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Screenwriting 102: Journey to the Center of a Script


Screenwriting 101 established the basics of the little-known art of screenwriting, from its history to format and prevalent theories. The screenplay does not belong to literature or film but is an art form of its own with unique language, technique, and storytelling devices. Screenwriting 102 is an advanced course that dives into the finer details and kinks of the script. Having a screenwriting foundation is essential to understanding advanced notions as theories come under the scrutiny of practice. Previous lessons aimed to show a clear path and solid base for the beginner, taking them by the hand and carefully guiding them, avoiding complex ideas. Now is the time to explore difficult terrain. Screenwriting 102 presents practical conceptions that, at first glance, are quite ambiguous. From the true form of a story to critical analysis and character creation, this course focuses on the practical application of screenplay components. Screenplay writing is far from being as simple as respecting a prescribed structure. It is an extremely malleable medium that offers countless possibilities once the writer understands the cogs of story and screenwriting.

Screenwriting 102 is divided into six chapters:

  1. Screenwriting 102: Uncovering the Truth of Story Design

  2. Screenwriting 102: Journey to the Center of a Script

  3. Screenwriting 102: Recipe for the Perfect Character

  4. Screenwriting 102: Tune in - Analysis of TV Script Structure

  5. Screenwriting 102: Binge Watching - Analysis of Popular Show Structures

  6. Screenwriting 102: Workshop - Building the Perfect Scene

Screenwriting 102: Journey to the Center of a Script

In her book on screenwriting, Jill Chamberlain (2016) a script consultant, notes that many screenplay manuals are unable to properly teach the mechanics of a story: "You can follow the advice of all three camps and still fail to tell a story, which is what 99% of amateur screenwriters end up doing" (p. 6). Chamberlain (2016) identifies three main types of screenwriting books. The first type presents the bare minimum of screenplay structure requirements with a three-act design, failing to provide any tools for building a satisfying story (Chamberlain, 2016, p. 6). Syd Field, the influential author behind Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting (2005), is guilty of this. Field (2005) describes the first act in detail but left the last two acts nearly devoid of instruction (p. 200). If his page milestones are to be followed, act one ends on page 30, act two on page 90 and act three on 120. That is nearly 90 full pages without direction (Field, 2005, p. 200). The second type of screenwriting manual presents many rules, theories, and observations without any unifying principle (Chamberlain, 2016, p. 6). Such books include Your Screenplay Sucks (2008) by William M. Akers and the second half of Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! (2005). These books are not necessarily bad. Akers (2008) provides valuable insight into the language of screenplay more than story design or structure, enhancing the readability of a script. For the second half of Save the Cat! (2005), the observations are not wrong, but they do not offer much help. The final type provides strict templates with equally strict page numbers to be followed (Chamberlain, 2016, pp. 6-7). This is reflected in the first half of Snyder’s (2005) book. Chamberlain (2016) explains that these templates create unsatisfying stories that are boring to read (pp. 6-7). While the question of boredom is subjective, it is certainly true that different stories will follow different structural designs. In the previous chapter of this 102 series, screenplays were revealed to be composed of conflicts as analyzed by the most sought-after screenwriting lecturer in the world, Robert McKee (1997). Even though Chamberlain (2016) herself proposes a structure, there is much void to be filled, especially during act two (p. 19).

Overall, there seems to be no concrete answer to story structure. Field (2005) is too vague, Snyder (2005) is too rigid, and most theorists seem to lean to one side or the other, always missing some aspect (Aristotle c. 335/2008; Brody, 2018; Trottier, 2014; Vogler, 2007). Evidently, there must be something to learn before structure in order to simultaneously fill the gaps in vague screenplay manuals and make the strict ones more flexible. As explored in Screenwriting 102: Uncovering the Truth of Story, conflict is the root of a story (Field, 2005, p. 26) and structure is character (McKee, 1997, p. 101). The next step would be to combine character and conflict. It was previously observed that characters react to event gaps of varying intensity throughout a story (Praet, 2023). These gaps are not random, they prevent the protagonist from reaching their goal (McKee, 1997, p. 145). The overarching story is a protagonist reacting and adapting to conflicts (gaps) generated by their fictional world. This overarching story is not aimless; it has direction. McKee (1997) defined it as “The Quest” (p. 191; Figure 1).

Figure 1: Robert McKee's (1997) "The Quest". From "Story" (1997).

An idea corroborated by many screenplay theorists is that protagonists have a desire, need, or goal (Brody, 2018, p. 10; Chamberlain, 2016, p. 39; McKee, 1997, p. 136; Snyder, 2005, p. 48; Trottier, 2014, p. 13). In fact, protagonists have two desires: “No matter what the character consciously thinks he wants, the audience senses or realizes that deep inside he unconsciously wants the very opposite” (McKee, 1997, p. 187). The idea of opposing desires is nothing new, Chamberlain (2016) uses it in her own book. She (2016) explains that a protagonist will change from wanting to accomplish a certain goal to wanting the exact opposite (p. 13). Chamberlain (2016), Snyder (2005) and the author of the Save the Cat! sequel, Jessica Brody (2018), all build their structures around a character’s original goal or “want” (Brody, 2018, p. 10) and a flaw that they must overcome. By overcoming their flaw, the protagonist learns the opposite of what they originally wanted (Chamberlain, 2016, p.8). However, this idea is somewhat contested when applied to films. As previously explored, in The Bourne Identity (Liman, 2002), Bourne goes from wanting to know who he is to then forcing the CIA to leave him alone (Liman, 2002). Those two are not exactly opposites. For example, with Chamberlain's (2016) approach, a different interpretation of the film could be made. Bourne begins by running away from the CIA and ends up confronting them (Liman, 2002). Alternatively, it could be considered that Bourne was running away from his forgotten past and he finally faces it (Liman, 2002). From this perspective, the idea of overcoming a flaw as the opposite of an initial goal does work. This concept is not universal. In Speed (De Bont, 1994), FBI agent Jack Traven needs to save a bus rigged with explosives. At first, Traven wants to save everyone on the bus. But by the end, he wants to stop the terrorist (De Bont, 1994). There is no particular flaw to be overcome and no opposites in this situation.

Opposing flaws and strengths is not a universal method of storytelling. Therefore, McKee's (1997) slightly more ambiguous conscious desire and unconscious desire seem to prevail (p. 191). However, even this concept is flawed as some stories are driven by two conscious desires. For instance, in Wall-E (Stanton, 2008), the last robot on Earth, Wall-E, is lonely and wants a friend. Additionally, he wants to bring humanity back to Earth (Stanton, 2008). Wall-E (2008) is an interesting case study as the protagonist only desires to save humanity later in the film. Companionship is Wall-E’s first conscious desire (Stanton, 2008). Both desires originate from Wall-E feeling lonely as the last robot on Earth (Stanton, 2008). He falls in love with a robot, EVE, who descends on the planet before bringing all the remaining humans back (Stanton, 2008). From being alone on Earth, Wall-E ends up having many human friends and a robot girlfriend (Stanton, 2008). Both desires, companionship and saving humanity, spawned from a single feeling of loneliness.

Figure 2: Wall-E and EVE. Still from "WALL-E" (Stanton, 2008).

Thus, evidence points towards an additional element to structure design, more than simply conscious and unconscious stories. If desires are the spine of a story, then what is “The Quest” (McKee, 1997, p. 191)? The Quest is the story: “In essence, we have told one another the same tale, one way or another, since the dawn of humanity, and that story could be usefully called the Quest. All stories take the form of a Quest” (McKee, 1997, pp. 190-191). McKee further explains that many films will not present a protagonist with an unconscious desire (McKee, 1997, p. 187). If this is true, then what is the second story? After all, screenplays tell two stories: “The Outside/Action Story is driven by the goal. It is sometimes referred to as the spine or the external journey” (Trottier, 2014, p. 41). The spine, in this situation, is only the protagonist’s main goal, as opposed to two opposing desires as McKee (1997) conceived it (p. 191). Snyder (2005) and Brody (2018) both include the terms "A Story" and “B Story.” In short, A stories, or main plots, are the primary focus of the script, the main storyline (TV Calling, n.d.). Inversely, B stories, or subplots, are parallel to the main plot line and they usually involve secondary characters (TV Calling, n.d.). In this sense, an unconscious desire could potentially be a B story, but it could also be external to the protagonist’s psychology, as is the case for Speed (De Bont, 1994). David Trottier, the author of The Screenwriter’s Bible (2014), writes that this second story often comes from a relationship (p. 41). In The Bourne Identity (Liman, 2002), the love story between Bourne and Marie is the subplot. For many James Bond films such as Casino Royale (2006), a love story with a woman is the subplot. These types of subplots are usually external to the protagonist. Trottier (2014) notes that the secondary story is either an “inside/emotional story” (p. 41) or a “Relationship Story” (p. 41). Regardless of the type of subplot, the consensus is that screenplays should showcase two stories, though McKee (1997) indicates that the best characters have two opposing desires (p. 136).

From this conclusion, an additional parameter emerges, that of story structure. If main plots have structures, then, logically, so do subplots. Main plots are thought to be composed of three acts (Field, 2005, p. 12). However, three is only a minimum (McKee, 1997, pp. 213-214). In fact, the modern three-act structure template, whether Field’s (2006) updated version or Snyder’s (2005) extremely precise one, consists of four acts.

Figure 3: Field's modern paradigm (2013).

The midpoint separates act two in halves (Figure 3). Building structure around a major reversal halfway into the story creates four total acts (McKee, 1997, p. 214). An argument could be made that this structure is composed of six acts due to two pinches cutting each half of act two into more parts. McKee (1997) adds that each act must build up to a major reversal, a climax (p. 215). Whether these reversals are called acts, pinches, or a midpoint matters little as long as they fit the story. Along the main plot line, the subplot unfolds similarly. Subplots have their own structure, although usually brief (McKee, 1997, p. 213). They may have fewer beats and may not even be completed, unlike the main plot structure (McKee, 1997, p. 213). It is also possible for multiple subplots to exist within a story (Figure 4). These subplots can take a more liberal form of structure, as their primary function is to support the plot (McKee, 1997, p. 220). In a supporting role, subplots will often cross the main plot by creating more conflict or raising the stakes (Trottier, 2014, p. 23). They also serve the purpose of avoiding repetition, proving to be essential, since repetitiousness is the antagonist to any good story (McKee, 1997, p. 218). Snyder (2005) adds that A and B stories meet in act three in synthesis (p. 89). Although not required, final act syntheses, such as Snyder (2005) proposes, further prove the supporting role of the subplot. In The Bourne Identity (Liman, 2002), the love subplot between Marie and Bourne flourishes at the midpoint, raising the stakes. Yet, Bourne sends Marie away in act three, protecting her from future attacks (Liman, 2002). Thus, the subplot ends at the beginning of the main plot’s third act. In Casino Royale (Campbell, 2006), Vesper, the B story love interest, first appears 57 minutes into the film, placing that subplot beginning much later in the overall structure. In summary, subplots have their own structure that intertwines with the main plot but are more flexible.

Figure 4: Example of film structure. From "Story" (McKee, 1997, p. 213).

The Quest is composed of the spine and the subplots. The last element in the Quest is the value charges (Mckee, 1997, p. 191). In Figure 1, an odd up-and-down shape precedes the inciting incident and the spine. Additionally, a “+” sign and a “-” sign define the top and bottom peaks of the shape (McKee, 1997, p. 191). These values are: “[T]he universal qualities of human experience that may shift from positive to negative, or negative to positive, from one moment to the next” (McKee, 1997, p. 37). McKee (1997) uses examples of positive and negative values such as life/death, love/hate, freedom/slavery, truth/lie, and excitement/boredom (p. 37). Before properly defining value, charges and how they affect a story, it must be noted that McKee (1997) is the only one promoting them. Snyder (2005) argues for a general concept but claims that McKee’s (1997) idea is too extreme (p. 111). In turn, this disagreement creates a strange approach where the author who presents a very rigid structure (Snyder, 2005) is more moderate than the author who stays vague, acknowledging the infinitude of story design (McKee, 1997, p. 212). Story charges aim to keep the story progressing and entertaining at a much smaller scale than story structure. Value charges are simply the positive or negative aspects of a value (McKee, 1997, p. 38). Thus, if a scene begins with a character being robbed, it is a negative value charge. If the police show up at the end of that scene and arrest the criminal, the charge value becomes positive. In this case, the value starts at negative (danger) and ends at positive (safety). For McKee (1997), every single scene must have a value change, stating that:

If the value-charged condition of the character’s life stays unchanged from one end of a scene to the other, nothing meaningful happens. The scene has activity—talking about this, doing that—but nothing changes in value. It is a nonevent. (p. 48).

Therefore, scenes should follow each other in a positive to negative –or inversely– pattern (McKee, 1997, p. 38). This rapidly proves to be difficult to maintain, as many scenes in a film could have no other purpose than continuity or exposition. For instance, if a character exits their bedroom, walks down the hall and enters the bathroom, that is three total scenes with no value change. In theory, these three scenes should be removed since they are pointless in the scope of value charges. However, they could very well be crucial in showing a variety of a character’s attributes. For instance, in Stranger than Fiction (Forster, 2006), Harold Crick’s routine is presented. An alarm from his watch wakes him up and a voice-over narration informs the audience of his monotone routine (Forster, 2006). He brushes his teeth sideways exactly 76 times, 38 times back and forth, and 38 times up and down, he always ties the same knot on his tie and he always walks exactly 57 steps per block to catch the bus (Forster, 2006). In theory, these scenes should be removed since they are pointless in the scope of value charges. However, they are crucial in showing a character’s routine, demeanor, attitude, personality, income and interests. His bedroom is clean but scarcely furnished, and everything is colored in beige (Forster, 2006). This all translates to a character who likes organization in their life. This detail is crucial as Stranger than Fiction (Forster, 2006) depicts a person who loses control of their life. So far, no positive or negative value has emerged, yet these scenes are highly relevant. If that character woke up to an alarm and rushed out the door because they are late to work, then a negative value charge could be applied. That is not the case for Stranger than Fiction (Forster, 2006) where Harold is extremely consistent in the same boring morning routine. A more accurate way of approaching the concept of value charges would be in story structure instead of single scenes. To McKee’s (1997) credit, he does explain how value charges are crucial to major story turning points and act breaks (p. 44). In that sense, changing values is more appropriate from the perspective of reversals: “a change by which the action veers round to its opposite, subject always to our rule of probability or necessity” (Aristotle, c. 335BC/2008, p. 13).

Figure 5: Still from "Stranger than Fiction" (Forster, 2006).

Finally, structure depends on character. Nearly every screenwriting theorist agrees on the fact that a protagonist must have a goal, need or desire (Brody, 2018, p. 10; Chamberlain, 2016, p. 39; McKee, 1997, p. 136; Snyder, 2005, p. 48; Trottier, 2014, p. 13). Screenplays most often include at least two stories between conscious and unconscious desires, flaws and strengths or simply internal and external. Depending on the film's interpretation, more than one theory can apply and even variations of them exist, such as two conscious desires in Wall-E (Stanton, 2008). These opposing, or different, desires form the spine of the Quest. This spine is woven into an overarching structure. Unlike Field’s (2005) paradigm or Snyder’s (2005) beat sheet, a structure is a rhythm, not a template. As such, screenplays may use as many acts as necessary to build a story, three is a minimum requirement, not the maxim (McKee, 1997, pp. 213-214). Even more flexible are the subplots. Taking on a supportive role, subplots can start and end when necessary. In fact, they begin almost an hour into the film like Casino Royale (2006) or do not end at all. While three acts are a minimum for main plots, subplots can have fewer since they support the story. On a more micro level, value charges ensure conflict and progression. However, using them for every single scene is not required if other information can be provided.

Bibliographical References

Akers, W. M. (2008). Your Screenplay Suck! 100 Ways to Make it Great. Michael Wiese Productions.

Aristotle. (2008). The Poetics of Aristotle (S.H. Butcher, Trans.). Project Gutenberg. (Original work published c.335BC)

Bont, J. D. (Director). (1994). Speed. 20th Century Fox.

Brody, J. (2018). Save the Cat! Writes a Novel. Ten Speed Press.

Campbell, M. (Director). (2006). Casino Royale. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Chamberlain, J. (2016). The Nutshell Technique: Crack the Secret of Successful Screenwriting. University of Texas Press.

Field, S. (2005). Screenplay: the Foundations of Screenwriting (revised edition). Delta.

Field, S. (2006). The Screenwriter’s Workbook (revised edition). Delta.

Forster, M. (Director). (2006). Stranger than Fiction. Columbia Pictures.

Liman, D. (Director). (2002). The Bourne Identity. Universal Pictures.

McKee, R. (1997). Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. Harper Collins.

Praet, Y. (2023). Screenwriting 102: Uncovering the Truth of Story. Arcadia.

Snyder, B. (2005). Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need. Michael Wiese Productions.

Stanton, A. (Director). (2008). WALL-E. Walt Disney Studios.

Trottier, D. (2014). The Screenwriter’s Bible: A Complete Guide to Writing, Formatting, and Selling Your Script. (6th ed.). Silman-James Press.

TV Calling. What are A, B, and C stories in screenwriting? (TV Writing 101).

Vogler, C. (2007). The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers (3rd. ed.). Michael Wiese Productions.

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Yoran Praet

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