Breaking In: Cracking the Screenwriting Code

King Tut's first screenplay

Many screenwriters come to me in a state of distress because their script doesn’t follow the “formula” mapped out in some screenwriting book, which they are struggling to follow by rote. Lately, I get a lot of nervous questions about the advice given in a certain popular screenwriting book written by a guy whose last name rhymes with “divider.”  If you’re getting nervous too about which “rule book” you should follow, today’s blog may help you chill out.

No, it’s not necessary to follow the instructions or particular method advocated by any author of screenwriting “how to” books, in order to sell your script in Hollywood. Script readers like me don’t sit here with a writing manual by this author or that one, and check your script against it to make sure you’re “doing it right.” But, yes, you do have to follow three-act story structure, which none of these guys or gals invented. How you come to understand that structure is up to you.

The difficulty that many writers have in learning how to structure a screenplay reminds me of the dilemma faced by the linguists who tried to crack the mystery of the Rosetta Stone, the ancient tablet that held the secret of interpreting Egyptian hieroglyphs.

There are a lot of different routes one can follow to get to the same destination. The route to solving the longstanding mystery of how to interpret Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics was not a direct one, and took a very long time to travel.

In the case of screenwriting, the destination for writers is a properly structured plot. And despite the simplicity of the three-act structure — which is the best, oldest, and simplest blueprint anyone can give you for building a screenplay — it’s not so easy to grasp the concept. It may take you a while — and numerous detours — before you get there. That’s why there are so many screenwriting books and teachers out there. But the way the mystery of Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics was finally solved can tell you a lot about how to master plot structure in screenwriting.

STONE COLD CASE

The Rosetta Stone, inscribed in l96 B.C., was discovered by Napoleon’s troops in Egypt in 1799. The stone has the same message (basically, “Hurray for our terrific Pharaoh! Look at all the great things he’s done!”) engraved on it in two languages, Egyptian and Greek, in three forms of script (hieroglyphics, demotic, and Greek). But for years nobody could figure out how to translate Egyptian hieroglyphics, and without being able to read that ancient language much of the history of that great civilization seemed lost forever.

By the time Jean-Francois Champollion cracked the “code” of the Rosetta Stone in 1822, scholars had already been working on deciphering hieroglyphics for hundreds of years. Champollion, who could read Greek and Coptic, spent years making a comparison of the known languages with the unknown one (Egyptian hieroglyphics) and eventually found the solution. By figuring out what some of the hieroglyphics on the Rosetta Stone stood for, he was able to fill in the missing pieces to the puzzle and decipher others by comparing them to the known languages. In other words, instead of trying to understand hieroglyphics directly, he took an indirect route to his goal.

THE SHORTEST DISTANCE BETWEEN TWO POINTS IS NOT ALWAYS A STRAIGHT LINE

So, what does this tell us about the best way to learn how to structure a screenplay? Use what you already know — and what you know about yourself, including which learning methods work best for you — to find the best route to cracking the code of three-act structure. Study classic screenplays and the successful movies based on them. If you can’t understand what makes them work by looking directly for their three-act structure, try to crack their “code” by finding indirect methods of understanding what a story is that work for you.

If books about three-act story structure or the methodology advocated by the latest “hot” screenwriting guru don’t resonate with you, keep studying and reading excellent screenplays until you find a way of understanding them that does. If the notion of the “inciting incident” is “all Greek” (or Ancient Egyptian) to you, find a way to teach yourself traditional screenplay structure that makes sense to you. If structuring your story using “40 beats” makes you want to beat your head against a wall, find another way.

WRITER’S INTUITION

Your goal is to develop an intuitive — not a mechanical — sense of story. It’s not simply a matter of putting an inciting incident on page 17 (or wherever) of your script because you’ve read in a screenwriting book that you are “supposed” to do this. Instead, you really need to “osmose” an instinctive understanding of what a story must do. If you don’t intuitively understand what a film story really is, following anybody’s “map” will be useless to you.

Once you know what drama and conflict are, anything that isn’t dramatic in your own stories will not “feel” like a story to you anymore. Some writers are born with this skill, and others have to learn it. Remember that most of the great Hollywood screenplays were written before “film school” or screenwriting books were invented. These writers understood three-act structure just as we do today. But they understood it in their bones from studying what writers had done in countless previous movies and plays to generate drama, conflict, and suspense. They didn’t have to read a book in order to learn how to write.

Movies as a whole used to be much more melodramatic than they are today. I highly recommend melodrama. It’s a lost art. And it will teach you lessons about what drama and conflict really are — because melodrama is simply an exaggerated version of both. Most aspiring screenwriters today wouldn’t know a dramatic conflict if it jumped up and bit them like Bruce the Shark in Jaws. The best way to learn dramatic writing? Watch great dramas (or comedies, if that’s your genre). Read great scripts and study them. Study the classics. Don’t forget to watch old “silent” movies, too — which will show you just how clear and dramatic a story can be without using any dialogue at all (except for a few title cards).

Keep studying great scripts until, like Helen Keller’s epiphany that finally allowed her to connect water to the hand-sign that symbolized it, one day you will suddenly, intuitively understand what three-act structure really is. From then on, it will be something you can feel in your bones.

Don’t get me wrong: Reading screenwriting books can be very helpful. Several really helped me when I was a young writer starting out. But if these books’ theories and concepts don’t make sense to you, you are going to have to become your own screenwriting teacher until you find a way of understanding three-act structure that does.

ACTIVE LEARNING VS. PASSIVE LEARNING

Don’t simply passively read scripts or watch movies, but actually study them. You should come to each script or movie with a set of questions. Those questions might be things like the following:

What is the hero doing when we first meet him and what does this tell us about him? In Casablanca, for example, when we first meet Rick, he is in his nightclub office, playing chess by himself. Wow! That certainly tells us a lot about him — all of which will become very important later in the story.

How does the writer set up the hero’s “problem” (conflict) and goal? How soon in the script does the hero’s central problem or conflict emerge, and what does the hero want? What, or who, stands in the way of his achieving his goal? How soon in the story does the antagonist appear? What does the writer do to make us like and care about the hero? How does the writer reveal exposition and backstory without resorting to flashbacks? Why did the writer choose to start his story at this particular juncture in his characters’ lives? How late in the story does it “look darkest before the dawn” for the hero? How does solving his “inner flaw” or inner conflict enable the hero to deal with his external problem and accomplish his goal? How quickly does the story end after the hero solves his main problem (or doesn’t)?

WHEN IN DOUBT … LEAVE IT OUT

One of the main things you will learn by actually reading screenplays is what to leave out. It’s amazing how little you really need to put on the page in order to convey all the drama and conflict in a story, as long as you make the right choices about what to include and what to leave out.

You can “assign” yourself whatever screenwriting topics you think you need to learn, and look at classic screenplays and the movies based on them in order to teach yourself those particular things. It’s important to read many scripts, not just a few. They should be recognized classics — some old, and some more recent. They should all be in “your” genre.

When you see movies, watch them once just for fun. Then see them again, take them apart, and, like a watchmaker, find out exactly what makes them tick. I learn something new and notice new things every time I watch the same classic movie or read its screenplay. It can be very helpful to see a movie more than once.

“THERE IS NOTHING NEW UNDER THE SUN.”

Your purpose in studying screenplays should be to teach yourself how to write three-act story structure. You should also learn how to generate suspense, maintain pacing and conflict, provide necessary exposition unobtrusively (and without being boring — writer-director Billy Wilder used to say that “Don’t be boring” was the first rule in making movies), and get your audience to root for your hero. In truth, there is no other approach to writing a successful movie for mainstream American film audiences than building the three-act story structure. And there never will be. No matter what you think you know, or what you’ve read or been told, there is no such thing as a “different” way to structure a Hollywood movie for the big screen. There are only different ways of describing the three-act structure.

I don’t care whether you’re “saving the cat” or slaying the dragon. A story is a story, and since back when we were all living in caves, what feels to us like a story has always been the same. It’s got conflict and obstacles for the hero in attempting to achieve his goal. It’s got a hero with a goal, and something that happens that sets the ball rolling and presents him with a dilemma. It’s got a high point and a final confrontation of some kind with his antagonist (human or otherwise). The stakes are high and the hero is in jeopardy — emotionally, physically, or both. It’s darkest before the dawn. The hero either succeeds or fails in his mission. It’s got a beginning, a middle, and an end. That was true in Og the Caveman’s time, and Aristotle’s. It was true in King Tut’s time. And it’s still true in ours.

By the way, learning the three-act structure does not necessarily result in writing formulaic scripts any more than learning how the chess pieces can move inevitably results in being a boring or lousy chess player. You have to learn the moves in order to play the game.

Keep pitching. See you next month.

19 thoughts on “Breaking In: Cracking the Screenwriting Code

  1. How-to Reader

    Thank you, Staton. Sadly, the distress you mention comes from the fact that certain managers and agents are actually asking querying writers to provide a B.S. ‘beat sheet’ for their stories (guess we know who B.S. stands for now!). Not only must they contain his ’15 beats’ but B.S. tells these fledgling agents exactly on which page each ‘beat’ must fall, so I suppose god help you if they don’t.

    For this presupposes, of course, that each story will be exactly 110 pages long and – what a coincidence! That’s exactly what these people are demanding. I’d like to see how this works for shorter or longer films, such as “Titantic” or “Dances with Wolves” or the “Da Vinci Code” (all approximately 3 hours long). But of course, these folks all know that films over 110 pgs long don’t make any money! And gosh! This craziness wouldn’t have anything to do with the cookie-cutter feel of most films today, would it? The one that everyone complains about?

    I sure hope there still are other readers out there like you, or like you used to be when you were doing it! The points (oh, sorry, ‘beats’!) were helpful to think about, but the book should be burned as it is, and/or reissued with a far less rigid formula!

  2. Chris

    Here’s what I feel is the easiest way to learn to write a 90-120 minute narrative:

    1.) Forget trying to write something original to begin with.
    2.) If there’s a particular genre you want to write, find the plot to a film you know (like Star Wars, James Bond, etc) on wikipedia, and copy and paste the plot in a word document.
    3.) Now merely change the names, places, era, etc in the plot. Hey presto, you have an ‘original’ story. (Also, it can help if you play a film you know on your computer and take a snapshot of each scene, paste it in a word document and write a sentence summary below to describe what that scene is about, and do that for every scene from start to end so you can visually see the structure at a glance.)
    4.) Break the story down into a list of scenes from start to end.
    5.) Maybe write a description of what happens in each scene from start to end.
    6.) Now write the script based on your scene-by-scene summary/list of scenes.
    7.) Hurrah! You have now written an “original” screenplay as plagiarized from the plot of a movie you know.
    8.) I guarantee you will now know how to write a movie.
    9.) Now let your imagination run wild, and since having done the exercise above, you will now have sufficient knowledge on how to turn your unique ideas into a feature-length screenplay.

    Writing isn’t an art, its a craft to learn, just like becoming an electrician or plumber, etc. The only difference is that it requires more imagination.

    I thought about writing a book on ‘how to write a screenplay’, but it would only be a page long. All the other info in screenwriting books is unecessary and what we can all do intuitively. All you need to learn is how to structure a concept into a 90-120 minute narrative and the steps above will teach you how to do that. Enjoy.

  3. Bob Woods

    Thanks from this confused writer, Staton!

    I’ve read all three of Snyder/Divider’s books and have found much in them to be useful. However, trying to match the beats is very confusing. I found myself looking for ways to kill off one of my character’s around page 75.

    I’m writing an adult drama/fantasy and his beats just don’t match-up well with mine. Nor do they match with movies like Field of Dreams, Big Fish, and Ground Hog Day.

    I’ll continue writing following my own path with “some” help from the books I’ve read…

    Thanks Again,

    Bob

  4. zag

    @Bob Pinkus

    Yeah I’d agree, many of the murder drama shows on TV like NCIS, Bones etc are all exactly the same.

    The start of the NICS shows, I find really bad with the poxy start up that’s a cut and paste from the last show, where kids playing find a body in the exact same creek they have used in about 50 shows straight trying to use the 5 different scene spots in said creek, pretending that a different camera view means they are in a completely different dry creek bed.

    Talk about rinse and repeat.

    The last bit though I’d agree with the writer as like the above it’s all done really bland and it would seem to me that very few people pick up on this.

    As this show wins plenty of awards, why? I can’t figure that out.

  5. Bob Pinkus

    “…I highly recommend melodrama. It’s a lost art. And it will teach you lessons about what drama and conflict really are — because melodrama is simply an exaggerated version of both.”

    Good article, but I don’t agree with this at all. In fact, I think there is an overabundance of melodrama (especially in TV writing). It seems that no matter what genre is produced (with the exception of comedy) it ends up resembling a daytime soap.

    Way too much melodrama, way too little psycho in the drama. It seems that writers these days only know how to overemphasize the drama and the conflict and as a result, many productions end up seeming very similar, even repetitive. Of course that could be because that’s what studios want to see. But box office figures might call for some reconsideration.

    “Most aspiring screenwriters today wouldn’t know a dramatic conflict if it jumped up and bit them like Bruce the Shark in Jaws.”

    I also don’t agree with this generalization. I’m in contact with quite a few aspiring screen writers and they are not as clueless as you state. Perhaps you’re associating with a different crowd, but honestly, that was kind of an obnoxious statement.

  6. RS Gray

    The advice is spot-on, but it’s clear you’re not a poet. For clarity, you should really rhyme a one-syllable word with another. “Rider” would have been a much better choice.

  7. Cynthia Carlisi

    Thanks for the pointers. As my book turns into a screen play, my story gains depth and sounds. Regulating drama into acts forces new perspectives. With discipline beyond memoir, I’m folding story into dimensions where revelation of drama from life to screen urges artistic expression. Art within structure, I believe, will produce desired results. Being new to an in depth existing arena, I bow to all who’ve gone before and offer wisdom. Thank you again, I shall carry on with these nuggets of advice in mind as I play within these parameters.
    Movies are awesome, thanks for helping create them.

  8. Rick Meyer

    As John Truby says in his mini lecture about how to write a Hollywood Blockbuster, “we do not write screenplays in acts, there is no curtain.” (I supect I am paraphrasing to a degree). Quentin Tarantino comes close in a way, and yet I don’t disagree with this article. Another way to name the three act structure is as old as the art of story telling, coming way before the concept of “act” was even a glimmer in Og’s cro magnon eye. A good story needs to have a beginning, a middle and an end. Therein lies the point of the “acts”.

  9. Bob Brill

    I’ve always taken the tact being in media for many decades that opinions (especially self help books) are like butts (nicer language here) in that everyone has one — and a point of view to sell their own works. However, this article actually was different and actually gave me some hard core worthy advice. Thanx I do appreciate it — bob (author, broadcaster, screenwriter)

  10. Dar

    Good article. One glaring error is that there were actually plenty of screenwriting books and screenwriting gurus long, long before those “great Hollywood screenplays were written”. One of the earliest and best was Anita Loos’ “How to Write Photoplays” (1920). Others included the “Photoplay Plot Encyclopedia” (1922), and the “Writing the Photoplay: The Complete Manual of Instruction in the Nature of Writing and Marketing of the Movie Picture Play” by J. Berg Esewein and Arthur Leeds — way back in 1913. “Technique of the Photoplay” was also published in 1913, by a guy with the great writer’s name of Epes Winthrop Sargent. Louella Parsons even had “How to Write for the Movies” back in 1916.

    The list goes on and on. Contrary to your statement, I imagine that many of the writers who wrote all those classic Hollywood screenplays you speak about probably read a few of these books, especially Loos’ books as she was the most in-demand screenwriter of her day.

    Do a search for “photoplay” + “writing” and you’ll find lots of them dating before 1925, and many in the 1900’s.

    I haven’t read anything in the last 30 years that vastly improves upon what these first, early film writers had to offer.

  11. Rick

    This is really good advice. I’m trying to finish my screenplay and I struggled for a long time with coming up with a beginning, middle and end, before I wrote a word. I knew that was really the only “formula” that was going to work.

  12. Maria Lennon

    Great article Rabin! I learn so much when I read your work. Thank you for taking the time to help us screenwriters to become better writers. At times it was like reading a suspense. Wow. And funny in the beginning 🙂
    Please keep the articles coming.
    Maria

  13. Aaron

    There is a teacher in Manhattan (Jacob Krueger) that has been instructing a 7-act structure. I took one of his classes and found it very helpful. The point in teaching 7 acts was an attempt to avoid the “lost in the 2nd act” issue that plagues so many scripts and produced films where the characters just kind of wander until they get to the third act.

    This was a problem with my current script (and was the reason I signed up for the course). What I realized after taking the class was that my final conflict was actually more suitable for a mid-point, and that it was much more appropriate that I create a “new” ending that raised the stakes even more.

    Just something else to add to the discussion.

  14. Liv

    Thanks for this article, you give sound advice.
    In addition to the common 3-Act structure, please refer to the 4-Act Dramatica Structure. Chris Huntley has written a summary on ‘How and Why Dramatica differs from Six Other Story paradigms’ that I’ve found very usefull as well.

    Cheers, Liv

  15. Larry George

    I was a screenwriting major at LMU LosAngeles (in the 70s) and my instructor John Zodrow used Lajos Egri, “the Art of Dramatic Writng” as a source of reference for our class.
    I find your article to be concise and completely wonderful advice for any one trying to write
    screenplays. The idea is an old one but a good one and echoes a Joseph Campbell quotation I cite for my writing students. It seems to echo your pertinent advice as well.

    “If you can see your path laid out in front of you step by step, you know it’s not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take. That’s why it’s your path.”
    — Joseph Campbell

    Thanks for the reminder that the three Act Structure when applied in depth to modern life still illuminates the human condition through the lens of the modern screenplay.
    It’s Story and not Formula that always speaks from beyond the technology.
    What else are you reading and working on?

    Larry George
    larry@swansonandcosgrave.com

  16. Rahul

    best advice i have ever read,its superb really nd i am one of those who have read each and every book ,i am still trying to find my own way,this post has really helped a lot,

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