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Structure is a Puzzle
This week, we’re going to be talking about screenplay structure in what may be a different way than you have experienced it before.
Usually, when people talk about screenwriting structure, they might be talking about outlines, or plot, or the kinds of things that might have to happen, or Three Act Structure, or Seven Act Structure, or The Hero’s Journey, or any of the millions of other permutations by which people try to understand structure with their intellectual brains.
What we’re going to be talking about instead today is a simple metaphor that might help you understand the process of finding structure for your screenplay and how to do that in an organic and intuitive way.
Sometime in your childhood (or in your adulthood!) you probably have had the experience of putting together a puzzle.
I want you to imagine 1000 piece puzzle, one of those really complicated ones with a lot of intricate detail and a lot of pieces that maybe look similar or even the same. On the cover of the box, there’s a picture. You’re trying to create that picture.
When you’re just looking at 1000 puzzle pieces, it can become completely overwhelming. In fact, if you just start trying to put random pieces together, you’ll probably just get overwhelmed and quit, just like most screenwriters do when they try to figure out the structure of their screenplays.
You need a process to group those pieces so you can start to make sense of them.
When you’re putting together a puzzle, you’re going to start, usually, by looking for the corners.
You’re looking for pieces that have a very specific shape, a shape that makes sense, a shape that can be a central building block for your puzzle.
What’s nice about the corners is that in pretty much any puzzle, you’re only going to have four of them. So you do have to sort through a lot of pieces to find those corners, but you don’t need to actually find a lot of them to start building. Once you find those corners, you can start to place them.
In screenwriting, we also need to look for those corners. We need to look for those corners in order to find the shape for our structure.
But our challenge is a little bit different than the challenge of putting together a simple puzzle.
See, with a simple puzzle, you always have that picture on the box. It’s not a vague picture. It’s not a general picture. It’s not a picture that’s clouded by your subconscious mind, or your dreams. It’s not a picture that’s shimmery and changes as you think about it, and maybe first looks like this and then looks like that.
In putting together a puzzle, we have a picture that looks like a picture and we have pieces that look like pieces. They already look like pieces. And we simply have to sort through the pieces that already exist in order to find those corners.
In screenwriting, we have to make the puzzle pieces that we will build the structure of our screenplay.
We have to actually create the pieces! And even as we create them, though we may have a sense of what that final picture looks like, we don’t have an exact image to build towards. We have to develop our own image along the way.
Screenwriting structure is like putting together a puzzle. But it’s like putting together a puzzle where you have to make the pieces and where you don’t know exactly what the final image is going to look like.
That means you need some different skills in order to succeed.
What a lot of people do is try to figure out an outline for what they imagine the “image on the box” will turn out to be. They try to say, okay, there’s going to be a puppy dog in the bottom left corner, and there’s going to be a cute little Victorian cottage up to the right. They try to design it in their minds.
But unlike a puzzle, your movie is going to move, and it’s going to change and your character is going to change. Your characters are people, so they’re not simple and fixed, the way you have them in your mind.
So what happens is, the more that you outline, the more you realize there’s more that you don’t know!
And if you keep outlining and outlining and outlining, you’ll find that your outline turns into those 1000 pieces, but you still don’t really understand what shape to put them into. So we need a different skill.
The first skill is the development of the pieces.
Until you have the pieces, you will never be able to figure out what that final image needs to look like, and that means it will be exceptionally challenging to find the structure of your screenplay no matter how carefully you’ve outlined it.
Because writing is an amorphous trade, because writing is not a linear process, because writing is a dance between the subconscious and the conscious mind, between the parts of your script that you know, and the parts of your script that you don’t, between your commercial goals for the script, and the intuitive, emotional, visceral process that’s actually making you need to write it, the thing that you need to figure out, the journey that you need to go, because of all of this, we’re not going to know the final picture until we get to the very end of the final draft.
In fact, we’re not even going to know the picture then! Because it’s going to go through 100 rewrites. And even when we finish those 100 rewrites, we’re not going to know the final picture, because it’s going to go through the shooting process, and brilliant actors and directors are going to come on board. And even then, we’re not even going to know the final picture, because it’s going to go through the editing process.
As screenwriters, we don’t have a fixed image to build towards. What that means is each individual piece becomes more important. And we are both putting the puzzle together and also designing the puzzle at the same time, all the time.
If putting together a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle can be overwhelming, how do we keep a writing and structuring a screenplay that both expresses our voice and meets commercial demands in an intensely competitive industry from being totally overwhelming?
Number one, we need to design beautiful pieces.
Without beautiful puzzle pieces, there is no puzzle to be built. And often we don’t know what the “corners” are until we write them. Often we don’t know what the picture is until we discover it through the process.
In fact, often, at the beginning, the image that we have of what we think our script is going to be is actually quite a cliche image. It’s a boring image. It’s something that we’ve seen before, that’s derived from movies we’ve seen before, our own influences. We’re not doing that consciously. We’re just not actually seeing things clearly, because we haven’t really done the process yet. We haven’t done the actual writing yet.
So how do you develop beautiful pieces? I’m going to give you the quick version now. This is what we do over four weeks in my Write Your Screenplay Class. But the quick version of that the development of beautiful pieces starts with character.
It starts with a character who wants something.
It starts with a character whose emotional need you feel.
It starts with a character who has a specific “how,” a specific way that they’re going about getting what they want.
It starts with a character who is navigating certain obstacles
And it starts with a character who is making choices.
When you’re building “puzzle pieces,” for your screenplay, it almost doesn’t matter where you start, because we know we’re going to end up with an unshapely mass of 1000s of pieces! And we know we’re going to have to look for the corners eventually.
It almost doesn’t matter where you start. So rather than trying to start in the “right” place, start where you’re interested.
Write the scene that you love. Write the scene that you know needs to go in the script. Write the scene you’re so excited about, or write the scene that you’re freaking terrified of. Write the scene that you don’t know how to land, that you don’t feel good enough to write, that you don’t know if you can pull off. Write the scene that feels like walking a tightrope.
As you write that scene, remember what you’re doing is taking a character, taking a piece of yourself, and blowing life into that character. You’re letting that character live and exist. You are not puppeting that character, you are giving birth to that character, and you are connecting to what they want. You’re connecting to the need underneath. You’re connecting to their “how.” You’re looking, listening and feeling. You’re using your senses to get really specific.
You’re going to send that character into a world with a mission. You’re going to make it really hard. And then you’re going to force them to make a choice they haven’t made before.
If you are able to build scenes where your character pops into a world with a want, feels a need, demonstrates their “how,” and navigates an obstacle by making a choice they haven’t made before, you have actually built a puzzle piece. That is one piece of your script that is a fundamental building block of screenwriting structure that we call a scene.
If you really did a good job, if you really saw it clearly, meaning there’s something visually interesting about it, there’s something specific about it, if you’ve really listened carefully, meaning the way your character talks is slightly different than every other character, if you really listened to how she talks or how they talk, if you really got underneath the surface, if you really did the work of forcing them to make a choice they didn’t make before, and they have done something that’s forever changed the relationship, you’re going to suddenly realize, Oh, if this is true, maybe this other thing is also true.
And that’s going to give birth to a new scene that grows naturally, organically out of that first scene. It’s going to give birth to a “yes… and” (to use some improv terms). If she has this kind of interaction with her friend in this scene, maybe she has this very different interaction in another scene. If she wants this here, maybe she pursues it in this other way here. Or maybe she wants something very different here.
In those early drafts of your screenplay, we’re looking for the limits of what your script and your structure might be. In other words, we’re looking for the extremes of what that final puzzle might look like.
We’re not looking for what it is, we’re looking for what it might look like. We are building the puzzle pieces, out of which our script is eventually going to emerge.
Each scene is a puzzle piece. Each scene starts to suggest more puzzle pieces. And as long as those scenes are growing out of each other, whether that is a riff on an image, a riff on a line, a riff on a character’s dominant trait, a riff on what the character wants, a riff on the choices that characters are making… as long as those scenes build organically out of each other, even if they don’t build linearly, you’re going to start to understand what your character’s journey is, and what their pattern is.
You’re always pushing for the edge, the extreme of what can happen. Some of the scenes you write, you will realize after writing, well, that’s not right. That can’t happen. That’s a different puzzle.
You want to be pushing to the edge, walking that thin line of what can happen and what cannot, yso ou’re building the most interesting final puzzle that you possibly can.
As you do that, you’re going to start to realize that some choices are bigger than others.
Sometimes you just feel it. I don’t know why, but the scene feels like it matters.
Maybe the scene made you cry, or makes you laugh. You might just realize that this scene is particularly compelling, or there’s something particularly compelling about this choice your character makes.
When you’re building a puzzle, once you’ve found your corners, you might start to group pieces by colors or by patterns. You start to realize, these things go together.
Similarly, as you build the pieces of your script, you might start to realize, oh, some of these pieces all use the same image, or all capture the same relationship in different ways. There’s a pattern here, there’s a motif here, there’s something building here. These pieces just seem to fit together in some way.
Start by looking for the scenes with the biggest choices your characters make. These are the core puzzle pieces out of which you’ll find the “corners” for your screenplay’s structure.
If you’re doing the first part of this right, every big choice your character makes is also going to give birth to another wild, fun, exciting idea for another big choice your character can make. And those are eventually going to become more puzzle pieces out of which you’re going to eventually pick approximately seven corners for the 7 Act Structure of your screenplay (if you’re building a feature film), or maybe it’s five, (if you’re building a TV show).
Maybe it’s even fifteen at the beginning, out of which you will eventually find the seven that really matter.
You’re going to pick the ones intuitively that feel big. And you’re going to start to organize them so you can make sense of them. So you can say, Okay, I think this happens first and I think this happens about here.
In other words, you’re looking for the ends of your acts. Those are the corners.
You’re looking for the ends of the big movements of your characters journey. And when you start to look at that, you’re going to to realize that Oh, there’s a theme that ties all of that together.
Really all we’re building when we build screenwriting structure is a series of choices.
Those choices start with a little choices we make within scenes. And then those little choices build up to become the big choices that we make.
Just like in life, we know the big choices because we feel them.
Sometimes we don’t know them intellectually but we feel them as we write we feel this is true.
If you start to organize those seven big choices, you’re going to realize that your character is going on a journey in relation to a theme.
Now, you’re not going to get all of those corners right at first. Those corners are going to shift and change on you. But once you placed those corners, once you’ve got those seven big choices, now you have movement in your character’s journey.
That means you can start to group the other choices that seem to build up to those big choices. You can start to look at the scenes that aren’t yet corners, and look for the scenes that are the equivalent of having one flat edge. The choices that are really important, but not important enough to be a corner… and start to figure out where each one goes.
Again, every time you look at puzzle pieces, every time you start to organize them, you’re also going to get ideas for new scenes. You’re going to start to realize, Oh, there are more puzzle pieces to be built.
In this way, screenwriting structure is a pattern that feeds itself.
Each choice your character makes leads to more puzzle pieces, leads to a better sense of where the corners are, leads to a better sense of what the movements are.
And what ends up happening is, the more you write, the more you understand structure, the more you start to understand what you need to write, the more you start to understand, I need some connective tissue here. I need a scene that gets me from here to there. If this happens, halfway through my film, I need something like this on the other side of that. And if this happens at the end, that actually I need something like that at the beginning.
In this way, we are building a puzzle and creating the puzzle at the same time. We are looking at the pieces and finding what we believe are corners, and gently building an outline for ourselves at the same time we write. We are writing scenes, and we are outlining at the same time.
This is not the only way to outline. There are other ways to outline that I cover in my classes. This is not the only way to think about structure. But this is a way of thinking about structure that is particularly helpful.
It’s particularly helpful if you are an intuitive writer. And it’s also particularly helpful if you’re too “in your head” and you’re getting notes like your script is flat or your script is boring or your script is predictable, or your main character isn’t active or your main character isn’t likable.
If you’re getting those kinds of notes, really the problem is probably that everything you’re writing is too planned out and controlled to actually be interesting, or that you’re building round plot rather than building around choice.
This is a particularly powerful strategy and a particularly powerful metaphor for those of you who need to move more into the intuitive side of writing and find your structure in a more organic and intuitive way.
If you’d like to learn more about it, please check out my online Write Your Screenplay Class. I teach it multiple times a year. You can take it online from anywhere in the world. And it includes a 1:1 consultation with a professional writer.
*Edited for length and clarity.