Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Power of Structure

European screenwriters, especially the continental kind, can still be quite resistant to the idea of using a structural model for their screenplay. To them, it's either counter-intuitive or a Hollywood-led assault on their creative freedom.

Which is a lot of baloney, of course.

A good screenplay structure is one of the essential elements for making your script work. Without it, the chances of a) getting it sold and b) getting it made are very slim indeed - unless you're a writer-director with sufficient clout or a penchant for self-funding your no-budget pet projects.

What makes a good structure so powerful?

1: The structure is the skeleton of your script. It gives it shape, proportions it harmoniously, and provides the necessary support for the other elements of the script to be built onto it. The structure points of the script can be compared to the major joints of the skeleton.

To push the analogy even further: there's a reason why a human skeleton is constructed the way it is. It has a function: to protect the organs, provide attachment points for the musculature, and to maximize the potential for survival. And so it is with screenplay structure. It's intended to maximize the quality and impact of the storytelling experience.

2: The structure of a screenplay actually follows the development of the main character. This means it's not just a mathematical construct or a mechanical exercise: on the contrary, it's a completely organic part of the writing process and it's most intimately linked to the portrayal and evolution of the protagonist. Follow the structure of the script, and not only will you 'get' the overall story being told, but you'll see how the lead character evolves as well, and what events cause this evolution.

3: Screenplay structure only becomes immutable at the end of the editing process. Before that, it's fluid and flexible, can (and probably will) change as you write and rewrite, think and re-think. No reason to consider it a straitjacket or handcuffs: it grows and changes along with the rest of the story as you write it. (Just check out the commentary tracks on several Battlestar Galactica episodes for examples of this).

4: What screenplay structure does is ensuring you maximize the emotional impact of your story on the audience. It guides their experience of the story, so that they (ideally) experience the feelings you want them to at the right moment. So it's not just a tool to help you while writing - it's also a tool to shape and control the emotional reactions of the audience.

Seriously, once you realize and know all of this - how could anyone be averse to using a solid screenplay structure???

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