Why is structure a filthy, dirty word? I’ll tell you why.
We have this romantic vision of writing and what it means to be a writer. It goes like this: you’re sitting, peacefully and alone with your thoughts–
Wait, wait, wait. That’s not right. Let me start over.
~*~*~*~ CUE: Dream Sequence~*~*~*~
You’re sitting in a crowded Starbucks. You’re in your own head, your creative space. It’s just you…and your imagination.
At this point, it’s really just a matter of, well, hate to say it, but going-Zen. Going deep-Zen. Just let it happen. Let the creative juices flow.
Magically, your fingers tap across the keyboard. Words fall onto the page, onto the screen. Word after word after word, as the script grows.
Not only is this creative, this is an accomplishment. You’re doing something with your life. The script is coming together. You’re not just talking about writing a script—you’re doing it! It’s working! Why? Because there are words on the screen! Some of them are even spelled correctly! This is beautiful. The only thing that can stop you now is the overwhelming need for another soy latte. A little caffeine kick and you’ll bang out even more pages.
At this rate, well, it shouldn’t be long until you have a first draft. After a first draft comes an agent, maybe a manager, meetings at the studio–wait, you know, you’re getting ahead of yourself. Just keep writing. Writers write. Isn’t that what they say, writers write? So, keep writing.
Okay, that’s enough. Stop writing.
Yes, writers write. But, perhaps, what you’ve been doing is typing. You’ve been putting words down, in some random order. But that ain’t writing.
I’m sorry to be the one to tell you. But someone had to break the news.
Writing is structure. Screenwriting, maybe more than any other form of writing, is structure.
You have a limited number of pages to work with. In a script, you have to tell your story in about 115 pages. At one page per one minute of screen time, that’s not much time.
In Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe wrote a dinner party scenes that ran 30 pages. That’s longer than your first act. Dickens (Charles) wrote scenes that ate up 60 pages. Granted, Dickens was paid by the word. More words = more money. But that’s not true for you, a screenwriter.
The average scene in a screenplay is 2 ½ pages long. That’s fast. These limitations mean one thing: every scene counts and every scene must do something.
Every single scene must do work.
Each scene must drive the story forward. And this is where structure comes in.
You must know why the scene is in the script. You must justify why it is the script and how it drives the story forward.
Typing, typing, typing frantically won’t pay off. It’s not that easy. If it were, everyone in Starbucks would write a brilliant screenplay. And, as you’ve probably heard, most screenplays suck.
Life Goal: avoid writing a sucky screenplay
How? You know what I’m going to say.
Structure is the framework on which you build your screenplay. Without it, the screenplay collapses. It’s like the framework of a house: without the frame, the house falls in on itself. Without structure, your screenplay will collapse. No one wants that.
Sad news, bad news. Structure is work.
Is it more fun to sit in a coffee shop and bang out words, scenes, and dialogue? Yes.
Is it easier to tell yourself that structure is nonsense and you don’t need it? Yes, much easier.
Do you have the impulse to ignore this structure/work business? Of course, you do.
Is it at this point that you wish to make an argument for all the movies and screenplays that do not follow structure? Do you have the urge to tell me (how many times have I heard this one) “But Quentin doesn’t do it this way”?
Fact is, Quentin Tarantino knows structure. Quentin uses structure, Quentin does it so well, you can’t see it.
Which brings us back to where we started. Structure.
Sold? Okay good. Here’s how structure works.
All narrative-based stories are built around a protagonist in pursuit of an objective. That’s where it starts. The protagonist must want something. That something is their “objective.”
I’ll pause here to give you a mantra. These four words will never let you down.
“All drama is conflict.”
What’s that mean?
The protagonist needs their objective.
The drama and conflict come when the writer, by design, makes it impossible for the protagonist to obtain their objective. Here are some examples.
Rick, in Casablanca, wants Ilsa.
Carl, in Up, wants to go to Paradise Falls.
Peter Park, in Spider-Man, wants Mary Jane. Remy, in Ratatouille, wants to be a chef. The examples go on and on.
But the protagonist encounters conflict while pursuing their objective.
- Dorothy must find Wizard, at the end of the treacherous Yellow Brick Road. But she’s a young girl with no skills and three odd characters in tow. Fat chance.
- Carl must travel, via helium-balloon-floating house, to South America. But he’s an old man with no skills and a kid in tow. They’d be lucky to make it across the street.
- Evan wants Jules. But Evan is decidedly uncool, and Jules is super-cool and out of Evan’s league. In short, she’s unattainable.
- Rick wants to win Ilsa, who is married to Victor. But Victor is the man who can save the world from war and destruction…while Rick owns a bar. Good luck, Rick.
- Remy must infiltrate a restaurant kitchen and prove that he can cook. But everyone knows, rats aren’t allowed in the kitchen. Crazy rat.
How do you get a handle on structure, you ask?
You use it. Before you can break the rules, you have to know the rules. Learn from Quentin and study them.
- The writer’s mantra: all drama is conflict.
- There are no shortcuts. Structure is key.
- Structure is the framework on which the story is built.
- The protagonist must have an objective.
- Typing is not writing.
- Writing is thoughtful and well-designed storytelling.