Beginning writers take offense when they are told that most movies have a similar underlying structure. “Mediocre movies, maybe,” they say, “but not great movies like mine.” Only after they’ve been at it for a while, and written a lot of unsatisfying screenplays, do they begin to suspect that there’s something happening here, and what it is ain’t exactly clear.
One hard thing about accepting strict screenplay structures is that novelists don’t have to follow nearly as many rules. Of course we know that movies are not books but, some may ask, can’t moviemakers aspire to the superior status of novelists, and the freedom they enjoy? This attitude reveals a fundamental misconception.
Many think of movies as being the bastard stepchild of novels, but it’s actually the other way around. If you read the oldest existing writing guide, Aristotle’s “Poetics”, 90% of it applies to movies and less than 50% applies to books. Movies are public entertainment, which is an ancient tradition. Novels are prose, which is still a very new thing, historically speaking. I did a whole series on all of the fundamental differences.
So what is the nature of public, communal, one-seating entertainment? First and foremost, it’s this: as opposed to a book, a movie is about one problem. A book like “David Copperfield” can be about a person in his entirety, and all of the various problems that he experiences in his first thirty years on this planet. But a movie isn’t about a person, it’s about one problem that a person has.
The subject of the movie is the problem, and only the problem. The problem begins (or becomes acute) in the first scene, and ends (or is peacefully accepted) in the last scene. If you’re writing a lot of scenes in which the hero wakes up in the morning or goes to bed at night, you’re doing it wrong, because those scenes have nothing to do with the hero’s problem. The way to get from scene to scene is not to ask, “What does the hero do next?,” but rather, “What is the next step in the progression of this problem?”
Are there exceptions that break this rule and still work? Sure: Nashville, Slacker, Pulp Fiction, a handful of others… There are exceptions to every rule. But the people who made those movies weren’t able to go on flaunting the “one-problem” rule in movie after movie. For the rest of their careers, they alternated alternative-structure movies with traditional one-problem movies. Nobody escapes structure, in the end. The “one problem” rule will probably always dominate.
So the question isn’t “What is the structure of a movie?,” the question is “What is the structure of a problem?” Once you put it that way, you realize that this is nothing new. Lots of people have been trying to figure this out since history began, and still are. We’ll pick up there tomorrow…