Posted by: steveonfilm | December 9, 2009

Pride is Forever: Day Three

Chapter Two of Syd Field’s “The Screenwriter’s Workbook” is titled About Structure. In my view it’s one of the most important chapters of the book, if not thee most important chapter. WIthout structure you’ve just got a series of scenes. A bunch of montages. A cavalcade of skits. A group of ideas. Structure provides the foundation that brings those elements together, and guides the viewer through them with some sort of narrative. I’m waxing poetic a bit here, but you get my drift.

The exercise at the end of the chapter is relatively weak. It asks you to watch a few movies and then break down their structure into a beginning, middle, and end. I’m not belittling what Syd is asking you to do in chapter two, it’s just a bit basic for someone who’s written a few screenplays, studied screenplay structure, or in my case already done the exercise for a previous screenplay.

Instead of doing the exercise I wanted to take a moment to talk a bit more about structure and why it’s important. As I was rereading chapter two, I realized that the problem I ran into with my uncle Doug, in regard to setting up “Pride is Forever,” was that he didn’t know about structure, specifically screenplay structure. He though that, along with most people, a screenplay is just a series of events. You write one event. The next event. The event after that. Then the end. Everything works out perfectly and it’s totally engrossing.

I just recently got in touch with a fraternity brother of mine, Nick. We haven’t talked in years. Nick lives in the Florida Keys and teaches wake boarding, kite surfing, and all sorts of other water based hobbies and activities. He’s quite accomplished in his field and has been featured in many demo videos for a lot of the companies that make the equipment he uses. If you’ve been to a surf shop it’s likely you’ve seen him in any of the videos playing there. Anyway, my point is, Nick’s put together quite a nice life for himself since college.

While we were catching up he asked what I was doing now. I filled him in on the whole IT thing and it’s lack of excitement. So we moved into free time, hobbies, and whatnot. Video games. Movies. Reading. Then we arrived at writing. I guess he does a lot of small short stories and stuff. I told him I wrote screenplays as a hobby. Instantly he wanted to share an idea he had for a horror movie. I don’t think this experience is that out of the ordinary for screenwriters. You tell someone that you write screenplays (be it a hobby or a job) and they want to tell you what they think would be a great screenplay. While it’s fun for an amateur like me, I can imagine that it’s really a pain in the ass for professionals. Anyway, I told him I’d love to hear it, since that’s pretty much what this whole blog is about, and I figured maybe I could lure him into writing it.

A few days later he sent me the “outline” he had for the script. I use quotes around the word outline there for a reason, it wasn’t an outline. What he sent was 6 episodes, each dealing with a different character and a different scenario. The overall gist of the story was that something happens and people just start snapping all over the world. He picked a few places people snap and then describes what happens. But it wasn’t an outline. It was a series of events.

The events were interesting to read, but there was no narrative that connected them together. There was no structure. They were completely independent from each other. I told him he needed to come up with something that connects these events together. I suggested he develop a character who is stuck in the middle of what is going on. Someone that isn’t effected by whatever is happening. Sort of like the survivors in “28 Days Later.” If the movie was just a series of events where zombies show up and tear apart various people in England it wouldn’t have been much of a movie. Instead, we follow a lone survivor as he tries to piece together what happened, while meeting other survivors, and fighting off the various threats they encounter.

Zombies

I then told Nick that whatever character he comes up with should have some sort of pressing need. Something to drive them along. Maybe it’s a father who just arrived in town from a business trip and is trying to get home to his family to see if they’re okay. Or a cop who’s trying to protect an important witness. Or maybe a teacher on a field trip trying to keep all her students safe. It could be anything. But some sort of character needs to be able to drift into the various events he described.

That got Nick’s mind moving. He hadn’t thought about his story that way. He didn’t realize that there needed to be some over arching narrative that the smaller events would play into. Nick’s a smart guy, and if he wants to put his mind to it and set aside some time could turn his idea into a screenplay no problem. I’m not saying he’ll write a good screenplay, but he can definitely write it. To help him along I asked for his address and sent him a copy of “The Screenwriter’s Workbook,” though he doesn’t know it yet.

Chapter Three in “The Screenwriter’s Workbook” is called The Paradigm. I’ve talked about this a few times before, but the paradigm is a tool Syd Field has his students use to create somewhat of a skeleton to hang the rest of the story along. It’s the first time you run into plot points, mid points, pinches, acts, and all the other elements that will go into creating a proper structure for your screenplay.

I’m going to re-read the chapter tonight and post a bit on the results of the exercise tomorrow.

Until next time, keep writing!
-Steve

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Responses

  1. You should check out http://www.johnaugust.com
    I’m sure you’ve heard of it. If not, you should check it out. He writes a lot of scripts for Tim Burton. A lot of material that goes back to 2004, I think. Anyways, as an aspiring writer myself, this has been a great resource. Also, check out http://www.triggerstreet.com I have a screenplay on here as well. Kevin Spacey is one of the founders. It’s useful to share, review, whatever your writing medium is.

  2. I haven’t heard of JohnAugust.com but I’ll check it out. I’m already a member of Triggerstreet, and I’d agree it’s a great resource. I mention it from time to time on the blog. You working on any current projects?


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