Screenplays need structure, but it might take five stages to recognize that. Once you do, find the structure that fits your story, not vice versa.
In psychology, the Kübler-Ross model outlines five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. In my infinite
wisdom googling, I stumbled upon an article, Emotional Logic in the Hero’s Journey, written by Australian script consultant Karel Segers. He applies the Kübler-Ross model to the journey many novice screenwriters go through, in eventually recognizing the need for structure:
- Deny the need for structure
- Be angry that without it, your screenplay doesn’t work
- Bargain and compensate with extra-awesome dialogue and description
- Be depressed because your efforts still don’t pay off
- Accept the need for structure
Have you gone through these five stages? I have.
When I was at the Sundance Screenwriters Lab I was told to stop worrying about my own script's structure, because the advisors and Sundance staff recognized that structure was a strength of mine, and I needed to focus on other issues in the script. But structure wasn't a strength of mine by default — I went through these five stages, and eventually came around to prioritizing structure (in some drafts, at the expense of character). Having gone through these stages and, at some point, becoming too structure-focused, I think the thing that's important to keep in mind in the face of so many different structure-focused books and systems (of which Save the Cat seems to be the structure du jour) is that you need to find the structure that fits your story, not vice versa. I can't stand when I go to the movies and I know that we're at the point where the writer needed a "false victory" or some template-mandated reversal, and so they throw one in — even though it's not mandated by the characters, or simply doesn't make sense. For some reason the first egregious example that popped into my head is in either White House Down or Olympus Has Fallen — it's easy to get them confused — when the antagonist supposedly dies in a helicopter crash and all of the characters, except our protagonist, are like, "we've won, he killed himself!" Why the hell would they all think that he killed himself?! It doesn't make any sense that he would do that, nor does it make sense that everyone would so readily assume him dead. But those things happening does make it a false victory, at the precise point one is supposed to happen according to the beat sheets that the Creative Executives at the studio may or may not be referring to. Of course, for all we know the writers throwing that in is what helped the script sell and/or the film get made, so don't hate the player, hate the game.
By saying "find the structure that fits your story, not vice versa," I mean that if you know your world, your characters, and what you're trying to say, there's nothing wrong with looking around at the different established dramatic structures to see which might give form to the story you're trying to tell. The problem is when you start with a structure template and try to come up with a world and characters to fit the template — that's putting the cart before the horse. Do the hundreds of hours of work it takes to know your world and your characters inside-out, and only then worry about structure — that's my $0.02.
Have you gone through these five stages of screenplay grief? Are there examples of movies you felt were driven by structure rather than by character?