Plotting a Path through the Wild

Colourful wooden slats laid down to make a gently winding path though a wild, dark green forest

I’m on the cusp of starting my screenplay.

I’ve been immersed in the story for a few weeks now so the characters are keen to come out, interrupting my thoughts with flashes of action and snippets of dialogue. My brain is making connections, imagination fired up. It’s the Muse in motion, skipping along merrily and I, the scruffy intern, follow after, notepad in hand.

My reluctant (and enlightening) pitstop at structure

Admittedly, I wanted to skip the part of the screenplay guide (Save the Cat) that talked about structure. I’d already sketched out rough scenes (about two years ago) and what with being very time-constricted I was reluctant to revisit them. Then the author (Blake Snyder) comes along with his sensible, industry-savvy advice and suggests I spend some time considering (again) how it’s going to unfold.

Why?

He says plotting it out helps to crystallise your ideas and iron out problems that could become more difficult to surmount later. What’s more, using a board (see below) to lay it out gives you an overview of the general arc, scenes and rhythms – to see whether they work, or not.

Well, it turns out it was a wise decision as I had a gaping hole in the story.

In essence, I’d gone from act one to act three, bypassing act two entirely. Doh! Revisiting the arc of the story and its multiple threads helped me plug that ridiculous hole through which all tension would have escaped (along with the viewer’s interest). It also enabled me to flesh out other parts, adjust the flow and order of scenes and really embed the central themes in my mind.

The ever-wise Julia Cameron says:

In limits, there is freedom. Creativity thrives within structure.”

I think I can see why.

Structure seems to give my ideas a framework within which to thrive. It enables the story strands to form into a proper shape and towards something more whole, rather than the amorphous and tangential. 

Story beats à la Snyder

So what does that structure look like?

Seeing as stories have been around since the dawn of man they have a certain rhythm and flow we’ve come to expect. So, if you’ve been reading stories or watching films or TV for any length of time you’ll recognise them.

A general pattern might be:

  • Act one: life is a certain way for a person (the hero of the tale)
  • A challenge befalls them and their life changes
  • Act two: the hero goes on a journey to reach a new goal
  • Other characters or things get in the way making it more difficult
  • Act three: after a worthy effort, the hero finally wins

This is, of course, a very simplistic view of the elements that make up a classic story. Snyder breaks them down into 15 beats and even has a handy list of films with the beats overlaid so we can see how they fit (most of the time).

Once these beats are established, he encourages the writer to break it all down further into what will become 40 scenes. Each of these must involve an emotional change and some healthy conflict to keep the viewer captivated. He then suggests putting them onto a board.

This is what my board looks like.

A cork pinboard filled with little white cards depicting scenes spread over three acts
A (very) rough outline of the pilot episode

Split into the three acts (yes, three now), it gives me a handy visual indicator of how the pieces fit together and if any sections are unbalanced.

I didn’t wring myself dry over it and it isn’t 100% complete (you can probably spot a few blank/vague cards) but I was rather chuffed I’d made the effort.

Then towards the end of the chapter Snyder says this:

“Truth is when you write FADE IN: The Board means nothing.”

Julia Dreyfus in Veep wearing a burgundy blouse and walking away until she realises something and says, "What?"

Say what now??

Apparently, you have to be prepared to throw the damn thing out the window, depending on what the story needs. Ho-hum.

But…

I have to say, I can already feel all this structure work will support me during those times creativity dries up. When I wonder where the story should go and what on earth I’m doing – I can simply go back to the board.

Now, I’ve just got to write it.

x

P.S. Are you writing anything right now? I’d love to hear your thoughts (or see your board) – post it in the comments or message me 🙂

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