Script Reader Pro has hella great taste. Tell your friends!
Story structure is story structure. What works has worked for a long, long time. Even children’s books have a hero with a problem, an Inciting Incident, Act breaks, a Midpoint, and an All is Lost moment, just like what’s playing at the OmniPlex or computer screen near you!
The Cat In The Hat is 61 pages. Double that and pretend it’s a feature script. Remember it was written in 1957 when scripts were 120 pages…
Page 1. The hero and his sister, Sally, are at home and already have a problem. It’s raining and they can’t go out to play. There’s no backstory. They WANT something. They want ONE THING and they want it badly. On page 1, they’re sitting at the window, bored out of their skulls, wishing someone would hurry up and invent video games.
Guess what?! There’s an Inciting Incident…! On page 5, something goes BUMP! and the Cat In The Hat steps in on the mat. He’s wildly different from Sally and her brother. He says, that zany goofball, “We can have lots of good fun that is funny!” The children (conflicted!) don’t know what to say, but they sure know their mother is out of the house for the day.
Fish knows what to say! On page 7, Fish ramps up the conflict and says, “No no!… “He should not be here when your mother is out!” A splash of cold water that slows Cat down… not at all!
The Cat In The Hat then has fun hopping up and down on a ball while balancing Fish and more and more and more and more household items and showing how much fun all this is… until… page 21 (a tad late, but never mind), at the Act I break… everything he’s done in Act I comes crashing down. Just like in a Hollywood movie!
For the first part of Act II, Fish continues to scold the children and warn them and generally harass them for the bonehead mistake they made letting this dude into their house. The children try to convince Cat to leave. He won’t leave. No lack of conflict here! Just before we get bored, Cat decides to take us in a new direction. When, pray tell, does he do that?
Page 29! Right in the very middly middle! A Midpoint! Just like a movie!
Cat blasts in the front door with a big red wood box. What’s this?! He yanks it open! Out race Thing 1 and Thing 2! Everything changes! This is Act II, so things get worse! Now three people are causing trouble for the home team! Thing 1 and Thing 2 do terrible things like fly kites indoors! They knock things over! They tear pictures off the wall! They have so much fun ripping up the children’s home!
Then, the Worst Possible Thing happens! Thing 1 and Thing 2 wreak their brand of havoc in… not the basement… not the laundry room, but… the mother’s bedroom! The stakes are now so high, the consequences are cataclysmic.
Terrified, the hero asks what would their mother say if she saw all this…
The very next page (46, right on schedule) is the end of Act II. We see, OMG, Mom walk up the sidewalk! She’s baaaaack!! Fish shakes with fear and worries what she’ll do!
Making a daring move, the hero catches Thing 1 and Thing 2 in his net. The Cat, who only wanted to have fun, feels terrible about what they’ve done and says, “What a shame!”
On page 54, The Cat shuts the Things in the box and leaves.
Hero and Sally and Fish stare at the wreckage of their home, shattered. No matter how hard they might try, they will never be able to clean up this mess. Depressed, they face utter destruction. This children’s book has a dark, dark All Is Lost moment!
Then, the Cat In The Hat zooms back in to show them another trick!! Driving a crazy cleaning-up machine, he completely tidies up the entire house! Everything he and his henchmen messed up is put back in place. And, with a tip of his hat, Cat scoots out the door — just before Mom comes in. Whewwwwweee!
The last page is a rhyming image of the second page, with the children looking out the window, Fish in his bowl at their side. Opening Image vs. Closing Image! As Mom steps in, all is right with the world — but the children have survived a harrowing journey, weren’t bored for a second, and their world is different.
The Hero asks if you would tell your mother what had happened… The End.
Dr. Seuss uses three act structure! So can you!
When I was rewriting my first script, THE WOLVES OF WILLOUGHBY CHASE, I had next to no idea what I was doing. There was the draft, three hole punched, in a three ring binder… and I was struggling to figure out what the hell to do next.
To keep myself out of trouble, I made up a rule… I would read each page out loud, three times, before I could turn to the next page. If I made a single change, even a comma, I would have to start back at the first read.
Often I would get to the last sentence of the third read, make a change and begin all over again.
It was a silly rule and mineblowingly tedious, I admit, but my pages continued and continued to improve. Far beyond my wildest expectations. It took forever, but when I was done, the pages were flawless.
A dumb rule, sure, but the script sold and the movie got made.
I’m enjoying Carry On, Jeeves, a collection of Bertie Wooster short stories by P.G. Wodehouse. “Without The Option” is one of the best. At the end, when Jeeves explains the sublime way he vanquished the opponent, his victory depends on a gigantic coincidence.
To bring you up to speed, Bertie tries to help his friend Oliver (beholden to his Aunt Vera for 100% of his financial support) out of a romantic jam by suggesting he steal a policeman’s hat. A reasonable solution to most problems! Naturally, Oliver is thrown into jail for thirty days. If hair-trigger Aunt Vera finds out, she’ll cut him off forever. Disastrously high stakes! Bertie’s plan goes pear shaped and, at the worst possible time for it to happen, the worst possible thing happens — he finds himself in the same room with the dreaded Aunt Vera. There’s nothing to do but confess the truth…
Keep in mind that she’s a conservative, wealthy, frightening, ancient battleaxe and Bertie is terrified of the scorched-earth destruction she’ll wreak on his chum.
And now, the climax!
How does Jeeves save Bertie’s bacon? A cousin who’s a copper.
“There’s no way,” I mused, “this providential piece of good-luck-lightning could accidentally strike in a story written by someone as careful as Mr. Wodehouse.” I went back, looked, and there it was: an artfully placed, oh-so-useful set up, neatly tucked where we wouldn’t notice it, under a stack of socks.
Enjoy Wodehouse’s subtle set up! Know that Bertie has a crushing hangover…
As far as Jeeves’ eventual ability to solve Bertie’s problem, the fact that Jeeves has a cousin in the town where the opponent lives is the story’s most important piece of information. That set up is buried under the business of Bertie’s hangover pushing him to tell Jeeves not to interrupt. Jeeves interrupts anyway and Bertie chastises him. The instant the “cousin set up” appears, it is obscured by a scolding. The set up is, like a cat sleeping in a dark doorway for you to trip over at 2:00 a.m…. present, but invisible.
You can’t just willy nilly lob a cousin in at the finale and that cousin be the machinery that saves Bertie from Aunt Vera’s Doom. Deus ex machina works when you’re in fifth grade, but not in the summer following fifth grade or ever after.
Don’t give your character a magic sword at the moment they need it. Tuck it away it much, much earlier, hidden from view, in their underwear drawer.
Do you have an amateur’s point of view or a professional’s? One way to tell: “How do you react to notes?”
A TV producer-director friend, who’s directed hundreds and hundreds of hours of television, comes across a lot of writers. A lot of beginning writers. A lot of intermediate writers. A lot of professionals. He recently told me he no longer reads scripts by non-pros. “If they’re not professional, all they want is praise.” He stopped wasting his time.
There’s always that straw that knocks the camel into the dung heap. For my buddy, this was it…
“I read the script by this guy. It was terrible. But it had a good idea. So when I met with him, I told him he had to throw the whole thing out and start over, but the core idea was worth the effort. He said, ‘Yeah, I know that. But would you show it to your agent?’ I told him again that it was not good, needed total rewriting, and wasn’t ready. He said, ‘I know, I know. But would you show it to your agent?’ I told him a third time and he asked me to show it to my agent.”
As the British would say, that tore it. End of that particular wannabe’s relationship with someone who could help him.
If all you want is praise, go hang out with your grandparents. If you want to get into the movie and television business, get ready for notes. All you’re ever going to get is notes. Criticism piled on more criticism with spicy criticism sauce poured on top. Plus… the lack of praise makes you feel bad. Get over it. I did.
All I ever want anyone to say about my writing is, “I weep at your genius.” I’m still waiting.
John Lloyd Miller, who’s a helluva filmmaker, says this and I agree, “Every note is an opportunity for you to improve your work.” You need to buy into that mantra, wholeheartedly. When someone takes time to give you notes, take the time to actually listen, nod attentively and appreciatively, write down every single painful thing they say, and pay for the lunch.
If you don’t want notes, can’t welcome notes, can’t smile when you get punched in the gut, find something other than writing to occupy your time because you don’t want to be a writer.
Not a better one anyway. Certainly not a professional.
Until you know your story’s precise timeframe, it’s a horrible idea to start writing.
When does it begin? When does it end? As short an overall story-length as possible! Do not start when the problem starts. Begin only when you have to. You don’t have to start the story now, if you can FADE IN: later.
MICHAEL CLAYTON takes place over four or five days. Tony Gilroy wrote several complete screenplays, entire movies (!), that he cut, before he finally realized when to begin his movie… because he was trying to tell too much story. He tried to cram it ALL in and discovered he had to cut reams, figure out precisely what story he was telling, and lose all the useless chaff.
Decide exactly what your story is and tell that story. Don’t tell any other story, just that one. That’s the only one you need to tell, that one story.
Go find a pencil and a piece of paper. I’ll wait.
Got it? Do you really have it? Because this won’t work if you don’t have a pencil in your hand. Or a pen. Or a crayon.
Draw a horizontal line. All the way across your page. Be generous with your line. Pencils’re cheap. Use it up, you can buy another one anytime. Draw a long line.
It represents your character’s life. Not, hopefully, when they’re born and when they die, but the area of time their Big Problem encompasses — from well before the problem’s birth until way past forgetting she ever had a problem. The line covers everything your story could possibly be about.
Your job is to draw a vertical hash on that line and another one further to the right. Your story begins and your story ends at those two moments. Endeavor to keep those marks as close together as possible, so you’re telling as little of the main character’s life as you can. As long as you’re telling juuuuusst enough!
Find the two inches or half an inch or three inches on that line that’s “a movie”. Don’t tell us anything other than the part that’s a “movie”, that works as a complete story with as little effort on your part as possible. If you can find this sweet spot quickly, you’re the luckiest person in the world. When you start the story, your main character’s already deep in trouble. They have a problem. They’re not happy. Nothing’s working out.
When the inciting incident slams her, her life gets MUCH worse and you’re off to the races! Pick the right place to begin and a host of your problems will vanish. Then, how close to that beginning can you stick your finale? [See my May 7 2020 “Unity of Place” blog post. It touches on the M-80 Theory of Drama, something you must understand.]
Cut that “teaching us who they are and how they got here” crud and your wonderful setup of their tedious, mostly ho-hum lives. Start with her already grappling with a problem. All that explanation you had in those piles of early drafts can go and no one will notice. The instant you figure out the main pulse of your story, you’ll forget you ever wrote all that nonsense you just cut.
Pick the wrong places to start and stop and you could write for decades until you figure out that exact perfect spot to put FADE IN:
The excellent Robert Redford / Sydney Pollack movie, THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR, was based on a book. Six Days of the Condor.
Try anything! Guess what?! It may help. A useful tool is isolating character relationships.
“Why isolate character relationships and what the hey is it, anyway?” you ask.
“Happy I dropped by.” I say.
Look at only the scenes with Oswego and Rosalie. Constance will be in some of those scenes, too. Without the clutter of everybody else’s stories and plot threads screeching like a million seagulls, study just the Oswego and Rosalie relationship. When you only have one relationship to consider, you can calmly reflect on its imperfections.
Do it like this…
Save the draft as Oswego & Rosalie Sept 11 22 and cut every scene they’re not in, inserting ##### between their scenes so you know when one ends and one begins. Make sure you keep slug lines and scene numbers. Next to ####, write the number of pages between the last scene and this one.
I print everything, but it’s not mandated by federal law. Check state and local statutes to see if you are required to print to rewrite.
With the entire relationship spread across a few pages, problems nearly impossible to see while staring at the pile-of-horror that is your entire screenplay will stick out like a s’more in campfire coals, such as the mournful woe that, from pages 32 – 56, Oswego is nowhere to be found! How could he have vanished for 24 pages?! No way it could have been, egads, pilot error. Could it?
Studying characters’ scenes makes their relationship crystal clear. What’s missing leaps out. Are the progressions as smooth as silk? Do Oswego and Rosalie make a giant leap in their relationship that calls for three added scenes halfway through? You can see what’s moving too fast and what’s dragging. If you’ve written (more or less) the same story point three times, pick the best one and cut two.
The more you look, the more you’ll see. Soon you’ll wonder how you wrote without isolating characters’ scene.
When you’ve scribbled all over the “Oswego / Rosalie” pages, print Oswego and Constance’s scenes for the same repair lookyloo. Then print Rosalie and Constance’s! You’ll be amazed what you discover. By solving small, simple-to-find puzzles in your story, the entire tale will be strengthened… without the paralyzing depression of “I have to fix this GIGANTIC 110 page snarl of mess?! Shonda Rhimes couldn’t solve these problems!!”
Isolating character scenes is simple and delightfully effective.
Remember, try anything. What if it helps?
When, for your dining enjoyment, a child hands you a sandwich made of Legos, it’s a superb idea to ask her what every single Lego block is. You’d better remember which is the patty, the Volcano Sauce, the Sea Horseradish, the multiple mustards, and the Jellyfish Jelly. Woe unto you if you assume any one of those Legos isn’t important. Or is not there for a specific and incredibly useful reason. Each Lego in that foot tall sandwich has a function or it absolutely would not be there.
The same is true for a small child’s drawing. What looks like aimlessly scribbled scrawls of pencil lines and infinitesimal dots… to you… has essential and well-thought-out meaning for the artist. Nothing is there without an objective. Their creator can damn well tell you the reason for every hen scratch. Just ’cause it looks like gobbledygook gooey goo to you doesn’t mean it is. All has meaning. Each line adds to the work’s overall goal.
With writing, the opposite is true. Material often clouds the page solely because the writer can type fast.
If we wrote with quill pens we repeatedly dipped in ink, this pernicious word-vomitorium would be less of a thing. As the quill has gone the way of the Dodo, we tend to make our readers suffer.
When constructing a sentence, writers are WAY less diligent than children making art. Grownups are sloppy. When someone writes with next to no deliberation, sentences can have heaps of greasy fat, settling hard on the tum-tum unwanted and unappreciated. A paragraph can contain wasted words, useless phrases, or (gasp!) entire sentences that have no cause for existence.
If you don’t have one caroming around the house, either rent a kid to proofread your work and tear out every single word you don’t need… like getting rid of extra lettuce in a Lego sandwich… OR make the perhaps unfamiliar effort to proofread and rewrite exactingly all by yourself.
When it’s over, be certain nothing is on your page without a raison d’être. Just ’cause it’s there doesn’t mean you gotta keep it, unlike the six Lego mustards.
Would you like to know a stupid expression with no use in the English language? Of course!
“At this time.”
It’s meaningless. “The voicemail box is full and is not accepting messages at this time.” Why the hell say, “At this time” when you can say, “…not accepting messages”?
“I’m not interested in having sex with you. At this time.” You can always change your mind later and say “I am interested in having sex with you.” The “at this time” would be damn well understood. At this time, no one has time to read the phrase, “At this time.” Leave it out 99.44/100% of the time.
While I’m on a grumpy tear, what about “do” Who added that to the helpdesk script? “I do apologize at this time.” What about, “I apologize.” Get the job done, move on. That’s what excellent writing is: say it and leave.
As Mary Poppins would tell you, “Don’t dawdle.”
Once Upon A Time, did someone break up with you? Hurt like hell, didn’t it? Everything was terrible. Nothing worked. Life would never be the same. As Jon Stewart says, “Food no longer tastes good.”
When writing is not going well, you get more or less that same wretched feeling. It’s all your fault! You’ll never be any good at this! You’re wasting your time! The page will never love you! Everything you’ve ever done or ever will do is wrong! Why did you, for one second, think you could do this?! You’re a bad, bad person!!!
The good news… everybody feels like that!
To some degree, writers are masochists and when it’s not going well, they mangle themselves. Totally normal! Writing is interior stuff, part of your soul, and when your soul is victim of an acid throwing, you feel supremely ghastly. To return to the “Miserable in the Romance Dept.” metaphor, when writing goes on the rocks, it’s heartbreaking.
But… after your ex shreds your heart, someday the painful feeling will fade. It may take a year. It may take five. But, finally, you get back to normal. More experienced. Sadder but wiser. But, able to function and open your heart. Life improves. You feel good again.
I ask my students, “Those of you who’ve been dumped in love, have you ever been dumped more than once?” A few raise their hands. I say, “The second time felt just as horrible didn’t it?” It’s pretty much the same ripped-to-pieces feeling. Every time. When you’re six, when it first happened to me, or when you’re forty. Just like when a piece of writing goes south, it always feels awful.
The second time your heart is broken, it feels as miserable as the first… except… you survived the first one and now, in the middle of the second go-round, you can look back and think, “My life didn’t stay bleak and dark.” You have the wisdom and experience to understand that, while you’re in the middle of the second heartbreak and it’s impossible to breathe… at least you know that one of these days the pain will go away.
Just like writing.
The first time you write yourself into a hole, it’s like you’re thrown in a deep, deep well by the evil witch in SNOW WHITE. When you’re far underground and look up, above you there’s no light. But, if you go back to your desk, dig in, and keep writing, in the end you will figure out a solution. It takes time, but you will get there. Life improves. You feel good again.
It’s like the end of WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT?. Toontown, all gorgeous, happy, and beautifully lit, is right on the other side of a giant factory brick wall. Frustratingly, try as they might, the heroes cannot find Toontown. Struggle. Struggle. Struggle! Eventually, a gigantic clanking, self-propelled vat of Dip smashes through the wall… And lo and behold: The entire time, in all its colorful glory, Toontown was right there!
That’s like solving a writing problem. When you at long, long last think of the solution, it may seem amazingly simple. “Why didn’t I think of this a week ago?!” You fume. “Why didn’t I think of this yesterday?!” The answer is, “Because you didn’t.” Don’t beat yourself up. Just like Bob Hoskins and Roger Rabbit, you had to go through the steps before you could arrive at your oh-so-elegant solution. As you rewrite, know that the answer is… there… tantalizingly close… and all you have to do is hit the wall over and over and it will come crashing down.
Grokking that it takes time to mend a broken heart allows you to survive Heartbreaks 2 – 12. Hopefully not that many… but after you’ve repeatedly written yourself out of dark and stormy holes, it seeps into your DNA that you can solve every writing problem — no matter how hideously thorny.
Here’s a dangerous double-edged sword. Welcome to writing! Research as eeeevil vs. research as crucial. Just because you learned something existed in 1921, don’t tell us to prove your research skills are Ph.D.-worthy. As few people living today can use “Gretna Green” in a sentence, this article from a 1921 New York Times is, for a while at least, incomprehensible.
WINONA LAKE, Ind., May 23.—Whether a Presbyterian pastor can conduct a Gretna Green centre and continue to be in good and regular standing, will be decided by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, which is holding its 133rd session here. The case is before its Judicial Commission, and that body will report tomorrow or Wednesday.
The Rev. John H. McElmoyle, Pastor at Elkton, Md., is accused of conducting the Gretna Green. Among the members of the Judicial Commission is ex-Governor James P. Goodrich of Indiana. A book of 200 pages of evidence is in the hands of each member.
Elders of his church wanted Mr. McElmoyle dismissed from the pastorate. The case was taken to the Presbytery of Baltimore. From that body it was taken up to the Synod of Baltimore, and from there it was sent to the General Assembly, the highest court of the Presbyterian Church.
Mr. McElmoyle, according to the printed evidence, married 1,445 couples in one year. Sometimes he had as many as fifteen weddings in one day. The evidence says he had hack drivers to bring couples—many of whom were not of age—to his house. There is a story that a funeral at which he was to officiate had begun, when a hack was seen to drive up in front of his door. He left the funeral, skipped over to the house, performed the ceremony, and then went back and continued the funeral.
The evidence states that his wedding fees averaged one year $4 a ceremony, raising his income several thousand dollars.
In case you were wondering, and I know you were…
Gretna Greene, n. 1. A Scottish parish famous as a home for quickie marriages performed by blacksmiths over an anvil. 2. Any location where marriages can be arranged with a minimum of fuss.
Don’t confuse your reader, but do keep in mind what your characters know. If you’re writing a 1921 period piece, everyone would know what a Greta Greene is. You would never, ever do this (explaining just for the reader) which, tragically, I see a lot of in first draft dialogue.
That awful Reverend Mr. McElmoyle! Using all his wretched Gretna Greene money to buy an Erector Set for every youngster in Elkton.
A Gretna Green, Sally? That’s a location where marriages can be arranged with a minimum of fuss, right?
Well, Geoff, it sure is. That awful John H. McElmoyle certainly was a busy man!
This writing lesson comes courtesy of my son’s most excellent newsletter, Strange Times. I highly recommend signing up for it. Every little while, the oddest articles from one day’s 1921 New York Times…
While, you’re at it, pre-order the final book in his Westside trilogy: Westside Lights. I’ve read it. It’s marvelous!