Think of whatever you´re best at in life, and on how long you spent getting there. Now, imagine how quick you could have taught this skill to your younger or less experienced self, that is, if you were willing to listen. This article is intended to shave a few years of your learning curve, and also provides you with a lot of opportunities to tell me to go fuck myself.
Before going into movies, I worked as a cartoonist for several years. It was an awesome job that let me get up every morning and produce something that I knew would be made, untouched by anyone else and actually reach its audience within few weeks of production, leaving me in total creative control and giving me room to experiment, and providing me with a steady paycheck. You know, exactly the opposite of working in the movie business.
Having grown up on a steady diet of reading 3- to 4- panel comic strips for the last 20 or so years before I began working as a cartoonist, I felt I had a fair grasp of the format by references alone. As I began drawing my small stories, I gradually began fitting punchlines, setups, minor jokes and expressions in their proper places, not realizing they fell into a standard format of the comic strip, being:
Setup – buildup – punchline.
In effect, here´s how you could tell a story in that particular format:
Setup: A guy gets stranded on a deserted island (sinking ship or whatever in the background), complaining about just being shipwrecked if you suck too much to get that to show from your visual art alone (exposition).
Buildup: Character mourns, he´s just lost everything, but resonates: “At least, things can´t get worse from here!” (We call this “dramatic suspension”, as the uninformed reader will have no clue whatsoever to what will happen next)
Punchline: We track out and see that the protagonist is not alone on the island, but in fact shares it with a 300 pound gorilla. And, to make it even funnier, the gorilla has a big heart drawn over it, to show that it´s attracted to the newcomer, or, if you´re feeling frisky and your editor allows it, a giant penis. (Remember, in comedy, gay is always funny).
I managed to sell my first strips after 3 months, and never really progressed as an artist after that – I didn´t have to, I struck some nerve with one editor and a handful of readers, and things just built from there. But I think I realized one or two things about content and form along the way.
But here´s the thing: In over 2 years of working with a daily strip, 6 days a week, meaning I´ve produced like 700 or so strips, give or take, it never felt formulaic. Of course, I repeated myself every now and then, especially when I felt a deadline coming on, and the 3 panel format probably wouldn´t be the perfect form for doing a full biography of Churchill or an introductory course to sociology (I tried), but the universe of the strip format that has provided us the stories of Calvin and Hobbes, Dilbert, XKCD, Peanuts and everything you´ve ever read, never felt like anything but freedom to me.
And I don´t really believe in the “rules” of storytelling, but I certainly believe in it´s principles, like, say, timing.
This article is about screenplay structure, you know, the thing that makes art students snap into a 9 hour discussion of arts vs craft, not understanding that they go hand like two perfect lovers guiding each other through life (look, I´m using emotional metaphors against my imaginary art student).
As an artist, it is your duty to rebel against conformity and convention, and guess what: As a guy who makes a lot of money from writing, it´s my privilege not to partake in that discussion, although I´ve been on both sides of it, a lot of times.
When telling a joke or a story, you don´t need guidelines (unless you´re the uncle described above). You see the end of your own story, you know where to pause for dramatic effect, and you can feel the audience out as you go. You´re an artist, and you have your story. But hey, you´ve also tried cramming them into a two hour screenplay, right? And if you nailed it, i have nothing but respect for you. If you felt one or two things lacking, lost oversight somewhere in the middle or got rejected even though you´d put all the images you´ve had in your head the last 5 years in the script, read on.
And also, for the sake of argument: If you believe I´m full of bullshit, pop your favorite DVD in the player and see if my model below is not about 85% right, or more.
A word on technique
As a practitioner of brazilian ju jitsu, I had my ass handed to me the first times in the gym, and by “the first times” I´m talking about 3 times a week for 6 months. Or, who am I lying, that still happens. I learned the lesson every martial arts movie tried to teach me throughout the 80´s and 90´s, but somehow you´ve just got to experience it for yourself. I didn´t see the point of the techniques, tried sparring my own way, trying to outsmart my way smarter opponents, got frustrated, got injured, and slowly realized the techniques were nothing but applied anatomical principles, you know, the anatomy we all share, and that every time I spent hours coming up with some new shit myself, it had already being discovered and cultivated to perfection by some brazilian with funny ears and a first name starting with an R, and the “art” in martial arts comes AFTER you´ve drilled the basic scales of the sport a few times, and start discovering your own style on top of that, and it´s really unlimited what you can do. Now, after spending my high school- and college days writing and making sweet, beautiful love to millions of girls, with emphasis on the first, I can finally deliver a solid beating to all the high school- or college athletes who show up on my gym, thinking they have some sort of fighting talent – guess what, they do, but guess what #2: Technique beats talent. And guess what #3: The only thing that is worth a damn is a combination of the two.
Go on, tell them they´re not artists, to their faces.
My first writing jobs for the screen were television punch ups (where you basically just add jokes), and commercials. Having being primed by a few years of writing comics, and even jokes for morning radio shows, I managed to deliver to the point of at least not getting fired (which, basically, is one of the most important skills to develop), but I spent some time cracking the 3 act structure of a movie, to the point of obsessing over it. Hell, I even wrote a 9 panel comic about it, at one point:
Like everybody, I read the literature, that´s been written by people who spend all their writing time writing about how you should write, thus never actually writing any movies, and a lot of it is good: I loved Blake Snyders “Save the cat” (a little hommage is even right there in my comic), although I don´t share Snyders points of the second act (or maybe I do – maybe I´ve just misread it) or what he insists makes a good story (usually Sandra Bullock-based), I tried reading Robert McKees “Story”, but let´s face it – it goes on and on, and tries talking around structure by namedropping European art flicks, and at times seems even less informative than, say, a 9 panel comic, Syd Field gets to anal about his schematics, and the best I ever read was Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennons “Writing movies
for fun and profit”, which explains the three act structure like this:
“Act 1: Put your main character up in a tree. Act 2: Throw rocks at him. Act 3: Get him down”.
The rest of the books goes on to tell the difference between agents and managers (one wears suits, the other jeans) and where in L.A. to find the best burgers (you´ll have to buy the book for that one).
That´s all well and done. But the second act is where 95% of screenplays go to die, and the 3 act structure really didn´t make sense to me until I started dividing the movie INTO FOUR PIECES. I give you:
The four blocks
And this, coincidentally, is where I tell you how to write a screenplay.
So, I´ve never seen this written anywhere: That doesn´t mean that over 9000 people before me haven´t discovered it – it only mean that I spent way too long realizing it, and maybe, so did you.
So, forget everything you´ve read about 3-act structure, and whenever you watch or write a movie from now, divide it into four.
For the sake of simplicity, lets say that a 100 minute script is a 100 pages, and that will be your perfect movie (it´s more like 90-120 minutes, but hey, play along): So each of these blocks is exactly 25 pages and thus 25 minutes long.
Here´s what happens in the four parts of the movie, and as promised, I will fuck myself if I´m wrong.
BLOCK 1: START
Back to the basic argument about rules: The start, or the beginning of a movie, is where you introduce your main character, your hero. You don´t bring him or her in at the 75 minute mark – that´s just common sense. Remember, you´re not your drunk uncle at a party telling a joke, so from the very start you set up
- Who is this story about?
First impressions are formed easily, so introduce your character in a context that defines them. That is not a rule, that´s a principle of human psychology: If you meet a random stranger that´s shouting and crying, you attribute those traits to the person – if you meet a friend behaving in the same manner, you attribute it to context and assume something is wrong. So, make the main character a friend of the audience. This is one of the basic principles of storytelling that work, because that´s one of the basic principles how your brain works.
- what do they want in life, and why?
Then they get it, and you wrap your movie at the 10 minute mark.
Hey, I´m kidding. Look, this is not a story, unless you´re a four year old.
“I was heading home, then I got home”.
This, however, is:
“I was heading home, then I met a mean dog that tried to bite me, and I had to run like crazy, barely managing to climb into my bedroom window”.
Ok, it´s not a brilliant story, but it´s one step up, because of one thing: Conflict, the dog.
So, after setting up the world for 10 pages, BOOM:
Page 10-12: Call to action. This is where Trinity meets Neo in “The Matrix”, this is where Luke Skywalkers aunt and uncle gets killed, this is where Iron Man 1 gets locked in a cave or The Mandarin makes an apperance in Iron Man 3.
Go on, check your favourite movie.
So, the next thing that happens is that the hero doesn´t do anything particular about it: Neo is not ready to pop pills, Luke does what Luke does best and bitches, and Iron Man gets stuck in a cave or keeps fucking around with nightmares and shit.
Page 12-25: You keep building the world and the pressure around the reluctant main character. BASICALLY: This is where you put ALL YOUR ESTABLISHING SCENES, until you enter:
BLOCK TWO: (page 25-50, ie to the middle of the movie): THE HERO´S PART
Where the hero says “fuck it, I´ll do it”, and ENTERS THE NEW WORLD. From here, everything moves in ONE DIRECTION: Towards the GOAL, the way the hero PERCEIVES IT. This is the hero´s part, where everything goes fairly well: This is the part of the story you include in the trailer, the story the audience wants: With training montages, titties, life on the bright side.
THIS IS ALSO WHERE YOU SET UP YOUR SECOND STORY, which is basically your love story (or, if your main story is a love story, then this is a small adventure to make it harder to get the girl).
Everything is well and good, and leads up to the middle of the movie, which I like to call:
MIDPOINT: FALSE END
A 90-120 page story is a long haul, and the traditional 2nd act is where most stories go to die: About midways, desperate writers start inventing problems, or in the case of action movies, turning the volume up to 11 to compensate for lack of content. This is where CONFLICT enters, or the dog in the short anecdote somewhere above: You throw a monkey wrench into the smooth running engine of the movie, and 99% of all movies do this exactly around the middle.
Go on, check Netflix or your favorite DVD, I have time.
Neo gets told he is not the One. The Avengers seem unable to cooperate to save the earth. In every lovestory, the hero either thinks he has got the girl, the hero thinks he´s got the girl, and Iron Man 3 thinks he´s got the real Mandarin, but wait for it..
In a traditional buddy cop movie, you have the big case (story), and the friendship (lovestory), and both have to go to hell at one point. This is where they tell each other to fuck off.
And then, we enter:
BLOCK 3: (page 50-75 or so, for good measure): THE BAD GUYS PART
Everything goes well here.. for the bad guy.
Push your hero to the brink of suicide, and most important for all: Make the audience wonder, along with the hero, how the hell he´s gonna pull out of this one.
This is where you put all the scenes where bad shit happens to your character, and this is where thinking of your traditional “2nd act” as two blocks really fucking help.
Your one goal here: make it seem impossible. And have one trick up your sleeve, that actually intrigues the audiences interest, because we´re about to enter:
BLOCK 4 VICTORY, AFTER A HELL OF A LOT OF ACTION
In short, this is where you:
- Make the hero realize what he was SUPPOSED to do, instead of what he THOUGHT he should do.
- He doesn´t know how? That´s why you introduced the friendship- or love story, guess what: friendship and love conquers all. Even in Spinal Tap, you know, the movie they “improvised” (around this exact structure).
- You also pull out your big action arsenal, and big emotional speeches, and if you´re really a master of your craft, you make them happen at the same time for maximum impact. If you´ve written a beautiful eulogy or a sexy action sequence, and it didn´t quite work – it´s because you haven´t earned it. You know why the action sequence in the beginning of the second (or was it the third?) Matrix movie didn´t work? No buildup, eveyone has superpowers and they didn´t have to work for it. You´ve got to charge it to unload it.
Holy fuck, I just said “You´ve got to charge it to unload it”, that has to be some storytelling axiom that I was the first person ever to invent!
Well, as most readers of this blog now, I don´t like to edit (editing is something I do when I´m paid to, I haven´t reread a single of the posts here), but I think I´ve covered basically everything, at the end of the fourth block, which the traditional 3rd act. In the words of William Goldman: “Give the audience what they want, just not in the way they expect it”.
What to the audience want? To be entertained, to be thrilled. This is where your talent comes in.
Nobody can teach you how to become an artist, but every craftsman can tell you a little something about their craft, some more than others.
And here´s two tips I´m real confident giving, except what I´ve tried postulating above:
If you wanna be a writer, watch a lot of movies,
if you wanna be a writer, write.
Now go do both.
And, if you like, try my four blocks on for size and see if they don´t fit somehow.
Email me here for all your screenwriting guru book deals or visual concept art inquiries.