Friday, January 05, 2007

Putting in the Bones to Support Your Script.

We’ve been talking about the new show HEROES and how the first arc of the show - these first 13 episodes - have been summed up by the wonderful NBC marketing department under the umbrella phrase, “Save the cheerleader, save the world.”

To be quite frank, the phrase originated with the writers/creators, but it was quickly latched onto by the hive mind because it teased you with a question and provided you with a direction. It summed up the skeleton of the plot for this story arc…

Which leads us to this new story arc, “Are you on the list?”

These are like chapter titles aren’t they?

That’s really important to remember because when you’re building a story you start with the bones and work your way up to a head. You flow from chapter to chapter until you have a novel. You go from the simple to the more complex…

And if it doesn’t hold up at the skeletal stage, it WILL NOT hold up no matter how much muscle, skin and blood you add to it. It will collapse on you.

You can also use the skeletal analogy with comic book art (for those uber-geeks like me who delve in such matters). In the 90’s, artwork took the lead in the comic book world with incredibly detailed images filling page after page. But looking at the stories as a whole, the art didn’t serve the story (Image Comics we are looking at you). The art was there to look pretty. Ultimately, those books and that style of art fell to the wayside…

It didn’t hold up.

In the DVD Premiere (DVDP) world, the story has to hold up, because often that’s all you have to go on. The SFX may fail you, the direction may be for shit, the camera work shoddy… you name it I’ve seen it and experienced it.

But if the story holds together - that other stuff doesn’t matter. You forgive the shortcomings because the strengths are so strong they completely overshadow the weaknesses.
(From the production end of things it’s so much cooler to work on a movie where the story rocks. It forces you to bring your best game to the table - lighting, camera, design, costume, acting, SFX - everyone gets excited)

All this pontificating on my part begs the question: “How DO you structure a 90 minute “pulp” script, ya Bastard?”


Okay, here’s how:

I think in terms of Threes.

- Three acts of thirty minutes each.
- Three arcs per act. One statement (theme?) sums up each arc.
- Three main characters (The Hero, The Villain, The Dynamic Character).

Symmetrical. Clean. Easily modified.

Each 90 minute screenplay is a progressing series of arcs (the skeleton) coming to a head (The finale). That story can be broken down into nine statements that provide the overall structure to the story. If those statements don’t flow from one to the next, then I need to go back and ‘fix’ those statements until they do.

Act One:

STATEMENT ONE
STATEMENT TWO
STATEMENT THREE (THE TWIST)

Act Two:

STATEMENT FOUR
STATEMENT FIVE
STATEMENT SIX (2ND ACT TWIST)

Act Three:

STATEMENT SEVEN
STATEMENT EIGHT
STATEMENT NINE (FINALE)

Okay. I lied a bit. It’s not as easy as it may appear. It’s like writing haiku - a rigid structure that can be unforgiving, but very beautiful and meaningful when used properly.

(Disclaimer: a lot of this is based on my experience with Writer’s Boot Camp. They use a 12 statement structure which I found a bit too much for a 90 minute show. For more information about WBC you can go here.)

There’s also some of you folks out there who are saying, “Well what about Syd Field’s structure?” Fine. Let me get my gun…

(loads bullets)

This 90 minute, three-act structure doesn’t violate anything set forth in Field. What it does do is break that three act structure down into manageable units. That is the whole point - go from the simple to the more complex.

What I’ll end up with is a page filled with nine statements- an outline (or structure, or beat-sheet. Whatever is in vogue these days.) that will allow me to build scenes that reinforce the outline. I could even put each statement on an index card and put scene cards under each statement (but that‘s kind of messy if I'm in a coffee shop). If a scene doesn’t fit under one statement, it could go under another, but will probably need to be tossed altogether.

I can take a look at this one page and quickly see where I’m going wrong and what I need to do to fix it.

Which is real important when time = money, and when you're learning how to write a script.

NEXT TIME: A REAL WORLD EXAMPLE OF THE STRUCTURE

11 comments:

deepstructure said...

"In the DVD Premiere (DVDP) world, the story has to hold up, because often that’s all you have to go on."

i really don't understand this. if this was true, we should be seeing all these great stories from the b-film world. im the last person to argue with having a strong story, but i see less evidence of it in b-movies than i do in standard hollywood fare.

Bill Cunningham said...

Yet you have EL MARIACHI...

You have NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD...

You have VIGILANTE...

You have delightful Corman movies like CHOPPING MALL, NOT OF THIS EARTH, etc...

You have ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13...

Then there's PRIMER...

Then there's SOFT FOR DIGGING...

These were all low budget movies that made money on video and DVD. I mixed it all up to show you that in every example I give you here, not matter what the era...

THE STORY HOLDS UP.

I also think that you are equating production value with story - not the same thing at all. BASKET CASE is a cheesy little film with poor camera work, shoddy effects, and a laughable sound quality - yet you can watch it over and over again because the story holds up. Same goes for BRAIN DAMAGE or FRANKENHOOKER.

Are these the Mona Lisa's of film? Absolutely not, but they keep coming back in new media because their stories work. The structure is solid in the way that THE MATRIX: REVOLUTIONS or ERAGON isn't.

Bill Cunningham said...

and not to neglect Stuart Gordon's KING OF THE ANTS...

or friend o' the blog's here James Moran's SEVERANCE...

or CARLITO'S WAY: RISE TO POWER...

Oh and there are no B-movies anymore. Except for Quentin Tarantino's DEATH PROOF which is the "B" half of the double-feature GRINDHOUSE...

A "B" movie is the 2nd half of a double feature - nothing more and nothing less. You've struck a nerve here because I'm sick and tired of people calling low budget movies "B" movies. They are not. They are movies, entertaining movies no less, made with far fewer resources.

[end rant]

wcdixon said...

Sequencing is another way I've heard the structure of which you speak referred to as (how's that for a crummy sentence)...
:)

Bill Cunningham said...

Yes, Chris Soth of Million $ screenwriting fame (see sidebar) has an "8 mini-movie" method which is similar.

deepstructure said...

el mariachi, primer, assault, night - these weren't dvdp movies - they were intended for theatrical release and were created as such. perhaps they were inspired by or arose from the b movie environment, but the reason they became more widely known is their quality stood out. they were different - and by different i mean better. and obviously it wasn't because of their production value.

i know you live in a different world than most of us bill, and i know you're on a crusade to eliminate the use of the "b movie" term; however for most of us anything by corman and titles like 'basketcase,' (regardless of production value), are considered b movies. it's a term that although once referring to the second half of a double bill, now is commonly used to denote less than quality films.

do a survey of your average citizen and see if they know what dvdp stands for. good luck.

good stories are good stories. saying that stories are more important in dvdp movies misses the point. stories are important no matter what. if you find chopping mall more entertaining than eragon you are first and foremost a rarity, but you are also illustrating how important story is - since if it wasn't, you'd have liked eragon better even without it.

i also suspect you're mistaking simple structure for good structure. a killer on the loose or a last stand or simple chase, isn't a great story. it's basic and works, especially for b movie genre films where the expectations are lower to begin with (a factor not to be trivialized), but it's not great story-telling.

Bill Cunningham said...

el mariachi, primer, assault, night - these weren't dvdp movies - they were intended for theatrical release and were created as such.

EL MARIACHI was created specifically for the Mexican video market. The fact it went the festival route was a fluke!

PRIMER went on the festival circuit and then had it's debut on DVD. Most people saw it on DVD.

NIGHT, and ASSAULT were low budget movies made for $100K each. When they were made, they didn't have video or DVD, nonetheless they are great stories and are excellent examples of how to make a low budget movie that has style, character and production value.

and let's add another movie to the mix, RESERVOIR DOGS which was financed by LIVE entertainment - a video distributor (later folded into Artisan and then Lionsgate). It was originally intended to go STRAIGHT TO VIDEO. It was specifically structured to tell an "action-packed" story on a low budget. The movie was LATER purchased by Miramax and screened in theaters.


.. they were different - and by different I mean better. and obviously it wasn't because of their production value.

Which was my point...many times you cannot rely on production value and have to make sure the story is compelling enough to deflect the lack of production value.

I don't live in a "different world" than the rest of the planet...People outside the industry may not know what DVDP stands for, but they know D2DVD (the older term).

i also suspect you're mistaking simple structure for good structure. a killer on the loose or a last stand or simple chase, isn't a great story. it's basic and works, especially for b movie genre films where the expectations are lower to begin with (a factor not to be trivialized), but it's not great story-telling.

I'm not sure where you're going with this, but let me make my position clear:

"It is much better to tell a simple story stylishly, than to tell a complex story simply."

Telling a simple story doesn't mean there aren't surprises along the way or that you can't utilize unique characters or POVs, quite the contrary - you need to do that...

But using a simple, solid story structure allows you to mix it up (MEMENTO, anyone?)and create something unique and memorable.

The fact we can discuss these memorable movies many years after they debuted is testimony enough to the power of their simplicity and style. And the expectation is always the same no matter what the budget:

The audience expects to be entertained. Period. It's all part of the unwritten contract between film and audience.

(oh and while you didn't specifically say this, I get the impression that you think CHOPPING MALL is a "serial killer on the loose" story. It's not...)

I put it to the audience here...

What's your opinion? Am I full of crap? A rabid dog of simple stories and shocks? Am I on another planet?

wcdixon said...

Not sure where I stand yet - tv guy and all, but willing to listen or be convinced...suggest you take the best of these comments and put them into a new post - see what people think.

wcmartell said...

When I'm writing a script, my outlines often contain "scene titles" - and these would make great DVD chapter titles.

Tea And Mutiny
Death Of The Party

(I don't have an outline with me, or I'd just list all of them from a script.)

The scene titles tell me what happens in the scene, and kind of what the engine is that runs the scene machine.

- Bill (RESEVOIR DOGS was made by direct to video company Live Ent)

Asphalt Planet said...

Great post and interesting discussion.

B-Movie - As a term, I can take it or leave it. Unfortunately, I think we are stuck with it.

deepstructure- I don't think Bill is saying that all DVDP movies have great structure or story. He's just saying this is something we need to strive for as writers. Because if the story is great, it makes it possible to overlook some of the other stuff. I think the percentage of bad storytelling is just as high in Hollywood movies as it is in dvdp(b) movies.

I've been thinking a lot about structure on this new project I am (re)writing and strangely enough, I have arrived at almost the exact structure Bill details here. Except I have a 5 page prelude in which blood is spilled and something blows up.

deepstructure said...

"deepstructure- I don't think Bill is saying that all DVDP movies have great structure or story. He's just saying this is something we need to strive for as writers. Because if the story is great, it makes it possible to overlook some of the other stuff."

i absolutely agree with this. what im questioning is the idea that the appeal of dvdp movies is based on the quality of the story.

i've conversed (in the comments only), with bill about this before. i asked whether smart story-telling or writing is really valued in the dvdp world (see comments of this post). bill ended up writing this post in response.

again, im the last person to argue against a strong story - i just wonder whether it makes that much of a difference in the dvdp world. especially when distribs are making decisions by how many tits, explosions, severed limbs there are every 5 mins.

and if they didn't want me to think it was a cheesy horror flick, why'd they name it 'chopping mall'? :)