More Screenwriting 101

By Alexandra Sokoloff

I’m doing another one of my screenwriting in an hour workshops in New Orleans this weekend, at Heather Graham’s Writers for New Orleans workshop. Well, yes, and partying in New Orleans, too – I deserve it, okay?

I know, it’s crazy, right? – what can you possibly teach anyone about anything in an hour?

Well, I can’t teach screenwriting in an hour, but I’ve found I can teach people how to start to teach THEMSELVES screenwriting in an hour. (And what I’m really teaching is story structure, and secretly I’m really teaching it to help novelists use screenwriting techniques to improve their own writing, because as I’ve said about a million times, and explained here – if you’re not willing to commit to an actual career as a screen or TV writer, or have a source of independent financing for your movie, then it’s a waste of your time to write a script, except as a learning experience. Write a book instead.)

To teach yourself story structure, you start by making a list of 10 movies and books in the genre you’re writing in and/or that you feel are similar in structure to the story you want to write. From this list you are going to develop your own story structure workbook.

Then – write out the PREMISE or LOGLINE for each story on your list – as I’ve already talked about here, and compare your own story premise to those of your master list. The most important step of writing a book or a movie is to start with a solid, exciting, and I would say, commercial premise (because after all, we are making a living at this, aren’t we?)

Now we are going to step back and talk about basic filmic structure. Movies generally follow a three-act structure. That means that a 110-page script (and that’s 110 minutes of screen time – a script page is equal to one minute of film time) – is broken into an Act One of roughly 30 pages, an Act Two of roughly 60 pages, and an Act Three of roughly 20 pages, because as everyone knows, the climax of a story speeds up and condenses action. If you’re structuring a book, then you basically triple or quadruple the page count, depending on how long you tend to write.

Most everyone knows the Three Act structure. But the real secret of writing a script is that most movies are a Three Act, eight-sequence structure. Yes, most movies can be broken up into 8 discrete 15-minute sequences, each of which has a beginning, middle and end.

Try this with your master list. Watch a film, watching the time clock on your DVD player. At about 15 minutes into the film, there will be some sort of climax – an action scene, a revelation, a twist, a big set piece. It won’t be as big as the climax that comes 30 minutes into the film, which would be the Act One climax, but it will be an identifiable climax that will spin the action into the next sequence.

Proceed through the movie, stopping to identify the beginning, middle and end of each sequence. Also make note of the bigger climaxes or turning points – Act One at 30 minutes, the Midpoint at 60 minutes (you could also say that a movie is really FOUR acts, breaking the long Act Two into two separate acts. Whichever works best for you.), Act Two at 90 minutes, and Act Three at whenever the movie ends.

In many movies a sequence will take place all in the same location, then move to another location at the climax of the sequence. The protagonist will generally be following just one line of action in a sequence, and then when s/he gets that vital bit of information in the climax of a sequence, s/he’ll move on to a completely different line of action. A good exercise is to title each sequence as you watch and analyze a movie – that gives you a great overall picture of the progression of action.

Also be advised that in big, sprawling movies like RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and THE WIZARD OF OZ, sequences may be longer or there may be a few extras. It’s a formula and it doesn’t always precisely fit, but as you work through your master list of films, unless you are a surrealist at heart, you will be shocked and amazed at how many movies precisely fit this 8-sequence format. When you’re working with as rigid a form as a two-hour movie, on the insane schedule that is film production, this kind of mathematical precision is kind of a lifesaver.

My advice is that you watch and analyze ALL TEN of your master list movies (and books) before you do anything else. Once you’ve watched a movie for basic overall structure, you should go back and watch it again and this time do a step outline, or scene outline – in which you write down the setting, action, conflict and revelation in each scene, as well as breaking the whole down into its three acts and eight sequences. After you’ve worked your way through at least three movies in this way to get this structure clearly in your head (although all ten is better) you’re probably ready to start working on your own story as well.

And the method I teach in my workshops is the tried and true index card method.

(Pantsers will HATE this, but it warms the cockles of my plotter heart.)

You can also use Post-Its, and the truly OCD among us use colored Post-Its to identify various subplots by color, but I find having to make those kinds of decisions just fritzes my brain. I like cards because they’re more durable and I can spread them out on the floor for me to crawl around and for the cats to walk over; it somehow feels less like work that way. Everyone has their own method – experiment and find what works best for you.

Get yourself a corkboard or sheet of cardboard big enough to lay out your index cards in either four vertical columns of 10-15 cards, or eight vertical columns of 5-8 cards, depending on whether you want to see your movie laid out in four acts or eight sequences. You can draw lines on the corkboard to make a grid of spaces the size of index cards if you’re very neat (I’m not) – or just pin a few marker cards up to structure your space. Write Act One at the top of the first column, Act Two at the top of the second (or third if you’re doing eight columns), Midpoint at the top of the third (or fifth), Act Three at the top of the fourth (or seventh).

Then write a card with Act One Climax and pin it at the bottom of column one, Midpoint Climax at the bottom of column two, Act Two Climax at the bottom of column three, and Climax at the very end. If you already know what those scenes are, then write a short description of them on the appropriate cards.

And now also label the beginning and end of where eight sequences will go. (In other words, you’re dividing your corkboard into eight sections – either 4 long columns with two sections each, or eight shorter columns).

Now you have your structure grid in front of you.

What you will start to do now is brainstorm scenes, and that you do with the index cards.

A movie has about 40 to 60 scenes (a drama more like 40, an action movie more like 60) so every scene goes on one card. This is the fun part, like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. All you do at first is write down all the scenes you know about your movie, one scene per card. You don’t have to put them in order yet, but if you know where they go, or approximately where they go, you can just pin them on your corkboard in approximately the right place. You can always move them around. And just like with a puzzle, once you have some scenes in place, you will naturally start to build other scenes around them.

I love the cards because they are such an overview. You can stick a bunch of vaguely related scenes together in a clump, rearrange one or two, and suddenly see a perfect progression of an entire sequence. You can throw away cards that aren’t working, or make several cards with the same scene and try them in different parts of your story board.

You will find it is often shockingly fast and simple to structure a whole movie this way.

Now obviously, if you’re structuring a novel this way, you will be approximately tripling the scene count, but I think that in most cases you’ll find that the breakdown of sequences is not out of proportion to this formula. There will be more, but not really very many more.

Now, that’s about enough for this post, but in my next installment I’ll talk about how to plug various obligatory scenes into this formula to make the structuring go even more quickly – scenes that you’ll find in nearly all stories, like opening image, closing image, introduction of hero, inner and outer desire, stating the theme (as early in the story as possible), introduction of allies, love interest, mentor, opponent, hero’s and opponent’s plans, plants and reveals, setpieces, training sequence, dark night of the soul, sex at sixty, hero’s arc, moral decision, etc.

And for those of you who are reeling in horror at the idea of a formula, let me assure you – it’s just a way of analyzing dramatic structure. No matter how you create a story yourself, chances are it will organically follow this flow. Think of the human body – human beings (with very few exceptions) have the EXACT SAME skeleton underneath all the complicated flesh and muscles and nerves and coloring and neurons and emotions and essences that make up a human being. No two alike… and yet a skeleton is a skeleton – it’s the foundation of a human being.

And structure is the foundation of a story.
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THE DARKER MASK, Heroes from the Shadows, came out this week from Tor Books – an anthology of noir superhero stories with an illustration for each story in the pulp style.

Naomi Hirahara and I both have stories in it, along with the great Walter Mosley, Gar Haywood, Chris Chambers and Gary Phillips (co-editors), L. A. Banks, Lorenzo Carcaterra, Tananarive Due and Stephen Barnes, Mike Gonzales, Gar Anthony Haywood, Ann Nocenti, Jerry Rodriguez, Reed Farrell Coleman, Doselle Young, Mat Johnson, Peter Spiegelman, Gary Phillips, Victor LaValle, and Wayne Wilson.

As you might guess from that lineup, these are not your standard white male superheroes (and no clingy helpless white female secretaries, strippers, or cheerleaders, either). THE DARKER MASK offers disenfranchised, marginalized characters who have to overcome personal and societal obstacles to grow into their extraordinary talents.

Read more about the book on Amazon, here:

But of course, please order from your local independent bookstore!

18 thoughts on “More Screenwriting 101

  1. R.J. Mangahas

    I learned a lot from just reading this post Alex. Good stuff as always.

    One book that I’ve found helpful and that really goes into the three act structure is Robert McKee’s STORY. I’ve wanted to try to get to one of his workshops, but much like conferences, cost does play a bit of a factor here.

    And I guess now I’ll be adding THE DARKER MASK to my TBR pile.

    Reply
  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    RJ, I took McKee’s workshop when I first moved down to LA – it was like a mini-film school – years of information packed into a 6- week course. Invaluable.

    I also have to say, even though Brian Cox is one of my all-time favorite actors, even he didn’t do justice to McKee’s charisma when he played McKee in the film ADAPTATION. A mesmerizingly dynamic man and teacher.

    Reply
  3. Jake Nantz

    Ms. Sokoloff,

    Last year, my wife and I drove up to the Durham B&N signing of Jeffery Deaver’s THE SLEEPING DOLL. While there, someone asked him, as delicately as possible so as not to offend him, if he maybe used a little bit of a rough formula…at least when plotting his books at the start. The guy asking the question really seemed concerned he would offend such a fabulous author. Instead Mr. Deaver gave a big smile and said, “Oh of course. I always use a formula, because hey, it works!”

    Anyway, when I thanked him for setting a mystery (THE EMPTY CHAIR) in NC because it showed me it could work, and he figured out I was a writer, he spoke with me for a few minutes and really encouraged me to try that formula – which was just awesome.

    The only problem? He didn’t really say what the formula was. I tried outlining a few of his Lincoln Rhyme books, but I was alwyas being too specific and his twists just turned my head around when I started getting to the end.

    I said all that to say that your post here, simple and yet incredibly informative, has finally showed me sort of what he meant. To him and to you, I say thank you so much. I’m just about to start my next project, and now I know I need some cardboard and a shitload of notecards. Thank you.

    Reply
  4. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Jake, you totally made my day. I am SO glad that this was helpful to you.

    Obviously you like the complicated plots – Deaver is really a master craftsman. But starting this way will help you analyze HOW he does that, and how to do it in your own work. It’s a little bit of magic, it’s true – but it’s a whole lot of structure, too.

    Reply
  5. Jake Nantz

    Ms. Sokoloff, no you made mine. Trust me.

    However, I am glad if I was able to make you smile, as you and all of the ‘Rati routinely do for the rest of us out here when you continue to post the most helpful info. You guys don’t have to show up here each week to give us a hand, especially with the understanding that some of us may eventually be in a position to take part in that spirit of coopetition mentioned in KILLER YEAR. And yet here you are each time, giving us unpubbed masses a hand.

    Ya’ll rock. Seriously.

    Reply
  6. Stacey Cochran

    Great post and suggestions, Alex. You really got me thinking.

    In my most recent novel, I’ve started developing a process that I’ll probably stick to in future books.

    Each chapter begins with an outline of the following:

    1. POV Character – Who is the chapter’s POV character? (I’m writing in 3rd-person limited)

    2. What is the POV character’s external goal in the chapter?

    a. What is the obstacle to that external goal?

    3. What is the POV character’s internal goal in the chapter?

    a. What is the obstacle to that internal goal?

    4. What is the emotional arc of the chapter? (e.g., POV character is angry at beginning, but moves to steely resolve at end)

    I’ve been doing this at the start of each chapter, before actually starting the writing of the chapter itself.

    In addition to this outline, I’ve started completing a 3-page character questionnaire. This gives me solid details about a character’s background, experiences, emotional and psychological framework.

    All of this combined has helped give me structure like in no other book I’ve ever written before.

    It helps a lot.

    Reply
  7. Elaine Sokoloff

    I’m sitting here with a big grin on my face that I am about to cut and paste this story structure online course _my sister_ has so graciously put together into a Word document so I can follow her instructions and move forward on my own two projects.

    Alex, you are a Master writer and Master teacher too!!! Can’t wait to see how The Darker Mask handled the illustration of your fantastic story. Congratulations again!

    xoxoElaine

    Reply
  8. Zoe Sharp

    Alex – your posts are always an education!

    But, dammit, now I have to go back and pull the outline for the latest book apart again and see how it fares … ;-]

    Reply
  9. Becky Hutchison

    Alex, thanks so much for sharing your process for a well-planned story. I’m always amazed at how you and the other Murderati bloggers are able to break down complex ideas into easier, more manageable parts. I’ve been stuck on my WIP because it doesn’t seem exciting or suspenseful enough, so I think I’ll take your suggestion and go dissect a few movies. Hopefully it won’t take me long to figure out why my story seems so lifeless. Thanks for simplifying a concept that once seemed so confusing to me.

    Reply
  10. Alexandra Sokoloff

    E, if this gets your princess story written, it’s all worth it! 😉

    Dusty, It makes me smile to think of you as a pantser. Suddenly the word takes on all kinds of illicit connotations.

    Reply
  11. pari

    Alex,Wow.

    This is another spectacular post. And it even sounds manageable for yet another pantser. I might try it and then report back on how I had to adapt it to trick myself into thinking it was spontaneous . . .

    Reply
  12. Allison Brennan

    And you said you caught a flu in Toni’s post, but you’re up partying in New Orleans? Hmmmm.

    Yep, you’ve made this organic writer (I hate the term pantser–it sounds like something drunk fraternity guys would do) hyperventilate. However, I’ve read a lot of screenwriting and story books over the last couple years and realized that I incorporate a lot of the basic storytelling structure without realizing it. I think that comes from nearly four decades of reading and watching movies. And sometimes, I learn something new without realizing it and then when I’m editing I see it there and think, wow, I just did XYZ that I read about in SAVE THE CAT. Amazing.

    My kids already hate going to movies with me (well, my older ones. My younger kids just think I’m brilliant because I know what’s going to happen and I haven’t seen the movie before.) My oldest, whose favorite movie is STEP UP, said I ruined her favorite movie when I said about halfway through the movie that a specific character was going to die. I was actually surprised and proud at the writers that they went all the way through with it, because it would have been easy to pull back. I now bite my tongue alot 🙂

    Reply
  13. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Hmm, busted.

    No, actually I’m not in New Orleans YET – not until Thursday. I am HOPING I will be well enough to party.

    Actually at this point I’m just hoping I will be well enough to sing in the show.

    Yeah, Allison, you clearly have the formula stuck in your subconscious already. (Totally agree, LOL, about “pantser” having frat party connotations!)

    And I have to keep my mouth shut in movies, too. Drives people CRAZY when II anticipate twists.

    Reply
  14. Becky Hutchison

    Thanks, Alex. I’ll be checking out all your links to previous posts. Get well soon so you can have a fun time in New Orleans.

    Reply

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