Screenwriting Tips: Structure - By Pauline Kiernan


Understanding Structure

It’s what sends screenwriters into frenzied anxiety attacks, rapidly losing the will to live, but Structure can seem a whole lot less terrifying once you realise that all it really means is the way your story unfolds. Think of it not as some rigid template you have to squeeze your story into, but the way the emotional needs and actions of your characters are shaping and driving the story. Keep remembering that the aim of structure is to draw your audience into an intense emotional engagement with the story and keep them totally absorbed throughout. Think of it as the story breathing - ever-developing sequences of tension and release which keep depth-charging the emotions of the audience.

Having a flexible outline of pivotal events can help. A story needs something to get it going, moments that are turning points which force the character in new directions (often an emotional revelation, not just surface action), a climax and a resolution (which can be ambiguous or open-ended). 

Some pointers for shaping the story:

  • Watch a film once, then the same film backwards.

The idea is to trace how the narrative thread is not just shaped but layered. You’re looking for how the whole story is paced, moments or scenes where you’re given breathing space to absorb what’s happening and so on . You’re looking out for moments that move the story forward in ways that layer and interweave. Make notes as you keep hitting the pause button.  Starting from the final frame:

Be aware of how each scene has been prepared for in previous scenes. You’re following the thread backwards. Try to keep in mind the overall thread - something in scene 20 may have been foreshadowed in scene 2. Make a note of what it is in each scene that is driving the story. Is what’s happening no w more interesting than before?  How is conflict being developed? Look out for moments where you’re registering  meaning thro ugh the ways in which the story is being orchestrated not just in terms of plot.

Watching backwards is a terrific way to see how not just actions, but symbolic resonances, unspoken feelings, visual metaphors, subtext, dialogue, subtext are all structuring the story. (Silence can be structure).

- How are all these script elements driving the story forward?

- How’s the pacing? Is it varied?

- How much tension and release is happening? Do this with other films so you can discover some of the most powerful ways to develop the natural unfolding movement of a story.

  • Beat Sheet

This represents emotional beats and events which are pivotal to the flow of the story, and helps to focus on a clear and concise storyline. Think of it as successive bullet-points. A beat can be something happening within a scene or across scenes. Jot down a bare outline of the main critical moments in the story. This will help with pacing.

 

- Are there ups and downs? Where are the moments of dramatic tension and release? 

- Significant turning points where things move in a new direction?

- Any twists that surprise?

Now you’ll have a firmer idea of what other beats to add - and crucially - where they fall in the arc of the story until you have a complete sheet. A beat sheet is invaluable for assessing how an audience will stay completely connected to the story. Look at every beat and ask: Will the audience want to know what happens next? It can also help to draw a graph of beats to see at once how varied the pace is and whether you have those all-important tension and release sequences.

  • Getting  the Pace Right.

Make your words move, shift, change gear. Give them energy. Open your script at random and read a page out loud. Is there something moving which impels one word to the next, one line to the next, one page to the next? Now this isn’t a question of speed. A work has effective pace when everything happens at the right moment for its dramatic purpose. A stopped momentum is pace. A high-octane action sequence is pace. The key is to vary the pace.

 

Keep asking your script questions. I strongly urge you to get some friends to do a readthrough of your script. They play the characters, one of them reads the descriptions and you listen and make notes. It’s best if the ‘actors’ can stand up and move around. You’ll soon be able to see where the story sags and needs more tightening, or has too much going on and needs more breathing. It’s the quickest way to find out whether the structure and shape of the story is working.

 

About the author - Pauline is a screenwriter, award-winning playwright, Shakespeare scholar, and former journalist. She's also the author of one of the best guides there is to screenwriting, Screenwriting They Can't Resist: How to Create Screenplays of Originality and Cinematic Power. Explode the Rules