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[P]
Screenplay, part 3: Screenplay Forever

By Pseudonym in Media
Sun Sep 29, 2002 at 04:58:44 PM EST
Tags: Movies (all tags)
Movies

A tragedy in three acts.

This week we look at the structure of the traditional three-act movie.

Continued from part 1, part 2.


The example

The best way to learn about the structure of a movie is to look at real examples and find the important points for yourself. To help you along, I have worked an example for you. The example that I have chosen is The Matrix, written by Larry and Andy Wachowski. The script I'm using is the final shooting script, dated August 12 1998 and reproduced in The Art of The Matrix, published by Newmarket Press. If you have a copy, all the better for you. If you have a copy of the movie, I encourage you to read through this article, then watch the movie, noticing the major points in the plot, then read the guide through again. If you don't have a copy, or you haven't seen the movie more than once or twice, you may get a bit lost. Sorry about that. I tried to pick a movie that a) pretty much everyone here will have seen, b) a lot of people will have a copy of, c) is a good example of three-act structure and d) I have a copy of the script for. Needless to say, my choices were somewhat limited.

Oh, and if you haven't seen the movie, be warned: there will be spoilers and plenty of them.

Measuring time

Last week we mentioned that you have ten minutes to grab the audience's attention. The screenwriter, of course, has no control over physical time (that's up to the director and editor, a theme which will return in later articles). However, the writer does have one tool at their disposal.

Time in movies is measured in various ways. Animators tend to deal in frames. (Frames are important when you have to draw each one by hand.) Editors tend to deal in feet. The reason this works is that the length of each frame or foot is fixed. There are 24 frames which are displayed per second, and 36ft of film pass through a camera or projector every minute.

The writer also has a unit, and that is the page. Screenplays are specially formatted (details in a later article) so that one page of script approximately equals one minute of screen time. This is not 100% accurate. A page containing only dialogue will generally take less than a minute to perform, and a page containing only action will generally take more. From now on, unless otherwise specified, we will work in pages.

(Just to confuse things, assistant directors and unit production managers work in eighths of pages in order to work out the shooting schedules. We will take their cue and round fractions of pages to the nearest eighth if we need that precision.)

An average-length screenplay weighs in at 120 pages, or approximately two hours of screen time. (For comparison, The Matrix shooting script is 121 3/8 pages.) This gives the editor some room to move, cutting the film down to the average length of 100 minutes (3600ft). About half of that 20 minutes will be a line or a piece of action here and there to tighten up the pacing of the film. The rest will be "cut scenes", which gives the studio something to put on the DVD.

What is an act?

An act is a difficult thing to pin down in screenwriting. In live theatre, an act is easy to spot because between ats, the audience gets to get up, go outside, get a drink or whatever. In commercial television, an act is similarly easy to spot because there is a commerical break (thus, once again, allowing the audience to get up and move around, though in television this is not as common).

In movies, there is generally no break between acts, but the same general idea is there as in other media: an act peaks with a climactic scene which causes a major change for the protagonist, sending the story off in a different direction. We will clarify this in future articles

Act I

The first act of a traditional three act movie is about 30 pages long, taking up about a quarter of the available time. (In The Matrix, it is 31 pages.) We have already looked at the opening, in which the protagonist is introduced and the inciting incident occurs (10--15 pages in; in The Matrix it's around pages 11--14). The task of the rest of the act is to introduce the rest of the main characters, culminating in the first act turning point, or 1TP for short. The inciting incident is what sets the story in motion, but the first act turning point is what commits the protagonist to the story. Generally it is a point from which there is no return.

The 1TP can always be phrased in the form of a question to be answered later. More on this below.

Act II

The second act is about 60 pages long (64 in The Matrix), taking up half the available time. The second act usually has a structure which we will look at in a moment, but it can be summed up as complications and conflict. The 1TP gave the protagonist a goal, and in the second act, the protagonist edges towards that goal, encountering obstacles to achieving it and conflicting with the antagonists along the way.

The second act climaxes at the second act turning point (2TP), a point at which the story takes another twist. In some movies, the 2TP may be a false ending, where the story appears to end (e.g. in E.T., E.T. (Debra Winger/Pat Welsh) appears to die at the 2TP, but doesn't really).

Act III

The third act is about 30 pages long (26 in The Matrix; in films which have a large action component the third act is often short). The two major tasks in the third act are to take us from the 2TP to the climax, where the weight of the story so far plays out in escalating action, usually ending in a confrontation between protagonist and antagonist. After the climax is resolved, comes the resolution, which concludes the chain of events and provides an answer to the question posed by the 1TP.

More on Act II

One thing we mentioned in part 2 is that screen time cannot be wasted. Generally the time between significant events in the movie should be about 10--15 minutes or so. So from the start of the movie to the inciting incident should be about 10--15 mins, from the inciting incident to the 1TP should be about the same, from the 2TP to the climax should be about that too, and from the climax to the end of the movie should be about the same. These are, of course, only guides, and if there is stuff to keep the audience's minds occupied, you can be quite flexible with these timings.

That leaves 60 pages to fill in the middle of the movie. Many poor scripts fall down here. The writer has thought up the start and the end of the movie, but can't think of what to put in the middle. This problem (and it's not unique to screenwriting; novels in particular often suffer from this) is often referred to as sagging middle for obvious reasons. Because of this, the second act is also structured.

Half-way through at about page 60 (page 61 in The Matrix) is the mid point (MP for short). The mid point is often the point in the movie where the protagonist is at his or her lowest, and a decision is taken to press on regardless. It is often associated with the revealing of a large clue. Often, it is the point at which the protagonist faces (and barely escapes from) the first major obstacle.

To keep the story going around the midpoint, there will be two key scenes to keep the story going, one half-way between the start of the second act and the midpoint (around page 45; around pages 48--49 in The Matrix) and the other between the midpoint and the 2TP, around page 75 (pages 79--81 in The Matrix). After Syd Field, we will call these pinch 1 and pinch 2. The pinches are often related in some way, as we will see in the example.

A worked example

To illustrate the three-act structure, we will go through The Matrix showing the major points in the plot and noting some interesting things along the way.

Act I

The movie opens with an action sequence from pages 3--8 where Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), who is later revealed as a relationship line antagonist, escapes from Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), the action line antagonist. This illustrates an interesting point, that an opening action sequence need not even involve the protagonist.

In part 2, we noted that you have ten minutes (or a little over if you have an opening action sequence) to introduce the normal life of the protagonist and cause the inciting incident. If the movie does open with an action sequence, it is very important to get to the inciting incident as quickly as possible. If the action sequence involves the protagonist (e.g. Raiders of the Lost Ark), this can often double as exposition of normality. After all, if the protagonist is an action hero, action sequences are their normal life! If it does not, in the case of The Matrix, then the writer has a problem. They have a very short amount of time left to introduce the protagonist and cause the inciting incident. Put yourself in the shoes of the writers for a moment. What would you do? Have a think about this before you go on.

Okay, you didn't wait, so I'll tell you anyway: The Wachowski brothers' solution is to interleave the two. This way we can get to the inciting incident early (and thus start the story), and we can also take our time with establishing normality. The first scene shows Neo in his apartment "that seems overgrown with technology" (p8), asleep in front of his computer. This establishes Neo as a night-owl hacker. The contents of his screen are not mentioned in the script, but in the movie, he is performing some kind of search on a person named "Morpheus" (Lawrence Fishburne), later revealed as another relationship line antagonist. This is a useful addition because it establishes Neo's interest in Morpheus. Neo wakes up as some cryptic messages appear on his screen, telling him to "follow the white rabbit" (p9). This starts the inciting incident: being contacted by Trinity and later Morpheus. This is followed by Neo engaging in an illegal transaction with Choi (Marc Gray), establishing that Neo does illegal things with his hacking skills, during which he notices the white rabbit, which leads him to the industrial music party. He is shown "feeling completely out of place" (p12), establishing him as something of a loner. There he meets Trinity and, in a conversation with her, establishes something of the quest that he has set himself, to answer the question "What is the Matrix?" (p14). This is followed by him being late for work next day and being chewed out by his boss, establishing that this is not the first time he has been in trouble for being late before. This is followed by Morpheus contacting Neo himself.

This is actually quite a clever technique, and one worth emulating if a writer is ever faced with the problem of both introducing a protagonist and causing the inciting incident in a very short time. Note how this is structured: Introduce a bit of Neo's life, then show it being upset. Introduce a bit more, upset that. Repeat until the inciting incident takes over.

This also establishes Neo's goal: To find out what is wrong with the world, and to discover what the Matrix is for and what can be done about it. The rest of the movie is Neo's voyage of discovery along this path.

In the next part of the first act, the other major characters are introduced to the protagonist: first, the action line antagonist, Agent Smith, and his offsiders. Then, Morpheus' offsiders, followed by Morpheus himself. The first act turning point occurs when Neo leaves the Matrix and enters the "real world". Note that this is a point of no return for our protagonist, though he does not realise it at the time.

Act II

The second act starts in the "real world", and features a long exposition sequence where Neo learns what's really going on. After this, Neo starts his training. This culminates in the first pinch scene, where Neo first fights Morpheus, and then attempts to jump between two rooftops "but comes up drastically short" (p49). Neo learns two important lessons here: First, ability is not enough by itself; you also need will. The second is an expository point that people can die inside the Matrix.

This is followed by a number of scenes where Neo alternates between learning and failing in various ways (obstacles) as well as feeling like an outsider in a ship full of people who already know each other well (conflicts; note that we have already established that Neo is a loner). There is also a cryptic scene where Cypher (Joe Pantoliano) is revealed (to us; not to Neo) as betraying the group. This sets up another obstacle for Neo and sets the stage for more conflict later.

The midpoint occurs when Neo is taken back into the Matrix to see the Oracle (Gloria Foster). This is the lowest point for Neo as he recalls scenes and memories from his old life and reflects that "none of them really happened" (p63). Neo then meets the Oracle and infers from the meeting that he is not "the one" (an obstacle).

There follows a big action sequence as the trap laid by the agents (with Cypher on their side) is sprung (more conflicts and obstacles). The key scene is pinch 2, where Morpheus fights with Agent Smith, apparently sacrificing himself to save Neo, who he believes is "the one" (though we the audience know that Neo does not believe this, even though we all hope he really is). Note how this mirrors the first pinch where Morpheus fights Neo, followed by Neo failing on his "leap of faith". As mentioned earlier, the two pinches are often related in in some way.

They escape and Cypher dies (as many foils do), and so does most of the crew, but Morpheus is still inside. This leads us to the second act turning point where Neo decides to re-enter the Matrix believing "I can bring him back" (p94). He re-enters with Trinity.

Act III

To cut a long story short, they save Morpheus, and he and Trinity escape. A number of action scenes end with the climax, which is a final showdown between the protagonist and the action line antagonist. Neo wins and proves once and for all that "He is the One" (p119). He escapes in the nick of time, gets the girl (the resolution), and sets us all up for the sequels. FADE OUT.

Other structures

The three act structure is now a fairly well developed structure in Western literature. Many novels and plays (with the notable exception of Elizabethan plays) are based on this structure.

I should stress that three acts is a minimum number for a feature-length film. Short films may have less. Many feature films have more. A.I., for example, has four acts. Four Weddings and a Funeral has five, mirroring the Elizabethan structure. Raiders of the Lost Ark has seven acts. In a flashback narrative film, the "inner" story and the "outer" story often both follow a three act structure. Rather than go into these advanced structures and run the risk of total confusion, we'll look at some of these in a later article.

Homework

First, the answer to last week's quiz question: The movie based on Jack and the Beanstalk was Being John Malkovich. Two people got it right. Those who have seen the movie should now realise what was meant by the cryptic comment "the jewel thief movie", as noted in one answer.

Your own-your-own homework for this week is: Pick a move you've already seen. It can be the same as last week's. Identify the major characters if you haven't already. Identify the protatonist's normality and the inciting incident, if you haven't already.

Now identify the first act turning point, the midpoint, the second act turning point and the climax. What question is raised by the 1TP? What is the resolution? Does it answer the question? Find the first and second pinches. (You can use the timer feature of your VCR or DVD player if you're having trouble with this.) Are they related?

What is the protagonist's goal? What are some of the obstacles introduced to prevent the protagonist from attaining that goal? What are some of the conflicts with other characters, or within the protagonist, which also stand between the protagonist and the goal?

Are there any special problems in structure that the writer had to overcome? If so, what are they? How did the writer solve these? Did the writer actually solve these problems successfully at all? If you think there may be a weakness in the script structure, but you're not able to articulate what it is, say so. Others may be able to help you out with your chosen movie.

Either way, please report back what you find.

Writing exercise: Flesh out your film. You have the opening (I hope). Design the first and second act turning points and the climax and resolution. For the second act, think of as many possible obstacles to the protagonist achieving their goal as you can. This is brainstorming time. Think of at least a dozen, and more if you can. You can cut the list down later.

Design the midpoint and the two pinches. Do not write any dialogue yet. It is very important that you have these points worked out in advance, because this will provide you with a "road map" on where you are going when it actually comes time to write.

Next time...

Next week we will look into developing characters. What makes a character interesting? Just how interesting does a character have to be anyway? How can you help the audience to identify with a protagonist?

One of these days I'll get around to doing the bibliography, too. I promise. Honestly.

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Poll
Our movie needs some technology. What should we include?
o Spacecraft which automatically align with the same perpendicular axis as surrounding spacecraft 11%
o Bombs with only two cuttable wires: one which makes them instantly explode, one which disarms them 5%
o Overhead pipes whose only purpose is to transport high-pressure steam 15%
o Automatic pistols which require being held sideways to work 10%
o Helicopters which run sufficiently silently for people standing next to them to hold a conversation without shouting 4%
o Signal processing software which can retrieve information from above the Nyquist limit 11%
o Floppy disks and serial cables compatible with extraterrestrial hardware 39%

Votes: 84
Results | Other Polls

Related Links
o part 1
o part 2
o Also by Pseudonym


Display: Sort:
Screenplay, part 3: Screenplay Forever | 35 comments (34 topical, 1 editorial, 0 hidden)
+1FP (1.92 / 13) (#1)
by anothertom on Sun Sep 29, 2002 at 10:36:45 AM EST

first vote. woohoo.
Well written by someone who really knows about.
+1FP

Why I rated you a 0. (1.77 / 9) (#2)
by kwsNI on Sun Sep 29, 2002 at 12:41:47 PM EST

  1. We don't do first posts or first votes here.
  2. "Well written by someone who really knows about." is not a sentence and most certainly doesn't pass as content  As it's the only thing contained in your post, I'd have to say your post is relatively content free.
  3. If you are going to post a legitimate explanation for your vote, it should be editorial, not topical.  
HAND.  

kwsNI
Damn you, kwisNi. Damn you. --rusty
[ Parent ]
why i didn't give him a 0 (4.00 / 1) (#6)
by nodsmasher on Sun Sep 29, 2002 at 02:08:20 PM EST

It had content, read the trusted user guidelines, just become you don't think the content is presented right doesn't mean its not there
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Most people don't realise just how funny cannibalism can actually be.
-Tatarigami
[ Parent ]
Why I rated you a 5 (4.66 / 3) (#9)
by brunes69 on Sun Sep 29, 2002 at 06:57:18 PM EST

Because I find "Why I rated you a 0" style comments to be quite pompous and arrogant.

---There is no Spoon---
[ Parent ]
Why I rated you a 2 (none / 0) (#28)
by kholmes on Tue Oct 01, 2002 at 02:56:18 AM EST

Because opportunities such as this are rare and have unique comedic potential.

If you treat people as most people treat things and treat things as most people treat people, you might be a Randian.
[ Parent ]
Acts (4.25 / 4) (#4)
by Bad Harmony on Sun Sep 29, 2002 at 01:43:06 PM EST

I recently watched "Lawrence of Arabia" on DVD, which includes introductory music before the film starts and an intermission, just like the original theatrical release. It made me think how movies have changed over the years.

In many large cities, movies were shown in large, single-screen theaters, often called "movie palaces", built in the 1920s and 1930s. They had balconies and large lobbies, just like theaters designed for live performing arts. Some even had pipe organs, a relic of the silent movie era.

Today we have the often horrid megaplexes, which may make economic sense for the exhibitors, but which more closely resemble a collection of cracker boxes than a real theater.

Long movies, such as the recent "Lord of the Rings", used to include intermissions. Giving the audience an opportunity to go to the bathroom, grab a cigarette, chat with friends and buy a drink or snack. It also divided the movie into distinct parts, like with a play or opera.

With some newer movies being shot direct to video, instead of film, and making more money from videotapes and DVDs than the box office, is there any place for the movie theater, debased as it is?

Some old television shows used to be explicitly divided into acts, coordinated with the commercial breaks. An on-screen graphic would announce the beginning of the next act.

54º40' or Fight!

Drive-ins. (none / 0) (#5)
by j1mmy on Sun Sep 29, 2002 at 02:05:28 PM EST

With some newer movies being shot direct to video, instead of film, and making more money from videotapes and DVDs than the box office, is there any place for the movie theater, debased as it is?

I just yesterday attended a double-feature at a drive-in in Indiana. It was $6 a head, the theater "lot" was certainly not crowded, and the movie audio was broadcast over the radio. Being able to actually control the volume level for your movie-viewing experience is a novelty like none other. You don't have to put up with the ear-crushing level of noise most megaplexes operate at.

The only problem I had with the drive-in is that the movies sucked. If you ever have the opportunity to see either Swimfan or Blue Crush, don't.

Otherwise, a novel experience that I will likely repeat.


[ Parent ]

Acts in TV shows. (none / 0) (#12)
by static on Sun Sep 29, 2002 at 08:19:03 PM EST

Something I noticed after I started collecting anime was that the Japanese structure their half-hour TV episodes into two halves. All my Evangelion tapes have a 5 second graphic of the show's name and the episode's name in the middle, for instance - and I discovered when I visited Japan a few years ago that that is the mid-show commercial break!

Western TV series (as shown on Australian TV) do not do that for half-hour shows: they usually break the show into three pieces. It is quite a different structure.

Wade.


[ Parent ]

Yes (none / 0) (#13)
by Pseudonym on Sun Sep 29, 2002 at 08:34:12 PM EST

I haven't really studied the structure of anime (I suspect it's based on classical asian literary forms, though of course a lot of it will be universal), however, half hour TV shows are very much three act in structure (often with a teaser and an epilogue added).

You can learn a lot about the three act structure by studying television series, though generally the characters don't need to be introduced in each episode, so you may not learn much about desiging the openings of films.



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[ Parent ]
A good TV example of this... (none / 0) (#22)
by Ricochet Rita on Mon Sep 30, 2002 at 03:19:13 PM EST

would be Star Trek (the original series). They always seemed to be formula-written, to me:

Where the first fifteen minutes or so were spent setting up the scene (& hooking the audience), followed by the next half hour, where the situation rapidly deteriorated, then leaving that "final fifteen minutes" for Kirk to pull a solution out of thin air (or whatever convenient orifice was at hand...).


FABRICATUS DIEM, PVNC!
[ Parent ]

Here is Jamaica (none / 0) (#20)
by JahToasted on Mon Sep 30, 2002 at 02:38:23 PM EST

They still have intermissions. You also have to stand for the national anthem at the beginning of the movie. But unfortunately they are going more towards multiplexes. I hear Carib 5 used to be one huge theatre... wish I had have been able to see a movie like that.
______
"I wanna have my kicks before the whole shithouse goes up in flames" -- Jim Morrison
[ Parent ]
A good theater (none / 0) (#34)
by NightHwk1 on Sun Oct 06, 2002 at 02:51:07 PM EST

There is a place in downtown Indianapolis called Hollywood Bar & Filmworks, which sits on the 2nd floor of a building above a Mac store, and below a comedy club.
It has three screens (hard screens, btw) and two bars in the place.  Each screening room is filled with tables, where food and drinks are served during the movie.
The movies usually begin with a clip of John Waters, talking about delicious tobacco --at this point people begin to light up-- yes, you can smoke in this theater.
Halfway through the movie, there is an intermission. Five minutes to wander around, refill drinks, use the bathroom, etc.
Plus the movies shown here are usually better than the ones in multiplexes.. I just watched Full Frontal last time I was there.

[ Parent ]
thanks pseudo (4.00 / 3) (#7)
by nex on Sun Sep 29, 2002 at 03:13:17 PM EST

thanks for one of the most interesting and highest quality series on k5!

I second that! (none / 0) (#30)
by Lion on Tue Oct 01, 2002 at 11:57:09 AM EST

-

[ Parent ]
setup, conflict, and resolution (none / 0) (#8)
by tiger on Sun Sep 29, 2002 at 03:49:29 PM EST

I read a few how-to-write-a-screenplay books when I was young, and I have always remembered the simple formula that a screenplay should have three parts: setup, conflict, and resolution. Your description is more complete and detailed, and the example of the Matrix is well chosen, since that was an excellent movie. Nice job. Are you in the business, or just another wanabee?

--
Americans :— Say no to male genital mutilation. In Memory of the Sexually Mutilated Child



Me (5.00 / 1) (#10)
by Pseudonym on Sun Sep 29, 2002 at 07:18:19 PM EST

It would be more correct to describe me as an enthusiast. I'm not a screenwriter and almost certainly never will be. I have been collecting and reading screenplays for about 20 years now, so I'm mostly relating what I've found over that time.



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[ Parent ]
fascinating (none / 0) (#11)
by janra on Sun Sep 29, 2002 at 08:07:15 PM EST

And I can see how this can apply to books as well. I'm more interested in writing books than movies, and they are very different media, but a lot of the overarching details - like plot - certainly apply to both. I'm also mostly only familiar with the basic intro-conflict-resolution description of plot from school, so I'm really interested to see more articles like this - looking forward to future articles on other plot structures.

I've only recently started paying closer attention to how books I like are structured, and I've noticed as you describe various techniques that I can remember points like that in some books I've read.

Thanks for a very interesting series; I'll definitely be linking to them from my writing site. :-)


--
Discuss the art and craft of writing
That's the problem with world domination... Nobody is willing to wait for it anymore, work slowly towards it, drink more and enjoy the ride more.
On novels and screenplays (none / 0) (#14)
by Pseudonym on Sun Sep 29, 2002 at 08:53:02 PM EST

Novels are a very different artform than movies because the novelist has one tool that the screenwriter does not: They can get inside a character's head. Screenwriters must show rather than tell. Novelists can (and must) tell.

It is extremely important that the audience sympathises with the protagonist. (We'll look more at this next week when we look at characters and characterisation.) If you don't create sympathy, you lose the audience.

A classic example is Interview with the Vampire, novel and screenplay both by Anne Rice. (Disclaimer: I haven't read this novel, though I have read other Anne Rice vampire books.) In her books, Anne Rice gets us right inside the heads of her vampires, which helps us understand why they do what they do. In the movie of Interview with the Vampire, on the other hand, the protagonist, Louis (Brad Pitt), just comes across as whiny because there is no way to encourage this sympathy. This just goes to show that writing good novels and writing good screenplays are different skills.

I haven't seen Queen of the Damned, but I do note that she did not try writing the screenplay for that one, instead using a couple of actual screenwriters (Scott Abbott and Michael Petroni, whom Australian audiences may remember as Bob the Psychopath from DAAS Kapital). I have a lot more hope for that film.



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[ Parent ]
tools (none / 0) (#15)
by janra on Sun Sep 29, 2002 at 09:10:16 PM EST

the novelist has one tool that the screenwriter does not: They can get inside a character's head.

And the screenwriter has a tool the novelist does not - pictures. You can show a rich environment in a few seconds in a movie that would take pages to describe in a book (and would lose a lot of readers along the way). That's one of the weaknesses of Lord of the Rings as a book - it's great, but because it is primarily a locale story, it spends a lot more time than most people are used to describing the land the characters pass through.

Despite this, they still have a lot in common - such as the need to hold interest, and to create characters the audience actually cares about. You're right though, the finished product takes different skills to produce.

Hmm, might be an idea for an article for my site - differences between writing for a visual medium and for a text medium. I'd have to study screenplays a lot though, first :-)


--
Discuss the art and craft of writing
That's the problem with world domination... Nobody is willing to wait for it anymore, work slowly towards it, drink more and enjoy the ride more.
[ Parent ]
Pictures, novellists etc (none / 0) (#16)
by Pseudonym on Sun Sep 29, 2002 at 09:22:08 PM EST

And the screenwriter has a tool the novelist does not - pictures.

One of the themes which will come up later is that filmmaking is fundamentally a collaborative medium. The screenwriter doesn't actually make any pictures! This is true (though to a lesser extent) even if the screenwriter is also the director, because a significant component of the visuals come from set designers, costume designers, directors of photography, storyboard artists, editors, visual effects artists, other actors and so on.

Novellists, on the other hand, basically do everything. OK, this is a slight lie because editors do a lot of hard work, plus there's book design, cover art, typography and so on. However, there is a big difference in that the screenwriter is, for better or worse, part of a team. Many writers (e.g. Joss Whedon) don't like working like this.

I'll have more to say about this later, when I talk about the limits of what screenwriters are allowed to get away with.



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[ Parent ]
you're right (none / 0) (#17)
by janra on Sun Sep 29, 2002 at 09:37:32 PM EST

But they can ask for a picture of a certain environment, and not spend pages of the script describing it to the audience. While I haven't done any screenwriting, I'd think that they keep stuff like that in mind, and it is a tool that they can use, even if they don't make the actual picture. Even if they put only a vague description of the picture they want in their notes - they know that there's going to be a picture that would take a thousand words to describe in a novel that will help set the mood, describe the character, tell us something about the setting, whatever.

What would you call an indirectly used tool?


--
Discuss the art and craft of writing
That's the problem with world domination... Nobody is willing to wait for it anymore, work slowly towards it, drink more and enjoy the ride more.
[ Parent ]
Case in point (none / 0) (#29)
by kholmes on Tue Oct 01, 2002 at 03:21:56 AM EST

"The Scene" in The Time Machine. One of these days I may clip just that one scene out to watch over and over again. The equivalent in the book did take a couple pages, if I recall correctly. However, even as Wells described that scene in the book, I really wanted to see it happening. The movie definitely delivered.

If you treat people as most people treat things and treat things as most people treat people, you might be a Randian.
[ Parent ]
The Matrix (none / 0) (#18)
by demi on Mon Sep 30, 2002 at 01:33:38 AM EST

The example that I have chosen is The Matrix, written by Larry and Andy Wachowski.

That same movie was the example Jean-Luc Godard chose in Éloge de l'amour (2001) to portray the sad plight of French film: Pickpocket by Robert Bresson having to share equal billing with Hollywood pabulum from the Wachowski brothers. Never mind that the last film Bresson directed was in 1983, more than 10 years past his prime...

Anyway, you're doing a good job of demonstrating that plot structure has rarely been important in theatre or film - resonant monologues, fancy outfits, temporal verisimilitude, musical accompaniment, physical beauty and special effects have been much more important to audiences and even critics. Basically if a script has one good character in it, and the part is well cast, a great film can be built upon it with a basic plot formula and generous helpings of tumult and frippery.

I'm not sure... (none / 0) (#24)
by joshsisk on Mon Sep 30, 2002 at 04:04:03 PM EST

Anyway, you're doing a good job of demonstrating that plot structure has rarely been important in theatre or film

I'm not sure about theatre, but I can think of very few successful films that veer far from the standard plot structure. Well-liked by critics and cineastes, perhaps. But I think the VAST majority of films loved by audiences adhere, mostly, to standard narrative structure.
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[ Parent ]

That's exactly what I said... My point was (none / 0) (#25)
by demi on Mon Sep 30, 2002 at 05:03:04 PM EST

that as much as critics malign genre film as formulaic in plot structure, audiences don't have a particular problem with it - although the variation in themes, characters, time periods, and other decorative and peripheral aspects must constantly change in order to cater to viewers. That goes for theatre, too, although to a lesser extent. With respect to audiences, the plot structure doesn't need to respond as much as casting or costuming.

[ Parent ]
Something tells me (none / 0) (#19)
by medham on Mon Sep 30, 2002 at 01:55:10 PM EST

You're about as knowledgable about screenwriting as Christopher Moltisanti.

The real 'medham' has userid 6831.

I'll bite (none / 0) (#26)
by Pseudonym on Mon Sep 30, 2002 at 07:14:41 PM EST

I know that's a character from The Sopranos, but since I don't follow it, you're going to have to explain that reference to me.

Or alternatively, you could not tell me and leave me to look stupid. Wouldn't be the first time for me.



sub f{($f)=@_;print"$f(q{$f});";}f(q{sub f{($f)=@_;print"$f(q{$f});";}f});
[ Parent ]
First Season (none / 0) (#27)
by medham on Mon Sep 30, 2002 at 10:03:41 PM EST

Episode called "The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti" explores the character's humourous attempts at screenwriting, as does the second season "D-Girl."

The real 'medham' has userid 6831.
[ Parent ]

Project Greenlight (none / 0) (#21)
by JahToasted on Mon Sep 30, 2002 at 02:45:53 PM EST

It may have been noted before but they are gonna make a second Project Greenlight. As soon as you finish writing your masterpeice you can submit it there... see ya on HBO!
______
"I wanna have my kicks before the whole shithouse goes up in flames" -- Jim Morrison
I like this series (none / 0) (#23)
by JahToasted on Mon Sep 30, 2002 at 03:23:31 PM EST

I've been busy so I haven't been able to check K5 for awhile, so I just read parts 1,2 and 3 just now.

I've always been working on making a video game and thinking about all the rules you have to follow to make a great game. I wasn't aware that there are so many rules to screen writing.

It was a good idea to pick a movie to use as an example to follow along the article with. I chose "Gladiator" because it is a movie I liked, it was simple, and I have it on DVD. Identifying the characters was pretty easy.

1TP was the Old Emporer giving Maximus the quest to "give Rome her true self" and then getting killed by his Commodus. Commodus kills Maximus' family giving Maximus a second quest to avenge their deaths (both quests involve killing Commodus). Now we don't know if Rome gets her true self back, the movie suggests it does at the end, but history tells us otherwise. Maximus does avenge his family and ends the tyranny of Commodus.

The first pinch is probably when Maximus is ordered to reveal himself to Commodus, but is spared by the crowd. The second pinch I think would be Grachus being arrested and Lucilia (or whatever) has to free him herself. Maybe the battle with the tigers was the second pinch, but I'm more inclined to think it was Grachus being arrested and the conspiracy being discovered.

I'm not sure how the pinches are related. Now that I think of it, maybe the battle with the tigers was the second pinch. In the first pinch the mob spared Maximus, but later the mob wanted him to kill the other Gladiator, but Maximus spared him. I guess if the pinches have to be related then those would be them.

The goal of the protaganist was to kill the Emporer, avenge his family and restore the republic. The obstacle was that he was enslaved and only "had the power to amuse a mob." Other obstacles were giving up the will to live, which his friend helped him with.

I can't see any problems with the structure... but like I said, its a fairly straight forward movie. It really is interesting how well everything fits with the template given here.
______
"I wanna have my kicks before the whole shithouse goes up in flames" -- Jim Morrison

The Hudsucker Proxy (5.00 / 1) (#31)
by orangecutter on Tue Oct 01, 2002 at 12:20:26 PM EST

I thought I'd try this with The Hudsucker Proxy, which is my all-time favourite film. This comedy concerns Norbert Barnes (Tim Robbins) who arrives in New York in the 50s straight out of business school and keen to prove himself. He has an idea to make his fortune, but his small town innocence is at odds with the harsh rat race of big city, and various forces plot to ruin him.

I will try to deconstruct this without giving too many spoilers, but there are some unavoidably. There are several interesting points in this film. One is that for a very long time Barnes's big idea is baffling to the audience. All we know is his scrappy design with the accompanying explanation "You know - for kids!" (Unfortunately the poster gives it away, and so spoiling one of the film's big jokes.) The second point is that the protagonist is a real dimwit. We want him to succeed because he's one of the few good people in a city of schemers, but his enthusiasm is easily brought down and he needs others to push him to keep going. This seems to me a problem when discussing the structure.

The first act has Barnes arriving in the big city. His normality is established by the sequence showing him arriving from Muncie, Indiana, and his youthful enthusiasm being ground down in his quest for a job matching what he assumes is his outstanding qualification. We know he has a big idea, but no-one understands (including the audience). Eventually he gets a terrible job in the mail room of the monstrous Hudsucker Industries. The 1TP comes when, thanks to the scheming Mussburger (Paul Newman) is promoted to President of the company.

It is clear from the 1TP that the protagonist's goal is to finally to prove himself. However, it is also apparent that Mussburger and the rest of board have only put him there to ruin him: this is one obstacle. Another possible obstacle is that Barnes's big idea is most likely nonsense and bound to fail.

I should say that whenever I have a spare 20-30 minutes I sit down and watch only this first act (without previously realising its formal significance). As with the rest of the film it looks simply stunning and the dialogue and ideas are hilarious. One of these ideas is the whiff of a supernatural presence which comes more into play towards the end.

The first pinch (I think) occurs some time after the introduction of the relationship interest, Amy Archer (Jennifer Jason-Leigh). She is a journalist who suspects the motives of the Hudsucker board and thinks Barnes is not the brilliant business leader that Hudsucker portray him as, and that he is actually a moron. So the first pinch occurs when she files a front page story: "Imbecile Heads Hudsucker", subtitled "Not a brain in his head". Thus Archer is revealed to be another obstacle. She is soon won over by his good intentions, but by then she has set a train in motion and other journalists take up her anti-Barnes story.

By contrast I think the second pinch is when Barnes finally has his big idea realised and it is, to everyone's surprise, a huge success. I guess the relationship between the first and second pinches is that Archer's news story turns out to be utterly wrong. Barnes has confounded all his critics.

The midpoint seems to be the key scene between these when Barnes meets the Hudsucker stockholders and manages to upset every one of them. One of them punches him in the face after he tries out some Finnish. After this low point he manages to carry on only because Archer affirms her belief in him.

The third act begins right after the 2TP when Mussburger is confounded by Barnes's success and vows to ruin him: "I say we made this chump - we can break him". A reason is contrived for him to be dismissed from his post. The climax occurs with another supernatural act and Barnes is reinstated; the voiceover which began the film tells us what happens after that.

I do have some problems with this deconstruction, however, although these are problems with the story more than the structure. Barnes is a wimp and when he finally loses his job he is brought back from the brink despite his own inadequacies, not because of his strengths. He requires the help of others and not himself. Also, this point late in the story is his all-time low point, not his stockholders meeting (the midpoint). Indeed, a particular problem with the story as a whole is that Barnes is always a victim and it is Archer who is the strongest character, showing few if any weaknesses throughout. I'm not sure how these are dealt with, though for me the result is a successful film. Perhaps it is that so much of the film is extreme and ridiculous, and that Barnes is such an innocent, that we are prepared to accept any interventions, however peculiar.

If any more knowledgeable people know of answers here I'd be interested to hear your thoughts.

--
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Endings (none / 0) (#32)
by Pseudonym on Tue Oct 01, 2002 at 07:34:26 PM EST

Your analysis (well done, BTW) brings up a point which I briefly mentioned but didn't expand on. The question asked by the 1TP should be answered in the climax/resolution. In your case, the question is "Will he prove himself?" and the answer is "yes". Failure to do this generally results in a weak script.

I'll have more to say about endings in a later article. (I'm trying to alterate "structure" articles with "cast" articles, so it will probably be in part 5.)



sub f{($f)=@_;print"$f(q{$f});";}f(q{sub f{($f)=@_;print"$f(q{$f});";}f});
[ Parent ]
The blessed fool (5.00 / 1) (#33)
by Adam Brate on Wed Oct 02, 2002 at 02:34:15 AM EST

Barnes is not a wimp, but the blessed fool.

He is essentially a proxy for the United States: pure optimism and simplicity, which goes wrong when overwhelmed by greed.

That his redemption comes not from his actions (even though there are acts of contrition) but from the outside is a basic Christian message.

In many ways the true protagonist of the film is not Barnes but the Hudsucker corporation/building/institution.

[ Parent ]

I commend your hard work... (none / 0) (#35)
by SPYvSPY on Wed Oct 09, 2002 at 01:06:17 PM EST

...but I can't help feeling like this type of formulaic approach to writing is exactly why nine out of ten large budget films suck. Of course, every boring convention has its virtuousos; I think the best-written film that more or less follows the lazy Hollywood formulas is Chinatown.

Of course, I though The Matrix was a bunch of drivel written by and for the New Jersey leather couch and Nagel print crowd.
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Screenplay, part 3: Screenplay Forever | 35 comments (34 topical, 1 editorial, 0 hidden)
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