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3.1. classical screenplay structure

SCREENPLAYS ARE STRUCTURE.” — William Goldman1

. . . the teaching of ‘structure’ has in many venues supplanted the teaching of writing.” — Howard Rodman2

3.1.1. Overview.

Goldman’s assertion that screenplays are structure is actually rather modest. In fact, all narrative texts are structure, their content inseparable from their formal qualities. Facets of structure include but are not limited to such far-ranging issues as focalization, sequencing, rhythm, pacing, duration, and dramatic conflict. However, when Rodman refers to the teaching of “structure,” it is primarily plotting that is at question. In this sense, structure is the craft of plotting raw storyworld events into a narrative text, where plotting primarily involves decisions of sequencing and organization.

The history of American screenwriting is marked by certain conventions of classical “Hollywood” structure. Three major works have held an undeniable influence over Hollywood script structure. They are, in order of publication, Aristotle’s Poetics, Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and Syd Field’s aptly titled Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting. While many other books have been written on the subject of screenplay structure, the bulk of their lessons have been cribbed from these three primary sources.

Page Topics:

3.1.2. Major Influences: Poetics. [Back to Page Topics]

Borrowing from Aristotle, screenwriter’s have built upon the best practices of writing for the stage. Through him they inherited a tradition that elevates plot and action over character and interior emotional states, that values both unity and economy of plot, and one that prefers closed stories centered on single protagonists who cause their own dramatic fate.

Of all these inherited traits, Aristotle’s preference for causality and unity of action have possibly had the greatest impact on classical Hollywood script design, and the absence of these traits has become the defining characteristic of art film and the avant-garde. Individual scenes, characters, or lines of dialogue are often evaluated by property readers, not on the aesthetic pleasure they produce, but on their necessity to the plot. If the plot can be understood without the item in question, it is viewed as not part of the unity and may be discarded.

Interestingly, one sacred law of script structuring often sourced to Aristotle for which he deserves absolutely no credit whatsoever is the classic, restorative three-act structure model. Aristotle, in fact, never proposes or advocates for acts of any kind or number. While he does analyze in detail the concepts of beginning, middle, and end, these should not be translated as acts, as indeed the beginning and end are, by Aristotle’s very definition, to be understood as finite points, not segments or sequences.

Perhaps the closest he comes to describing an act structure is in his explication of desis and lysis, sometimes translated as the complication and resolution but more literally read as knotting and unraveling. “By complication I mean everything from the beginning up to and including the section which immediately precedes the change to good fortune or bad fortune; by resolution I mean everything from the beginning of the change of fortune to the end.”3 Here, if anything, Aristotle seems to argue for a two-act structure model, rather than three, a point we will return to in the section of this site dedicated to alternative screenwriting structures.

3.1.3. Major Influences: Monomyth. [Back to Page Topics]

The next major influence on screenplay structure comes from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Writing in 1949, Campbell set out to identify and describe the common storytelling patterns he saw present in the mythologies of every human culture. He called the overall pattern the monomyth, which he breaks down into three stages (the Departure, the Initiation, and the Return) made up of 17 total story movements. Campbell succinctly describes the general pattern of the monomyth as follows:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons to his fellow man.”4

Unfortunately, this succinct description fails to fully express the beauty of Campbell’s achievement. In the 17 motifs outlined in the monomyth cycle, Campbell describes the significant Dramatic, Psychological, and Spiritual functions of mythology. The following table briefly summarizes those functions:

 

Dramatic

Psychological

Spiritual

Call to Adventure

The Hero receives a challenge, prediction, or warning from a Herald that demands from him a course of action. The infantile self is awakened to the inevitability of sexual maturity and adulthood. The human condition is recognized as deficient and in need of spiritual rebirth.

Refusal of the Call

The Hero refuses his charge, preferring the safety of his comfortable surroundings, either as an act of selfishness or cowardice. The infantile self recognizes that with sexual awakening comes acceptance of mortality and prefers to revert back to an unaware state. The cost of spiritual rebirth is discovered to be a death to the realm of the present, and the human condition rebels against this cost.

Supernatural Aid

The Hero seeks guidance and gadgetry from an expert in the field of his journey. The self turns to society for instruction and guidance in the proper path to adulthood. The seeker turns to shamans and priests for insight into the eternal realm and rituals that will open the door to enlightenment.

Crossing of the First Threshold

The Hero encounters his first obstacle in the Threshold Guardian, whom he must incorporate through will and wits rather than conquer through feats of strength. Neurotic fears of self-annihilation are embraced and subdued, as the inevitability of mortality is accepted and childhood is left behind. The seeker takes the first tentative steps away from the familiar distractions of the present and accepts the cost of discipleship.

Belly of the Whale

Having passed through the gates of a new land, the Hero must submerge into the depths of the unknown to complete his quest. The self is absorbed by the rush of adult desires and anxieties that comes with the absolute death of childhood. The disciple is swallowed whole by an encounter with the spiritual realm, ushered away from the world of the present at a point of no return.

Road of Trials

The Hero encounters a chain of obstacles that test his strength and intellect in preparation for his final battle with the Shadow. The self must dig deeper into the subconscious wounds and anxieties left over from childhood in order to enter into fully-functioning adulthood. The walk of faith is filled with tribulations of every kind. The new believer is most tested, but his faith is strengthened in these trials.

Meeting with the Goddess

The Hero is rewarded for his accomplishments with rest and comfort, but he must not rest for too long, lest he risk a second refusal of the call. Mentally exhausted from the work so far, the self seeks the maternal comforts of a second womb.(Think of a man who, instead of seeking an equal in a mate, seeks a woman who will coddle and care for him the way his mother did.) Many believers never reach beyond this level of discipleship, but are content with their dogma to rest in the comfortable bosom of their religious community. However, the call to deeper understanding remains.

Woman as the Temptress

The Hero must master his own desires, subduing them in service of the task at hand. The self must acknowledge its own sexual repression. Desire cannot be buried but must be admitted and mastered. Only then can adulthood begin. The believer runs from the flesh, wishing to escape the life of the body. The body, however, is life, and cannot be repressed, only mastered.

Atonement with the Father

The Hero must become one with the figure of the Father. This can take many forms, whether it is seeking forgiveness or offering it to the ogre father. The Father may be an internal figure, the Shadow within. A response to the Oedipal complex. The self must deal with the icon of the Father as a reflection of the future self and move beyond the need for competition. The believer must face the wrath of the vengeful sectarian God in order to reach beyond this human expression of distorted divinity into divine love.

Apotheosis

The Hero transcends his limitations, defeating the Shadow and creating unity in the world. He is exalted above all, but ultimately, he must deny this elevated position among the gods, in order to share his recognition with the world. The self makes a breakthrough past the old divisions and dichotomies of childhood and finally sees the unity that exists between all aspects of the self and between the self and the rest of the culture. The believer sees the face of the gods, and in so doing, becomes one with the divine. While offered eternal rest in this state of enlightenment, his journey is not over. This divinity must be shared with all of humanity.

The Ultimate Boon

The Hero receives the ultimate reward, a prize or elixir capable of healing the schism of the world. He may have to steal this from the gods, or it may be offered willingly to their newly divine son. The secret of adulthood is understood and must be shared with others. Transcendence reaches the ultimate level, as the enlightened one finally reaches beyond mere totems of immortality into the source of eternal being itself. It is now his task to restore the flow of this substance to all of humanity.

Refusal of the Return

The Hero decides that he does not want to complete the task. Perhaps he wants to keep the boon for himself, or maybe he just enjoys his elevated position among the gods. Having finally unlocked the secret of completeness, the self may become selfish again and deny its obligation to human society. Those with knowledge must teach, but the one with the secret may embrace a cynical hatred for the other who lacks understanding. The enlightened one knows that the return is a denial of divinity and refuses to restore the flow of Imperishable Being to all of humankind.

The Magic Flight

Having stolen the boon from the gods, the Hero is pursued to the ends of the earth, or having had the boon willingly bestowed upon him by the gods, the Hero is ushered home under their guardianship. Once responsibility for the other is recognized, the self may project enemies at every turn, or on the other hand, the self may feel so driven by the importance of the mission that a kind of divine protection is felt. The demons of dogma and orthodoxy will usually pursue the enlightened one and attempt to prevent the restoration of divine power, for the true flow of eternal being will rob them of their control over the masses.

Rescue from Without

The Hero is incapable of crossing the return threshold on his own power and must be drawn out with the help of friends. Sometimes the key knowledge must be drawn out by others, eager students who must beg the newly minted mentor to share his wisdom. The enlightened one’s disciples must usher him across the threshold, either to hide him from discovery or because he’s too weak from his encounter with the Imperishable Being.

The Crossing of the Return Threshold

The Hero brings the boon into the ordinary world. This is another point of no return in that, once the boon is delivered, it cannot be taken back by the gods. The self finally opens up and empties itself out to the brotherhood of humankind. Where apotheosis represents the death of the human self before the divine, the return represents the death of the divine self before the human. The flow of eternal life is restored and may be accessed by all of humanity. The old temple priests no longer have their power and are banished.

Master of the Two Worlds

Having completed the entire journey, the Hero is rewarded with the ability to pass back and forth between ordinary and special realms. He is now the mentor for future generations. Having abolished the last threads of selfishness, what remains of “the self” now possesses the ability to pass effortlessly between contemplation and action, between quiet understanding and the act of teaching that knowledge to others. The enlightened one is now both human and divine and may pass freely between mortal and eternal realms. The community turns to him as the new prophet, a vessel of eternal knowledge, a shaman of divine communication.

Freedom to Live

The beginning of a new cycle. The Hero begins his reign among men and the rebirth of society begins in the wake of the boon’s delivery. It is the end of this chapter, but not the end of the story. The new unified “self” possesses the freedom to go forth and live. This journey is complete, but life if full of many journeys. All of humanity is now free to live and reach the full potential of our species, no longer held back by our old dogmas and prejudices, by the divisions of tribe, race, and nation. We are unified in the eternal

Campbell’s book was truly a classic of 20th century scholarship and was transformative in its attempt to unify humanity across cultures through story. However, his efforts were descriptive, not prescriptive, intended to demonstrate the universal mythological underpinnings of human storytelling, not to act as a paint-by-numbers outline for would-be storytellers. The monomyth is a pattern, but it is not a pattern that flows in one direction. Those who have set out to turn his work into a writing formula have unfortunately left the richness of Campbell’s nuance behind.

George Lucas may not have been Campbell’s first student, but he’s certainly the most important in terms of bringing Campbell’s influence to bear on modern cinema. Lucas hoped to build in Star Wars a modern mythology, and understandably, he found in Campbell’s work a valuable road map. With the explosive commercial success of Star Wars, it was not long before other filmmakers began to identify in Campbell a potential formula for success, and by 1985, this gain in influence culminated in a memo from Disney studio executive Chistopher Vogler that essentially made a version (and some would say distortion) of Campbell’s monomyth the bible by which all in-coming screenplays were to be judged. Vogler’s version of the Hero’s Journey reduced the cycle to 12 stages from 17 and obliterated the psychological and spiritual nuance in favor of literalistic narrative formula. Volger has since expanded his memo into the very influential screenwriting book, The Writer’s Journey.

The trouble with mimicking Campbell’s monomyth in screenwriting is that it favors a certain kind of plot to the exclusion of other valid (and often successful) plot structures. Vogler himself warned in his original memo, “Following the guidelines of myth too rigidly can lead to a stiff, unnatural structure, and there is the danger of being too obvious.”5 Unfortunately, almost no attention in screenwriting instruction has been paid to successful strategies for veering away from the rigid path. Instead, Vogler and the other screenwriting gurus have built entire careers urging aspiring screenwriters to follow the monomyth as a formula for guaranteed success.

3.1.4. Major Influences: Three-Act Paradigm. [Back to Page Topics]

Syd Field’s Screenplay is the final member of the Hollywood structure holy trinity. Writing in 1979, Field was hardly the first person to deliver a guide to screenwriting, but his structural Paradigm codified the rules of storytelling for the screen at a whole new level of detail. Field preached the three-act structure at 1/4 – 1/2 – 1/4 proportions, built around page-number-specific turning points.6 Act I is the Setup; it lasts approximately 30 pages and contains the first major Plot Point at around page 25. Act II is the Confrontation; it lasts approximately 60 pages and contains the second major Plot Point at around page 85; it also contains a pivotal scene roughly halfway through (page 60) called the Mid-Point on which the rest of the story turns. Act III is the Resolution and lasts approximately 30 pages.

Dozens of screenwriting guides have followed in the wake of Field’s description of the Paradigm, but most have basically tweaked his original form. For instance, Robert McKee describes an Act I of 30 pages, an Act II of 70 pages, and an Act III of 18 pages with a 2 page Resolution epilogue at the end.7 While McKee shifts a few pages here and there, the shape of his model is basically the Paradigm 2.0.

3.1.5. Archplot Principles. [Back to Page Topics]

Robert McKee refers to the classical Hollywood structure as the Archplot, and his description of its defining qualities is quite useful for understanding convential screenplays.8 According to McKee, the Archplot is built around a Single Active Protagonist, Closed Endings, External Conflict, Linear Ordering, Causality, and Consistent Reality.

Taken individually:

  • Single Active Protagonist — as opposed to multiple or passive protagonists.
  • Closed Endings — as opposed to open endings that leave plot threads unresolved.
  • External Conflict — as opposed to internal conflict, emotionally isolated to the protagonist.
  • Linear Ordering — events sequenced in a chronological and logical order, as opposed to alternative structures that defy chronology or logic.
  • Causality — traditional laws of cause and effect apply.
  • Consistent Reality — the storyworld of the script adheres to consistent governing laws and logic.

The scripts of big budget Hollywood blockbusters almost always fall within these parameters, and their plotting usually adheres to the limitations of Field’s three-act Paradigm, with major plot points occurring within the prescribed page ranges. This likely has more to do with the commercial considerations of managing audience attention spans than it does making great art. Archplot narratives recall the simple structures of fairytales (Vogler’s influence) and picture books we’re exposed to as children, and since film is a mass medium intended for a large audience (many of whom have never been exposed to the more complex narrative structures of novels), it only makes sense that studios prefer the kinds of plots that will appeal to the widest demographic.

That is not to say that the Archplot is a lesser form, but it is unfortunate that movie studios and screenwriting gurus alike have shied away from encouraging innovation.

3.1.6. The Super-Objective and the Spine. [Back to Page Topics]

Aristotle makes clear that the plot is made unified not by character but by action. “An indeterminately large number of things happen to any one person, not all of which constitute a unity; likewise a single individual performs many actions, and they do not make up a single action.”9 A unified action is one comprised of a “series of events occurring sequentially in accordance with probability or necessity.”10 In other words, the key to unity of action is causality. A unified plot is one in which each scene begets the next as a matter of necessity and probability. The question remains, however, how do screenwriters submit themselves to this guiding principle when structuring their plots?

Constantin Stanislavski may have been the first to offer an effective tool to that end. His introduction of the Super-Objective and the Through-Line (or Spine) into the craft of performance has had powerful implications for writing as well. The Super-Objective is a character’s primary desire. A character may have many desires and some of these may change from scene to scene, but all other wants, needs, and goals must be governed by the Super-Objective. This creates a unity of desire that drives the character’s actions. Similarly, the Spine is the unified thread of actions taken on the part of the character in pursuit of his or her Super-Objective. Together, the Super-Objective and Spine offer the screenwriter a path of adherence to Aristotle’s prescription of plot unity.

Playwright Kenn Adams has described “the story spine” in the framework of a fill-in-the-blank fairytale to help the writer preserve the unity of action.11

THE PLATFORM —
— Once Upon a Time…
— And everyday…
THE CATALYST —
— But one day…
THE CONSEQUENCES —
—And because of that…
THE CLIMAX —
—Until finally…
THE RESOLUTION —
—And ever since then…

By completing the sentence fragments with the basic plot points from a Hollywood feature, we can see how the Adams story spine preserves unity of action. In this case, we will use Back to the Future as an example:

  • Once Upon a Time there lived an average American teenager named Marty.
  • And everyday, in spite of his family’s history of failure, he pursued his dreams, believing that history was going to change.
  • But one day Marty accidentally traveled back in time and prevented his parents from falling in love.
  • And because of that Marty had to both get his parents back together and find a way to return to the future.
  • Until finally he succeeded on both counts, but not before altering history a little for the better in the process.
  • And ever since then Marty’s family and future were better off than before his trip through time.

Here again we see how classical approaches to screenwriting structure seek to simplify plot development to the level of an easily digestible formula that reduces narrative options for the screenwriter. If screenwriting is structure, classical screenwriting is an art of strict limits.

3.1.7. Discussion Topics. [Back to Page Topics]

The following are suggested key terms and topics of discussion for college courses studying this material.

Key Terms:

  • Story
  • Plot
  • Fabula
  • Sjuzhet
  • Aristotle’s Poetics
  • Complication (desis)
  • Resolution (lysis)
  • Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces
  • Monomyth or “Hero’s Journey”
  • Syd Field’s Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting
  • The Paradigm
  • Three-Act Structure
  • Plot Points and Mid-Point
  • Archplot
  • Unity
  • Causality
  • Super-Objective
  • Spine (Through-Line)

Questions:

  • What is screenplay structure?
  • Why is it important to distinguish between a screenplay’s story and plot?
  • How have Aristotle, Joseph Campbell, and Syd Field shaped the way we think of screenplay structure?
  • Why are Archplot screenplays considered more commercially viable than Alternative Plot scripts?
  • How does identifying the Super-Objective and the Spine aid in the analysis of a screenplay’s structure?

3.1.8. Footnotes. [Back to Page Topics]

 

  1. Goldman, William. Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting. NY: Warner Books, 1983. Pg. 459.
  2. Rodman, Howard. “What a Screenplay Isn’t.” Cinema Journal. Vol. 45, No. 2. Winter 2006. Pg. 87.
  3. Aristotle. Poetics. Translated by Heath, Malcolm. London: Penguin, 1996. Pg. 29.
  4. Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton: U of Princeton P, 1973. Pg. 30.
  5. Vogler, Christopher. “A Practical Guide to Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces.” 1985. http://www.thewritersjourney.com/hero%27s_journey.htm#Practical
  6. Field, Syd. Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting. NY: Delta, 2005.
  7. McKee, Robert. Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. NY: Regan, 1997. Pgs. 208-232.
  8. McKee, Robert. Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. NY: Regan, 1997. Pgs. 31-66.
  9. Aristotle. Poetics. Translated by Heath, Malcolm. London: Penguin, 1996. Pg. 15.
  10. Aristotle. Poetics. Translated by Heath, Malcolm. London: Penguin, 1996. Pg. 14.
  11. Ohler, Jason. Digital Storytelling in the Classroom: New Media Pathways to Literacy, Learning, and Creativity. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2008. Pgs. 120-122.

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