Structure, character, and story… why your screenplay needs them.

Okay, so this is the big one. It’s the big one because on it’s own it really doesn’t mean anything. I could give you a “golden ticket” for structure. but it would be useless without linking it to story and character. Because I believe that a screenplay needs all three of these things.

Let’s examine what we mean:

Structure – the architecture of your screenplay. At certain moments, certain things happen. The catalyst at page 12, for instance.

Story – the plot. Event that happen to the characters, or which they instigate.

Character – a nebulous concept, rarely defined. Not just personality or behaviour, but a mixture of the two. A character is defined by the action they take. Whether we would call these actions heroic, cowardly, villainous, vain etc. Even worse, character is supposed to change. Take Sarah Connor in the Terminator (put-upon waitress to kick-ass robot killer).

Whe I first began writing, I knew that certain things were supposed to happen at certain points (structure) creating the story. but what I didn’t know what that structure is really about character, and character is where the story comes from. Confused?

Let’s take an example,one of my all-time favourite comedies, “Groundhog Day”:

TV weatherman Phil Connors ( Bill Murray), manages to alienate his cameraman and beautiful producer by being cynical and self-centred.

(Notice the “setup” phase of the story is actually laying down Phil’s character by showing how he reacts to events)

On assignment to cover Groundhog Day, Phil gets stranded in Punxsutawney due to a blizzard. Phil wakes up to find that he is reliving that same day over again.

(Phil is annoyed, to say the least, at having to stay. But he is about to face an event that will force his personalilty to change. These are the “catalyst”, and “turning point” phases).

At first he is confused. Then when it happens again, he takes advantage of the situation without any fear of long-term consequences. He uses his “inside knowledge” to seduce women, steal money, and act recklessly.

(Now we get to the “fun and games” section, where the story literally plays around with the concept: “What would you do if you were foced to relive one day over and over again?”)

However, his attempts to get closer to Rita repeatedly fail.

(The “midpoint”. This is where Phil tries his tricks on Rita and fails. He knows he must change but is unwilling to do so)

Unable to end the time loop, a frustrated Phil becomes depressed, offensive, kindaps Punxsutawney Phil and even tries to end his own life. But despite all his actions, nothing breaks the time loop.

(Phil avoids change and in doing so falls into despair. This is the “low point” of the movie)

Phil finally tells Rita what is happening and proves it to her. She suggests that he should take advantage of it to improve himself.

(The second “turning point”. Notice how the romance subplot provides the inspiration for the protagonist’s final victory?)

Inspired, Phil decides to use his knowledge of what the day will bring to help as many people around town as possible, even saving lives. He learns to play piano and make ice sculptures. He becomes so popular and admired that Rita is impressed.

(Phil embraces change. His personality undergoes a radical transformation. But we believe it because it’s been set up earlier on. Phil knew he had to change; now he goes for it. And the results are impressive. He is on his way to the final victory).

After the end of this last, most momentous day, Rita stays the night with Phil, and he awakes, not to the same day, but to a new day with Rita. The time loop is broken.

(The “final victory” and”resolution”. Phil shows he has changed. He doesn’t try to seduce Rita. His love for her is genuine. As a result of accepting this change his life is transfomed, the curse is broken, and the story reaches its climax.)

So there you go. This is why I believe that character, story,and structure are all intimately interconnected. I tied myself in knots for a long while trying to shoe-horn my plots into a structural paradigm, not knowing that I was really writing about characters and change.

Hope this helps you!

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