Tag Archives: story structure

‘Story’ Versus ‘Save the Cat’ – Screenwriting Book Review by Phil Lowe

I can’t claim to have read every book on screenwriting (I don’t suffer from procrastination quite that badly) but I’ve done my fair share, and these two hardy perennials are the books I return to most often when I’m stuck or needing a compass to navigate through a rewrite.

story vs save the cat screenwriting book reviewLike good scripts, they are a mix of the original and the familiar. Both, in their way, are shining examples of “what oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.” “But which is better?” you can’t help asking. And I have to answer: it depends. They are both written by opinionated and provocative individuals, fiery pulpit preachers of The One True Way. Both are dealing, one way or another, with the Three Act Structure; each finds a very different way into it.

Story is the book which made me want to write fiction again after ten years in the world of business writing. A colleague lent it to me after a conversation about the design of team exercises. I read it and, like Keats on first looking into Chapman’s Homer, the scales fell from my eyes. I thought: “finally, after all these years, I get it – I see why I’ve never managed to plot effectively.”

It is a dense and thorough tome. Don’t enter without a distress flare and your eight favourite records. Lose yourself in it and you will emerge days later, dusty, bloody and gasping for air, your head ringing with phrases like “The Negation of the Negation” and “Extra-personal conflict”. Then, as the dust settles, you are left with simple, elegant ways of thinking about character and story construction – like the idea that story is driven by the gap between what a character expects to happen and what actually does happen. It’s a principle that applies not only to action, but dialogue as well (watch any episode of Eastenders to see how they make the dialogue crackle through each character giving the answer the other doesn’t expect).

Story is so thorough, though, it can put you off. Every time I look at those wheel diagrams of how to use minor characters to show the protagonist’s qualities, I find myself getting one of my headaches and I despair of ever being able to write anything vaguely well constructed. But if you go in with a “cherry picking” mindset, you can’t lose, so rich is it in nuggets.

So Story sounds like the complete package – surely the only book you’d need? Well…

At the beginning of a school holiday, my head teacher wife asked, in that casual way she does, “Are you busy over the next couple of weeks?” Five minutes later, I had “nomineered” to write an original school play for a cast of forty from scratch and have it ready to go at the beginning of the following term. This was no time for “The Negation of the Negation” – I reached instinctively for Save The Cat.

If McKee is the great academic of screenwriting theory, then Snyder is its ultimate pragmatist. Unashamedly populist where McKee is bombastic, his book eschews “Archplot” and “The spine of unconscious desire” for “The Pope In the Pool” and “Bad Guys Close In”. His adherence to box office takings as the ultimate measure of a film’s success will rile many (where McKee idolises Casablanca and Chinatown, here we kneel before Legally Blonde and Miss Congeniality). But this is not a man who wants to be seen as deep and intellectual – we are talking, after all, of the writer of Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot. Put your prejudices aside, and you will find his legendary “beat sheet” a lifesaver if you want to generate coherent plot quickly. He enables you to step back and see the arc of your story with stunning simplicity, where McKee can make your head spin. His material on creating titles and premises by looking for the irony in your idea is a great thought starter, and like McKee he reminds us that story is as much about character as plot – which is where the title phrase comes in (I won’t spoil it for you).

If you go back to McKee after Snyder, you will find not only more subtlety but a more inclusive approach. Snyder sits Memento atop his demonology (It doesn’t follow his beat sheet and it didn’t make money), where McKee would happily include it in his “Antiplot” category. For Snyder, it’s not worth writing if it doesn’t fit; for McKee, everything fits somewhere.

If you can’t face buying both, which should you buy? Tough question: you can’t pick up Story and use it straight out of the box in the same way as Save The Cat! – but on the flipside, Story has more richness. If I had to come off the fence (while still keeping one buttock on it), I’d say go for Story if you’re rewriting and want to give your work a thorough stress test; but if you’re staring at a blank page and want to get the juices flowing, Save The Cat will probably unstick you the fastest.

Before you regard either as a panacea, though, consider: ultimately, both authors remind us why screenwriting is so ballsaching: both, in their own way, acknowledge that while there is a formula we must follow, we must somehow follow it without being formulaic. Sadly, you will not find the answer to the latter quest in any screenwriting book.

Phil Lowe is a scriptwriter and novelist. He originally trained and worked as an actor and has a professional background in business psychology. http://www.phil-lowe.com

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Why I’ve Learned to Love Story Structure – Part 2 by Xandria Horton

I mentioned in a previous post why I know first-hand that structure can feel for some like their script nemesis. This blog post outlines some more thoughts I’ve found useful of ways to think about structure:

orange is the new black script angel story structure

Structure: micro and macro

Structure is most often referred to in the macro – the number of ‘acts’ in your script and its shape as a whole. But structure is less often thought of in the micro; the way in which your story delivers a single scene. Each scene has a status quo which is interrupted by something (ideally) dramatic, where a unit of story is delivered to the audience (almost certainly) through conflict, and the result is a changed situation. It’s easy to forget that it is this level that can shape the clarity and tone of the script.

Structure: when is a problem the story, and when is it how it’s put together?

When there’s an issue in your script, one of the biggest questions is whether it’s the story or plot – which are usually intertwined in the writer’s head – that’s at fault. Is it something that doesn’t quite sit right in the dynamic of your character’s journey and what happens (content), or is it because of where a piece of information sits in the script and how it is delivered (context)?

I’d love to hear any tools that you have for this process, but for me it’s getting the writer to test it in different ways: if it’s a feature, what’s the overall message or theme of the script – and does this scene fit within that? If this scene were removed, what would be the result on the larger plot? What would the opposite outcome of this scene look like? It’s also often useful to see in its simplest form (cue cards, scene by scene outline). Other suggestions are welcome!

Structure’s Toolkit

Below are some common elements in scripts that relate to structure:

The circular narrative: this is frequently used in TV and feature specs alike (and particularly in comedy). The opening scene of a script presents a scenario, usually a tense/climactic situation, after which the narrative jumps back in time to present the events leading up to this moment.

  • This structural tool succeeds or fails on whether the scene you are ‘hooking’ the audience with is sufficiently extraordinary and creates enough narrative questions (not only “how did they get here?” but “how are they going to get out?”). Ideally, assumptions created by presenting this scene out of context are subverted as a result of experiencing the story as a whole. As I’ve already mentioned in my X Factor blog post however, this can be a way that writers who know there isn’t enough story in the first 30 pages of their script can inject some narrative questions. However, this can also be a legitimate way to present two disparate story elements side-by-side.

The flashback and montage:

  • Whilst many writing resources have now come around to the fact that flashbacks, montages, dream sequences are not just lazy storytelling, this doesn’t mean that writers don’t sometimes rely on them in a way that delivers lazy storytelling.
  • Flashbacks should create drama in their own right and move the plot forward in the present, despite dealing with something from a character’s past. Bang2write has a great post on this here, which also delves into other often misused storytelling tools such as voiceover and dream sequences.
  • The flashback has had a revamp of late: Orange Is the New Black uses flashbacks as an integral part of its structure, which both humanises the inmates by presenting them in a world we recognise and creates ironies between their past and present lives. It also provides the occasional pressure release from a claustrophobic story world. Other recent UK TV like Utopia and The Honourable Woman made some bold and – I think – successful choices by carrying out large portions or entire episodes in the past, which then constantly informed the storytelling in the present, rather than dipping back and forth.
  • And as for montages, whilst they’ve moved on somewhat from Rocky (Team America, anyone?), they often aid a script to deliver a character change, but should never be in lieu of scenes that chart a character’s emotional journey – the audience want to see these up close. A good example of this is Groundhog Day; we skip the hundreds of days in which Bill Murray’s character learns to ice sculpt, play the piano, learn about Andie McDowell and generally become a better person. However, it doesn’t montage the scenes in which his character is challenged or he develops a better emotional understanding.

Multiple storylines a.k.a. ‘plate spinning’

  • Whether this is for a feature with an ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ story, or an episode of Downton Abbey or Game of Thrones, structuring and interweaving multiple storylines is what allows you to keep your stories moving forward. The difference is whether the viewpoint you create revolves around a central protagonist or an ensemble cast of characters.

Twists vs. Dramatic Irony

  • Structure constantly negotiates whether to let the audience in on one a piece of information before a character in the script (dramatic irony) or hold back so the audience experiences it at the same time – or even after the protagonist (plot twist). When you learn information and how is important in any story, but particularly in genre stories, where the audience can feel involved at key moments of the storytelling, e.g. playing “armchair detective” in Crime. Far from holding back on the plot, the more thought-out clues the audience can invest and speculate in to create plot twists, the better.

Experiencing something first hand vs reported action

  • Generally, it’s more dramatic for the audience to witness first-hand an event in the story, although there are some caveats to this. I frequently see traumatic events in the protagonist’s backstory shown in flashback or in the prologue, when it is possible to show this in a less conventional way. Also, on some occasions, it can be very moving if the plot understates the importance of an event by not flashing back or showing first-hand: examples include Thomas J’s death in My Girl, the fate of the girl in the red coat in Schindler’s List and the famous climactic scene in Se7en.
Yeah Brad, we know  structure can sometimes be tricky...

Yeah Brad, we know structure can sometimes be tricky…

So this is just a few thoughts to steer clear of structure potholes, identify structure issues and be aware of some of the more popular structure shortcuts (and when you might not want to use them). Feel free to add them to your structure ‘toolkit’ – and post below your own suggestions, or how these concepts have worked (or not worked) in your own writing experience.

Can You Teach Screenwriting?

 Guest Post by Anthony Povah

A few eyebrows were raised recently when Hanif Kureshi summed-up creative writing courses as ‘a waste of time’ – especially given that he teaches one of them. Now, it’s not for me to argue with the revered novelist, but imagine if this attitude pervaded other professions:

“Yes, the brain tumour is perfectly operable… Dr. Smith will be performing the surgery. No… he didn’t go to medical school… thought it would constrict his creativity as a surgeon…”

class of uni studentsI know it’s a ludicrous example, but why would anyone serious about writing reject opportunities to learn? Now, I’m not suggesting everyone signs up for MAs in Creative Writing, and I get worried when I see courses called ’10 secrets to making it in Hollywood’. But to succeed, you need to be open-minded about creative writing courses and actively seek out opportunities to work with others.

There’s lots of options out there, so you should be able to find something that works for you. For me it’s short courses, and I recently completed a fantastic two-day workshop in Salford run by ex-Corrie storyliner Gill Creswell (www.storylining.co.uk).

Gill called day one “a Masters in a morning” and covered the fundamentals of story structure before sharing the framework TV execs use to deconstruct the three-act structure. To ‘bring it alive’, we then used it to analyse an episode of ITV drama ‘Mrs Biggs’.

In the afternoon, each participant was asked to pitch an idea for a short feature that we could develop as a group during day two. So, I pitched an existential drama set in a nursing home. I thought it was fantastic; the protagonist was an elderly lady struggling with the choice of carrying on living or taking her own life. Gill paused… gently demolished my idea with just three words – ‘who’s the antagonist?’ – and completed my lesson in structure.

We kicked off day two by voting for which idea to develop. Needless to say, mine wasn’t chosen – which was just as well as the one that won was excellent. We were then plunged into a day of group story development, building the feature scene-by-scene using the techniques learned on day one within a writers’ room environment.

Which brings me onto the most important thing I learned: if you want to succeed, you better learn to play nice with others. Regardless of medium, collaborative storylining is now the norm and in order to get produced, you’ll have to withstand the critical eye of other writers, producers and execs. So learn how they think and how to working collaboratively.

Luckily, there was a great mix of writers on my cohort: two published novelists, a playwright, a journalist, a screenwriter (myself) and a novice keen to learn about the writing process (indeed, we found that the techniques Gill taught apply equally to TV drama, soaps, features, novels or plays).

I had a fantastic two days. I love playing with other writers and more seriously, making contacts with people who can help develop my career. The atmosphere was fun and supportive; I got to work with some great people, learned a lot about structure and came away motivated to keep writing.

Writing can be a solitary pursuit, but becoming a successful writer – whatever your goals – isn’t. Checking out different techniques, sharing experiences and learning to work collaboratively is crucial to developing your career. So hunt out opportunities, then get out there and learn, share and grow.

About Anthony: Born in Liverpool, Anthony Povah has been an environmental campaigner, jewellery salesman, jazz musician and international arms dealer. He holds qualifications in economics, philosophy, management and the martial arts. This is all true. Anthony’s childhood love of writing was recently rekindled and he is currently looking for a studio to pick up his first TV drama series. He has completed several creative writing courses including ones led by Daragh Carville (Being Human, Smoke) and Gill Creswell (Coronation Street). Anthony is a client of Hayley McKenzie (Script Angel) and plans to complete a creative writing course run by the Open University later this year. He is married and lives in Lancashire.

Hooking Your Audience – The First Ten Pages

Everyone knows that the opening ten pages of your script are the most important because whoever is reading your script, be it a gate-keeping script reader at a production company, a potential director or a Hollywood A-lister, they are making judgements and having an instant reaction to the material.

I recently ran a competition in association with the London Screenwriters Festival for which applicants had to submit the opening ten-pages of a script. It was a real joy to read well over a hundred entries, right across the genre board and each with a different tone and style. However, the problem that seemed to occur most frequently was that those ten pages didn’t raise any questions or propel me in any way to keep reading.

You might think that unless you’re writing a thriller you don’t need to worry about hooking your audience but nothing could be further from the truth. Whatever genre your script is, it’s your job to keep your reader hooked, just as the finished film must keep its audience engaged from one scene to the next. How you do it will vary enormously from genre to genre and will depend upon your style of writing but if want to keep your reader/audience you need to find a way to make them want to know what happens next.

Of course, in the traditional hero myth this early hook is a fundamental part of the story structure and is what makes us want to know the rest of the story. We meet a flawed hero, s/he is called to action – even before we set off on the quest we are made to ask the question, will our hero accept this call to arms? When they do decide to take on the challenge we’re propelled forward by seeing the hero face an obstacle to their goal, making us ask both ‘will they overcome this?’ and ‘how will they overcome this?’. In overcoming the obstacle in front of them (answering that immediate question), a new obstacle emerges/is created, posing another question. And so on…

Thriller, Action, Adventure and Mystery are all genres that are obviously structured in this way, clearly raising questions and in answering them posing another.  Recent thriller box-office hit ‘Jack Reacher’ is a great example of an opening ten minutes that raises question after question, propelling us forward and keeping us engaged. Someone (his face unseen) positions himself with his sniper rifle and kills a number of people. Right off the bat we’re asking ‘Who is he?’ and ‘why has he done this?’.  The police quickly arrest James Barr and we wonder ‘have they got the right man?’. Then instead of confessing as they expect him to, Barr says only ‘Get Jack Reacher’. More questions – who is Jack Reacher and why does Barr want him? Then as soon as we answer the question ‘who is Jack Reacher?’ we pose a new question, ‘can the police find Reacher?’.  TV crime series work in exactly the same way – someone has been murdered and urgent questions are posed – who did it, how did they do it and why did they do it?

Adventure stories can work in the same way but sometimes you don’t want to get your protagonist onto their quest too quickly, you want to spend some time setting up their world first. You might think that if you’re not introducing your driving narrative question yet (how will our protagonist react to this adventure?) then you don’t need to worry about those opening ten pages. As long as you raise that big question in the first twenty pages you’ll be ok won’t you? No, you won’t. Scenes that simply establish a status quo are dull and do nothing to keep a reader reading or a viewer watching.

wizard of oz poster

‘The Wizard of Oz’ is a brilliant example of how, even when you’re not stating what your quest adventure is within the first ten pages, you still need to be raising questions. ‘The Wizard of Oz’ opens with Dorothy upset that Miss Gulch has hurt Toto and wants to call the sheriff. Immediately we’re asking, who is Miss Gulch and can Dorothy stop her taking Toto? Dorothy even says on page 3 “what am I going to do about Miss Gulch?”. Dorothy says she’s not afraid of Miss Gulch. Zeke tells Dorothy that the next time she sees Miss Gulch she should walk right up to her and spit in her eye (p5) thus raising another question – when Dorothy next sees Miss Gulch will she ‘spit in her eye?’! By page eight we’ve got ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ and the first hint of the real question that will provide the narrative arc of the film – will Dorothy get to the place of her dreams and if she does will it be all she dreamed of? Then Miss Gulch arrives (p10) with an order to take Toto raising the same question but now much more urgently, ‘can Dorothy stop Miss Gulch taking Toto right now and if so how?’ Next we bring into play the questions ‘what will Aunt Em do?’ and ‘what will Uncle Henry do?’. The questions keep coming right up until we get to Oz and start asking new but related questions which will keep us hooked right to the end.

I’ve written before about the demands of writing in the genre of Drama and the task of hooking your audience is just as vital in this genre as it is in any other. Looking at the opening ten pages of ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ you can clearly see that each scene is designed to both establish character and situation AND crucially to raise questions. We open with Pat (Bradley Cooper) stating that he wants Nikki back – right away we’re asking, can Pat get Nikki back and what went wrong here? Then we discover he’s in a psychiatric facility so while this might answer the ‘what went wrong for Pat and Nikki’ question is poses many more questions – why is Pat here, is he coming out, how can he get Nikki back? Then we meet Pat’s mum Dolores and discover she’s taking him out against the recommendations of the doctors, which raises the question – what will the consequence be of doing this and is it wise? Now Dolores discovers that Pat has lied about Danny. Now we’re asking, how will she react and will she take Pat back to the facility? Then we go to Pat’s family home and meet his dad. We see a picture of Pat’s brother hanging on the wall and a space where another photo used to hang. We’re wondering if in that space there used to be a photo of Pat and we wonder who took it down. If it was, as we suspect, his dad, how will his dad react to Pat coming home?

As with ‘The Wizard of Oz’, what on first glance look like establisher scenes (Dorothy on the farm, Pat’s family circumstances) are actually scenes that raise questions and make us want to keep watching in order to answer those questions. In neither case have we got to the meat of the story – Dorothy isn’t in Oz, Pat hasn’t met Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) – yet within those first ten pages the writers have kept us hooked by raising question after question. If you can do the same in a way that works for your genre, your story and your characters then at the very least you’ll keep your reader reading and that, quite frankly, is half the battle!

Essential Reading for Screenwriters – and then some more…

Also well worth a read:

Writing Television Drama by Nicholas Gibbs

Writing Movies for Fun and Profit by Thomas Lennon & Robert Ben Garant

The Complete Book of Scriptwriting by J Michael Straczynski

Essential Reading for Screenwriters:

Poetics by Aristotle

The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler

Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting by Syd Field

Story by Robert McKee

Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder

The 21st Century Screenplay by Linda Aronson

Doctor Who: The Writer’s Tale: The Final Chapeter by Russell T Davies and Benjamin Cook

The Insider’s Guide to Writing for Television by Julian Friedmann and Christopher Walker