Screenplay Structure: Five Movies Screenwriters Should Read for Structure
By: Lenore Wright
Each generation of screenwriters searches in their own way for the elusive clue to Hollywood's eternal question: What makes a movie work for audiences?
Most great movies have similar elements: brilliant characterizations that are well-acted, surprising action that is well-executed, and an involving plot. Lower (probably much lower) on the list of qualities that hook audiences is movie structure -- how the characters are revealed and how the story unfolds. Yet, without a solid structure to support the characters, action and plot, the impact of these elements would be greatly diminished.
BUILDING STORY STRUCTURE
How do you build a unique and powerful structure for a story? Many writers don't bother about structure, they merely grab their script's genre by the throat and cling to it as their lifeline. If they're writing a love story, then they know the genre demands the boy must meet the girl, then the boy must somehow lose the girl, and then he must win her back. These genre demands become their structure. Sorry, it's not that easy.
Genre and structure are NOT the same thing. Genre refers to the story elements the audience expects the movie to explore, like romance, danger, humor, horror, war, alien worlds, or crime. The structure of a movie is the way the story is told, the arrangement of scenes that reveals character and unfolds action.
LEARN FROM THE PROS
Let's explore some magnificent movie scripts. Each script was written by an award winning screenwriter. Each script attracted a brilliant cast and a very successful director. Yet, it is not the movie stars or the director's tricks alone that create the impact of these stories. Hidden within each of them is a secret audience magnet: stellar story structure.
The movies I've chosen to explore span 60 years of movie history. They are from very diverse genres, the talent pool is completely different on each one, and they are worlds apart in subject matter. The one constant they share is that they are structured brilliantly, memorably, uniquely. A close look at these scripts will reveal that the writers sweated out each step of the story, scene-by-scene, line-by-line. That's why we experience the same thrill reading them in print as we did when we saw them on the big screen.
FIVE GEMS OF SCREENPLAY STRUCTURE:
THE DAWN PATROL (1938)
The original 1930 classic was directed by Howard Hawks and starred Douglas Fairbanks Jr.; but I suggest you read the script from the remake directed by Edmund Golding and starring Errol Flynn, David Niven, and Basil Rathbone. It's an action drama of World War I pilots in France that depicts the grueling pressures of battlefront command as Rathbone is forced to send up green recruits.
John Monk Saunders wrote the original story that won the Academy Award in 1930 (adaptation by Howard Hawks and Seton I. Miller). Saunders' story held up even more beautifully in the 1938 version that was adapted into a screenplay by Seton I. Miller and Dan Totheroh. The relentless rhythm the writers create between the frantic preparation for the night raids and the underlying expectancy of disaster build to an amazing climax - inevitable, yet thrilling.
These dramatic effects are amazingly achieved with very little onscreen action. The story is told through the reactions of those left behind on the ground, through their reactions to the sounds from the sky and the sights on the runway as the squadron leaves at dusk and returns at dawn. Very soon into the movie, we realize that we are never going to cut away from this little squadron of men, and we don't; yet we are riveted to the tragic events they play out. This script is a powerful manifestation of an 'inevitable' style story structure. We know these men are going to be sacrificed one by one, and yet we can't desert them. Read the script and figure out how they achieved this.
SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959)
This movie is a masterpiece of comic structure. The script melds outrageous characterizations, racy dialogue, and the slapstick charms of Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, and Marilyn Monroe. To spice things up, there is jazzy music, lethal gangsters, and even a little cross-dressing.
This movie script typifies the 'pile-on' structure of story telling. The central characters are drawn unwittingly into an adventure and each effort they make to extricate themselves from their situation propels them into deeper trouble (and funnier predicaments). Lemmon and Curtis play two unemployed musicians who innocently witness the St. Valentine's Day massacre. To avoid being rubbed out by the mob, they take refuge (disguised as women) in an all-girl jazz band bound for a gig at a Miami resort.
This award-winning screenplay was a collaboration between writing giants - Billy Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond, from a story by M. Logan and Robert Thoeren. Comic complications develop when Tony Curtis falls in love with Monroe, and a millionaire (Joe E. Brown) falls in love with Jack Lemmon. These two unlikely love stories captivate us brilliantly. But the movie's energy and appeal ratchets up several notches when the gangsters from the opening sequence show up at the Miami resort.
The mix of danger, slapstick, sex, and frustration is tantalizing. The gangster plot and the show biz love stories feed off each other, without distracting us or one plot diminishing the other. We are so involved with each ball that Wilder and Diamond juggle in the air; we're unaware of cut-aways. You must read this script to appreciate the craft. Viewing the movie is not enough; you'll be distracted by the brilliance of the performances. The story structure is the unacknowledged star here. Read this script and see how magic is made on the page.
THE PROFESSIONALS (1966)
This rousing western tells the tale of a band of American mercenaries sent to Mexico by a wealthy rancher (Ralph Bellamy) to rescue his wife who's been abducted by a vile bandit played by Jack Palance. Burt Lancaster and Lee Marvin lead these soldiers of fortune on the rescue mission. Many obstacles are thrown in their path as they attempt to right this wrong and rescue Bellamy's wife.
Sending soldiers of fortune on an errand of mercy sets a tone of intriguing contradiction that keeps us captivated till the end. The story structure that writer/director Richard Brooks creates from Frank O'Rourke's novel 'A Mule for Marquesa' is solidly balanced on top of a vicious secret which the mercenaries discover as the story unfolds. This is a fine example of a 'hidden agenda' story structure. We are carried right along with the heroes and only learn each piece of the puzzle when they do.
Many critics claim this story is far-fetched, and perhaps it is; but the hidden agenda style of storytelling holds our attention nonetheless and creates a taut excitement that leads us to an outrageous, memorable climax.
THE FRONT (1976)
This is a bold motion picture, mixing comedy and drama in an entertainingly emotional way. It is set in the McCarthy Era. Woody Allen plays a politically naive dupe who fronts for blacklisted TV writers by submitting their scripts with his name. This dark period of our national history is handled with intelligence, feeling, and humor. The screenwriter Walter Bernstein and the director Martin Ritt were both blacklisted themselves, as was costar Zero Mostel.
This script plays out its 'temptation-redemption' story structure beautifully. We laugh as we watch witless Woody being drawn into the fame-and-fortune game, a game he learns to play surprisingly well. Woody reaps the rewards; and then he must pay the price. Read the script to discover how cleverly Bernstein entices us to enjoy Woody's worldly seduction and lets us believe we have nothing in common with this self-interested chump. Our moral superiority is bulldozed flat at the end, when we discover we're more like him than we want to admit. This is a masterful rendering of a seductive story structure.
THE SIXTH SENSE (1999)
M. Night Shyamalan wrote (and directed) this stunning example of a flash forward story structure. The movie opens with a dramatic shooting incident, and then flashes forward eighteen months and the rest of the movie dramatizes the aftermath of this disaster.
This is a phenomenal script, one worth studying on the page, scene by scene. The author keeps his chilling secret from us till nearly the end of the movie. Yet if you read it carefully, you'll discover each scene adds little clues for us which fall like crumbs that we think are leading us home; but instead they lead us on a spooky but thrilling journey to that candy house in the deep recesses of the forest where the wicked witch waits.
RECOGNIZE (AND RESIST) YOUR GENRE PREJUDICES
Don't allow your story genre to interfere with your ability to build a powerful structure for your script. One useful exercise to turn your genre prejudices on their heads is to examine how writers in other genres structure their stories.
If you write action-adventure stories, read Some Like It Hot or The Sixth Sense, learn from the genius within those pages.
If you write romantic comedy, breakdown the script of The Professionals or The Dawn Patrol to see how obstacles and expectations are setup and paid off.
If you write techno thrillers, read The Front or Some Like It Hot to understand how comic diversions and human foibles can add pace and dimension to a story. Allow your genre to work with your structure not against it.
Genre will never be a successful substitute for story structure. Movie-goers choose to see a particular movie because of its genre; but it is the story structure that holds them in their seats till they find out what happens.