Category: structure

GHOST STORY: Structure and Style

This is the movie logo, but it’s not that far off from the book’s aesthetic.

Unless experimental or post-modern, most novels progress along an easily followed, predictable structure. The author chooses a point of view (first or third person, usually, but sometimes second) and structures their novel either by character perspective, like what GAME OF THRONES does, or by events, usually breaking out specific events in chapters. These are the most natural ways to tell a story and ensure that the reader won’t get lost too easily.

Peter Straub’s 1979 novel GHOST STORY does all of these things at once and even throws in a prologue and epilogue for good measure. In short, the novel goes out of its way to break assumed writing rules and does it effectively. So what is its structure and why is it the best way to tell this particular story?

In screenwriting parlance, the story is broken into three acts (or parts, according to the book) with a teaser up front (prologue) and a tag in the back (epilogue). Nothing crazy so far. Each of these acts is broken into three parts, except the first act which only has two. Again, in terms of ebb and flow in the story, this is an unexceptional way to tell a story.

The chapters themselves, though, do some interesting things with perspective and time. Each act is broken up into short chapters, and those are sometimes broken into shorter scenes. The chapters are told from specific points of view, with the person whose perspective we’re seeing identified in a bold header at the start of each section. However, within each act that perspective shifts multiple times, and then begins with new chapters.

There are other times, too, when the point of view shifts further out. For example, after spending nearly 200 pages bouncing around the four main characters’ points of view–the Chowder Society, as they call themselves–we’re suddenly thrust into a third person omniscient narration with “The Chowder Society Accused.” Not long after that, at the start of the second act, the story shifts into a first person viewpoint, as we read the journals of a relatively new character that had only been mentioned before. The story is a constantly shifting, full of differing perspectives.

The same goes for time. The story starts around the one year anniversary of a Chowder Society member’s death, and then the second chapter of the first act jumps back in time to the night he died. The second act, being a series of journal entries, takes us to yet another time period, although at first it is unclear when in relation to the other events of the novel. What we do know is that it’s sometime before the prologue.

All that said, the unusual style suits the story. It keeps the reader off-kilter, for one, just as the characters feel. But it’s also the most logical way to tell the story, in a sense. The story would need to leap ahead and juggle multiple, unrelated character arcs if it was told linearly, which would be confusing to follow and lead to several slow sections that would likely bore the reader.

The lesson here (to me, anyway) is that what perspective and what structure you use to tell your story is just as important as the characters and events that populate the story. The way in which a story is told can confuse or illuminate a reader, depending on the author’s intentions. As GHOST STORY proves, mixing and matching perspective, time, and structural elements in new ways can accomplish both, drawing the reader deeper into the mystery you’re presenting.

The Passing of Time in Stories

Something I am unhealthily obsessed with in my screenplays is how time passes for the characters within the story. To be honest, I’m not sure how important a consideration time is for most stories (unless a time limit is built into them), but I can never stop myself from wondering: How much time passes over the course of the script?

The Time Bubble used a device that was necessary for me to understand how much time passed. The main character, Mitch, is trying to get back home before his girlfriend is murdered on a certain date in the past. He knows the date, but due to the way time travel works in my narrative he can only get to her before her murder – if he gets there after he will not be able to try again. I plotted out important dates for Mitch, all leading to the day he needs to get back to. This was important for me to understand in the story, as I couldn’t let too much time pass or the audience would begin to wonder why Mitch hasn’t gotten closer to his goal. I even used it to my advantage in the third act as a misdirection, where Mitch is thrown in jail for an indeterminate amount of time and is led to believe by the authorities that he’s missed his window of opportunity.

In The Inhabitors, the time frame seemed less important so I didn’t map it. However, due to the arcs of the characters (one, in particular), I wondered if I should. Will the audience call bullshit if a character has such a dramatic change over what might amount to a week of in-story time? Will they even notice if the timing of events is never explicitly called out? As a reader or a viewer we are conditioned, thanks to editing, that movies only show the major events in the story. We don’t watch the characters sleep or take shits. It’s unnecessary. So, in that sense, because the audience is accustomed to only seeing major events within the story they will either A.) not notice how much time has passed unless it is important to the story or B.) assume, based on the actions of the characters, the changes in setting, and other subtle hints, that a certain amount of time has passed regardless of whether or not the screenwriter meant them to think that.

As a viewer, I tend to lean toward playing it safe with timing. I was watching Beverly Hills Cop earlier and there was a scene when Axel Foley is in the Beverly Hills Police Station after causing havok throughout the city. Over the past 15-20 minutes of screentime we’ve seen him stake out a house, lose a police tail, start a fight at a fancy restaurant, get arrested, and be released. He is given a police escort and told to go back to Detroit. As they walk out of the police station, where Foley was brought after being arrested, it’s day. Mid-day, even. And he remarks about the things he did “that morning.” Now, as a viewer I found myself thinking, “All that happened in less than half a day?” Actually, I think the rest of the movie happens before nightfall. It’s not unrealistic, lots of things can happen in a short amount of time, but I did find myself thinking about it during the movie which meant I wasn’t giving the film my full attention. This is bad.

Peripheral, my latest, has a similar but opposite problem. The time frame is revealed, but not until the end of the script. I’m worried a reader or audience will say, “All of that happened in that amount of time?” Again, though, the timeline fits the story. So does it matter? In this case, I’d argue not.

I think being cognizant of the timeframe that passes in your story is important if it’s central to the story. If it’s not central to the story, it’s not as important to explicitly call it out, but one should still be cognizant of it if there is too much happening in a short amount of screentime. If half of the action in your story takes place within one day, consider spacing it apart or letting the audience in on just how much time has passed. I probably would have been more forgiving of Beverly Hills Cop if it had even been nightfall by the end of the film.

Set-Up/Punchline/Callback Structure

Just like a good joke, I find the best writing often relies on a set-up/punchline/callback structure. You introduce an important element into a story (normally pretty early on, but not necessarily always), then you pay it off later. Sometimes, the element will even come back at an unexpected time or in an unexpected way.

There is a scene in Shane Black’s Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang that pokes fun at the expectation for this structure. There is a scene where the narrator of the film, Robert Downey Jr.’s Harry Lockhart, says, “That is a terrible scene. It’s like, ‘Why was that even in the movie? Gee, you think it’ll come back later, maybe?'” in reference to a scene where him and another character have a banal conversation about being night-owls. The scene never does come back to mean anything important, unless I missed something (which is entirely possible).

While Shane Black calls attention to it and somewhat subverts the method, it stands as a good example of a tried-and-true way to write. Audiences, readers, expect things to happen purposefully within a movie. It helps them to suspend their disbelief if it seems like they are in the hands of a creator they can trust. True, oftentimes these things are nothing more than MacGuffins (the letters of transit from Casablanca, for example) but they don’t have to be. It can be a fear that a character mentions in passing in the beginning of a story that manifests itself in the climax. Gattaca has a similar set-up/punchline wherein Ethan Hawkes character, Vincent Freeman, races his genetically-altered brother in a lake. Growing up Vincent could never beat his brother because of the genetic superiority his brother had, but towards the climax, after Vincent has done everything he can to raise himself to the level of those who are genetically altered, he finally defeats his brother and actually has to save his life. This signals the viewer that Vincent is ready to take a shuttle into the solar system and will likely succeed.

In my own writing I like to tie things together as circular as I can. If a dramatic element, MacGuffin, or unique character trait is introduced in Act I, I try very hard to make sure it pays off in Act II or Act III. Personally, I don’t think it’s ever good to leave an audience with too many loose ends (unless part of a grander scheme) or questions. It takes away from the enjoyment of the story and the digestion of the themes. With Granted the ending was purposefully very ambiguous (hell, the story was ambiguous) and I often felt that it led to our audiences leaving with a sour taste in their mouths. It also led to them asking the wrong questions. They became so focused on the Room and the mystery aspects of the story (which were never explained – partly because I didn’t want them to be distracting from the main story) they completely ignored the themes of loss and selfishness that the story was actually hinting at. There wasn’t enough resolution for the major story components introduced early on for the audience to grasp onto what I felt should be the correct things. Of course, this was far from the only problem with Granted and why the audience latched onto the ideas they did as opposed to the ones I wanted them to (hint – the mystery of the Room ended up being far more interesting than the characters and their struggles).

This is all just something to keep in mind when reading/watching/absorbing stories through osmosis. Why is a certain story element being introduced? Does it add tension? Background? How does it play into the story as a whole? So on and so forth.

I think it leads to a deeper appreciation of not only story, but the writer and their skill in general. This, by my estimation, is something that is needed as writer’s are under-appreciated.

Now get off my lawn you ungrateful kids.

Book Review: Screenwriting 101 by FilmCrit Hulk

Following up on my Friday post comes a new screenwriting book review! How convenient and timely!

This book is called Screenwriting 101 by Film Crit Hulk. I know that’s an odd moniker to be publishing a book under, but if you’re at all familiar with his work you know Film Crit Hulk is a legitimate critic – Learned and articulate (for a Hulk). His work can be found online at Badass Digest.

What is interesting about this particular screenwriting book (or e-book, to be more accurate, as it’s currently only available to the Kindle) is that the first three-quarters of the book are devoted to theory and then Film Crit Hulk gets into the nitty gritty of formatting and whatnot. If you’re a beginning screenwriter that is looking to get a cheap book on screenwriting and think the big green fist coming down on a typewriter looks like a cool cover, I would probably advise against this. My feeling is that this is a much more valuable book for writers that already have a basic understanding of formatting, theory, and their own writing processes. Of course, this could be because I have a basic understanding of all of those things and I can’t see beyond my own experience to relate to a beginning screenwriter anymore. That’s not it, but it could be.

The real reason the book isn’t for the beginning screenwriter, and why it’s “101” titling is a bit misleading, is because Film Crit Hulk hands the writer so many potential tools to use and describes so many filmic theories it just felt overwhelming. Don’t get me wrong; there’s a ton of good stuff in here. He does his best to challenge our notions of how to write a screenplay. He dares the writer to think differently about structure and plot. And he outlines differing ways to do that. Just be careful with it if you’re a beginning writer, otherwise you may find yourself with too many tools and only a vague idea of how to use them.

On a more nit-picky note, Hulk writes in character at all times. There is a Bruce Banner version that is more traditionally formatted, but even there lies typos and mistakes in grammar. The message is powerful enough to forgive such things, but I am also one of those people that will write off an argument if it’s not properly articulated. That’s more of a flaw with me than the book, though.

In all, I’d highly recommend this book for those who have read some of the other basic screenwriting books. Once you have a solid foundation on which you’ve already began screenwriting, Film Crit Hulk’s book is a good way to continue your education.

Screenwriting 101 by Film Crit Hulk can be found in the Kindle store or by clicking here.

The Great Debate: Are Screenwriting Books Useful?

Recently, for some reason or another, there has been a backlash against screenwriting books. The reason for this, it seems, is that semi-professional (i.e. writers who have been around the industry and have gotten generally good reviews of their work but for some reason have yet to be optioned) and professional writers dislike the homogeny of the scripts from those amateurs who follow the teachings of people like Dave Trottier (writer of The Screenwriters Bible, which I reviewed here) and Blake Snyder, author of the hugely popular Save the Cat series.

The problem, they allege, is that the beat-by-beat structures these books preach are limiting to writers and result in work that is largely the same and uninteresting. A bigger issue many writers are taking with so-called “screenwriting gurus” is that many of them have never worked in Hollywood or, if they have, didn’t meet with much success.

Now, as an amateur writer my opinion probably isn’t very valid. But, as an amateur writer, I’ve found that screenwriting books are a good resource for learning the craft. Are they the be-all end-all to story and structure? Of course not. Are they being touted as such? Sometimes. Should those who are touting them as such maybe lay off a bit? Yes.

However, there seems to be a blind hatred in the screenwriting community of screenwriting books. They’re considered more harm than good and, worse it seems, a rip-off. Having read several of these books I don’t wholly agree. I’ve learned something new about how to maybe approach screenwriting with each book I’ve read. Dave Trottier is a great general source for formatting and a basic understanding of three-act structure (which, like it or not, is the most used source of structure in screenwriting). I still consult it if I’m confused about how to format something or I need a way to break out of a slump. I stole my character grid directly from that book.

But I don’t follow it as gospel and I think that’s the problem other writers are fighting against. Books like that, especially for a beginning screenwriter, should be nothing more than a guide while each writer figures out his or her own best way to write. And each story will decide on its own structure. Granted can easily be broken into five acts. The Time Bubble was very deliberately three with a peak during the second. The Inhabitors was designed as a three-act story like The Time Bubble, but I eventually threw out the entire outline and let the characters guide me.

I’ll admit, there are way too many screenwriting books out there that regurgitate the same information over and over. But someone who is looking to buy a screenwriting book as a guide should be aware of that and act accordingly. I’ve found that, like most things in life, if you’re careful and do your homework you’re less likely to be taken advantage of.

The argument that these “gurus” don’t have the necessary experience to speak on the subject is valid but irrelevant, I think. Most of the books and websites I’ve read on the subject boast authors who have given Hollywood a fair shot and either met with middling success or failed and turned to teaching. That, to me, is no different than most other skilled professions in life. Isn’t that where the adage, “Those who can’t, teach” comes from? I doubt even the most ignorant of screenwriting how-to authors can do serious damage to a skeptical reader. Regardless, the basic information doesn’t change.

Screenplays should be in Courier 12. They should all generally look a certain way with certain formatting. The way to get and agent/manager or a producer to look at your script is to A.) write something damn good and B.) put it out there through query letters, contests, or a mixture of both. In other words, this isn’t rocket science. If the information you’re getting is the same in all of these books, does it matter which book you’re getting it from?

Of course, I’m ignoring some central issues here. There are some scam artists out there that will charge you for their help without having the expertise or connections necessary to do so. These books do tend to focus too much on telling the aspiring screenwriter in an authoritative voice, “This is how it’s done.” That’s wrong. You shouldn’t have to pay out the ass for help and there is no one way to do anything, let alone write (which, as we’ve covered, is subjective).

The only valid advice I can offer on this topic is to be careful. Be skeptical. Learn the necessary lessons but apply them in your own way. In other words, use common sense.

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