Structure is so important in any writing project, not just in the way of "a beginning, a middle and an end", but also in terms of what is happening in each scene of the project. Evan Kilgore, today's guest poster, writes about screenplay structure from his unique position as a story editor for various Hollywood film producers. However, his advice can apply equally to novels, non fiction and, yes, even blog posts.
Build Your Screenplay Structure to Appeal to Producers
by Evan Kilgore
It is a dangerous thing for me to admit what I do for a living at a cocktail party. By day, I am a story editor at a Hollywood talent agency. I also consult for several studios, production companies, and independent producers. Every day, I receive a selection of books and screenplays that I evaluate, critique, and give notes and recommendations on, with the hopes of finding promising material that can be sold, produced, and turned into the next big summer blockbuster.
Because, in Los Angeles, you cannot sneeze – even in the privacy of your own home – without sneezing on a screenwriter, the first question I usually get at a party starts with, “So I actually just finished a script, and I’m looking for an agent…” But occasionally, I do get to talking with fellow writers about what I see, day to day, and what I take away from my job. Inevitably, people want to know what is hot right now (vampires and werewolves), and what will be hot tomorrow (angels, demons, and Satan - but please do not write about them [or anything else, for that matter] just because they are trendy; trust me, they will be out of vogue by the time your script or book ever reaches me), but the next question people often ask me is, “So what are the most common mistakes, problems, and issues you encounter in your reading?”
This is an interesting question for me, because it is one I often ask myself. I find that I learn more about my own writing and about how to do it right by seeing – and analytically critiquing – the myriad ways it is done wrong. Over the seven years I have been doing this job, I have read about 12,000 screenplays and books. From those, I've taken away a variety of broad lessons.
The Central Character
First and foremost, one of the largest areas I usually wind up disappointed with in any given script is the perspective of the central character. Often – and I have found myself doing this as well, at times – it feels to me as though the author has such a singular focus on the story and where it is going to go that the character becomes slightly lost, an almost transparent vehicle simply installed in the book or script to drive the plot.
One of the largest questions I often ask of books or scripts I read at work is, who is the protagonist as a person? What are his/her ambitions, dreams, desires, and insecurities? Who would she/he have been if the central story had never happened? I try to apply these lessons to my own writing. I like my characters to be contending with the problems we all face before the central story even arrives.
In my new thriller, MADE IN CHINA, John Grant, the main character, is juggling a foundering and frustrating career, overdue bills, a disintegrating marriage, and the challenges of raising a young son before the plot even starts. He is haunted by dreams deferred by the demands of daily life, and his future is not particularly promising. John needs a change at a pretty basic, internal level – something that happens over the course of the story, but that emerges as a byproduct of the desperate, dangerous adventure into which he is forced by circumstances beyond his control.
Screenplay Structure: New Information in Every Scene
Another area I often wind up talking about in my notes to writers, agents, and executives relates to the continued advancement of plot and characters – the introduction of new information – in every single scene. Though this often applies even more directly to screenplays, since time and space in that format are so tight, I've found it can make for stronger storytelling in novels as well.
Part of my job often includes summarizing the story before I discuss its assets and drawbacks. All too often, I am able to distill an entire sequence with a single sentence like, “They escape in a fast-paced car chase.” This is all that elementally happens. Although my focus, as a writer, is thrillers, this applies in a variety of genres. If I am able to summarize a scene with a simple line like, “They make love,” to me, that says that the story has missed an opportunity for something more interesting.
Explosions, car chases, and sex can certainly be fun, but I get kind of bored with them unless something more is happening. If the protagonist has to pilot a plane out of a collapsing hangar, it's somewhat exciting – but if the protagonist has a death-defying fear of heights, if this is the first time he/she has ever flown, or, alternatively, if something crucial is learned at the same time (we find out that the hangar was sabotaged, designed to collapse on purpose, for example), then all of a sudden, this action sequence takes on much more significance to me. If there is a steamy love scene, fine, that can be titillating – but if it is absolutely terrible, if one of the characters breaks down crying halfway through it because of some emotional hang-up, or, alternatively, if we see a crucial tattoo, put together an important piece of a puzzle, or in some other way learn something utterly indispensable from this scene, then, again, it takes on so many more layers of meaning and significance.
Shaping the Screenplay Structure
To me, lessons like these – which I always try to turn around and apply to my own writing – become invaluable ways of shaping my story structure and written voice. In critiquing so many other writers’ hard work, I’ve found that I take a far more critical eye toward my own books and scripts, often retooling and reworking large parts of the story and character arcs simply because I've seen the ways in which I am making some of the same mistakes that, for my job, I am required to pick apart and criticize. My working life has become, in some regards, a constant, daily postgraduate class in what not to do, and how to (hopefully) get it right.
A fascinating glimpse into the world of the story editor - thank you very much, Evan, for an interesting and informative post.
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