Plot Structure Is Only Half The Story – Scott Myers

Plot Structure Is Only Half The Story – Scott Myers


Film Courage: I have a William Goldman quote
here and one of his quotes reads “Screenplays are structure and that’s all they are.” Do you agree with this quote and why do you
think so many screenwriters argue about structure? Scott Myers, DePaul University Professor/Screenwriter/Creator
Gointothestory.blcklst(dot)com: Well first of all…it’s hard to not agree with William
Goldman who was arguably the dean of contemporary American screenwriters. I mean an amazing legacy and I never met him
but people who had just said that he was the greatest guy. And so the idea that screenplays are structure,
there is a very real way in which that is true I think. Ultimately a screenplay is a pre-movie. It’s a template and a guide to make a movie
and so there is a structural component just like that where it gets budgeted and they
do everything that they have to do with their pre-production or production. From a writing standpoint it’s also true
because beginning, middle and end and subplot and all of that stuff too. Why people argue about it? I think that a lot of it is people want or
are inclined to think about screenplays at a surface level like page counts and act breaks
and that sort of thing (stylistic thing). You can’t have any un-filmables or flashbacks
or voiceover narration, weak writing. Because that puts the conversation in a realm
where it is pretty easy and in reality to write a great script, it’s none of that. It’s all about immersing yourself in the
lives of your characters and seeing what emerges from that process and that is not easy. And there is no golden parachute, secret way
of doing that. Characters are slippery and many of them are
hard to know and figuring out the relationships and what they need and what they want, their
conscious goal, unconscious goal, examining their personal history which is everything
that has happened to them to find our their backstory elements which are the key elements
that come forward into the story. That is hard work and that requires trust
and faith that the characters exist and that is a conversation that I think people are
afraid of. And so they will argue about story structure
and I’ve seen this flame wars. I wrote a series of blog articles on these
“so-called screenwriting rules.” They want to talk about these rules. There are no rules. If there were rules, there would be rule books. There are conventions, there are expectations,
there are even paradigms, but not rules. And so people want to reduce it to rules,
they want to reduce it to formula, they want to reduce it to specific paradigms, to structure
as plot. When structure is not just plot. There is the external world of action and
dialogue which I call the plot line. That is the realm of the psychical journey. That is only half the story. There is the internal world so where there
is dialogue there is subtext. And where there is action there is intention
of the character (the character’s intentions behind their actions). And where there is the plot line there is
the theme line. So the plot line answers the question “What
is the story about?” The theme line answers the question “What
does the story mean?” And that is the psychological journey compared
to the psychical journey. And so that conversation that is constantly
floating around that is up there in that top realm and plot line, structure as plot. You need to get down in that other part. That is where the conversation needs to be
having. Moreover (as I said upfront), I think that
is where you start the conversation. That is your dialogue with the story is with
the characters. I don’t care what paradigm they use. If they started with the characters and immersed
themselves in the lives of those characters more often than not they are going to come
up with the story structure out of that and those characters are going to be alive and
vibrant. So again the answer I think is that people
are not comfortable with that sort of engagement with characters on an existential level where
you believe they exist and now I am asking you to get inside their heads and talk to
them or engage them in conversation. I think for many people that is something
they feel uncomfortable with. If they can say “Oh yeah, they need to have
the break in Act 2 on page 25. It can’t be between page 23. It can’t be page 29. It’s got to be 25.” They are more comfortable with that because
it makes it simpler. Film Courage: So are there no great writers,
just great rewriters? I’m sure sure of that is one of your quotes? Scott: No…it’s writing is rewriting. That’s probably more true of screenwriting
than maybe any other narrative form because there are so many layers to get it movie made. There is You as the writer and so you get
feedback from your writer friends (you know, the writers’ group). You are represented, you get feedback from
your managers and sometimes your agents depending upon what your relationship is with your agents. Then if you’re working with a producer,
you get feedback from the producer. And if you’ve got it set up at a studio
or production company or financier, you get feedback from them. Then if the thing gets green lit, now you’ve
got actors and directors attached. Well now you’re going to have feedback from
the director, feedback from each of the individual actors, sometimes they have their own writers
and then you have to synthesize what the other writers have done to their characters. And so for example I know Eric Heisserer quite
well and he wrote ARRIVAL which is absolutely one of the all time fantastic scripts. And I asked him, I said “How many drafts
did you do?” And he said “One hundred.” Now most of those were like changing a line
but he would codify each one just so he knew. Or dropping a scene or adding to scenes or
whatever. So I think probably out of that I think 10
or 15 drafts. But yes, I tell my University students when
they’ve gone through all of the work of developing a story and then they sit down
and write a draft of it I say “Okay, you just have to understand it’s not going to
be perfect. You’re going to have to rewrite it.” And they go “Oh really?” They are not used to that. Talk to them two or three years later, they
completely understand. But yes, writing is rewriting.

11 Comments

  1. C. Sexton says:

    In my estimate, 'structure' can become poisonous to your script as it can work to impede creativity. Although I respect structure for the part it plays in script formation, I prefer not to be a stickler about it. For me, it's not the most important factor. Excellent interview!

  2. gnarth d'arkanen says:

    Short answer? "No."

    Slightly longer… Screenplays are structure if you want to churn out a slew of formulaic drek that's just there to spend another 90 minutes showing off all the tech', gun or car porn, and CGI of the studio.

    If you want to write something substantive, however, you have to start with a rudimentary plan of where you start and approximately how you want to end… AND then develop multi-dimensional characters to drive the Storyline…
    Structure comes in when you've got the huge great over-view of story, and you need to affix it to fit a studio's budget and time constraints for the kind of feature you're going to get released for public consumption.

    Want a fantasy world? You need a world bible. Simple as that. There have to be Cardinal Rules for how your world works, and what can or can't be done within those constraints… AND you can never EVER break those rules. The audience will feel criminally defrauded and disappointed for cheap writing if you do that.

    Each Character needs a profile at least, and a fully functional detailed design of their inner and outer workings, strengths, flaws, and weaknesses to be developed as you get to know them better. You best know everything about them, from their height and weight, to sexual preferences, dreams, hopes, aspirations, the egotistical "I like to think of myself as…", to the deeper core "When my cage is really rattled, I can't help but…". You have to not only know their internal duplicity (everybody has one) but understand where it comes from, how they developed it, and why.

    Once you've got the cast together, and you really understand them… the world is up and functioning… and there's a metric sh*t-ton of material just for the setting and people… THEN you can move into their lives, drive the story forward, and try to get from start to finish within their world, views, energies, and rules…

    Get a draft written, and expect to go back and carve out a bunch of the stuff "that doesn't really matter to the main plot"… That's okay. It sucks to put all this work into scenes that aren't going to see the light of day… BUT when you need to understand how the conversation went in the background for Character X to return to Character Y and commit some heinous disappointment… You better write the scene out… You can present it to the screen with a "brief overview" rather than all the filler… So you carve out a couple more pages you don't really NEED to put on-screen… BUT you understand the mechanics better of "exactly how we got here".

    Structure serves its purpose. It's best used in retrospect. You write the story first, and then go back to see where each turning point really sits, and try to compress it into the precious template. If you start with "Okay, so 90 minutes means 90 pages… I've got about 10 pages for my Introduction, but I think I can carve that to 8 or 9 if we just open the scene with my hero saving a cat…"
    No… It just doesn't work that way. "Transformers" works that way. Don't get me wrong, nobody hates a good "giant robot fight with all the bells, whistles, and special effects"… It can be fun to watch… ONCE.
    When it hits the Cable TV net's, I'm ready to plunge a fiery pencil into my eyeball rather than watch that friggin' thing one more time. There's no substance because it's got NO HEART.

    You can't structure HEART. You can't put pioneering or experimenting into a box. People want a "one-size fits-all" solution. All you get with that is DREK. Sorry, it can be kinda fun Drek… but it's still Drek. ;o)

  3. Dan B. says:

    Screenplays are: 1) Blueprints; 2) preliminary budget estimators (based on effects, size of cast, whatever); 3) other things. If you write something that isn't ready to produce (e.g. bad structure), it won't get made.

  4. Scott Slotterbeck says:

    I agree that you have to understand your characters veey well. But plot is the roadmap they follow to tell an interesting story. No one wants to go along with Amy when she goes to pay her utility bill, unless it's in service to the plot.

  5. aTallGuyNH says:

    I've seen this quote in many places. I just have to think Goldman meant something more than how it's been taken at face value. What about character?

  6. tubepunksheep says:

    The guy's answer feels scripted. It's too perfect of an answer; it covers nearly everything.

  7. Rohan Sharma says:

    I don't agree, structure can help you shape your screenplay but the journey can change everything. At the end of the day all the work is to make a quality, immersive narrative and structure is just a part of the flexible process.

  8. Isaac Barlow says:

    I was told that it was a road map and that sometimes it is thought of like that and that's what I think of it as. Actors can look at a script and in their mind not say the words because they think the character won't say that or do that. Road map. Directors might see a scene and say we can't afford that scene or this scene doesn't make sense and cut the scene like I said road map.

  9. Youtube Freak says:

    Go with your plan… then rewrite to your characters

  10. Blue Rabbit says:

    I’m a script doctor. I do coverage for investors and for producers who are actively looking to raise money for their film. Structure is essential. If done wrong, it could destroy a great story.

    I just got a romantic comedy script to work on and when I read it, I was shocked. It opens in present and at page thirty, there’s a flashback for about thirty pages. Thirty!

    The writer could actually swap the second act with act one and there would be no need for a flashback and the story would flow much better. This is a WGA writer we’re talking about.

    I think we as writers sometimes focus more on telling a story rather than how to tell a story the right way.

    Yes you need great characters, sharp dialogue and an interesting premise, but the order of telling all that makes a huge difference. Sometimes swapping one scene with another could kill the dramatic impact or amplify it.

    Structure is the backbone of your story and you have to get it right every single time or else, your story will be crippled.

  11. musicaddict4life15 says:

    "Characters are slippery". I feel that so much, and it's comforting to hear him say that because it's easy for me to feel like I'm the only one who has trouble understanding and knowing my characters!!

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