Thursday, March 5, 2015

Hollywood and Screenwriting

It’s hard to resist the allure of Hollywood. It’s just sexy, you know? All the stars and fanciness, the flashy lights. The whole process of making a movie is certainly more fascinating than the process of making a novel. Kids don’t run away from home to clamor at the doors of elite New York City literary agencies, trying to land whatever job they can. Movies are just a bit more glamorous than books are, and there’s no shame in hoping to see a story of yours translated to the big screen. If you’ve ever caught yourself saying, “This could be a movie,” you are not alone. Imagining which stars will get to bring your characters to life is part of the fun.

For many writers, though, the world of film is a mystery. Maybe you’re curious about how the industry works, what makes screenwriting different from writing a novel, what tricks you can learn from the Hollywood masters to help improve your own craft. That’s what I’ll be helping you with in this series. The film industry has a lot to offer in the way of storytelling; a screenwriter has to captivate the audience and tell the complete story in only a couple hours. Even more than that, they are limited only to what the audience can see and hear during that time period. It really is show vs tell. With novels, there is more room to fudge, to explore.

Because films are so short, they are easier to analyze. Audience reactions allow us to get faster feedback as to what works and what doesn't. This has enabled the film industry to pin down a formula, which has been replicated for decades with some of the most successful films. This formula allows screenwriters to streamline their stories, excising a lot of the guesswork that comes with trying to navigate an adventure from behind the curtain.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. A lot of writers cringe at the word “formula.” It carries several negative connotations – structure seems like the opposite of creative freedom. The word feels stifling. That’s understandable. Patterns and formats are not meant to be limiting, though, but to make our jobs easier. As I will demonstrate, the Hollywood Formula still offers sufficient flexibility when it comes to delivering a unique and creative masterpiece.

While novels and screenplays are totally different, they still share the same craft techniques that make a story stand out. The principles of storytelling apply to any format or genre, from video games to short film to memoirs to comic books. Because these principles extend across all domains, it stands to reason that the techniques being utilized by Hollywood screenwriters can be applied and adapted to novels. Why would you want to do this? Let’s have a quick look at what the Hollywood Formula has to offer:
  • a simple framework for plot that helps keep your story from wandering too far off course;
  • translating the timing constraints screenwriters face will help you with pacing;
  • clear, built-in character arcs keep your characters from being cardboard;
  • key events and plot points provide ample conflict and tension to keep your story intriguing;
  • the story reaches a clear resolution.
These are just a few of the main points I will be talking about in this series. We’ll cover a number of ways the Hollywood Structure can help you write better stories, the differences between writing novels and writing screenplays, how learning to write screenplays can help you improve your other writing, and much more. So stay tuned for more.

For now, though: a broad overview of the Four-Act Structure. What is it and how is it different from the Three-Act Structure?

You’ve probably heard a lot about the Three-Act Structure. Something about Aristotle and Shakespeare and such. This is because prior to the advent of film, plays were king. Since plays utilized the three-act structure, it carried over to film. This structure simply divides a story into three parts: Setup, Confrontation, Resolution. This can essentially also refer to the beginning, middle, and end. A basic overview:
  • The first act serves the purpose of establishing the main characters. When the main character is confronted with some incident that sets the story into motion, the second act begins.
  • The second act presents the character with increasingly difficult challenges as the story progresses and the character attempts to accomplish the main goal. The second act is typically concluded when the protagonist experiences a near-crippling defeat; they hit a low point and all seems lost.
  • The third act is the resolution. The story is brought to a climax where the main tension reaches its highest point and the dramatic questions are answered.  
Sounds legit, right? Why fix what’s broken? Technically, there is nothing wrong with the Three-Act Structure. There is nothing wrong with a Seven-Act Structure (movies made for television need to account for commercial breaks). There are many different structures, and in the end all of them are arbitrary. It is simply a way of telling your story. But doesn’t it seem to take the magic out of it all?

When you consider that dissecting creative products is natural, it will make more sense to follow a structure or pattern. For example, did you know comedians have figured out the perfect amount of time to pause to maximize a joke’s effectiveness? That seems like a handy thing to know. Comedians often also use structure to great effect, such as the comic triple. There is also a formula to making hit songs, which is well-known in the recording industry. When the length of songs is so short, it’s easier to see these patterns (the perfect song length is two minutes and 42 seconds long, to be precise). Comic book writers know that placement of a cliff-hanger on the right-hand page enhances the effect, as the reader must turn the page to see what happens next. With novels, there is still plenty of room for creativity if we decide to take advantage of these structures to maximize our effectiveness. Rather than think of these patterns and formats as a limitation, try to think of them as helpful clues, windows into the mind of the audience. We basically get more bang for our buck. 

We'll continue our discussion tomorrow with more about the four-act structure and how it relates to the hero's journey in storytelling.  

Daniel Donche is an author, screenwriter, actor, graphic artist, and all-around modern Renaissance man. He runs Colorado Writers and Publishers on Facebook, Darkana Creative, and HexCam USA


  1. A movie has so many different parts and can go wrong at so many levels: cast, director, sound, set, costuming, etc. But it all starts with a really good story ... which is why book writers have to work so hard. They wear all the hats! That said, anyone who thinks coming up with and selling a 120 page script is easy would be wrong. Toughest business out there.

  2. Story and structure are important ... but characters are paramount. Good characters can overcome a weak story ... but uninteresting characters will sink a good story. Hmmm, my wife says I'm a character ...???

  3. My only venture into scriptwriting was in the early 90s. I had a library book outlining the proper format -- no program to take the work and frustration out of it -- and I have to agree with Diana. It was definitely work. Not sure I'd try it again; definitely I wouldn't do it without the appropriate software.

  4. I'm still so confused trying to use this technique for novel-writing. Partly because I'm watching movies and totally get lost them - so much for analyzing them.

    1. LOL, Dani. I had that problem when I first started trying to analyze films. It really helped when I was in NY and watched some films with a filmmaker and he pointed out the various structure elements. We were watching tapes, and he would pause the tape to discuss the points. That was a great lesson, but I still get caught up in the story on the screen and forget about the structure. Methinks that means the writer, director, and actors all got it right. :-)

  5. I don't write screenplays, but I DO write plays. I shall follow this series with interest.

  6. I don't write screenplays because I like a certain amount of introspection in my books.

  7. I tried writing a screenplay with a formatting program called First Draft for a contest. I came in five minutes over at125 minutes. It was hard and I obviously didn't do it well because I didn't qualify. But I did it, and it was hard. I doubt I'd do it again.

  8. Thanks so much for this series. Makes me want to write another screenplay. Need to finish a couple of books first, though.

    I agree about the importance of structure. I wrote my first screenplay, an adaptation of a short story, with the story on one side of my desk and Syd Field's screenwriting book on the other.

  9. Great reminders, all. I've definitely allowed my movie addiction to influence my novel writing, and some of the best storytelling tips I've used in my novel have come from screenwriters. The forms are different, but so much of what makes good storytelling remains the same in any medium.

    I was just talking to someone about structure last night, and how it can actually be liberating. "Formulas" can help focus the audience's attention. Then, once you have their attention, you have the opportunity to give them something unique.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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