Saturday, October 22, 2011

How to Structure a Movie

This is what we’ve been building to for a while… In The Hero Project, I figured out a lot of this (but not all of it) in real time. In The Great Guru Showdown, I looked at the structures that have been offered by other storytelling gurus. I then looked at the relationship of the Problem, the Opportunity and the Conflict. Now let’s put it all together…

Just to be clear, this absolutely positively does not describe the plot of every good movie, and no one movie will hit every one of these points. These are beats that most movies tend to hit:

  1. The First Quarter often begins with a prologue (maybe a framing sequence, or a killing, or a flashforward, or a moment of absurdity, or a self-contained interaction that represents the theme) that leaves a big question in the viewer’s mind.
  2. We meet an active hero, resourcefully pursuing what they want, but ignoring what they need. Often they (or the person they’re talking to) will issue a false statement of philosophy, which will have to change later in the movie.
  3. The hero’s longstanding personal problem becomes more acute, often in the form of a social humiliation.
  4. The hero finds out about a scary opportunity to fix that problem.
  5. After some hesitation, the opportunity becomes more and more appealing.
  6. A false goal is formed (false because it’s either morally backwards, the wrong tactic, or too limited in perspective)
  7. The hero commits to pursuing the opportunity the easy way.
  8. Second Quarter: Very quickly, the hero’s pursuit of the opportunity causes an unforeseen conflict with another person.
  9. Nevertheless the hero sticks to the easy way. Cleverly skirting the conflict (possibly telling lies, possibly just ignoring the consequences of what they’re doing).
  10. One of the questions the hero is trying to ignore is the thematic question. This is a contrast of two seemingly incompatible good ideas that underlies the conflict in the story.
  11. The hero enjoys some success and has some fun.
  12. As Blake Snyder points out, this is source of the trailer and the poster, where the hero does the stuff that fulfills the “promise of the premise” a.k.a. the “thrill of transgression.”
  13. All of this early success builds to a crescendo where it all suddenly ends in disaster. The hero loses not only the gains they’ve made but also the safe space (or safe relationship) that they’ve always had.
  14. Third Quarter: The hero tries to regroup, but comes to suspect that all their assumptions were wrong, their goal was wrong, and their philosophy was wrong.
  15. Things get worse before they get better, but now the hero is learning from their mistakes in a painful way.
  16. The weight of the thematic dilemma becomes clear to the hero.
  17. Hero finds out who their real friends and real enemies are.
  18. The stakes continue to be raised and the pace increases.
  19. One final hardship finally forces the hero into a spiritual crisis.
  20. As a result, they realize what they’ve been doing wrong. A corrected philosophy is formed and they commit to pursuing the corrected goal. (Sometimes this moment represents the end of the original opportunity, but not the end of the conflict. Sometimes it represents the end of the interpersonal conflict and the opening of a clear, but hard, path to pursue the opportunity.)
  21. Final Quarter: The hero commits to pursuing a corrected goal, which is still far away.
  22. Though their philosophy is corrected, the overall thematic question remains totally up in the air until the climax.
  23. All strands of the story and most of the characters come together for the climactic confrontation.
  24. The exciting climax is reached, and the true goal is achieved or lost forever. (This climax makes a definite statement about the thematic dilemma, but the question is not completely settled.)
  25. In the final scene (call it the epilogue, the aftermath or the denouement) the hero’s original problem is finally resolved one way or the other, as they realize (and hopefully show) how much they’ve changed.
And click here for specific genre structures!

And here’s how this stacks up against the structures put forward by other storytelling gurus, as well as thinkers in other fields who have tried to figure out the structure of a problem. (If you’re an old person with terrible eyesight, you may want to click to enlarge...)


Jill Rasmussen said...

Matt, I'm curious to know your thoughts on beginning a script with a flash forward? Do you think it is an overused "gimmick" or that it's a great way to hook the reader/audience? Every second script I read these days opens with the flash forward.

Matt Bird said...

It is an epidemic these days, and I do have thoughts about it (it can be a crutch but it need not be), but let me think about it some more and cover it in a future post.