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If you're reading this book, you probably have at least some rudimentary knowledge of what constitutes a good screenplay. Chances are, you've heard of the three-act structure and you know that the average script is supposed to be thinner than an L.A. phone book. Many of you may be already itching to skip to the next chapter. But so that all of us can share a common ground of concepts to build on, let's do a quick review of the basics.
A perusal of the field yields, by common consensus, seven essential components of storytelling. Everybody has his or her own variations on these elements, but for our purposes, let's say these are the generally agreed-upon fundamental components that any good screenplay has to have. Put them all to good use, and you're loaded for bear; abandon even one, and your movie will be handicapped.
Here's an odd instance of what might be called Oscar prescience: I once predicted who would win Best Actor before the movie was shot. That was when a friend slipped me a copy of the Mark Andrus/James L. Brooks script for As Good as It Gets, then in preproduction under another title. When I finished the read and dried my tears (besides being moved, I was crying because there was probably no way I'd ever write dialogue as good as Brooks does), I opined that whoever played the part of Melvin was going to win an Academy Award. Told that Jack Nicholson had been cast, I said, "In that case, I'll put money on it."
It wasthat good a part, that good a character -- and every now and then, in a rare moment of honest humility, you'll hear an award-winning actor credit the role for the win. They're no dummies, and any working writer knows that this story component is perhaps the most important of them all. One such scribe nailed it a few thousand years ago (Heraclitus), when he said "Character is destiny." Plot comes from people.
Some say that a story is merely the reaction of characters to crisis and/or conflict. It's certainly true that a story lacking in credible, complex, empathetic people who have strong desires is a story that no amount of sex, violence, or technology can fix. Think of the many memorable movies named after their protagonists -- Forrest Gump, Thelma and Louise, Arthur, to name a few -- and hundreds of actors' careers were virtually created by a seminal role. Where would Harrison Ford be without Han Solo? Stallone without Rocky?
Still, you'd be surprised by how often this absolutely vital storytelling element gets neglected in your average spec screenplay. Haven't these writers ever seen the lack of strong characterizations turn a potential studio blockbuster into a last-resort selection at Blockbuster's? All the star power in the world doesn't make a difference if the characters aren't on the page, which is what MGM found out when Michael Keaton and Geena Davis, both at career peaks, tanked in 1994's Speechless. That's why this story component is going to get a lot of serious attention in the pages ahead.
Character is only half of the dynamics of a story. A given situation is the other half. Unlike a title such as Thelma and Louise, the movie about how one romantic couple came to be isn't called simply Harry and Sally, it's called When Harry Met Sally. Nice title, because it immediately suggests more than a general story (i.e., everything you need to know about Harry and Sally). It indicates plot -- which is, as we've posited, how a particular character deals with a given situation (e.g., when Harry met Sally...what happened?). How your characters act (or choose not to act) generally constitutes dramatic development.
A good plot sustains our interest in a story, making us ask "what happens next?" through a canny manipulation of intriguing complications and escalating conflicts. When it comes to plot, there are only three things every one has to have: a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Plot is the specific sequence of events that illuminates your story. Structure is your means of organizing that sequence.
Cinematic master Jean Luc Godard once said that every movie needed a beginning, a middle, and an end -- but not necessarily in that order. And true, some classics like Sunset Boulevard begin with the ending (e.g., the hero found dead in a swimming pool), and some go backward and forward in time simultaneously (e.g., The English Patient). But whatever the organizing plan that a story uses, if it's going to satisfy an audience, its plot is generally presented in three viable acts.
Funny thing about threes. Maybe it's hardwired into our DNA, but three seems to be the magic number (as in morning, noon, and night, the Holy Trinity, etc.). You know the feeling when a movie's first act stumbles, when a second act falls apart, or worst of all, when an ending disappoints; the resulting alienation is fatal. Clearly, a well-structured plot is a critical component of good storytelling, and we'll be scrutinizing the ways and means of achieving it.
If there's one question that gives every screenwriter I know the willies, it's the one that some executives ask -- often at the end of a fine-tuned pitch, a model of first-rate storytelling that's just outlined a movie in vivid, you-can-see-it detail. "Sounds great," they say, "but what's the movie about?"
Like it or not, that's the question every good storyteller has to answer. If character is the element that tells us who, and plot/ structure the element that explores what, then theme is the necessary story component that addresses why: Why are you telling us this...Writing the Romantic Comedy. Copyright © by Billy Mernit. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.