So, funny story: I’m coming up on a deadline soon. Everything was going well, but now, about halfway through, the whole story has suddenly fallen apart. I can’t keep going because the characters’ actions don’t make any sense to me anymore. Naturally, I’m starting to freak out. Why is this happening?? Even worse: I’ve started to notice that this always happens to me halfway through writing a script. Why does everything fall apart at the midpoint??
Then I take a step back, and I start to laugh.
I’m sure you’re way ahead of me at this point, but let’s examine what ALWAYS happens when I get a writing assignment:
- At first, I find myself with no upcoming projects. I try to blame the economy but then I hear that a peer has just gotten a fat paycheck, or ever worse, an onscreen credit. I feel humiliated.
- Then the phone rings. My manager has an offer from a producer—but the project seems really sketchy… Maybe three writers have quit already, or the book seems unfilmable, or the producer’s take on the material seems bizarre… I’m dubious.
- But my baby plaintively cries from the other room, and the student loan bills pile up. I realize I must seize this opportunity…
- I write a fun, breezy outline for the story. The producer loves it. I commit.
- Almost immediately, I start to run into conflict. The characters resist doing what I want them to do, and the plot details play out awkwardly on paper, but I breeze past these difficulties, doing spot fixes here and there to paper over the problems.
- Soon, I’m having fun! This is easy! This is why I became a screenwriter! I’m writing my requisite five pages a day, every day! Clearly I’ve turned my life around. I begin to dream up all the future projects I’ll write with this newfound ability to pound pages out.
- And then, all of a sudden, the pages stop! I hit a brick wall! Everything falls apart! I’ve torqued my characters’ motivations a little bit too far, until they shatter like glass! Nobody will do what I want them to do anymore. Now that I’m approaching the second half where I have to apply some pressure to my characters, all of those little spot fixes erupt again, and gaskets are blowing everywhere. All is lost!
- What do I do? I face the unthinkable: that beautiful outline, the one that the producer signed off on… is the problem. It was a false goal. I have to throw away the map, which was based on false assumptions. I have to deal with every aspect of the story that I was afraid to face before… Is it worth it?
- Then I notice the date! The deadline is in one week! There’s no time to despair, I’ve got to fix this!
- And maybe, just maybe, it’s not so bad... Now that I’ve written a bunch of dialogue and gotten to know my characters, I can take a step back and figure out the theme. I slowly realize what this story is really all about...
- I fix the first half and then write a better outline for the second half. I’m finally pursuing the correct goal…
- Now I’m ready to start writing pages again… But can I possibly do it in time? I’ve got a long way to go and a short time to get there!
- I pull all-nighters. I open my veins and pour real emotion onto the page. I feel exhausted but cleansed.
- I turn it in one minute before the deadline! But is it good enough to feed my starving baby?? The next day, my family and my reps all come together to gather around the phone, waiting for the verdict from the producer…
The point is that we’ve seen this structure before, haven’t we? As I said before, this isn’t just the structure of a screenplay, it’s the basic structure for solving any big problem, including… writing a screenplay! I’ve proven to myself that my structure is universal, in the most ironic way possible.