The 1-3-5 Story Structure Made Simple System: The Nine Essential Elements of a Sellable Screenplay by Donna Michelle Anderson
Entitled “Why don’t scripts get sold?,” Chapter 1 of Donna Michelle Anderson’s (DMA) book is exactly one sentence long: “Scripts don’t get sold because the screenwriter didn’t know, understand or respect the process of selling a script.” Then you turn the page. What the rest of Anderson’s slim book reveals is that process in a clear, concise, no-nonsense style. While most screenwriting books emphasize the artistic aspects of screenplay-writing, Anderson’s book is more of a pragmatic screenplay-selling guide. Usually she’s right on the money—the nine elements she presents are solid, sensible guideposts. You may not know what happens once your screenplay leaves your trembling hands, but if your screenplay is to have any chance of really going anywhere, you really should. And DMA is here to tell you, to break down the DNA of a sellable screenplay.
One of the most important elements to consider when choosing a screenwriting book is who the author is—not so much what he or she knows, but what he or she has done to earn what he or she or he knows. So who’s DMA? “As an analyst or reader, I was the person, the gatekeeper, who … had to read about twenty screenplays a weekend so that the next week, [my Creative Executive bosses would] only have to read one or two: the one or two scripts that made it past me.” Wow! Twenty 90-120-page scripts in a weekend? Oh yes. That’s how it works, people.
In the Introduction, DMA makes three requests of her reader, the first being essential: “Decide now to respect the hard work of the people you are hoping to sell a script to. If you say all movies are crap, that means their movies are crap. If you say you don’t have to follow the rules… you are saying they are idiots and sheep to follow the rules. You are talking or writing yourself out of a sale.” Sobering, isn’t it? Basically, when writing your screenplay, in addition to considering what an audience would like to watch for two hours, what you would like to watch for two hours, you also must consider what will stand out to a reader on a Saturday afternoon from 19 other scripts—what would be worth the reader putting his or her job on the line to give a “Recommend” to his or her boss. Wait! It’s NOT about ME and the job, the money, I want to have? Oh no. It’s not.
But the good thing is that DMA’s book is filled with practical considerations, insights, and facts to which you probably wouldn’t have access any other way. (I mean, how many former story analysts/present teachers in the UCLA Extension Writing Program do you have in your phone?) Ultimately, DMA proposes a three-prong system of analysis:
1. “The 1—Theme: the central issue, value or institution around which your screenplay revolves.”
2. “The 3—Character Arc: How your main character changes in relation to the theme over the course of your story” from rejecting to embracing to sacrificing; and third.
3. “The 5—Basic Spine: The core stages that form the foundation of your main character’s journey.”
No, it’s not brand new stuff DMA has invented here: but it is stuff every beginning screenwriter needs to know, and stuff that certainly wouldn’t hurt a non-beginner who’s perhaps grown too big for his or her britches to re-remember.
At 85 pages, The 1-3-5 is a quick—very quick—read. Moreover, DMA’s style is easy, clear, and even fun in a dark, snarky sort of way. But be careful—the point of the book isn’t just to blast through it, but to hear, really hear what she’s saying. And DMA knows how to say a lot in a small space—a skill doubtlessly honed while doing twenty five-page coverage reports every weekend—so listen up, folks. These are secrets from a gatekeeper to be remembered.