Structure or not to structure, that is the question!?

The more scripts I read, the more I get the sense,  that all this talk about structure really is just, again, born out of insecurity.

Structure is something, that has gotten glorified by producers and advertised enough, to justify its existence. Now, it became a rule. Like in advertising, if you want to sell something, don’t worry about marketing it, destroy other options that are more free in an approach and come out with a more closed and restricted approach and tell everyone that this is easier and more safe, and everyone will join in. Sounds familiar? Oh yeah!   Every producer, development exec, reader, teacher etc. is looking for a kind of orientation, something to hold onto, when steering into unknown territory. I think it just humane to approach things that way. At the end of the day, it’s their butts on the line.

It’s the same with genre. Genre serves as a safety net. If the movie we are about to see is a comedy and we like comedies, it’s kind of a save bet. At least we can’t go wrong, because we know what we signed up for. BUT what we actually do is, minimize our chances to explore and discover something new and exiting. It’s our need to feel secure, that denies us the free fall, which makes sense, when you think about it. If we were still hunting and we knew there was a forest with some dangerous wild animals, completely out of control, and we had been there once and survived, it would be pretty stupid to go back and risk everything. Even though the meat of these dangerous animals might be the most delicious…well you get the idea. Instead of figuring out on how to deal with the uncertainty and the fear, we make sure, we bury it by not thinking about it and ignoring its existence.

In my opinion it somehow is the same with structure. I’m definitely not a structure hater, nor a structure lover, but there certainly is, a reason for this underlying grid of storytelling, that has been passed on for generations after generations.

As a  Script Doctor, Teacher and Development Consultant I read a lot of scripts. After all those years, having read so many different stories, structured poorly, or structured well, I recently had a kind of epiphany, when I talked to a producer friend of mine. He asked me one of these questions, that sounds awfully naive at first, but after thinking about it, it cuts much deeper. He asked: “How do you manage reading the really bad scripts?“ I took my time to answer. Then I replied: “I believe, that in every script, no matter how poorly written, there is this one moment of truth. The search for this moment keeps me going.“ He called me a crazy optimist and made fun of my take on the world, so I asked him what his approach to scripts were? He replied, that if he wasn’t hooked by page three, he would just randomly read pages while scanning through the script, to see, if something would provoke his interest.

If my job wasn’t about making sure this doesn’t happen to writers, I would probably feel the same way. But why am I telling you this?

I really do think, there is one thing that is crucial to your screenplay and this is not structure, although a structure truly helps to not loose grip, no, what really hooks anyone from page one is:

Actually it’s two things: 1. Honesty and 2. Surprise.

Let me explain. What everyone is looking for, including myself, is a story that creates emotions and in order for this to happen, you have to be bloody honest about your fears. That’s what hooks me into the story and anyone else, too. And once you got me hooked on your hero or heroine you need to make sure, I don’t jump of the wagon. How? Yes, you guessed it, by being surprising! Nothing should be what it seems. These two ingredients make for some great page turning storytelling, not formulaic structuring or clinging to a genre in the hopes of performing the way the producers expects it.

Last, but not least, I let you in on a secret. Everybody is secretly looking for this one story, that fosters emotions in the reader. That’s it. Nothing more, nothing less. If you can achieve this, you will be fine, no matter what act structure you used, or if you hit all the act breaks right etc. At the end of the day, we are all looking for stories, that draw us in, so intensely, that we forget we are reading a script or watching a movie.

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