A quick catch up: Thanks to all of you who took part in my trial webinars, on the topic of Multiple Protagonist Family Reunion Structures! It was great fun. For the many who requested some notes on the topic, I'll be sending out some when I get a minute.
That script you abandoned might be fixable by a new structure!
The one hero chronological model is fine for certain story types, but it's simply not true that the one hero model is the only structure. This is very important to understand if you intend to go into TV writing, the essence of which is interwoven multiple plotlines often with multiple protagonists. As for film writing, many films just don't fit the conventional one hero model. And I don't mean only those obviously complicated scripts like nonlinear models or films with flashbacks or fractured stories or multiple protagonist films.
What I mean is something that you probably haven't thought about. It's that if you lock yourself mentally into that one hero structure rather than taking on board the idea that different stories require different structures you're likely to end up either throwing really promising scripts away or having people reject them because what’s on the page is not working. And the reason it's not working is that you are using the wrong structure, with the result that you're trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.
True story - how an abandoned script became a success story through a structure change
I'm very fired up about structure at the moment - not just because I'm about to start another series of international masterclasses on on parallel, nonlinear and multiplot narrative (Australians, I’m in Melbourne on August 18-19, Europeans, I’m with you October-November) - but because I've spend a lot of time recently showing people that the reason they're blocking on a script is that they're using the wrong structure. Here's a true story.
This weekend I was chatting to a very experienced professional writer friend who’d just abandoned a script because she felt she didn’t have a good enough story. She was trying to write a script about a truly fascinating real-life mystery concerning a well-known historical person. My friend suspected that there was a cover up involving this person, whose papers, very suspiciously, were destroyed by the family following the person’s death. All kinds of tantalising loose ends had been left. I thought it was a really great idea, what's more, because the central character was famous, very commercial.
She'd tried writing the story in many different but very logical, sensible ways, always from the point of view of the main historical players. She'd tried writing it from the point of view of the historical person - showing this person writing memoirs that revealed all, memoirs that family members would later destroy. She'd tried writing it from the point of view of the family members as they arranged a cover up.
None of these approaches worked for her because they locked her into presenting her suspicions as the truth as spoken by historical people - and she didn’t want to do that because she had no hard evidence of her suspicions, so presenting them as facts would be falsifying history.
Of course, she could have written the script with her suspicions as truths, but she didn’t want to. The problem was, as she pointed out, that if she stayed with the actual historical evidence she didn’t have a story. Hence, she’d dumped the script.
Now, here's the scary thing. Conventional screenwriting theory (one hero on a single linear journey) would have agreed with her - absolutely. It doesn't work. Dump it! But actually, the problem was soluble by a structure change, by coming at the story in a different way.
How we found the structure that fitted the content
How we worked it out between us was, firstly, by drilling down into what the writer really wanted to do. She wanted to show the evidence for a cover up without having to fake a truth. What she needed was a structure that let her explain her suspicions but leave the answer in the air – but a structure that would do so without making the story end in anticlimax. What she had to do to get her drama – her story – was was from a story structure that could show, in a tantalising, exciting and rewarding way that there MIGHT have been a cover up. But what story structure could do that? Impossible?
The answer is a structure like Citizen Kane, where you have a journalist investigating a mystery that is never solved, with the joy of the story being precisely that the mystery ISN’T solved. Technically, my friend needed to structure the mystery around a completely new character (an investigator), making that investigator have colleagues/friend with whom he/she can chat about the possible cover up, thereby informing the audience.
Citizen Kane belongs to a double narrative flashback family that I have isolated and named ‘Case History Flashback’ because its message is that people are unknowable, mysterious and often sinister, not explicable by their past, particularly when their past is recounted by others (by the way, I've just posted a YouTube video on flashback structures like Citizen Kane)
The script is now working like a dream. This new structure - this new way of telling her story - is achieving exactly the effect my friend wanted. The way it does it is by giving her a new central (fictitious) character who can credibly explore all the suspicions and theories, articulating them for the audience by talking about them to colleagues but who, at a terrific climax, can never actually prove anything, ending the film in a tantalising mystery.
The amazing thing here is that the drama is coming from the very thing that stymied the first structure. Crucially – and terrifyingly – the first structure looked like the sensible, logical choice when in fact it was just not going to work.
The Citizen Kane structure of course lends itself easily to flashbacks, and as in Citizen Kane my friend can have flashbacks from people who knew the historical character. Excitingly, flashbacks can foster the mystery and enhance my friend’s intention of making the audience pleasurably intrigued and frustrated by not knowing for sure the truth. The flashbacks can either be true, false or questionable. They can be contradictory in their assessment of the historical character, with one set of flashbacks showing the historical character as ,say, honest, while another set shows them a liar.
Can you see how the Kane structure opens up and enriches my friend’s idea of suspicions that can’t be proved, whereas, by contrast, the first structure she tried made her idea look like a fizzer?
This is why you have to be not only open to the idea of different structures but also to be able 1) to identify all the different structure types, linear, nonlinear and parallel narratives and 2) to understand what they’re useful for so that you can stand back and choose the right one for what you want to do.
The difference between a professional writer and a newcomer
I’m often asked what’s the difference between a professional writer and an emerging writer. It’s not about talent. Like all art, it’s about control. It’s about learning to control the story rather than letting the story control you. It’s saying ‘Which is the best way to tell this story to get across what I want to say’ rather than ‘I’m telling this story..’ then letting it take you wherever it wants to go. And in technical terms, it’s about which structure you use.
So this is why I go on about these structures, all twenty five plus of them I'm not overcomplicating things for the sake of it. I’m not doing this for the sake of describing and naming different structures. Naming and describing structures is fine and useful but we writers have to go beyond just describing structures. We're like bricklayers. We don’t only have to know what the finished wall will look like - which is what film studies people do, and that’s fine, that’s their job description – we writers also need to know precisely how to build that wall – what mortar to use, what measurements to take, and so on. That’s our job. We need to know the practical mechanics.
If you know only one set of practical mechanics - the one hero structure - you are, I’m afraid, going to hit problems. You need to know all of the different structures – linear, nonlinear, multiplot – the lot. You need to know how to identify them and what they’re useful for. Complicated? Yes. Essential? I’m afraid so.
So that’s why I go on about structure, specifically, about the many different structures that are being used out there. As I say, complicated but essential (Meanwhile, the really annoying thing is that all of these brilliant writers out there keep inventing new hybrid structures which I have to analyse… Is there no peace... )
Nonlinear TV Series and Binge Viewing
Which reminds me. Thinking about these annoying writers who keep doing new things with structure reminds me. TV writers are now using nonlinear and complex parallel narratives to encourage binge viewing
For the first time in ten or so years I'm back in Melbourne to give the latest version of my very popular big-guns structure masterclass , the one I'll be taking to professional writers in Europe later in the year. We'll cover my latest take on nonlinear and multiplot scriptwriting structures - not only in film but in the new long-form TV drama and with (for all you digital types) a quick look at their applications in games and VR. I have been writing multplot nonlinear VR, so I'm on to some very practical stuff there.
(By the way, if you came to my seminar 10 years ago or are familiar only with my first book Screenwriting Updated, I've developed my theories extensively since. There's a lot more since then, and now I've gone beyond book 2, The 21st Century Screenplay...(I've isolated a whole raft of new new structural types, plus the TV applications, games, VR, yadda yadda, I add to it all the time...) Further info and Limited tickets
Latest News on my Turbocharged Advanced Mentorship
As I've mentioned, I'm starting a new Turbocharged Advanced Mentorship - a whizbang best-in-class turbocharged one-on-one diploma course combining my personally tailored mentorship program (in which people create a brand new script with me, as we focus together on their individual writing issues) plus the scriptwriting theory included in normal film school diploma courses (for which, I gather, a number of schools actually use my books). I'm now working on the practicalities of the online version Starting next Jan, I think. It's not for everyone. It's for people considering a film school Screenwriting Certificate or Diploma, and requires the same commitment of time and fees. More information soon.