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Stories from a seasoned screenwriter. Take heart! Your creative source is infinite and un-ending. Sometimes Hollywood just rips up the roadmap back to it. The bottom line is that Hollywood is not at all as bad as it sounds. Additionally, it's worse than you can imagine. Remember to pack a sense of humor.


I am a screenwriter living in Southern California. I've written screenplays for most of the Hollywood studios over the past 20 years. One of the uncredited writers of FANTASTIC FOUR, I wrote FIRE DOWN BELOW starring Steven Seagal, and the TV Movie 12:01 PM starring Martin Landau and MANEATER with Gary Busey. I have directed short films. I have written on numerous Hollywood studio assignments, some for big shot actors, some for small shot nobodies.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

On Structure

This question from Vince DC: On the subject of structure.

“I've just finished the first draft of a feature screenplay and I'm struggling with act structure: when the act should end as concerns page count. This draft runs 130 pages -- yes, too long.

Lew Hunter is a stickler for precise act breaks: Act 1 should end on page 17, etc. Other script gurus take a more organic approach, saying the story should dictate the structure as long as there is rising action and it grips the audience.

My Act 1 runs 35 pages and I'm really trying to avoid "killing my babies" because what happens there is crucial to the rest of the story -- bet you've heard that one before. I can blame trying to make the script vertical for adding 5 or so pages to that act. The rest I can blame on me not being able to find a more succinct way to set up my protagonist's journey into Act 2.”
The structure issue is more crucial to the screenwriting form than to any other form of writing, except the play. Perhaps because they are both living forms that need to experienced in real time and people have an internal clock that has been trained by their culture in what to expect. A novel can be 350 or 650 (like the one I’m adapting now) and both be excellent stories, a great read and feel like they have great internal structure. Short stories only have to be short, no specific length required. Poems, comic books, essays, non-fiction books, sure they all have structure but the requirements are loose.

But screenplays live or die on their structure, I believe, And I’ve read scripts that have sold, that I didn’t think had great writing, but they all had one thing in common: GREAT structure. My scripts that have sold? Great structure.

Having said that, I will throw in a caveat that I abhor strict adherence to any artificial structure system. Because by the very nature of its artificiality it makes one incredibly “mindfull” and that can kill creativity. But that’s my inherent anti-authority issue speaking.

There – easy answer right? So what do you do?

Be creative and in flow with your work, feel the movie you’re in, and the breaks should speak to you themselves. You should know when you’re running long. If not, go out and watch more movies.

I take a cue on structure from a friend of mine who has always told me he feels when he’s writing an original that he has to write the “book” first, then find the screenplay. It all comes out as screenplay of course, draft after draft, and when he’s amassed what could have been a book by sheer page count, he usually “gets “his script. The journey of discovery however, is unpleasant for him by its sheer volume of pages never used and lost scenes (as he tells it). It’s why this guy hates writing originals. Too brutal for him, he loves adapting.

I like originals. And I like work-for-hire. I don’t mind the process (aside from the sleepless nights and the hair pulling). What falls to the floor I put in a huge file and raid regularly year after year. No writing is ever wasted by my reckoning. It’s either making you better, making your work better, or creating scenes that will live again someday in another piece.

So, back to structure:

Think of the screenplay as having four “acts”. Now we’ve all been told to death that a screenplay is three acts. There is act one (30 pages), act two – which is that huge chunk in the middle (60 pages) and act 3, (30 pages).

What the F? Why is act two twice as long as the others? What kind of symmetry is that? Well, it’s not, and it’s kind of ridiculous. What is there just hasn’t been categorized properly. Now some have recategorized it. Many many years of writing have revealed to me (at least this is the way I see it) that a screenplay is four acts.

So I believe that the 60 page act “two” that is talked about, is really two 30 page acts. You’ll hear about the “mid-point” of act two – well, it’s an act break as far as I’m concerned. So a script is four acts. And each act has it’s own mid-point.

Easy right? Of course not.

You’re stuff may not fit. And what about flashbacks and stories told out of time where the story telling is fractured?

Well, like any good book, the story keeps cruising along, but a real page turned closes a chapter and kills you with the unresolved tension. You have to keep reading and turn the page of that next chapter.

So think of the screenplay as a book. And think of ending a chapter every 15 pages. That’s a rough guidline, but a good guideline. Page count? I believe in keeping it tight. Clean crisp story telling, even in a character drama in a drawing room.

As for the page hits – yes, I think act one ends in the page 25-30 zone. I hate giving a specific page count as anywhere in there is fine, earlier will serve you better. If you have to lose some of your darlings to get there, It’s worth it for a better read. Because the better read will sell your script.

But what ends a chapter? What ends an act break? How to nail a story that’s either linear, or has multiple story lines, flashbacks, flash forwards, what have you? We have to examine structure a little further. There are two realities in your hero’s world. The “situational” reality and the “emotional” reality and they have to intertwine.

Situational Reality: the physical world, ticking clocks, ticking bombs, car chases, kidnappings, fist fights, heists, trysts, invasions, defense, offense, the attack, the counter attack, the ambush, plotting, hiding, sneaking, losing, wining.

Emotional Reality: the lovers, the haters, the betrayers, the needy, the desperate, the dense, the out of touch, the shut-down, the over-sensitive, the hopeful, the funny, the hurt, the sad, the healing, the dying, the redeemed, the lost, the lonely, the saved.

Each reality has it’s own arc. How do they intertwine? All this on the next post.


Blogger Vince DC said...

Great advice, Phil. Much appreciated. I've posted a link to your reply on my blog.

Looking forward to reading part 2.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great, informative post- I look forward to the next installment. Please don't make us wait too long!

Tuesday, March 07, 2006  
Blogger Philip Morton said...

Anon: wait is unintentional, I'm on deadline and not always the best at time management. But all this and more will be discussed in workshop on saturday!

Tuesday, March 07, 2006  
Blogger ggw07 said...

Terrific stuff- loved the screenplay as book idea- Keep this up and you've got a book too-
Good luck with the deadline-

Tuesday, March 07, 2006  
Blogger Eleanor said...

I'm looking forward to your next post as well. :-)
Good stuff!

Wednesday, March 08, 2006  
Blogger MaryAn Batchellor said...

Argh. Can't be at workshop.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006  
Blogger Warren said...

Great post. Wish I'd made the workshop.

Monday, March 13, 2006  

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