What’s The Point of Structure?
By Jacob Krueger
Every screenwriter is obsessed with structure. And if you’re a writer, then you’ve probably had the frustrating experience of trying to make sense of at least a dozen conflicting terms and approaches, from Aristotle to Syd Field: Three Act Structure, Hero’s Journey, Plot, Multiplot, Sequences, Formulas, Archetypes, Turns, Twists, Pinches, Plot Points, Act Breaks, Inciting Incidents, Crisis, Climax, Peripeteia, Denoument , Trick Endings, and so on…
Amidst the onslaught of information, young writers find themselves flailing wildly, trying to understand, mimic and reproduce the “proper” elements of structure, without ever asking the most important question: what is all this structure supposed to be doing for you anyway?
The Audience Doesn’t Care About Your Structure
Nobody who isn’t a screenwriter has ever left a movie raving about the effectiveness of the Inciting Incident or the proper placement of Plot Point Two. And no producer has ever bought a movie because of its perfect compliance with the principles of The Contour System’s screenwriting paradigm. If you want to know what people really care about in movies, just go to your local Blockbuster, and watch the couples fight: one lover clutching The Godfather and the other insisting on the dramatic merits of Tank Girl. They’re not fighting over the structure. They’re fighting over the feeling they want to get from the movie. That feeling is what we call Genre.
If All Movies Were Good, Genre Would Be The Only Thing That Mattered
But most movies are not good. And most screenplays are not good. Hollywood has no credibility with its audience. And screenwriters have no credibility with producers. You know when you go to a movie that there’s a good chance it’s going to suck. Which means that if Hollywood wants you to plunk down your 12 bucks, they’ve got to give you some sense of what makes this one special.
Similarly, if you’re going to get a producer to start reading your script, instead of some other from their pile, you’ve got to make them believe, from page 1, that this one might stand out from the pack. This is what we call Hook: the promise your screenplay makes to its audience, that leads them to take the leap of faith that your movie can deliver the feeling they are so desperately seeking.
So Why Do Most Screenplays Still Suck?
Writing is a lot like dating. You see a beautiful girl or guy of the genre you like, get hooked by some aspect of their super-hot appearance, and start to project all kinds of character qualities on them. You imagine all the exciting experiences you’re going to have together, the feelings you’re going to have in their presence, the ways they’re going to change your life. You start to build a story in your mind, a plot full of white picket fences, 2 and ½ kids, and a floppy eared dog. Everything is going just perfectly in your mind… until the object of your affection decides to open their mouth… Suddenly they’re not so hot anymore.
This is the same mistake many writers make with their screenplays: searching frantically for the “perfect” hook, building a formulaic structure around it, drafting outlines, treatments, beat sheets and pitches… only to find that once their characters start opening their mouths, the whole thing falls apart. Producers hear a hundred great ideas a day—a hundred potential lovers each with some quality to make them special. But once they open the pages, if all that’s there is a hot red dress or some rock hard biceps, they’re not going to make your movie.
Hook is the reason that your audience takes a chance on your script. But it’s not the reason they fall in love with it. If you want to make your audience fall in love with your screenplay, you’ve got to make them fall in love with your character. You’ve got to take them on a journey that surprises their expectations, touches something in them, and gives them the feelings their searching for, in ways that they didn’t even see coming. And that’s why you need structure.
Structure Is Just a Delivery Mechanism For Your Character’s Journey
Imagining that you can create a great structure by using a mechanical formula is like expecting to buy a Flowbee and get a real haircut. That’s why my screenwriting classes focus not on loglines, outlines, beat sheets or other formulaic models to be imposed on the outside, but instead on an organic process by which you can naturally discover the structure of your character’s journey.
A great structure evolves organically, just like a great relationship. And just like a great relationship, it grows out of character, the choices they make, and the experiences they go through. It starts when a character opens his or her mouth, and says or does something that you connect to. And it ends when that character has gone through the most profound journey imaginable in relation to where he or she started the story. If you learn to listen to your character closely, and how to craft scenes that drive the action of their story, your character will begin to reveal themselves to you in ways that surprise and exceed your expectations. If you test them with the greatest challenges you can create for them, and with scenes that resonate for you emotionally, the shape of that journey will start to evolve organically, even if you never discover what Peripeteia means.
Along the way, you’ll learn that the real hook doesn’t come from an external idea, but from within your character. Just like the things that truly make you fall in love have nothing to do with the dress or the biceps, and everything to do with the things you could never have seen in your partner until you really got to know each other.
*Edited for length and clarity