: Gittes finds out he was ‘played’ by the fake Mrs. Mulwray when he meets the
real Mrs. Mulwray.
Second beat: (end of 1st act, point of no return) Mr. Mulwray found murdered.
Third beat: Mrs. Mulwray hires Jake to find murderer of her husband.
Fourth beat: (midpoint) Gittes meets bad guy Noah Cross who says “Find the girl.”
Fifth beat: (highpoint) Jake and Mrs. Mulwray sleep together.
Sixth beat: (end of 2nd act, emotional low point) “She’s my sister, she’s my daughter...”
Seventh beat: (high point) Jake confronts Noah Cross with evidence proving he is the murderer.

“Will the state ‘fix’ Alex?” Answer: No.
Inciting incident: Alex and his friends leave milk bar for crime spree of ultra-violence.
First beat: Alex rapes wife of author while ‘singing in the rain’.
Second beat: (end of 1st act, point of no return) Alex kills cat-woman, gets caught, goes
to prison.
Third beat: Alex enters into ‘special rehabilitation’ to be ‘fixed’ at prison.
Fourth beat: (midpoint) Alex, now incapable of violence, released from prison.
Fifth beat: Alex with nowhere to go, gets beaten to bloody pulp by ex-friends who are
now cops (the state). Can’t defend himself.
Sixth beat: (end of 2nd act, emotional low point) Alex is tortured by author whose wife
he raped, and he jumps out the window to try to kill himself.
Seventh beat: (high point) State apologizes to Alex in the hospital.

“Will Sam find his killers and save Molly from them before going to heaven?” Answer:
Inciting incident: Sam’s friend Carl embezzles money (off screen)
First beat: Sam killed by Willie Lopez.
Second beat: (end of 1st act, point of no return) Sam sees Willie Lopez break into
Molly’s house. Realizes his death wasn’t random. Now must solve his murder.
Third beat: Sam finds out Carl hired Willie Lopez.
Fourth beat: (midpoint) Carl tries to kiss Molly. Sam, angry about this turn of events,
realizes he can move objects.
Fifth beat: (highpoint) Sam gets Oda Mae to steal Carl’s embezzled money and donate it
to charity.
Sixth beat: (end of 2nd act, emotional highpoint) Sam and Oda Mae finally convince
Molly that Sam’s ghost really exists. (This is probably an emotional high point instead
of low point because Sam and Molly can’t end up together at the end. He’s too dead.)
Seventh beat: (physical low point) Carl is going to kill Molly and Sam is too physically
exhausted (from dancing with her while in Oda Mae’s body) to protect her.

“Will Griffin Mill survive, get away with murder, and succeed in the movie business?”
Answer: Yes.
Inciting incident: Griffin gets a threatening postcard from writer.
First beat: Griffin decides to track down writer he thinks is sending postcards.
Second beat: (end of 1st act, point of no return) Griffin kills writer (wrong writer - oops).
Third beat: Cop Whoopi Goldberg comes to question Griffin abut murder.
Fourth beat: (Midpoint) Right after hearing Habeas Corpus pitch, Griffin finds
rattlesnake in his car. Life threatened.
Fifth beat: Griffin brought down to Pasadena for questioning. They know he did it.
Sixth beat: (end of 2nd act, emotional low point) Griffin admits murdering writer to
June right before being asked to come in for lineup. (Audience worries he’s gonna get
Seventh beat: (physical low point) The real threatening writer blackmails now movie
studio chief Mill with pitch called The Player where “the son-of-a-bitch gets away with
it”. Mill, ever the player, says: “If you can guarantee me that ending, you’ve got a

“Will cowboy Woody come to terms with Buzz Lightyear, save him, and return both of
them to Andy?” Answer: Yes.
Inciting incident: Andy’s birthday party
First beat: Buzz Lightyear arrives, displaces Woody
Second beat: (end of 1st act, point of no return) Woody knocks Buzz out the window,
other toys turn on him.
Third beat: Woody and Buzz lost together at gas station. “I’m a lost toy!”
Fourth beat: (midpoint) Woody and Buzz taken to evil Syd’s house.
Fifth beat: (highpoint) Woody strings christmas lights between Syd’s and Andy’s house
- they’re nearly saved but Mr. Potato Head drops his end of the line.
Sixth beat: (end of 2nd act, emotional low point) Woody tells Buzz he’s ‘too good’ right
before evil Syd snatches Buzz for launching.
Seventh beat: (physical low point) As Andy drives away forever, Woody and Buzz are
stuck behind when the match goes out.

“Will Buzz and the other toys save Woody from a future in a Japanese toy museum?”
Answer: Yes.
Inciting incident: Andy’s mother decides to have a yard sale.
First beat: Woody stolen by Al from Al’s Toy Barn.
Second beat: (end of 1st act, point of no return) Buzz and the toys set out to rescue
Third beat: Woody is about to escape Al’s, but accidently loses his arm.
Fourth beat: (midpoint) Toys arrive at Al’s Toy Barn
Fifth beat: Repaired Woody about to escape again but learns from Jessie about what
happens to toys when kids grow up.
Sixth beat: (end of 2nd act, emotional low point) The toys finally find Woody, who
decides not to go home with them.
Seventh beat: (physical low point) The toys lose track of the suitcase containing Woody
in the massive airport luggage room. The suitcase is put on the plane for Japan and the plane
starts taking off.

“Will unemployed actor Michael Dorsey get a career and a love life by dressing as a
woman?” Answer: Yes.
Inciting incident: Michael helps friend Sandy audition for a part on a soap opera.
First beat: Michael’s agent tells Michael ‘No one will hire you.’
Second beat: (end of 1st act, point of no return) Michael Dorsey, as Dorothy Michaels,
gets the part on the soap opera.
Third beat: Dorothy and Julie become friends.
Fourth beat: (midpoint) Julie brings Dorothy to her father’s house upstate (where her
father will fall in love with Dorothy)
Fifth beat: Michael (as Dorothy) tries to kiss Julie. Julie thinks s(he)’s gay.
Sixth beat: (end of 2nd act, emotional low point) Julie tells Dorothy they can’t be friends
Seventh beat: (physical low point) Michael, as Dorothy, is contracted for another three
years. He must do live scene to unmask himself.

“Will Thelma and Louise get to Mexico before they are caught?” Answer: No.
Inciting incident: Thelma and Louise leave for vacation
First beat: Louise shoots rapist Harlan
Second beat: (end of 1st act, point of no return) Louise decides to go to Mexico rather
than the police.
Third beat: Louise gets traveling money from Jimmy.
Fourth beat: (midpoint) J.D. steals the money. Thelma robs the liquor store.
Fifth beat: Cops find out Thelma and Louise are heading to Mexico.
Sixth beat: (end of 2nd act, emotional low point) Cop tells Louise “I know what
happened in Texas.” He charges them with murder.
Seventh beat: (physical low point) Thelma and Louise face a cliff on one side and a
battery of guns on the other.

There are countless more examples. Hopefully, these will help you build your own
scripts and stories to be dramatically unified and structurally satisfying.
Now go write!

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The Rules of Screenwriting #3

3. Movies are about characters who change!

Let's pause here for a moment. Screenwriting literally means writing for the screen. Let's be realistic. The 'screen' you are writing for might be a computer screen, a television screen, a cell-phone screen, or it might be the megascreens at your multiplex. To write something compelling and interesting for any of those screens requires mostly the same skill set. The audience has to be fed a steady supply of obvious conflict to get them to watch and keep them watching. However, the structure of your writing will vary depending on the screen your writing is intended for. When I say there is a rule that movies are about characters who change, I must make two caveats about episodic writing:

1. Bart Simpson never changes.
2. James Bond never changes.*

Essentially, not all movies, and certainly not all episodic shows, are about characters who change. However, within the structure of individual episodes, these characters change all the time. Bart Simpson has learned lessons of justice, love, humility, and family countless times, only to conveniently forget them all just in time for the next episode.

And many episodic shows are about characters who do change. Think back to the first episode of DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES or LOST, and compare in your mind with the characters as you know them now... They're the same characters, maybe, but they are completely different now. They've changed because they have had to react to so many plot twists and turns over the years. Once an episodic franchise is up and running, who really knows where it will go? The writers are constantly having to adapt to all kinds of forces - networks, ratings, labor, actor issues - and unless a showrunner with great vision is in charge, most episodic shows will eventually 'jump the shark'. But that's another matter. James Bond never changes because the Bond franchise literally depends on jumping bigger and bigger sharks every single time. And that's fine.

Now, forget episodic screenwriting for a moment. The Dude in THE BIG LEBOWSKI never changes. DUMB AND DUMBER never change. Chauncey Gardener in BEING THERE never changes. Sometimes, when a character is funny enough, or iconic enough, or both, the audience will watch just to see how the character will stay the same character while stumbling through a larger plot. So why do I say movies are about characters who change is my number three rule? Because it is! Eat your broccoli!

And think about Oedipus. Long before there was a silver screen, there was this guy who killed his father and married his mother not too long after vowing to avoid that very fate. Poor Oedipus was a character who changed dramatically. He eventually blinded himself. It might make a good movie. Face it. Most stories are about characters who change, and that's why most movies are about characters who change. Let's go back to our old standby for verification:

BRIAN (cont.)
You see us
as a brain, an athlete, a basket
case, a princess and a criminal.
Correct? That's the way we saw each
other at seven o'clock this morning.
We were brainwashed.

Aha! So, what he's telling the audience is that these five different characters are not only going to face down some obvious conflict, but they are going to change as a result during the course of their day in detention! That's what the whole movie is about, all completely summed up in the first line.

Look. This stuff should be pretty obvious. When Michael Corleone tells Kay at the beginning of THE GODFATHER that he's not a gangster like his father, it should be a huge clue to the audience that by the end of the movie, Michael Corleone will be a gangster even more ruthless than his father was. Letting the audience in on this at the beginning doesn't lessen the impact of the ending. If anything, it strengthens it. It's so obvious, it's perfect.

Characters change. Luke Skywalker was just a farm boy before he learned The Force and blew up the Death Star. Jerry Maguire was a shark in a suit before he learned the value of personal relationships. Harry was only interested in Sally sexually before he learned the value of her friendship.

So what causes characters to change? More on that next post...

* James Bond never changes. The actors playing him do. Have you ever seen the James Bond movie with Woody Allen playing James Bond?

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Rules of Screenwriting #2

2. Movies are CONFLICT!

You see, it is really the CONFLICT that audiences are paying attention to. This is really important: EVERY SCENE SHOULD CONTAIN MULTIPLE LEVELS OF CONFLICT. The more the merrier. Leave out obvious conflict, and your movie will be boring. Now, conflict does not have to mean super-heightened karate battles, Uzi pounding heavies, bank robberies, car chases, kidnappings, gorenography, or mass murder. I know these are staples of the movies, but good action does not necessarily make good conflict.

Conflict only comes from character and situation, and not from action. Action is best as a reaction to a great conflict of character and situation. What does that mean?

Two people face off at high noon. They both draw their pistols, and shoot. One falls.

Who cares? Yes, that is action, but as a script, that's really boring because all the conflict depends on the action. However, if one of the guys is a good guy trying to save the innocent townspeople from the bad guy, the wicked gunslinger, now we have a conflict which is made of character and situation. When these two get into the situation of facing off at the end of the movie, the action springs from their built up character conflict. This really should be obvious, but it never hurts to go over the obvious. Why? Because movies are obvious!

But remember, conflict that comes from character and situation doesn't necessarily have to lead to action. Action is a standby for movies because movies are a visual medium. However good conflict can be obvious yet subtle and full of surprises, and contain very little action.

Let's take a closer look at THE BREAKFAST CLUB and examine Brian's first line again. He's obviously telling the audience the plot of the movie, but he's telling it in a way that is dripping with conflict. Let's break it down.

Saturday...March 24, 1984. Shermer
High School, Shermer, Illinois.
60062. Dear Mr. Vernon...We accept
the fact that we had to sacrifice a
whole Saturday in detention for
whatever it was that we did wrong.
What we did WAS wrong.

This part of the line sets up a conflict of situation and a conflict of character. The situation conflict is that the characters Brian is speaking for would rather have been anywhere else in the world than in detention on this Saturday. They were stuck there. Then there is a great internal character conflict set up about right versus wrong, and knowing the difference. And there is also a hint of a WE vs. Mr. Vernon conflict, which is about to get a whole lot sharper:

BRIAN (cont.)
But we think
you're crazy to make us write this
essay telling you who we think we
are, what do you care? You see us
as you want to see the
simplest terms and the most
convenient definitions.

This solidifies the WE vs Mr. Vernon character conflict and raises the stakes by refusing to write the essay he ordered. It goes so far as to question his motives, and accuse him of being lazy and unconcerned with how things really are. This is now a direct challenge to Mr. Vernon's authority -- it is the verbal equivalent of stabbing him. Then it gets even more interesting:

BRIAN (cont.)
You see us
as a brain, an athlete, a basket
case, a princess and a criminal.
Correct? That's the way we saw each
other at seven o'clock this morning.
We were brainwashed.

Ah, so the conflict introduced here is that Mr. Vernon (and society as a whole) tends to view these kids as stereotypes. They even view each other this way. But the kids AREN'T stereotypes. The movie is about these kids grappling with that conflict. Now that, as a concept for a movie, naturally leads to little action. I mean, a movie about kids dropping stereotypes probably isn't going to contain lots of bloody karate. Yes, there is some action in THE BREAKFAST CLUB - a wrestling tussle, some running around - but the action springs from the conflict of these very different characters being stuck in the detention situation together on a Saturday.

While this voice-over is telling us the obvious plot of the movie, it is doing so in a way that sets up the primary conflict of the movie. Notice again how this is all done in the first line. Why? Because movies are... well, you know, OBVIOUS.

But it serves a deeper function. Once the audience knows the plot, they can relax and expect the writer to deliver on the conflict she or he promises.

Movies tend to get into trouble when there is no obvious conflict onscreen.

Monday, May 26, 2008

The Rules of Screenwriting #1

I know what you are thinking: "Movies that follow the rules are boring. I'm an artist. I want to make movies that are DIFFERENT."

If you want to be a poet and write a haiku, you must follow the rules. I have read haiku poems that follow all the rules of haiku poetry, but which manage to blow my mind with their quality of artistry and thought. It is the same with movies. If you want to write a movie, learn what one is - learn the rules. That said, all rules are made to be broken. There have been some absolutely fantastic movies that have broken all the rules and succeeded beyond all expectations. Yay for them. But I guarantee that those filmmakers learned the rules first, they knew exactly which rules they were breaking, and most important, they had a very good story-based reason to break them. What is the message here? Learn the rules first, then break them as soon as you have a damn good reason to!

Okay. So what exactly are these "rules" anyway? Well, let's begin here:

1. Movies are obvious!

Number one rule. Movies are obvious. Obvious. Movies are really obvious. Yes, it is annoying, sometimes, how very obvious movies are. Be obvious.

The following is the entire first line of dialogue from THE BREAKFAST CLUB:

Saturday...March 24, 1984. Shermer
High School, Shermer, Illinois.
60062. Dear Mr. Vernon...We accept
the fact that we had to sacrifice a
whole Saturday in detention for
whatever it was that we did wrong.
What we did WAS wrong. But we think
you're crazy to make us write this
essay telling you who we think we
are, what do you care? You see us
as you want to see the
simplest terms and the most
convenient definitions. You see us
as a brain, an athlete, a basket
case, a princess and a criminal.
Correct? That's the way we saw each
other at seven o'clock this morning.
We were brainwashed.

Before we've even met the characters, before we've seen any of the story, Brian (the brain) TELLS the audience exactly what the movie is, what world it is set in, who all the characters are, why they are there, and exactly what the ending is. All in the first line. He's telling us that these five different stereotyped kids are all going to spend the day in detention together, against their will, and by the end of the day, they will have learned right and wrong, dropped their stereotypical views of each other, and focused their collective angst on a mutual enemy - Mr. Vernon. The screenwriter is making it completely OBVIOUS to the audience exactly what movie they are seeing, so how do the filmmakers get away with it? Why don't we audience members walk out of the theater, eject the DVD, or change the channel after the first line? We might as well stop watching now because we know how the movie ends, right? Ah... but the pleasure the audience receives from the story is not in finding out WHAT is going to happen, but HOW it is going to happen.

Did anybody go to see WHEN HARRY MET SALLY for the surprise twist ending where she clubs him to death with the karaoke machine? No. People know Harry and Sally are going to end up together happily ever after. That's OBVIOUS from the poster! If she had clubbed him to death, the movie wouldn't have delivered what was promised by the poster, and audiences would have rejected it. Similarly, did anyone go to the movie expecting Titanic to arrive in New York? No. They went to see HOW the characters deal with the fact that the ship sinks.

In the first minutes of the movie AMERICAN BEAUTY, the main character tells the audience that he will be dead within a year. Right off the bat, the audience knows the ending of the movie, but that bit of obviousness is a great thing. Why? To the audience, that character looks young and healthy. Since he's he's not likely to die of a heart attack, now the audience is wondering HOW it will happen that he will die, and they're willing to sit through more of the film to find out.

Even THE SIXTH SENSE is completely obvious. In the second scene of the movie, the main character is shot and killed in front of our eyes. Then, he spends the rest of the movie hanging out with a kid who sees dead people. Hello? The reason the movie worked so well is that audiences are willing to turn their brains off as to the obvious nature of movies as soon as they go into the darkened theater. They're willing to let completely obvious things take them by surprise. However, if you don't feed your audience a steady supply of OBVIOUS, you will quickly lose them.

Chekov apparently said "If a gun is on the mantle in the first act, it must go off in the third." He was right, but Checkov was writing about play-writing. His technique is not obvious enough for a movie. If it's a movie, that gun is in CLOSE-UP in the first act. Somebody must be doing something with the gun while talking about it. Then, it can go off in the third act. In fact, since it's a movie, that gun is likely to go off in the first five minutes. Did I mention that movies are obvious?

All that said, the very best movies manage to be obvious while also being subtle and full of surprises.

Average movies are just plain obvious.

The very worst movies are neither subtle nor obvious.

Friday, May 23, 2008

First post!

Welcome to my new blog about screenplay structure.  Why am I doing this?

Every year since the digital filmmaking revolution began, cameras have gotten better and cheaper.  Non-linear editing systems, once exotic creatures, now come bundled with operating systems.  Computer graphics and desktop compositing now allow just about anybody to create a stunning epic movie.  The internet now allows filmmakers to completely bypass traditional media distribution and advertising bottlenecks.  Hollywood, by all accounts, should be dead. 

However, in that same time frame, there has been no similar technological advance in writing a screenplay.  As good as Final Draft (or other designated screenwriting software) may be, it doesn't profoundly cut the amount of time it takes to write a good script.  Why?  Because good writing is actually re-writing, or re-thinking and re-seeing your script.  Writing a good script is essentially just as hard today as it was ten years ago and fifty years ago.

With the proliferation of cheap HD cameras, more movies are being made than at any time perhaps since the golden age of cinema.  But most of these digital movies are at a significant disadvantage in the story department.  With digital production and post-production so (relatively) quick and easy now, digital filmmakers have a tendency to write and shoot the first thing that pops into the head.  This might mean that fresher stories will inevitably make it to the screen.  But it also might mean that new movies will get worse and worse.  Why?  Because screenplays have rules that help make stories good, and a lot of new filmmakers tend to ignore this basic fact.  

Hollywood still has the advantage of knowing the rules.   This blog is about the rules of screenwriting.  Don't think of them as Hollywood's rules.  Think of them as deeply human rules of refined storytelling on which Hollywood has been profiteering for nearly a century.  

I know a lot of good screenwriting books out there, and I know a lot of film schools that will be happy to take your money for pointing out the obvious.  But let's do it for free instead, and let's do it in blog form.

Next post...  The rules.