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Screenwriting 102: Uncovering The Truth of Story


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: Quests in Plot Structure

  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: Uncovering the Truth of Story Design

Story structure sounds good in theory, but what happens when it is put to the test? Screenwriting 101: Three-Act Structure in Practice sought to contest the notion that a given structure is necessary to produce a high-quality film. Whether considered a success or a failure, critically or commercially, films such as Miss Congeniality (Petrie, 2000), Memento (Nolan, 2000) and Speed (De Bont, 1994) prove that structure is flexible, and not bound by beats, acts, linearity, or page numbers. Syd Field (2005), the writer responsible for the popularity of the modern screenplay template (Price, 2013, p. 201), and Blake Snyder (2005), a successful spec screenwriter, primarily focused on Hollywood films since they considered profitability to be synonymous with quality (Field, 2005, p. 82; Snyder, 2005, p. xvi). Field’s (2005) original story paradigm was vague enough to fit most stories, including Memento (Nolan, 2000). Snyder’s (2005), however, is much too rigid for most films. Two main questions arise from this issue: the first question is about the types of films outside the Hollywood scope, while the second question refers to the true nature of a story.

Film classification is a somewhat subjective task as different criteria may apply. For instance, Snyder (2005) classified movies based on his 10 unique genres (pp. 21-46). It is possible to sort films into more common genres such as action, adventure, science fiction, drama, or comedy. Furthermore, subgenres can apply to a film (Kench, 2022 n.p.). For example, superhero and spy are action subgenres. Naturally, genres can blend, which is the case for romantic comedies, often shortened to rom-com. Robert McKee, author of Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting (1997), presents a distinct approach to classification with a triangle diagram. He divides stories into three categories, Archplot, Miniplot and Antiplot (McKee, 1997, p. 48). Thus, grouping films based on story design instead of genre.

Figure 1: The Story Triangle (left) and film examples within the triangle (right). From "Story" (McKee, 1997, pp. 48 & 57)

The most popular method of story design is the Archplot (Bevis, 2017). The Archplot or classical design presents a protagonist who pursues their desire against an antagonist (McKee, 1997, p. 47). The structure respects linear chronology and causal fictional reality (McKee, 1997, p. 47). In short, it is the most common form of narrative in film today. This triangle classification is closer to a spectrum than to hard-and-fast rules. As demonstrated in Figure 1, certain films can be categorized as halfway between Archplot and Miniplot. A story can have all the elements of the Archplot, but show a passive protagonist, which places it closer to the bottom of the diagram. The more elements which are shared between each story designs, the further it is from each of them. For instance, Barton Fink (Coen & Coen, 1991) finds itself in the middle of the triangle (figure 1). More experimental films such as Meshes of the Afternoon (Deren & Hammid, 1943), are Antiplots due to the heavily distorted notions of reality, linearity, and causality. McKee (1997) indicates that Antiplot reverses the Archplot, similar to how the Nouveau Roman, an experimental type of novel that rejected traditional novel design (Baldick, 2015), conceived the plot (p. 48). The Antiplot heavily contradicts formal principles found in the Archplot. An additional criterion for classification is the nature of the ending and if it is closed or open. A closed ending answers all questions arising from the plot and leaves no alternative interpretation of the story events than those shown in the film (McKee, 1997, p. 50). An open ending leaves the interpretation of a question or two to the public (McKee, 1997, p. 50). For example, in Inception (2010), a film about dreams, the audience is left wondering if the protagonist is still trapped in a dream or if he woke up. Indeed, the final shot shows a spinning top but cuts before confirming whether it stopped or not (Nolan, 2010). If it did, then the protagonist is in reality; if the top continues spinning endlessly, then it is a dream (Nolan, 2010). It is important to note that only one or two questions should remain unanswered in the Miniplot (McKee, 1997, p. 50). If a movie ends before resolving the main conflict, many questions arise. Did the protagonist achieve their goal? How did they do it? What happened to the antagonist? These would be characteristics of an Antiplot film (McKee, 1997, p. 48). In the end, just like genre classification, McKee’s (1997) triangular conception of stories is not the only way to view a film. However, it allows for an optimal approach to story design from the perspective of popular cinema since the triangle spectrum builds from it. In fact, McKee (1997) describes the Archplot as: “[T]he meat, potatoes, pasta, rice, and couscous of world cinema” (p. 48). Hollywood goes where the money is and if Antiplot films were more popular than the Archplot, Hollywood would make Antiplots (McKee, 1997, p. 65).

Figure 2: The film ends before confirming if the spinning top fell or not. Still from "Inception" (Nolan, 2010)

With countless possible stories in a variety of genres, story design is endless, which explains why authors like Field (2005) try to make screenwriting more accessible through digestible structures. If structure theories are merely guidelines and do not necessarily correlate with quality, how does a writer create a screenplay? In his own screenwriting manual, William M. Akers (2008), a screenwriting professor at Belmont University, writes:

A lot of this book, you’re welcome to take with a grain of salt. Disagree with me if you like. Cast aspersions on my character if I say something you think is moronic. But, whatever you do, don’t be boring. That’s the only inviolable rule. (p. 27)

When Akers (2008) writes "don't be boring", many confusion may arise (p. 27). How can a writer measure boredom? Boring is subjective and different people may find different things boring or exciting (Talbot, 2020, n.p.). A viewer can dislike a movie even if the general audience finds it exciting, and inversely. In truth, following a specific page count and definite beats does not guarantee a good screenplay, let alone a good movie. The answer to Akers' (2008) question on avoiding boredom is conflict. Conflict spawns action, character, story, and finally screenplay (Field, 2005, p. 26). The structure takes a backseat to character and story (Akers, 2008, p. 50). Before diving further into the mechanics of conflict, it must be stated that clichés are to be avoided at all costs in order to avoid audience boredom and dissatisfaction (McKee, 1997, p. 69).

Field (2005) accurately identifies that conflict creates action and character, a phrase that he repeats a total of four times with two on the same page (pp. 26, 132, 246). Therefore, character and character actions are central to the plot. McKee (1997) further observes this idea by stating that all stories are character-driven and that structure is character (pp. 101, 107). To better understand this conception of a story, McKee (1997) presents a “rhythm” (p. 212) instead of a paradigm. For him: “STORY is born in that place where the subjective and objective realms touch” (McKee, 2005, p. 144). Subjectivity is the character’s own perception (McKee, 2005, p. 145). Nearly all protagonists have a desire, goal or need (Chamberlain, 2016, p. 39; McKee, 1997, p. 136; Snyder, 2005, p. 48; Trottier, 2014, p. 13). A protagonist’s subjectivity is their expectation of events that will occur on their quest to achieve a goal (McKee, 1997, p. 144). They may want something and act to receive it, but the film world will not offer what they subjectively expected (McKee, 2005, p. 145). The objective reality is what actually happens, not what the character wanted to happen (McKee, 2005, p. 145). For instance, in The Bourne Identity (Liman, 2002), Jason Bourne wakes up having forgotten who he is. As it turns out, he was an elite assassin trained by the CIA and now they are hunting him down (Liman, 2002). His first step towards learning his identity leads him to a bank in Zurich where he apparently owns a safe deposit box. Subjectively, Bourne is not sure what he will find, but he believes it will be helpful in discovering who he is (Liman, 2002). Objectively, Bourne finds multiple passports of varying nationalities, a handgun and tens of thousands of dollars in cash (Liman, 2002). The objective event raises more questions than it answers. Why does he have a gun, multiple passports, and a lot of money? This is where the story is born. The audience and the protagonist will later learn that Bourne is a trained killer (Liman, 2002). Bourne’s subjective expectation crossed paths with the objective reality. McKee (1997) calls this the gap (p. 144). Between character expectation (subjectivity) and result (objectivity), a gap opens (McKee, 2005, p. 145). Although Bourne expected to have all or some questions answered, he now has more questions (Liman, 2002). This gap produces conflict. Faced with the unexpected objective reality, the character must adapt (McKee, 2005, p. 146). In The Bourne Identity (Liman, 2022), Bourne takes everything in the box except the gun. He puts himself at risk by leaving the weapon because three CIA agents are tasked with killing him (Liman, 2002). Additionally, he puts himself at risk by carrying the passports and the money, which is suspicious to anyone who finds out, especially considering that he assaulted two police officers the night before, thus placing him on the radar of the law (Liman, 2002).

Figure 3: Bourne's safe deposit box. Still from "The Bourne Identity" (Liman, 2002).

These events allowed the story to progress. The protagonist will be faced with more gaps to adapt to. McKee (1997) somewhat inaccurately claims that risks must be progressively greater (p. 148). From the perspective of gaps, of collisions between subjectivity and objectivity, it is true that a character will take on many risks, but the stakes may remain the same, change in a way that is not calculable or even change in a non-progressive pattern like Aristotle's (c. 335 BC/2008) and Snyder's (2005) structures. In The Bourne Identity (Liman, 2002), Bourne often risks his life. In fact, most action films will show a protagonist repeatedly risking their lives (Fresh Voices, n.d.). Bourne’s life is always at stake (Liman, 2002). Modern screenwriting theory indicates that stakes must be raised at the midpoint of the film (Brody, 2018, p. 50; Trottier, 2014, p. 23). However, they do not necessarily increase linearly as McKee (1997) suggests. For The Bourne Identity, the stakes are raised when Marie and Bourne kiss, thus tying her fate to Bourne’s (Liman, 2002). Before, Bourne only had his own life to risk; now his lover is on the line. Marie’s life was already at stake before this moment as CIA assassins and police officers chased after them. The midpoint formally seals her fate. As far as stakes go, Marie’s life is equivalent to the life of Bourne’s lover since they are the same person (Liman, 2002). Regardless of the relationship status, Bourne was always going to protect her (Liman, 2002). The stakes are still considered raised since Marie is no longer a simple innocent victim, but a person close to the protagonist. In this sense, stakes are raised, but not in a linear fashion. By creating gaps, a screenwriter can ensure conflict in their story as subjectivity and objectivity are constantly pitted against one another (McKee, 1997, p. 144). Consequently, the viewer is never bored (McKee, 1997, p. 149). Akers (2008) notes that conflict keeps a reader reading, without it, the act of reading becomes more boring than watching paint dry (p. 85).

Figure 4: A series of gaps seperates the protagonist from their goal, thus creating story. From "Story" (McKee, 1997, p. 148).

McKee does raise an important note. Gaps may not need to be increasingly riskier, but there should be varying degrees of jeopardy and intensity within the story. This is simply because character action is central to the plot. A character must react to a gap. If the gap is always the same and puts the same thing in jeopardy, then conflict will be reduced, and without conflict, there is no story (Chamberlain, 2016, p. 50). Since it is the gap between subjectivity and objectivity that creates conflict, then each of the character’s actions will be increasingly similar since their subjectivity will end up matching the objective event by getting used to the gap (McKee, 1997, p. 148). There is no conflict if subjectivity and objectivity do not clash. For example, if a person misplaced their phone, they may ask their sibling if they saw it. The expected reality from the person is one of two options: the sibling answers that they saw the phone or that they did not. In real life, one of those two options will likely be the answer. The objective result, the sibling responding “yes” or “no” is the same as the subjective expectation. There is no conflict. If the sibling shouted in rage and hurled objects at the person, that would be unexpected. Hence, subjective expectation and objective reality are opposed, creating conflict (McKee, 1997, p. 145). The objective reality could be any event outside the realm of the subjective. If the sibling magically disappeared, spontaneously combusted, destroyed the phone, was caught disposing of a body or any unexpected event, it would then cause conflict.

Varying the nature of conflict is something that Save the Cat!'s (Snyder, 2005) beat sheet offered through the idea of upward and downward trends in the second act. Screenwriting 101: Three-act Structure III - Rigidity analyzes this beat sheet in detail. In summary, the protagonist can be generally successful during the first half of act two, but they will experience failure in the second half, hence the upward and downward trends (Snyder, 2005, p. 82). The reverse is possible as well. Regardless if up and down or down and up, this provides a change in the nature of conflicts.

Figure 5: Bourne and Marie's romance changes the nature of conflict. Still from "The Bourne Identity" (Liman, 2002).

In conclusion, movies can be classified into three main groups, Archplot, Miniplot and Antiplot. Most films will be Archplots, but variation in the triangle spectrum is normal, with some movies sharing elements from two or three groups. Regardless of a film’s classification, stories share only one rule: “Don’t be boring” (Akers, 2008, p. 27). Even this rule is submitted to an audience member’s personal tastes. Nonetheless, authors note that conflict is key to writing stories (Akers, 2008, p. 85; Chamberlain, 2016, p. 50; Field, 2005, p. 26; McKee, 1997, p. 143). Gaps are ways to produce conflict in films (McKee, 1997, p. 144). These gaps are defined by the distance between a character’s own subjective expectation of an event and the objective reality. Protagonists are forced to adapt to these gaps (McKee, 1997, p. 146). One after another, gaps keep the story moving forward while ensuring conflict. Variating degree, intensity, and nature of conflicts is required to keep a story entertaining (Snyder, 2005). Gradually increasing the level of risk for each gap is not an obligation, although variation is recommended to avoid decreasing the gap between subjectivity and objectivity (Snyder, 2005, p. 82). Structure is a tool that can manage these gaps (McKee, 1997). For instance, the midpoint may serve as a defining moment of change, raising the stakes or modifying them like The Bourne Identity (Liman, 2002).

Bibliographical References

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

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

Bevis, K. (2017, March 29). Arch Plot, Mini-Plot and Anti-Plot.

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

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

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

Deren, M. & A. Hammid. (Directors). (1943). Meshes of the Afternoon. Maya Deren.

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

Fresh Voices. (n.d.). 5 Character Traits of an Awesome Action Hero.

Kench, S. (2022). What is a Subgenre — Definition, Examples & How They Work. Studio Binder.

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

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

Nolan, C. (Director). (2000). Memento. Summit Entertainment.

Nolan, C. (Director). (2010). Inception. Warner Bros. Pictures.

Baldick, C. (2015). The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms (4th ed.). Oxford University Press.

Petrie, D. (Director). (2000). Miss Congeniality. Fortis Films.

Price, S. (2013). A History of the Screenplay. Palgrave Macmillan.

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

Talbot, M. (2020, August 20). What Does Boredom Do to Us and For Us. New Yorker.

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

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Yoran Praet

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