Some people say that a script is a sketch for other artists to color in, that most of the work of rendering a story ought to be left to directors, actors, art departments, or others. I disagree.
To me, a script is its own thing, a document that exists to provide proof of concept that you know what you’re doing and deserve a meeting, a job, a sale. To this end, it needs to do a few things that a movie doesn’t have to.
Screenwriting is about two things, imagining and communicating. The trouble is, people have a tendency to gloss over that latter part, and act like the reader is psychic. By and large, we’re not. We can’t envision anything unless it’s clearly stated.
A redditor, /u/zombdi, asked me to analyze a premise test for free. I agreed, on the condition that I could use it as a public example.
[pullquote align=”right” color=”#e65652″ class=”” cite=”” link=””]In Hollywood, the story is king, and the story is driven by the main character.[/pullquote]
Let’s admit it. Superhero stories are our modern versions of the Greek myths. We have larger than life characters coupled with amazing feats of heroism and strength. However, they’re more than that. Present day superhero films need a strong character journey. In order for a story to be successful, the audience needs to relate to the protagonists. With goals and conflicts, fictional characters can be brought to life as real as any object in our reality.
GUY: Here’s my pitch: A guy must bond with his gambler father to get closure on his childhood.
ME: Great. What’s the second act?
GUY: Well, it’s whatever happens between page 25 and page 90.
ME: Right, but how is this explored? So he needs to bond with his father. Do they bond by surfing? Kidnapping a girl? Planning a casino heist.
ME: But they could, right? You see how each avenue of exploration changes the genre, tone and visuals of the movie. How is yours explored?
GUY: I don’t know.
ME: Then you only have half an idea.
The second act is the exploration of the idea. It’s the money part.
The three act structure tends to trip people up. People are either way too into it, or they’re way too dismissive of it. While it’s true that many professional writers don’t set out to neatly color within the lines as they’re writing their work, it’s also true that the three act structure is a useful teaching tool for people who are looking for something, anything to hang an understanding off of as they’re starting out.
The midpoint is the most arguable of the story points in the classic three act structure. It’s the axis upon which the second act revolves, it clarifies the arc, the stakes, and the tone of the exploration of the script. Midpoints are incredibly useful, so they’re worth talking about.
The second act takes up 50% percent of a scripts length. You want this second act to showcase what you can do with a concept. It’s been said that a second act is what the story is about. The midpoint separates act two into two parts. Proponents of three act structure often talk about act one, act two a, act two b, and act three. Sometimes people ask why it’s the three act structure and not the four act structure. This is a fair question. Someday, someone is going to to write a book called “MASTERING THE FOUR ACT STRUCTURE” or similar, and everyone will argue about this more, but for now, let’s use the three act structure, which is widely accepted, well documented, and useful.
Your basic three act structure:
ACT 1 (25%): Set up the world and characters, explain how we got to the events of the story.
ACT TWO (50%): Explore what’s cool about the premise and the characters in an active, memorable and visceral way that both entertains and shows off why you deserve to be a professional writer.
ACT THREE (25%): Resolve the goal of the story, illustrate how the second act changed the character to a version of himself that can succeed at his goal.
So act two = exploration, where the premise of the movie is explored via a series of genre beats in a way that creates specific and memorable entertainment. If you’re using a midpoint, it’s going to split that second act into two roughly equal chunks, act two a and act two b.
This raises a simple question: how is act two a different from act two b? [Read more…]
- Think of a common object, something tangible, smaller than a garbage can, the kind of object you can buy at a store. For instance: hairspray.
- Say one thing about the object’s appearance. Something specific, but still in the realm of recognizable reality. For instance: it’s a dusty can of dollar store hair spray with the orange price tag still attached.
- Say another thing about the object. It could be another visual detail about it, or it could be where it’s located. For instance: it’s at the bottom of a box of old cans hidden in the back of a cluttered, hoarded out garage in a Maine townhouse.
- Say something extraordinary about this object. It should be story specific. Saying that Marilyn Monroe owned it isn’t that interesting. Saying that Marilyn Monroe killed for it is a little more story specific.
Beginning writers struggle to write good scripts.
I posit that they struggle to write good scripts because they struggle to write second acts.
Further, I posit that they struggle to write second acts because they struggle to write scenes.
Q: What do you think makes a great antagonist? Do they always have to have a legit reason (at least to them) of why they are doing bad things? Is it as simple as having a few quirks that people hate?
A: Which is more dramatically affecting: An antagonist who has a great reason for doing his job who never actually meets the protag (rare, but some examples exist) or an antagonist who is never explained, but very present, who takes a perverse, almost sexual thrill in hurting and humiliating the hero?
The failure of the student is the failure of the teacher. I want to get better at explaining screenwriting. What do you really want to know about the craft?
If I had to express screenwriting into four words, it would be these: Imagine vividly, communicate clearly.
These make me feel pretty good about myself, but I’ll admit that they’re of minimal value to the struggling beginner who’s trying to develop a sense of competence