So we’ve talk about nine different types of qualities that people might be evaluating when they say “I liked it” or “It blows.” Today, let’s talk about another whole bundle of worms: Structure. Most writers loathe structure. It’s the last thing they think about and the hardest thing to learn. On the other hand, you also have writers like me: structure junkies who enjoy breaking down the outline more than writing the finished product. Shun us all you want, society, we have our theories to keep us warm.
What we talk about when we talk about structure:
- Beginning, Middle and End: Sounds simple, right? Oh, but it’s not. The hardest thing for many people is figuring out how to start at the beginning and end at the end. As John August said: you don’t have to win the war, you just have to blow up the Death Star. The Iliad ends abruptly a few days before the Trojan horse gambit. What a deleted scene! But Homer had come to sing to us about the wrath of Achilles. And so the poem begins the moment the wrath begins and end the moment the wrath is sated, lopping off the end of the war. Kill your darlings: Serve one story. Begin at the beginning. End at the end.
- Escalation: But before your story ends, it’s got to build. The more you focus your story on one problem the more you realize that this one problem has to grow large enough to carry your whole world on its shoulders. They only way to get it there is to escalate like crazy. Throw away the map, take away the safe spaces, and never, ever apologize. The world you’ve created is going to end in two hours, so there’s no reason that it shouldn’t feel like the end of the world.
- Set Up and Payoff: Producers love set up and pay off, but writers, directors, and especially actors all secretly loathe it. It’s a lot of work and it’s not very natural to mention something just to set up a reference later, but you know who really loves to see it work? Audiences. Back the Future is the all-time king of the clever pay-off. I counted 32 different facts that get causally mentioned in the first half hour, every one of which gets a super-smart pay-off once Marty is in the past. When it’s done well, it’s sheer delight to watch. Another example: at the end of Aliens, weren’t you glad that you had seen her use that loading contraption before? And when she put it on again, didn’t you say “Aw hell yeah!”
- Tautness: And it all adds up to this, the most elusive quality of all. Cut out the fat, make every scene dependent on every other scene, come up with an ending that’s unexpected and yet inevitable… Do whatever you can to earn the most prized compliment in the business: “It’s taut!” The best thing about a taut screenplay? They’re terrified to re-write it for fear of unraveling the neat little bow you’ve tied for them.
Great post Matt, I like how you mentioned the "inevitability" of a well structured story. I think that's the key to figuring out if what you're writing--from plot to character to everything in between-- arrives at an inevitability that doesn't feel forced or fake but had no other way to end.
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