Friday, January 4, 2019

10 years of Bitter Posts - Structure

In today's installment of our month-long retrospective, I tackle a post that I feel less enthused about a decade later. Even then, I was careful to couch most of what I said as general advice, not as any kind of iron-clad "rule." This was because the instant you call something a "rule," even half-jokingly, you'll attract the attention of someone who'll shout "There are no rules in writing!" and then suddenly the debate is about "How DARE you tell someone what to write!" than it is about the actual issue you were writing about in the first place.

That usually then spins out to the fire-breathing attack that "if this guy was any good, HE'D have sold a script!" The argument turns into pro-vs-amateur, which is never a good look for either side and nothing productive comes of it. 

(I want to point out that 99% of my interactions with professional writers has been positive, but every now and then you find one who seems resistant to the idea that someone without a script sale to their name could POSSIBLY understand when a script makes a bad choice. If you're writing scripts ONLY for an audience of screenwriters, then sure, shut out everything else. OR if you're faced with a snake oil guru who makes a living by slapping bullshit terminology on top of more commonly-understood jargon and then charging you through the roof for it, by all means, go after him.)

This older post was about structure. While I still stand by the spirit of the post, I wince a little at how I used page numbers as a signpost, even though I made a point of saying not to use those page numbers as exact markers. CAN you have twenty pages until you hit the inciting incident? Sure. But it doesn't happen often and when it does happen, you'll find that those first twenty pages are some of the most compelling you've ever read.

But as someone who's a stickler for structure, particularly in my own writing, I want to find a way to give the novice a way to understand how Three-Act Structure works. Save the Cat has a brilliant breakdown, but is almost two specific in two different ways: I think it seems to mandate too many specific plot points AND it's pretty specific about where the pages fall.

So how would I handle it today? I'd probably write the post without the page numbers first, describing the act breaks and turning points entirely in terms of what their function was.

To wit:
  • The inciting incident is the change in the status quo that instigates the story. It's Casey Becker being murdered by Ghostface, Vincent getting into Max's cab, Chief Brody finding the body of a half-eaten swimmer and realizing he's got a shark on his hands. It's the starter's gun for your story and your protagonist. Everything else is setting the stage for that and laying out the world.
  • The first act turning point is the major shift in the story trajectory. It's Marty McFly realizing he's in 1955 and accidentally messing up his parents' first meeting. Something MAJOR happens and it defines how the protagonist is going to spend the rest of the movie reacting to it or fixing it.
  • The midpoint is an equal raising of the stakes. Then the second act climax is usually where we hit the do-or-die moment. The character is at their lowest point and usually needs to rally for the endgame. If there's a plan, here's where it goes off the rails. In Back to the Future, it's probably the moment where George shows up for his rehearsed fight with Marty, only to find that Biff is about to sexually assault Lorraine. In Batman Begins, it's when Ra's burns down Wayne Manor and Bruce is left for dead, even as the League of Shadows puts into play their plan for Gotham's demise.
  • The third act then becomes a ticking clock down to the climax. What are our heroes trying to stop or achieve? This is hero vs villain, or the big game where our characters face their opponents.
(Though to be honest, Back to the Future is a dangerous script to use for these purposes because nearly EVERY scene is so propulsive that you can make a case for it as a turning point. Marty still needs to play at the dance, George still needs to kiss Lorraine AND then Marty has to get home even as the clock tower plan falls apart piece by piece.)

But those are usually the five structural questions I need to have answered before I start writing:
  • What opens up the world?
  • What is the change or escalation that will define the second act of the story? What's the "oh shit" decision that gets made there? (Better if it comes from something the protagonist does.)
  • What's the new challenge or threat that shows itself after the characters are starting to feel comfortable?
  • What is their lowest point?
  • What is the final test they face? What are they trying to stop/achieve ultimately?

There! Did it all without citing page numbers.

No comments:

Post a Comment