A TRIP TO CAMBODIA, 7 ACT STRUCTURE & THE ART OF THE OUTLINE
By Jacob Krueger
A Trip To Cambodia
This week, we’re going to take a break from analyzing other people’s movies, to talk about 7 Act Structure and Screenplay outlining in a different way, by adapting a trip I took to Cambodia many years ago into the structure of a not yet written film, in order to demonstrate an organic approach to structure.
What we’re trying to do, when we’re thinking about structure, is not trying to “solve the script.” Because whatever we come up with anytime we start thinking about structure is always wrong.
Every path that we think we’re going to take through the forest is always wrong.
If we were planning a trip to Cambodia, Probably we’ve never been to Cambodia before. And that means we are probably going to do some planning.
There are different people who are going to travel in different ways.
If it’s me, I might just show up, because I love just showing up, and that’s the way I move through the world. I am going to show up in Cambodia; I am going to book my first night in a hotel; I’m going to go to a bar. I am going to talk to somebody at the bar. I am going to find out what’s cool to do in whatever city I happen to be in, and the next day that’s what I’m going to do, and if I like the people from the bar, I’m going to hang out with them, and if I don’t, I’m going to do it alone and then I’m going to go to a bus stop, because that’s where you meet people, and I’m going to meet somebody at the bus stop.
You want to meet people in a foreign country? Go to the bus stop, look for someone with a map; that person’s a tourist.
Structure begins with our goal. Without a goal you can’t have structure. Your goal might be wrong. But that’s okay. I still need that goal. I might think I am going to Cambodia to see Angkor Wat. It turns out I am going to meet the love of my life. Had no idea, right?
So now I think I am going to Cambodia to meet the love of my life. We spend one day together, hate each other; it turns out I am going to Cambodia to escape.
So oftentimes our goal is wrong, but if we don’t know what our goal is, it’s impossible to know if we are on the right trip. It’s impossible to know if we’re making a decision about our trip. And without those decisions, it’s impossible to track our structure.
So what we’re really looking for is simply goals and decisions. The first goal that we care about is what is our goal for the script?
What are we trying to do? What are we trying to say? What do we want it to be?
We’re probably wrong. It doesn’t matter. We’re probably wrong but it’s nice to know where we are and what we think we want, so that if we deviate from it, we’re deviating consciously and we’re finding structure in our own lives.
We’re saying “you know what, I thought I wanted to write a movie about this; instead I want to write a movie about that.”
At the same time, without a goal for ourselves, it is impossible to know how to focus our writing. So we need a goal, even if it’s wrong, for both ourselves and for our characters.
When I’m working with beginners, or when I am working with struggling professionals, I always set the goal the same way to help them find their voice and connect to their character. Because the only reason the professionals are struggling is because their writing is disconnected, and the only reason that the beginners are struggling is because their writing is disconnected
If you’re not connected to your voice, nothing else matters.
That’s why I always set the goal for beginners: to connect to your voice.
And if I am working with a professional and their work is not inspiring, I set the same goal for them: connect to your voice, connect to your characters, forget about structure.
Forget about structure, at least for right now.
I set the goal that way because if you’re not connected to your voice, nothing else matters. If you put too much salt in your cookies, it really doesn’t matter what shape they are; it really doesn’t matter what toppings you put on top of them. It really doesn’t matter. You can douse them with ice cream and whipped cream and cherries, if there is too much salt in there, it’s going to taste terrible.
In her Meditative Writing classes here at the Studio, Jess Hinds always uses a cookie dough metaphor, and I’m using it now too, because I think it is so brilliant: if you were trying to make great cookies, you wouldn’t start with a tiny little cookie cutter, and somehow try to pour just the right amount of egg and just the right amount of salt, and just the right amount of flour, and just the right amount of sugar into that cookie cutter shape.
You’d start by making a dough. And if you make it right, you know you can shape it into any form you want.
If we can’t make a cookie dough worth eating, there is no point in worrying about structure. Because the structure grows out of the cookie dough and not the other way around.
But sometimes we reach a point where we do have voice. When you are writing with voice and you feel connected to your characters, it is safe to think about structure.
But as soon as you stop feeling connected to your characters, as soon as you stop feeling connected to your voice, you have to say “STOP! — forget structure; let me just connect again: What does she want? How does she talk?”
What we are really doing is simplifying things, so we can take things one at a time.
I simplify this for my beginners and my professionals alike, because we live in a society that’s all about structure, and it’s all about fake bullshit structure. It’s all about rules that we’re supposed to follow and that we know are false, but we still feel like we’re compelled to follow them. We’re told that we have to build these formulaic things that we know are not going to get us anywhere, but at the same time we feel like those are the rules and we’re supposed to be playing by them.
So we have to come to this balance with structure. I stack the deck in your favor in my beginning classes by asking you to let go of big picture, and focus instead on your character and from there, to the structure of each scene before you get to the big structure of the whole film.
And even that is hard for most writers to do.
I believe that most writers are obsessing about — what happens next; what’s my structure; what’s my character’s journey; how is this all going to come together — all the time, every single day.
I believe that there is that anxiety building underneath us every single day, every moment of every day — oh my G-d, what happened? Oh my G-d, but what’s going to happen? how is this going to relate to where I’m trying to get to? Do I need to set this up? Is the audience going to understand? — I think we’re doing that all the time, and I think even when I tell writers to completely ignore structure; drift in a river with your characters, away from everyone — that even when we think we’re drifting, 90% there are still going to be fears about structure popping back into your mind. It’s only going to be 10% that you’ll actually be in the river.
So it’s almost like we have to tell a lie to ourselves in order to get to the truth. We have to tell ourselves, like in a meditation, not to think about structure at all, so that we can actually reach a point of balance between being in the present, and projecting out to the future. Because if we set our goal at 50/50, in a society as unbalanced as ours, the chances are we’d really just spend all our time obsessing about the future, and no time being present with our characters.
What we’re ultimately looking for is a dance. We’re looking for a dance between looking at your script from inside and the outside– now I’m going to think about the big picture and how this stuff is all going to come together. OK. That feels good. I like that journey; now I’m going to go back here and I’m going to just play with my characters, knowing that that’s kind of the area that they’re going to play.
— Oh cool, I found this cool thing; oh, you know what, then that means the structure is different; then this is going to happen; then this is going to happen, then this is going to happen.
— Oh cool, I feel good about that. Alright, now I’m just going to go play with my character.
I like the metaphor of the trip, because even though now you know how I like to travel to Cambodia, there’s another way to go to Cambodia for a different kind of writer.
I know I am going to have a great adventure, and I don’t really care if I see Angkor Wat or not. But If I did care about seeing Angkor Wat, then I am going to make a plan.
So if I just go to Cambodia myself, what I really care about when I travel are the people that I meet. And not thinking about work at all. And just having time for myself.
Those are the goals that I care about when I am on a vacation, just like it’s my goal to focus on being present with my characters when I write. That’s my real goal. I just want to have an adventure and I really don’t care what happens. I want to experience a culture that’s different from mine. It’s about meeting people who are different from me. That’s what’s exciting about my trip.
So that’s why it doesn’t matter if I make it to Angkor Wat; it doesn’t matter if I spend my whole time in Phnom Phen; it doesn’t matter if I end up on a random beach somewhere for four days. None of these things matter because I don’t care what happens to me once I’m there. And that’s a way to build a script. We’re simply following your character’s objective in the moment rather than trying to build their super-objective.
But sometimes you realize you’re going to Cambodia and you’re like — I might only go to Cambodia once in my whole life and I don’t want to go to Cambodia without seeing Angkor Wat because Angkor Wat is one of the wonders of the world; it’s also — they’re renovating it, which is the worst thing they could ever do, because they’re actually, they’re turning it into Disneyland, like they’re clearing it out.
Angkor Wat is the biggest ruined temple complex in the world. There are hundreds of temples from Buddhism. They were built at the time when Hinduism turned into Buddhism, so there’s this really interesting mixture of Hindu and Buddhist and so you can see the transition of the religions inside the temples and it looks like Tomb Raider, there are trees growing through the temple walls; you are in the jungle and what they’re trying to do is to show you what it used to look like so they are clearing out the jungle and they’re building cement blocks and roofs to show you what it still looks like, and they’re totally destroying it.
So I might find out that information and go — Holy shit, knowing that, I better get to Angkor Wat now, because I want to see it as ruins, not as Disneyland. I need to go see it, and I might even find out talking to a local — which I did — that all the tourist buses show up at dawn, and they watch the sunrise over Angkor Wat, but that there’s another temple that nobody knows about.
There’s another temple that has hundreds of Buddha heads, and you can show up there in the morning and you can watch the sunrise completely alone surrounded by Buddhas, and then you can walk from that temple over to Angkor Wat and all the tour buses are gone, and you can experience Angkor Wat completely alone.
So, of course I did this, and of course this is one of the most incredible experiences I’ve ever had in my life.
It was beautiful and spiritual and magical and wonderful and I didn’t have to deal with tourists.
So in order to have that experience, once I found out that that was where I wanted to go, I had to start to make plans.
The truth of my trip to Cambodia, I really did just book one night at the Raffles Hotel in Phnom Phen, which is the nicest hotel in Phnom Phen, and I booked it because I was on a 17 hour flight and I’m like — I am sleeping in a comfortable bed.
That was the only plan I made. But it was enough of a goal… I’m like — I’m going to get to Phnom Phen and figure it out.
Then I started talking to people and I find out — OK, I need to get to Angkor Wat. I don’t know yet about the other temple. I just know somewhere in… Before act 7, if we’re thinking of a seven act structure, somewhere, maybe around act 3, I want to get to Angkor Wat. My trip can not end until I get to Angkor Wat.
So now the next question is — well, how am I going to get to Angkor Wat? I’m currently in Phnom Phen. So how long am I going to stay in Phnom Phen before I transition to Angkor Wat?
So what my friend and I did is we just wandered around Phnom Phen; we learned that we were the only people in all of Cambodia who walk, because what you actually do in Cambodia is you take rickshaws, because there are thousands of starving rickshaw drivers and when you walk, especially as a rich American tourist, it’s almost like an insult to them.
You’re basically saying — I’m not willing to give to you… You’d be willing to drive me around for ten dollars for a whole day, and instead I’m going to walk while you can’t feed your family; it’s rude to walk. So we start taking rickshaws.
So before we learn that — and this may be the Inciting Incident — we show up in Phnom Phen; we sleep overnight and we find out that — holy crap, you can’t even cross the street here. There are thousands of motorcycles, and we don’t know how to cross.
Now you can see, I can’t plan that. I can’t plan that, basically, my first experience is — I’ve got to cross this intersection and there are thousands of motorcycles and I don’t know how to do it, and I’m standing there for a good fifteen minutes, just going like — there is no traffic light; there is no cop; there’s — how do you cross?
I can’t plan that; I have to just be in the moment to experience that.
And do you notice how me telling you that story makes you feel like you were in Cambodia? Notice how you start to feel my journey? You start to feel my change; you start to feel the way my expectations got surprised.
So even if you have structure, even if you have an outline, you still have to let it go. We know we had the plan; we’re going to go to Phnom Phen and then we’re going to figure out how to get to Angkor Wat. Even as we had the plan, we still have to go — OK, now I know the plan; let’s step out of here, and let’s wander around Phnom Phen. The goal was just to explore the city, and now what we need, if this is going to turn into a movie, is an obstacle.
And what’s the first obstacle I bumped into? It’s — I don’t know how to cross the street.
Finally what happens is a Cambodian comes and what he does is he literally just walks, and the motorcycles just kind of part like the Red Sea around him as he makes his way all the way across the street.
My friend and I look at each other and we’re like — should we do this?
Just step into traffic?
And we finally do. We step into traffic and the traffic parts around us and we walk across the street.
Now do you see that we’re in the inciting incident?
We’re in a different world.
You see? I’m starting to get what I wanted *even though I didn’t want to cross the street like that). I’m starting to experience a different culture in a different world. I’m starting to move closer to my goal. I’m starting to change as a character.
Do you see how the structure was working? I’m just trying to get me (the character) to Angkor Wat, but I’m not rushing me to Angkor Wat. Once I know I want to get there, I can relax, and go — how am I going to get there?
I know that there’s going to be an act that takes place in Phnom Phen. I came all the way to Phnom Phen.
The first day my friend and I are just wandering around Phnom Phen. One of my favorite things to do when I travel, and when I write, is to get lost, because that’s where you find the most interesting things. So what I do is I wander around until I don’t know where I am, and then I start to discover things that are not on the tourist map.
My friend and I are wandering around and eventually we end up in a neighborhood that we should not be in. Obstacle. And we sort of look at each other and I’m like — I don’t think this is safe — and he’s like — yes, I don’t think this is safe either.
And we kind of got a little freaked out, and in the end of our first night — this is our end of act one — we’re like — you want to get the hell out of Phnom Phen? Yes.
We got scared. And you see that that actually relates to our inciting incident. The inciting incident was learning to cross the street — oh my god, look, we did it, we’re awesome! We’re figuring out the culture!
And the end of act one was — holy crap, take me back to New York City; I mean, really.
We scared ourselves. We didn’t understand that Phnom Phen had bad areas that are not like New York bad areas. Nothing bad happened to us. But we felt scared.
Now maybe we had a reason to be scared, or maybe we weren’t used to being around people at that level of poverty. Maybe it was just a little bit of “white privilege.” But one way or another, we felt some fear.
So, we decide — let’s get out of here; let’s go to a more “touristy” destination.
What ends up happening is our Phnom Phen trip, which we thought was going to be the first half of our movie ended up just being the first act; it ended up just being one day.
We decide — let’s get to Siem Reap where Angkor Wat is. How are we going to get there? So, we pull out a map.
This is the top of act 2. We pull up at a map and we realize that there is a river that connects these two cities, and we’re like — I wonder if we can go by river?
The next morning we get a rickshaw — because we’ve learned — and we go down to the dock and we start talking to people until we find a boat that’s willing to take us to Siem Reap and we have a journey in Act 2 along the river.
But we wouldn’t be able to take that journey if we didn’t know we were going to Siem Reap.
Inciting incident, we get on the boat, and this is where the journey starts to not be a movie anymore, because we get on the boat and we end up in Siam Reap, and that’s great. But nothing frickin’ happens. So what we thought was going to be Act 2 ends up just being a scene.
Then at Siam Reap, we find out about the other temple, and you can see everything is going exactly as planned. What happens when things go exactly as planned is we lose our structure.
We were having a very good time. But this is storytelling, you can feel that, right? So we start to lose our storytelling. In fact, the storytelling doesn’t start again until we are in Siam Reap; we are doing what we’ve learned; we hire a rickshaw driver; we hire him for ten dollars a day; he drives us from 5 in the morning until 8 at night every day.
And we’re driving around and we are talking to him about his family and we realize he is very, very poor. And this is not what I expected at all. I’m just still trying to figure out how I’m going to this temple to see it at dawn. I’ve hired the rickshaw driver to take me there.
What happens is, he starts to tell me about his family. And I ask him “there’s so many rickshaw drivers; how do you survive?”
And what he tells me is this… “I was a farmer and my crops started to spoil. Something was going wrong; the rice plants were dying and we didn’t get a big harvest, and so I had to come to the city to drive a rickshaw so that I can support my family because we didn’t make enough money from rice.”
And he’s explaining to me, all these rickshaw drivers are all doing the same thing, because the harvest was bad this year, so they’ve all had to come to the city, and now there are too many rickshaw drivers; he hadn’t had a ride for fourteen days at the point that we hired him.
We end up going for ice cream and my friend sees a pretty girl and so he goes and talks to her and she’s a traveler from Indonesia; her name is Ratih, and it turns out she studied agriculture in school, but there are no agriculture jobs, so she’s now working in shipping.
So we’re talking to her about that and he tells her about our rickshaw driver’s crop… He’s having trouble with his crops.
So we bring the rickshaw driver into the ice cream place for them to talk to each other to see if she can figure out what’s going on with his crops. And what she explains was actually happening — this is so sad — it’s the runoff from the diesel fuel that’s killing the rice, and the more people go to drive these motor rickshaws, the more the rice crop suffers, and you can see what’s actually happening — we just got structure.
I’m actually moving towards my goal of experiencing a culture that’s very different from mine. But not in the way I expected.
But I just discovered a darker part.
We thought we were at the end of act 3, but we’re actually at the end of act 2 where we start to see the environmental consequences of our tourism.
Now we have some hot relationships. We have our relationship with our rickshaw driver. (By the way, he was so afraid of coming into the ice cream shop because he was afraid that he would have to pay. We were like — we’ll buy you some ice cream — and he was afraid we were going to make him pay, because paying for the ice cream would have cost him probably a week’s wages. So he was afraid to come in. We had to keep on… He was afraid he was misunderstanding us. We had to keep on explaining that we were going to pay; “we’re going to pay; we’re going to pay.”)
So you can see that we’re deep in — his name was Tin — we were deep in our relationship with Tin, our rickshaw driver, and do you see that starts with that inciting incident in Phnom Phen? We’re deep in our relationship; we now have the love interest, Ratih. My friend was the one who talked to her, but I end up really connecting to Ratih.
You thought that this was the movie about Jake’s trip to Cambodia, but what you don’t know is that this first moment with Ratih is actually the heart of the story. What you don’t know is, around the end of act 3, after Jake goes home, Jake is going to make a huge decision in his life: he’s going to go to Indonesia to visit Ratih.
That was a true story.
Do you see what just happened? Do you see that we thought we were making a movie about going to Angkor Wat, but we actually ended up telling a story about about Jake’s relationship with Ratih, that we had no idea that we were telling. We couldn’t have found Jake’s relationship with Ratih unless we found Jake’s relationship with Tin. We wouldn’t have found Jake’s relationship with Tin if Jake didn’t have to take the rickshaw, and he didn’t have to take the rickshaw unless he can’t cross the street in Phnom Phen.
What happened was we thought we were building toward Angkor Wat, but really what we were building was towards Ratih.
Because really, there’s a whole second half to this movie, which is Jake’s gonna go to Indonesia — I go all the way to Indonesia to meet this girl… and we have no connection at all in Indonesia.
It’s the weirdest thing. It was one of those things where you were in this unique place and you’re both traveling and you feel like — oh my god, this is the person — and then you get to their home, and you realize you have nothing to talk about.
So do you see the structure of that journey?
And what ends up happening is you see at each level it gets deepened, and what I’ll tell you now… So to understand what the relationship with Ratih — this is all completely true — the relationship with Ratih doesn’t go where I was hoping it would go, and actually at the end of that trip to Indonesia, I end up deciding to get back together with my ex.
You can actually see that journey, I end up realizing that I may have thrown away a really beautiful relationship because of my desire to always seek something new.
Now you realize that — oh, in order to get to this point, before Jake ever leaves for Phnom Phen, we do have to establish The ex.
So this is how structure works.
Before I can go to Phnom Phen I have to meet the ex, but you didn’t know I needed to meet the ex, because you didn’t know this was about Ratih, because you didn’t know this was about Ratih because you didn’t know that I was going to hire a rickshaw because you didn’t know that I was going to meet Ratih.
What happens is, when we’re building structure, each step teaches us more about what we need to do.
I’m building a seven act structure here, but you could build a four act structure, a five act structure, a three act structure, a 28 act structure, it doesn’t matter. The concept is we need a goal. If Jake is not navigating towards Angkor Wat, none of this ever happens. Once you have the goal, you need obstacles. You need to make sure that things do not go the way the character plans.
An obstacle doesn’t have to be a bad thing; an obstacle can be meeting Ratih when you’re supposed to be going to Angkor Wat.
What I just did was I just took a story that didn’t have a lot of structure, and I gave it structure. And the structure grew from the relationships because structure always grows from relationships. The structure grew from the way Jake, the character, changed in relation to his goal.
And for Jake to change, he had to go somewhere he didn’t expect. He had to go beyond the outline. He had to be present in his journey, just like you need to be present in your journey as a writer.
Now the truth is, I could continue this process forever. Because that trip happened almost ten years ago, and I’m a different person today than I was then. And the structure of my life, just like the structure of a movie, is really just the psychological process by which I grow and change, from one relationship to another.
For screenwriters, structure really just exists to capture a moment– a movement– of our lives or of our characters’ lives. And though none of our relationships, and none of our choices (not even the one that sounds like “the end” in this movie) take us where we expect, it is these choices, these constant changes, in relation to the things we most want, and the way we pursue them, that gives structure to both our lives, and our writing.