Film School Confidential: Script Structure, Part II

I can’t emphasize enough how good scriptwriting skills are essential to create successful films. The script is the blueprint, the backbone of a film – without it, you are left with a series of scenes that may work as stand-alone sequences, but they don’t add up to anything as a whole. The recent developments in the troubled production of Men In Black III – which started shooting late last year without a completed script, and which is currently undergoing a number of script revisions despite the fact that its first act had already been shot – got me thinking even more about how this most fundamental of filmmaking techniques still has not been mastered or embraced by the premier film producer in the world – Hollywood. And honestly, no matter how good the Men In Black III script revisions are, no matter how funny the film is, no matter how well the film is shot and no matter how great and charming Will Smith and Josh Brolin’s performances are, a film without a coherent, linear story is destined to fail.

As I mentioned in my last column about writing, structure is the culmination of a number of elements. Stated in its most simple form, story structure can be written as such:

Somebody (protagonist) wants something badly (objective) and is having difficulty getting it (conflict/obstacles.)


There are many different models that can and have been applied to this simple statement. The most basic model is the famed three act structure – consisting of a beginning, a middle and an end, usually in a 20-60-20 ratio respectively (20% devoted to the set-up/launch into the first act, 60% devoted to the bulk of the film, plot development and conflict culminating in the shift into the third act, and another 20% devoted to the climax and resolution.) Another model is Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey,” which divides the story into twelve very specific beats, including the Call to Adventure, Meeting the Mentor, Crossing the First Threshold, Approaching the Inmost Cave, and eventually, Reward and The Road Back. This story model can usually be applied to most action or adventure films, but is hard to apply to more anti-plot-driven, minimalist human dramas. There are a number of other elements in play that help create a more complex and deep screenplay: motifs, themes, parallels, dramatic irony, repetition and variation – but at the most basic level, all of the different story structures and screenplay techniques are all driven by one basic thing: the somebody, the protagonist.

No matter what happens in your story – be it a grand adventure tale fitting the “Hero’s Journey,” such as Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings; a road trip indie dramedy, such as Sideways; or a subtle, internal human drama such as Lost in Translation – a story needs a protagonist who undergoes some kind of change for it to be compelling. This change is what is often referred to as the “character arc”. Whether the change is very noticeable and obvious or small and subtle; whether it’s a total 180-degree shift in personality or a small, personal revelation, the character must undergo a change in pursuing his or her goal in the story. A character’s change is driven by his or her desire – the object or goal the character covets and needs to acquire or achieve. As Robert McKee and many other scriptwriting gurus have written, the goal has two major components that can either make a story compelling or completely pointless.

First of all, the goal must be something that will change the character’s life completely. It can’t be something trivial that the character does on a day-to-day basis, unless that particular seemingly trivial goal has major importance to the character. Hero Journeys usually have very high-stake goals: from saving the world from the clutches of an evil villain (Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, James Bond) to liberating a people (Lawrence of Arabia, Braveheart) to seeking revenge (Gladiator.) Sometimes, stories have smaller, more personal goals that still have implications and meaning on a grander scale as well as personal meaning to the characters: Solving a mystery (The Maltese Falcon, Chinatown,) exposing a conspiracy (The Conversation, Erin Brockovich,) and so on. Other times, the goal will be extremely personal and specific to the character – overcoming addiction (Tender Mercies,) writing a screenplay (Adaptation,) getting the girl (When Harry Met Sally and every other (good) romantic comedy.) As I mentioned before, sometimes these goals may seem trivial to us, but the moment they have gravitas and importance to the characters, they become compelling goals (the character goals in a film like The Hours include “organize a party” (Clarissa) and “bake a cake” (Laura,) but these seemingly trivial goals carry with them a plethora of deeper desires that bubble to the surface as the characters pursue their goal.)


Second of all, the character has to have a difficult time achieving the goal. A story without conflict isn’t a story at all – it’s a meaningless event through which neither the audience nor the character learns anything. The character usually starts off the movie trying all of the easy solutions – ignoring the problem, seeking the help of others, doing anything to avoid the conflict. After the character exhausts all other options, he or she must turn to his or her own inner self and find the power within his or herself to overcome the obstacles and achieve the goal. The higher the stakes, the more compelling and dramatic the story. It’s a simple rule of thumb that applies to even the most trivial situations, such as romantic comedies. The problem with most romantic comedies is that there are no stakes – we know that the characters will end up together, because in most average rom-coms, the characters are good-looking, well-off and usually good matches for one another – it is inevitable that they will end up together. This is why every once in a while, a genuinely good romantic comedy will come along that will switch up the formula and actually provide the characters with compelling personalities and genuine obstacles they need to overcome. What if the characters promise to be friends and never anything more? (When Harry Met Sally) What if it is unrequited love? ((500) Days of Summer) What if they only have one night to be together? (Before Sunrise) What if they live on opposite ends of the country and have no means to travel? (Sleepless in Seattle.) These films work because the obstacles the characters have to overcome in order to achieve their goals are tangible and require some sort of internal change in order to overcome.

My screenwriting teacher constantly emphasizes these points, and I feel incredibly lucky to have her, especially since I hear not-as-flattering things about the other teachers from some of my friends. Although we are writing short screenplays instead of features, the basic rules of structure remain the same – In a feature script, the actions are spread over a number of acts, plot points and sequences during which the character overcomes an obstacle and begins to change. In a short screenplay, every scene needs to feature a reversal and a change. And within the scenes, every line of dialogue needs to provide conflict. However, the point she emphasizes more than any is the point I have been trying to get across in this column: it all boils down to the character, and his or her goal. The journey to attain that goal provides the story and creates the structure, but the character drives it all. In class, we divided this concept of the “goal” into three sub-categories. The more of these sub-categories present in a script, the more compelling the character and consequently, the more compelling his or her journey to attain the goal:

Concrete goal
Deeper desire
Unconscious need

Some movies don’t have all three, but many of the good ones do. For example, in Star Wars, it would be hard to argue that Luke has any sort of unconscious need – although he does have a deeper desire in addition to his concrete goal of saving the princess/destroying the Death Star – his deeper desire, as established early on, is to get out of his humble farm life and do greater things. He is “destined for greatness,” and in pursuing his concrete goals, he fulfills his deeper desire to break out of his constrained life on the farm and do something of meaning.

It’s sad that so many Hollywood movies these days enter production without a set screenplay and consequently without a solid, well-structured character arc. Without one, we don’t have a compelling story, and are only left to enjoy the superficial elements of a film. But no amount of high-octane action, well-choreographed fight scenes, gigantic set pieces, dramatic music or state-of-the-art special effects can take the place of a good story. Late last year, independent films enjoyed some staggering and unexpected success while a number of lifeless, empty Hollywood studio films failed to connect with an audience and flopped at the box office. One can only hope that Hollywood will learn their lesson one day, and look to independent films for inspiration. Usually, when these two worlds collide, we get better films (like Nolan’s Batman movies, the Bourne trilogy, True Grit, or any number of recent studio-produced films directed by indie film directors), films that are driven by character arcs and not by release dates or franchise recognition.