The more you learn about storytelling and structure as a screenwriter, the more you can identify the various techniques used in films and scripts everywhere you go. Where once an audience would remain blissfully ignorant as they let the story wash over them, now everyone has become a disdainful critic because of the basic application and location of tried and tested storytelling habits.
Unfortunately, the so-called ‘rules’ that are generated and accepted regarding screenwriting are creating a sense of ‘must write a script in this way’ but what is not properly understood about these screenplay fundamentals is that they are common ideals that will help you realise your story but should not overly-dictate the organic form of the narrative. And so, scripts follow the three-act structure to an efficient tee but sadly don’t provide any emotional or dramatic heart to their framework.
Despite what the box office receipts might scarily declare as the weekend’s number one film, audiences are a very clever and sophisticated bunch. And they share your knowledge of screenplay and story fundamentals so that if you present them with a basic premise, they can easily figure out what’s going to happen next - plot point to act break to mid-point to climax to resolution. It’s quite tempting to follow the three-act template and feel quite pleased that the story hits all the required marks but more often than not what happens is that the script is a bland and predictable affair that won’t excite or interest anyone.
Storytelling has increasingly become about defying predictability. Setting up one expectation and delivering something else. If the outcome to a film is clear from the beginning (good guy beats bad guy, girl and boy end up together), then it’s up to the writer to deliver a story worth sticking around for to make it more satisfying when the predictable end comes around (Lord of the Rings, Jerry Maguire etc).
There are certain times at the cinema where I lose all sense of mentally ticking off the structure of the film and instead get lost in the characters and story. It doesn’t happen very often but when it does occur, I’m left hugely impressed by the writer/director’s talent, and greatly entertained and satisfied with the story.
Let’s take Jerry Maguire for a second.
** SPOILERS AHEAD **
When I first saw it at the flicks, I was completely thrown. The opening sequence alone is quite odd and distinctive, and I was immediately sucked into Jerry’s world. And then he has his memo epiphany and is applauded for his work and then he’s fired. But he manages to hold on to one client and a humble secretary and he goes from there.
In retrospect, the narrative could probably be easily be dissected into a three-act frame (getting fired being the ‘inciting incident’ maybe but who cares) but my initial response to the story was: “I don’t know where I am and I don’t know what’s going to happen. This is original, interesting and funny”. The story continues to advance in original and surprising ways: the way the Cruiser proposes to Renee is a very unromantic scene and the doubts raised about their relationship during their wedding reception made me feel uncomfortable. Just what was this story doing? The guy gets the girl, surely the film’s over?
Thank god for Cuba Gooding Jnr and the adorable kid, they made the story a lot of fun, but there was so much uncomfortable emotion being shared between Tom and Renee’s characters that I was completely sucked into the world of the story and wanted to know what was going to happen next. Writer/director Cameron Crowe had made them ‘real’ and had provided them with multi-dimensions of complex character behaviour. And then the corny: “You complete me” gets a great pay-off and she gets the line that’s still quoted in many different guises today: “You had me at hello”, and voila, instant classic.
** END SPOILERS **
Anyway, the point is: avoid the obvious signposts of screenplay structure. It’s easy to set up and build a story around the basic three-act template but it’s better to try to defy expectation and avoid predictability at every stage. A screenplay is not a blueprint for a film (someone once said: “I’ve never seen a blueprint that had emotion in it”) but a script written to the design of the template rather than the intentions of the writer becomes a blueprint, and that’s when criticisms and problems occur for writers everywhere.
That’s why we get treated so badly. People in power have instant ammunition to dismiss our work. That’s why we must strive for better stories that have their own sense of style and structure but ultimately tell a powerful story that’s emotional and dramatic and entertaining. That’s why we go to the cinema in the first place. Isn’t it?