Thursday, September 17, 2009

More About Story Structure

Well basically, you have three-act screenplay structure. If you don't know, I totally failed at writing a novel from 1992 to 1997. Right, I know, that's five years. What's more, it was five years of writing the same nine pages over and over. There were two years before that during which I totally failed at writing short stories, too. So now you know when I say that it took two years for me to write INTROVERT, I'm talking about blazing speed. And also, a measure of sanity. In any case, I'm sure that I took to writing screenplay like a duck to water because of the ever-loving structure. You get that I love structure, right?

It basically breaks down to, and there are any number of writing-your-screenplay books that you can read this in:

  • 90-120 pages
  • divided into three acts
  • the first quarter is the first act
  • the second and third quarters are the second act
  • and the fourth quarter is the third act
Though I read this really helpful thing in Lew Hunter's Screenwriting 434 that the length of your second act depends on the length of your third act: if your story ends in a rush to the finish, the third act will be shorter and the second act will be longer. If your third act takes longer to unwind, it will be longer and the second act will be shorter. Than the guidelines, I mean; the third act isn't going to be longer than the second act.

A note about books on writing, I've been indiscriminately addicted to them as a substitute for, you know, writing & I've rationed myself to only the classics as if I was trying to curate the Harvard of self-help libraries & now I'm back to using them indiscriminately, but less reverently and actually to write with. As a matter of fact, I picked up this Lew Hunter and two others out of a box marked FREE on the sidewalk.

But I digress:

  • the first act ends with the Big Question
  • the second act ends with the Big Gloom
  • the third act starts with the Big Gesture
And because a screenplay basically times out at a minute per page, you practically know what page you have to hit with the Question, the Gloom, and the Gesture. And if you think that's intense, when you get to actually writing scenes, a page pretty much times out at fourteen lines; so you know how many lines you get to get whatever scene across. Joys of creative constraints, holla. What writing a novel gave me was agoraphobia. Please, fence me in—

So I start with an Excel worksheet that lays out the three-act story structure. I roughly block out a 96-page or -minute story with two-minute scenes across the board; the scenes will ultimately vary in length from a quarter of a page to, say, five pages & the whole story may end up a bit shorter or longer, but not less than 90 or more than 120 minutes. In addition to the Bigs above, I have little turning points spaced out every twelve minutes.

But you get that when I say "start," I don't mean that you start at point A and go on to point B and finish at Z. Like I had to have an idea, right? And what about characters? But you also don't think of your idea, and then your characters... and then you write your story, the end. I don't. I mean, I started with two weeks of Gilles Deleuze. Actually, it started with Sarvi saying let's make a short film & me watching the only short film I had on hand, Hal Hartley's "Opera No. 1" and liking the loft that was set in.

Also if you think Sarvi should name her baby Poppy, check this box [ ].

So anyway I started with that loft, and then I put people in the loft, and then Sarvi and I talked about the people, and we also talked about Time, then there was the two weeks of Gilles Deleuze, and then I worked on the people a little bit, and then I developed some new rules for time travel. And then I set up my three-act story structure, started filling it in and got to the second act three-quarters turning point (scene thirty, sixty minutes) right away almost. And right now, I'm stuck on the Gesture. Because I realized that I don't know whose gesture it is, which means that I don't know who the protagonist is.

So it's back to tickle the people with my pointy stick...