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Sunday, July 19, 2009

Structure: The Common Language of Hollywood

Everybody in Hollywood knows structure or thinks they know it. Producers, execs, and assistants all have to be able to talk about plot points, acts, and inciting incidents. This is something everyone is expected to know. If you work for a producer in Hollywood you had better know who Syd Field is.

A typical conservation:
“How’s that Stuffed Animal Crime Noir script I gave you?”
“Got potential but there’s problems in the first act.”
“What’s the inciting incident?”
“It’s the first jewelry store robbery but that doesn’t occur until page 40.”
“Hmmm. Writer has problems with structure.”
Except for the details that little snippet gets repeating a thousand times a day every day in Hollywood.

The biggest reason for this is that while so much of judging writing is subjective, how the bones of a screenplay are laid out, how it is structured, is completely objective. You can argue whether or not an action scene is stylish and exciting or trite and clichéd. What you cannot argue is when it occurs in the screenplay. That’s all structure is really, where the events of the story take place. Take away a movie’s heart stopping stuntwork, amazing special effects, and crackling dialogue and it’s really, as Lemony Snicket would say just a series of events.

Broken down to its “blueprint” even an assistant who has two weeks on the job can see problems. They can see where a writer is spinning his wheels when he should be surging forward or where he’s sprinting ahead when he should be laying down foundations for later. Looking at how the screenplay is structured it’s easy to see if it is properly built.

But what’s the proper way to build a story? There are a lot of people who have dedicated their lives to studying that. They’ve developed what are called “beat sheets” a standard pattern for when important events should be taking place in the story. One of the best available is from Blake Snyder and his book Save the Cat.

It may seem daunting at first to beginners but they should remember what we all learned in High School English; every story has a Beginning, Middle, and an End. So is the same with screenplays. Beat Sheets tell you what should be happening in the Beginning, Middle, and End and how long each of these sections should be. After you’ve read and used a few of them you’ll begin seeing “the beats” in movies you watch and in other screenplays you read.

Inevitably some people do take it too far. Readers complain all the time about scripts that adhere too mechanically to a beat sheet and stifle all spontaneity out of their stories. But on balance readers prefer to see a script that is too tight and slightly mechanical as opposed to a screenplay that’s a mess structure-wise. The one that's a complete mess has almost no chance. The one that's too tight, that one can still be a sale if the concept is strong enough.

It’s a very gratifying thing to be able to go to a movie and see the beats. It makes you feel like more of a professional. And it gives you an in to talk with other professionals in the business. Learn structure, because everyone else already has.


  1. I just want to mention that I've NEVER complained about a script sticking too rigidly to structure... because when the structure is right the characters and pacing are usually right, and then you don't notice the structure, you just enjoy the read.

  2. Xander's comments really underscore the message: study structure, learn structure, know structure.

    And practice it!


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