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I’m somewhat in the downtime of providing coverage for screenplay competitions (to everything there is a season, and this seems to apply to independent contractors of the script consultation kind as well). So I thought I would muse a bit on some issues in writing screenplays.
This time around, I’ll write about structure. There really isn’t a rhyme or reason to what I have to say here. It’ll just be a series of random thoughts that I hope will come in handy. These are based on my reading for contests as well as my own private consultation services.
First, an overall note. There will always be exceptions to any conclusions I make here, so consider well before automatically doing something just because I tell you to.
One of the main issues I run across is when a story is not focused enough. The plot tends to ramble on without a sturdy anchor to it or without a definite flight plan. One of the key clues to this is when you ask the writer for a log line and s/he gives you a tag line or the logline is rather longer than what is suggested, or even, and this has happened, the logline doesn’t match up to the story at all.
When I write for contests, I usually don’t receive a logline. And when providing client consultation, I avoid asking for it. I want to see if I can tell what the story is about without any help from the author (and when coverage is done for producers, agents, etc., the readers rarely receive a logline-they are usually totally on their own). When I do ask for it, it’s usually because I need some clarification in order to provide my coverage.
Often, one reason why a story may lack focus is that there might be more than one through line, more than one plotline, that is driving the story to the point where neither through line feels fully dramatized because the author doesn’t have time to cover both of them in 100 to 120 pages. These are through lines that don’t support each other and tend to run parallel to each other. One way to tell is to ask yourself, if I removed this through line, would the other through line play out any differently than it does now. If so, you may have a problem.
There are exceptions of course. Some movies purposely have multiple through lines because they are to some degree portmanteau movies, films with multiple plotlines that may or may not depend on other plotlines. This includes such films as Nashville, Pulp Fiction, and Hannah and Her Sisters. In addition, in television, if a soap opera structure is used to tell the story, then there will be multiple plotlines. And in comedies like Will & Grace and The Big Bang Theory, there will be several stories going on at once.
Basically, you have to decide first whether your intent is a portmanteau film or not. If not, then you need to take a closer look at your through lines and whether one can be removed with no damage to the other. If the through lines aren’t working in support of each other, you may have to remove one of them. When something like this happens, it is possible, and this comes about much more often than one might think, that each through line could be a screenplay of its own, what we call a two for the price of one.
One of the differences between portmanteau stories and scripts with competing through lines is that in portmanteau films, each character has their own through line. A movie with competing through lines often has more than one through line for a single character.
Multiple through lines for a single character can work if the two through lines are inextricably linked. For example, The Maltese Falcon is about a man trying to figure out the mystery of the title object and also about a man falling love. In this case, though, the person he is falling in love with is a major player in the fight over the Falcon. Similar multiple through lines can be found in films like Charade and The Big Sleep.
Sometimes a story just seems to meander without a clear through line. An exercise that can help here is to write out the through line or logline and then list each scene and then write out how it furthers the main through line. If it doesn’t, then you may need to rewrite the scene until it does, or consider removing it from the story completely.
Another possibility is that the story may be one that is telling a story from a character’s or characters’ point of view, but the plot gets away from the POV driving it. I will do another essay on POVs in the future. But again, an exercise that could help here is to go scene by scene and make sure that it is being told from that character’s viewpoint.
Many screenplays I read don’t have enough tension, build or forward momentum. The above issue of having too many non-connected through lines can be one reason since the build of one can get in the way of others. But there are other reasons.
Overwritten, novelistic narrative is one of the major factors here. This sort or narrative is simply harder to read and understand, giving the illusion that a scene is moving at a slower pace than it would on screen. When someone is trying to be clever, poetic or interesting in their descriptions, it’s not unusual for me to have a note saying, I don’t know what this means and I don’t know how to visualize it. This is especially true of descriptions that use metaphors (this is especially risky because metaphors are interpretive and not concrete and can be difficult to understand).
Other issues with narrative are long paragraphs and extensively detailed fight scenes, especially ones that run for several pages. I’ve written other essays on this issue, but I’ll repeat some of what I’ve written:
- For new writers, use the least number of words necessary to establish a location, introduce the character and further the plot. As you write and rewrite more than one screenplay, you’ll eventually learn what works and what doesn’t and you can create your own personal style.
- When you read other screenplays and their narrative, don’t read the narrative with the idea of doing something they did that you like. First, if you do that, you are not developing your own style. Second, there may be something about that author and his situation that allows him to do it, but the same won’t work for you. When you read other screenplay narratives, I suggest it’s better if you decide what you don’t like about the narrative, what doesn’t work for you, and vow not to do it in your own screenplay.
- Never have narrative paragraphs longer than 2 ½ lines or less, 1 ½ lines or less for fight scenes or when you have multiple paragraphs in a row.
- Treat fight scenes as if they were dance numbers in a musical. If you wouldn’t include a narrative line if the scene was a musical number, then don’t include it in the narrative (everybody thinks they can write action scenes and my experience has been that almost nobody can).
Another useful exercise that can help build tension is to take each scene and structure it in this way: A wants something from B and B doesn’t want to give it to A. If you can’t list who A and B are and what they are struggling over, you may need to rewrite the scene.
Upcoming essay will include one on POVs and how I read screenplays for contests, what works or doesn’t work.