TEN SIMPLE KEYS TO PLOT STRUCTURE
Structure is something that every agent and executive in Hollywood talks about, and that all of us teachers/authors/consultants/gurus/whatever go on and on about, to the point that it can seem complicated, intricate, mysterious and hard to master. So I want present plot structure in a way that simplifies it – that will at least give you a starting point for properly structuring your screenplay without overwhelming you with rules and details and jargon.
Here are what I consider ten key elements of structure – ten ways of looking at structure that will immediately improve the emotional impact – and commercial potential – of your script.
- THE SINGLE RULE OF STRUCTURE
I once got to work with long time television writer Doug Heyes, who used to say that there is only one rule for achieving proper plot structure: What’s happening now must be inherently more interesting than what just happened. The goal of structure – the goal of your entire screenplay, in fact – is to elicit emotion in the reader and audience. If your story is increasingly compelling as you move forward, that’s all you need to worry about.
- IT’S ALL ABOUT THE GOAL
The events and turning points in your story determine its structure. And those events must all grow out of your hero’s desire. Without an outer motivation for your hero – a clear, visible objective your hero is desperate to achieve – your story can’t move forward, and the idea of structure becomes meaningless. Repeatedly ask yourself, “What does my hero want to achieve by the end of the movie? How will the reader/audience know this is what she wants? As soon as they know my hero’s desire, can they clearly envision what achieving it will look like? And will they be rooting for my hero to reach that finish line?” Apply the same questions to whatever scene you’re creating: “What does my hero want in this scene? How is this immediate goal linked to that ultimate goal? How do my protagonist’s actions in this scene move her closer to that overall desire?” If the honest answer is “I don’t know” or “They don’t”, your structure has collapsed, and your story is dead in the water (originally a sailing term that means “adrift, not going anywhere”).
- MORE, BIGGER, BADDER
Structure is built on desire, but the emotion you must elicit grows out of conflict. The more obstacles your hero must overcome, and the more impossible it seems that he will succeed, the more captivated your reader will be. The conflict must build: each successive problem, opponent, hurdle, weakness, fear and setback must be greater than those that preceded it. Whether from other characters, from forces of nature, or from within the hero himself, repeatedly ask yourself, “How can I make it even harder for my hero to achieve his desire – in this scene, and in the overall story?”
- SOMETHING OLD, SOMETHING NEW
In each successive scene, something must happen that has never happened before: a new situation for the hero; a new secret to reveal; a new ally to join; and new enemy to confront; a new lover to pursue; a new (even bigger) problem to solve; a new tool for solving it; a new skill set (physical or emotional) to employ. If scenes are interchangeable, if nothing of significance changes from one scene to the next, or if actions and dialogue are repeated, you’re treading water, or circling back in your story.
That is, UNLESS…
… you are purposely repeating a situation or even a line of dialogue to illustrate the changes in your hero since we previously encountered that setting, or that event, or that speech. Echoing – using repetition in this way – is a wonderful method of revealing character arc, and of keeping the audience connected to your story.
- BEFORE AND AFTER
In creating the overall structure for your screenplay, look at your story as symmetrical, and divided into three sections (these are NOT the three acts – we’re looking at structure a bit differently here). Section 1 shows us your hero at the beginning of the story, living his everyday life. He’s stuck in some way – settling for something, resigned to a life that isn’t that fulfilling, perhaps, or oblivious to the fact that deep down he longs for more. If it’s a big action film with no character arc at all, we will still see a portrait of a hero who is getting by, and who has yet to face his greatest physical challenge.
At the other end of this symmetrical structure is another fairly static portrait of that same hero, this time transformed. Living a different life, more mature and self-aware than he was at the beginning. Even though I’m calling this “symmetrical”, this final section may not be as long as the opening one was. But it must give us a clear picture of your hero having reaped the rewards (positive or negative) of his actions, and for finding (or not) the physical and/or emotional courage that was necessary to complete his journey. In between these before and after snapshots is the journey itself – the hero’s pursuit of that all-important goal. This is where the compelling desire and the overwhelming conflict come face to face. But without those beginning and ending sequences, the structure is incomplete, and the story won’t work.
- THE OPPORTUNITY
At the end of that opening snapshot – right around page 10 of your screenplay, your hero must be presented with some opportunity. Something must happen to your hero that has never happened before, which will create her initial desire, and move her into some new situation. This is where the forward movement of your story begins, and it is out of this new situation (often geographic, always unfamiliar) that your hero’s outer motivation will ultimately emerge.
- FOCUS & DETERMINATION
Whatever goal drives your hero, whatever the desire that dictates the structure, your hero must NEVER begin pursuing that goal immediately – or even at page ten. She must get acclimated to her new situation, must figure out what’s going on or where she fits in, until her fairly broad or undefined desire comes into focus. Not until around page 30 (the 25% mark, to be more precise) will she begin taking action toward the specific outer motivation that defines your story.
- LINES & ARCS
Structure applies to both the outer journey of achievement, and the inner journey of transformation. In other words, as the hero moves on the visible path toward that finish line, facing ever increasing obstacles to reaching it, he must also gradually find greater and greater courage to overcome whatever wounds and fears have been holding him back and keeping him from finding real fulfillment or self worth. At each scene, along with those questions in #2 above, you must also ask yourself “How is my hero changing in this scene? How are his emotional fears revealed and tested?” And, ultimately, “What does my protagonist have the courage to do at the end of the screenplay that he didn’t have the courage to do at the beginning?” Whatever the answer, this is your hero’s character arc.
- SECRETS & LIES
Superior position is the term for telling your reader and audience something that some of the characters in the film don’t know. This gives you one of your most powerful structural tools for eliciting emotion: anticipation. When we know who and where the killer is before the hero does; when we know the hero is having a secret affair; when we know the romantic comedy protagonist is pretending to be someone she’s not; when we know the planet is about to be destroyed before the inhabitants do – these all keep us guessing what will happen when the truth comes out, and when that conflict must be confronted.
- TURN FANTASY INTO REALITY
Your job as a screenwriter is not simply to take the audience to incredible places and show them exciting or moving or astonishing things – it’s to make them believe they are real. The audience wants to suspend disbelief, but you’ve got to enable them to do that, by having your characters behave in consistent, credible ways. Your audience is eager to embrace fantastic, faraway worlds, bigger than life characters and startling events, but only if your characters react to them the way people in the real world would. You can throw an everyday hero into an extraordinary situation, but she must then overcome whatever conflicts she faces in ways that an everyday person could. And if she has to call on some added talent to save the day, you must reveal that talent (or ally or weapon or knowledge or magic wand) early in the story, long before it’s needed. You can even give your hero super powers, but we have to see how she got them, and they must be limited in some way to make her vulnerable.
This list certainly doesn’t cover every element or principle of plot structure that I lecture about or use with my consulting clients. Nor does it reveal all of the tools and turning points at your disposal. But every script I have ever read that followed these ten principles was properly – and effectively – structured.
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