December 13, 2014

The 5 Stages of Grief... for Your Screenplay Structure

Depressed Screenwriter
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 acceptanceIn 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:

  1. Deny the need for structure
  2. Be angry that without it, your screenplay doesn’t work
  3. Bargain and compensate with extra-awesome dialogue and description
  4. Be depressed because your efforts still don’t pay off
  5. 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?     

Your Comment

13 Comments

Great article. I am sashaying my way into screenwriting, after a professional career spanning theater and books. Even though the mediums are different - and therefore have some idiosyncratic requirements - the most comfortable process for me (and the one that gives the best results) is to go hard with getting that story down. Every inspired idea. Every favorite piece of dialogue. Every event/detail/response that feels delicious at the time. THEN, I've got plenty of raw material to play with. I suppose that's when I apply an overlay of structure, and make sure EVERYTHING is character-driven because - YES - you do need the structure - but it just won't work if all it holds together is falsified action - as this article explains so well. Love your details, but be ruthless in cutting out anything indulgent or forced. 90% of what you write and cut will reveal the 10% that's shining underneath.

December 13, 2014 at 9:16PM

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I think structure is fine, as long as the journey is unique. What I find more annoying is exhausted plot devices within structure. Like that final 3rd Act heroic battle, where you know the hero will get a couple good hits in, then he's gonna get licked so everyone thinks "oh no... he's gonna lose". But we never think that. NEVER. Because every single film has him come out on top.

Or that moment of hesitation in a character early in a film, where the moment you see that, you can guarantee that they'll have completed a 180 by the end of the film and they'll break free of their reluctance and save the day.

How's your film coming along Ryan? You guys set shoot dates yet? I'd love to read an update post on that. It's great to get to follow your progress.

December 14, 2014 at 4:20PM

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Ben Howling
Writer / Director
572

Thanks Ben!

There are updates here:
https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/ryanbkoo/man-child-feature-film/posts

I'll have more soon for NFS...

December 15, 2014 at 3:25PM

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Ryan Koo
Founder
Writer/Director

Structure is extremely important. Can't stress that enough. It's always in the back of my mind when i'm writing and it helps pace and keep everything cohesive. I do agree though that before you even write your script you should know your characters and world like the back of your hand. I think we all have unique processes in the way we write but I always start out by creating character questionnaires and then creating a story map/outline that helps guide me before I even write the screenplay. I found this process to really work and prepare me but it can also force you to attempt to stick to your outline which can work in a good or bad way. At the end of the day, do what works for you.

December 15, 2014 at 2:03AM

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Brad Watts
Filmmaker/Creative Director - Redd Pen Media
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How do you feel about films that eschew traditional 3 act and "save the cat" structure in favor of a more literary structure? Asian and European cinema seem to do it best and I personally prefer these types of stories where stuff just happens, or the bones are so stripped away you can barely notice them. Probably my favorite is Wong Kar Wai's "happy together". There is very little structure or climactic resolve but ultimately feels much more sincere and satisfying to me.

I am asking this question not to be contrarian or snobbish, but because this concept is my biggest struggle personally. I want to make these type of films, but being based in L.A and in general the U.S film market, I am culturally and literally constantly being told that it's wrong, I'll never get anywhere and to do the opposite.

There are precious few good filmmakers managing to take a hammer to the tired structure of U.S cinema. Derek Ciafrance's "Place Beyond The Pines" is a wonderful example of an exception. That film would never have been made if he did not have gosling in the pocket though.

I intend to plow forward on this path regardless, but I'm curious if there are others out there who feel the same way?

December 15, 2014 at 2:14PM

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LJ
654

Interesting. The temporal structure of Place Beyond the Pines, as well as the multi-protagonist story, was very innovative... but it was three very clear acts, no?

December 15, 2014 at 3:28PM

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Ryan Koo
Founder
Writer/Director

Pines sort of has 3 acts I guess, but not in the typical sense. It passes the baton 3 times to different characters but technically each of those 3 chapters has it's own 3 acts. Point is Ciafrance effectively rubs out the construction lines that are painfully visible in a lot of U.S cinema.

For a more extreme example lets move back to the other director I mentioned..Wong Kar Wai,Some of his best films are completely devoid of typical structure. The most extreme example is "Chungking Express". The film was made as a "vacation" from the struggles he was having on the more structured "Ashes of Time" He literally wrote the scenes for Chunking the night before or day of shooting and the result was one of the most kinetic and engaging films ever made. I would venture to say Malick also uses a lot of this process of finding stuff visually on set and and in the edit.

I am not suggesting all films be made this way, or denying the need at all times for structure. I am merely trying to get a dialog going regarding what I perceive to be staleness caused by save the cat school of structure and how we might avoid it.

Who is finding innovative ways to shake it up? Kaufman, PT Anderson, Alejandro González Iñárritu. Anyone else have interesting examples?

December 16, 2014 at 2:13PM

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LJ
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Sorry to be brash, but if you're denying the need for structure... why are you even writing? I mean, have no feature film credentials, but I've never even conceived of a remotely possible way to write an effective screenplay than listing objectives, starting at the end, and then outlining backwards. How can you even begin to plant dialog cues and foreshadow/set-up events if you don't have the structure set?

December 15, 2014 at 8:16PM, Edited December 15, 8:16PM

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I don't mean this directly to the author when I say "you"... I'm just speaking generally.

December 15, 2014 at 8:17PM

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No problem, I replied above :)

December 16, 2014 at 2:20PM

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LJ
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The "game" is even worse than mentioned. It's not just the three act "hero's journey". Every pro reader has his/her 'talking points" and every script better have them.

Which is why I recommend watching the famous "Seinfeld" episode called the "Chinese Restaurant", which had four mini-arcs, all of which were contained in the same location. Warren Littlefield read Larry David's script and shook his head, "There's no story. There's nothing happening. This is a show about nothing". Nonetheless, Littlefield gave the go-ahead to shoot the episode and eventually the "show about nothing" made Sony over $3.5B.

At the same time, Larry David walked off the job several times because he was either going to do the show the way he wanted or he wasn't going to do it at all. NBC execs eventually gave in and let him run it without much interference.

Of course, a newbie doesn't have Larry David's clout or temerity to tell someone like Lorne Michaels to go eff himself ... but that's another "Seinfeld" episode entirely.

December 16, 2014 at 8:14AM

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Dan Leo
234

Don't follow a structure, create your own! If it works, you may have created something unique. If at the end you think or know it doesn't, compare it with the structures out there and make changes according to what they're outlining, but don't do it by the numbers if you don't want to lose the uniqueness you've created!

December 19, 2014 at 12:10AM

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Edward Rosenthal
Scriptwriter / Musician
74

Don't follow a structure, create your own! If it works, you may have created something unique. If at the end you think or know it doesn't, compare it with the structures out there and make changes according to what they're outlining, but don't do it by the numbers if you don't want to lose the uniqueness you've created!

December 19, 2014 at 12:12AM

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Edward Rosenthal
Scriptwriter / Musician
74