Screenwriting 101: Why the Story Structure Aerodynamics Matter, by Christopher Riley

The first of a five-part series on the laws of screenwriting aerodynamics: Whether you’re writing your first or fiftieth screenplay

The magic of flying isn’t the laws of aerodynamics any more than the magic of cinema is the principles of film structure. But those laws and those principles make the magic possible, enabling mere mortals to harness the power of flight.

by Christopher Riley, author of The Hollywood Standard

Beginning screenwriters hate structure. My students inevitably inform me of such predictable certainties as…

Screenwriter and Author Christopher Riley

Structure chafes.

Structure kills creativity.

Structure is for paint-by-the-numbers hacks, mindless, slavish screenwriting hordes laboring in the sweatshops of Snyder, Aristotle, and McKee.

Structure is a four-letter word. Count ‘em. Str-uc-tu-re. Four toxic letters that spell death to art.

So let’s not talk about structure. Let’s talk about hummingbirds, or, better yet, airplanes.

I wonder if airplane designers debate whether the laws of aerodynamics matter. If they entertain the notion of casting aside those outmoded, restrictive physical laws that mandate things like thrust and lift, and that result in a dull sameness among aircraft, each with some form of motor and wing.

I wonder if any of those free-thinking designers build flying machines without regard for the rigid and stultifying laws of aerodynamics, build them in bright colors and novel, bulbous shapes without wings, without motors, then wrap silk scarves around their necks and take their machines to the skies.

I wonder if they die in pain.

The good news: no one dies when a screenwriter defies the principles of screenplay structure. What terrible thing does happen? The story loses its way. The audience loses interest. The film bombs.

I have no interest in propounding rules for rules’ sake. I’m a screenwriter. I aspire to create films that explore and expand the boundaries of cinema in all its forms. If I could craft a story with no structure, or with some radically new structure heretofore unknown to humankind, I’d love to do it and take home the Nobel in Screenwriting.

But I don’t want to commit the cardinal sin of the would-be entertainer, boring the audience. And I must tell you that having read thousands of scripts, and watched many, many films, and worked with hundreds of students on their stories, and written an award-winning European film, and written scripts for Hollywood studios, and written scripts for the Web, I’ve made this observation.

Stories without structure don’t work.

They don’t sustain audience interest from beginning to end.

They bore.

Here’s why.

Screenwriting Laws of Aerodynamics
Houston, we have a problem. ‘Structure is the rope that pulls the audience through the story.’ -Ron Howard, Apollo 13 Director

A movie is a delicate thing, typically consumed by a viewer in one sitting, dependent on a story that constantly moves forward, upping the emotional ante, riveting us in our plush seats. Without a sound structure capable of grabbing audience interest at the start and holding it until the end, a two-hour film collapses under its own weight. It sags in the middle. It fails to provide the setups and payoffs, the emotional ups and downs, that create a cinema experience that satisfies.

We know this from observing films that work, the same way we know about the laws of aerodynamics by observing planes that fly. That’s where Aristotle got his material. He didn’t make it up. He wasn’t a structure czar. He was a scientist. He observed the stories that worked best and then described what he saw. Same with Robert McKee and Chris Vogler and Syd Field. Same with Blake Snyder. They observed the common structural characteristics of stories that manage to hold audience interest all the way to the end, which is the most fundamental definition of what it means to entertain. Then they described the principles that shape those stories. And despite the variances in terminology and details, their descriptions are remarkably similar.That shouldn’t surprise us. They all looked at the same thing.

Dummies and Ropes
Chris wrote the book on screenplay formatting… literally!

Screenwriter Akiva Goldsman has described structure as being like the clothing dummy used by the fashion designer. It always looks the same. If you don’t understand the shape of the clothing dummy, which is the shape of the human body, you’re not going to make clothes that any humans can wear. You might congratulate yourself on your innovation, having sewn a pair of pants that are all puff sleeve, but you’re not going to clothe anyone.

Director Ron Howard offers his own elegant definition. Structure, he says, is the rope that pulls the audience through the story. It’s the one-thing-leads-to-the-next, the-answer-to-one-question-raises-an-even-more-compelling-question quality of films that makes us want to stick around and find out what happens next. And so it is.

Look closely at successful films that appear to defy the principles of story construction and you’ll see that in fact they conform. Memento is a hummingbird of a story, appearing to defy gravity even as it obeys the aerodynamics of story structure. You’ve got a beginning, ingeniously built of stuff that happens last chronologically, and this beginning, as in all good film beginnings, is where we meet and begin to root for the main character. It’s where we’re introduced to the world of the story. It’s where we discover what the situation is, what problem our hero faces, and what he wants.

Three Acts are Three Acts
Falling with style. Whether he’d admit it or not, he discovered that structure by gut, because he’s a gifted filmmaker and storyteller.

How could it possibly be otherwise? You have a middle, where the main character pursues a plan to get what he wants, where he tries his best against all obstacles to reach his goal. And you’ve got a decisive, cataclysmic ending, even though it’s built of stuff that actually happens first chronologically.

That’s three acts, structure at its simplest and most irreducible. Want four acts? Split the middle act into two. Five acts? Split the second act into thirds. Have as many acts as you like, only don’t tell your producer or studio executive, because that’s not the language they speak.

Now you don’t necessarily need to study film structure or even believe it exists in order to make a film that works. It’s true. This is because you don’t have to understand structure in an explicit way to write or make a well-structured film. Some storytellers simply know structure implicitly, the way some people always know which way is north.

We Need a Compass
‘Memento’ is a hummingbird of a story, appearing to defy gravity even as it obeys the aerodynamics of story structure. It flies because its structure, not in spite of it.

I think that for most of us, however, an explicit mastery of the principles of structure saves weeks and months of wandering in the jungle without a compass. It certainly makes it easier to describe our stories to other Hollywood professionals, nearly all of whom speak the language of structure. But, to be fair, I have to tell you about the case I know in which a writer-director of a high-profile film publicly announced that he’d disregarded the whole three-act structure conceit and simply shot his movie. I saw this infidel’s movie in his presence at a Writers Guild screening in Beverly Hills.

The thing worked beautifully. It wasn’t boring. It didn’t collapse under its own weight. It grabbed my attention at the beginning and held it all the way to the end. Which seems to contradict everything I’ve just told you. Except…

In the Q&A following the screening, the filmmaker described the first, bloated, four-hour cut of his film, and the months of sitting in the editing room sifting through his story, discovering his movie, which ultimately came in at around two hours and had a classical three-act structure. Whether he’d admit it or not, he discovered that structure by gut, because he’s a gifted filmmaker and storyteller. He felt his way to it in the darkness of the editing bay. He might have saved himself some of those months in post, and he might have saved his investors some of the dollars he spent shooting scenes he didn’t need, if he’d discovered his structure at the writing stage.

The hummingbird doesn’t need to know how he flies. But to hedge your bets, just in case you’re more human than hummingbird, I say read up on the observations of Aristotle, Field, McKee, and Snyder before you take to the air. The magic of flying isn’t the laws of aerodynamics any more than the magic of cinema is the principles of film structure. But those laws and those principles make the magic possible, enabling mere mortals to harness the power of flight.

Next Post in Series: Screenwriting 101: A Step by Step Guide to Achieving the Impossible – Steps 1-3, by Christopher Riley

 

Christopher Riley is the author of The Hollywood Standard: The Complete and Authoritative Guide to Script Format and Style.  He wrote the German-language courtroom thriller After the Truth with his wife and writing partner Kathleen Riley, and executive produced the provocative web series Bump+. This article originally appeared on www.blakesnyder.com. Used by permission.

Jonathan Edwards Goes to Movies: What Story Structure Teaches Us About Religious Affections

Part IV of 2017 Lenten Series: Why Lent is a More Like Moana than Monty Python
The inciting event presents the hero with a decision: Shall I continue in the relative comfort of my business-as-usual life, or risk pursuing a new and more dangerous goal?

by Gary David Stratton 

Something in Erin Brokovich compels her to radically devote herself to the townspeople of Hinkley, even at the expense of her own children.
Something in Erin Brokovich compels her to radically devote herself to the townspeople of Hinkley.

If by some miracle of time-travel you could suddenly transport 18th Century theologian Jonathan Edwards into the audience of your local cineplex tonight, he might very well declare the entire motion picture industry a work of witchcraft! (And he may very well be right.) Yet, a careful reading of America’s greatest theologian’s most important work, A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, reveals insight into both the craft of screenwriting and the purpose of Lent. Both point to the importance of paying attention to “inciting events.”

The Inciting Event

Whether in real life or a work of fiction, most stories begin with a hero[1] pursuing largely self-centered goals designed to help them survive in their current circumstances. In Gladiator (2000) Maximus just wants to go home to his family and farm. In Star Wars (1977) Luke Skywalker desires only to get off the planet to be with his friends at school. Erin Brockovich (2000) seeks nothing more than a salaried job to feed her kids. Each lacks both the understanding and the desire to pursue anything beyond the struggles of their day-to-day life.

Then something happens; something screenwriters refer to as the inciting event. Suddenly, a new and bigger story crashes in upon the hero’s carefully constructed world. As John Truby notes in The Anatomy of Story, “At the beginning of the story, when weakness and need are being established, the hero is typically paralyzed in some way. You need some kind of event to jump-start the hero out of his paralysis and force him to act.”[2] Luke accidentally triggers a hidden distress video in the memory of a droid. Erin Brokovich discovers that Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) is poisoning Hinkley’s small town water supply.  Caesar unexpectedly commissions Maximus as protector of Rome in order to re-establish a true Republic. In each case, the inciting event presents the hero with a decision: Shall I continue in the relative comfort of my business-as-usual life or risk pursuing a new and more dangerous goal?

The entire story turns when (and only when) the hero makes this difficult choice. In fact, we don’t even have a story without such a decision. For instance, in The Blind Side (2009) hundreds of “Christian” parents drove past homeless teenager Michael Oher one cold November evening. Any one of them could have stopped to help. Only one did. Everyone faced the same event, yet only Leigh Anne Tuohy was incited by it. We tell her story because she acted.[3] This is why most screenwriters refer to the hero’s decision to act in response to the inciting event as plot point one.  Why? Because without that decision you don’t have a plot. You don’t have a story at all.

Affections

This is where Edwards’ thought becomes helpful. According to Edwards, our soul is composed of two primary parts: our mind (including both our perceptions and our understanding of those perceptions), and our heart. Our heart is that aspect of our inner being that attracts us toward some people, ideas, or actions and repels us from other people, ideas, and actions.

When our heart’s attraction towards a particular person, idea, or action is particularly strong, Edwards labels these powerful inclinations as our affections. To Edwards, affections are “the moving springs in all the affairs of life, which engage men in all their pursuits; and especially in all affairs wherein they are earnestly engaged, and which they pursue with vigour.”[4] They are the hidden internal reasons why we choose to love some people and not others, to believe some ideas and not others, and take some actions but not others.

Victory in hand, Maximus just wants to go home to family and farm, until Caesar's inciting event changes everything.
With victory for the empire in hand, Maximus just wants to go home to family and farm . . . until Caesar’s inciting event changes everything.

This makes our affections an extremely important element of any great story. When the hero answers their story question in the affirmative it reveals something deeper in the their soul than any casual observer could notice. Something in Erin Brokovich (compassion? justice?) compels her to radically devote herself to the townspeople of Hinkley, even at the expense of her children (for whom she originally took the job.) Something in Maximus (duty? nobility?) drives him to accept Caesar’s commission, even though it means delaying a comfortable retirement with his wife and son.

Something in the inciting event reveals the hero’s genuine affections. While this single experience never completely transforms the hero–numerous temptations to give up or turn back will come later–something in the inciting event causes them to take their first step of their journey away from a mere longing for comfort and convenience and into something deeper. They want something more and are willing to take action to pursue it.

Awakening or Transformation?

This motivating drive could be an affection that was always present, but “woke up” only when confronted with the inciting event. For instance, in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Bilbo’s inciting event is an unexpected party of singing Dwarves inviting him to join their quest:

“As they sang the hobbit felt the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic moving through him, a fierce and jealous love, the desire of the hearts of the dwarves. Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick.”[5]

It takes a bit no longer for him to act, but soon he is running down the road without so much as a handkerchief in his pocket.

Other times, something in the inciting event itself changes the hero’s heart. For instance, in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), a chance encounter with an alien spacecraft implants Roy Neary with both vivid images of The Devils Tower in Wyoming as well as the insatiable desire to go there.[6] In Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 epic The Ten Commandments, God not only incites Moses to return to Egypt to free his people, he transforms Moses’ affections (and even his appearance) as well.[7]  Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus in Acts 9, is perhaps the ultimate inciting event in the New Testament. His zeal for God is both revealed and transformed by the voice from heaven.

In both inciting event types the hero is confronted with a choice before the story can even begin. As über screenwriting guru Robert McKee declares:

“True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure – the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature.”

Obviously, the inciting event is only the beginning of this revelation and transformation, but it is crucial to writing (and living) a great story.

We Are What We Do

This is where Edwards’ thought becomes interesting not only for screenwriters, but for anyone seeking to deepen their relationship with God. Edwards rejects the commonly held notion that our affections and our will are two separate components of our inner being, so that our affections might want one thing, but our will chooses another. Not so, says America’s greatest theologian. “Such seems to be our nature, and such the laws of the union of soul and body, that there never is in any case whatsoever, any lively and vigorous exercise of the inclination, without some effect upon the body…”[8] In other words, while we often profess belief in one direction and act in another, or feel we ought to act one way and then do the opposite, our actions alone reveal the true affections of our heart and mind. We do what we love.

Edwards therefore insists that genuine faith . .

“[C]onsists, in a great measure, in vigorous and lively actings of the inclination and will of the soul, or the fervent exercises of the heart. That religion which God requires, and will accept, does not consist in weak, dull, and lifeless wishes, raising us but a little above a state of indifference. God, in his word, greatly insists upon it, that we be in good earnest, fervent in spirit, and our hearts vigorously engaged.”[9]

Lenten Examination

"Then something Tookish woke up inside him..."
“Then something Tookish woke up inside him…”

This is why Lent can be so transformative. The season is designed to help us examine the gap between our professed faith and our lived belief, between our creed and our lifestyle, between the things we tell ourselves we are passionate about and our true motivations revealed by our actions. Jesus instructed his followers, “You will know them by their fruits.”[10] And Edwards reminds us that Jesus viewed most important fruit as a love of God expressed in sacrificial service on behalf of others. “This is my command that you love one another as I have loved you… For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give us life for others.”[11]

The practice of (and not the mere tip of the cap to) sacrificial service reveals the presence of the greatest and highest affection of all: love of God and others for God’s sake. Why? Because much of what passes for religion seems motivated by little more than a self-centered desire to survive in our current circumstances. However, the decision to give up your life in sacrificial service of others is rarely motivated by anything except genuine spiritual affections. In essence, Edwards is saying, if you want to see who the true heroes are around you, don’t look for the most religious, or the most famous, or the most published. Look for those who love

Lent then is a season for honestly asking myself if I might be missing inciting events to love and serve that are happening all around me: a homeless teenager who needs shelter, a town that needs an advocate, a political system that needs reforming, a social injustice that needs a champion. Perhaps they are more than the mere random events. They could be God’s call to wake up and enter our true story. Our true affections are revealed only in our responses to these inciting events that dare us to ask: Shall I continue in the relative comfort of my business-as-usual life or risk pursuing a new and more dangerous goal?

Any screenwriter could tell you that.

Next: The Volcano in Your Backyard: Micro-Worldviews and the Honeymoon from Hell

 


[1] Or, ‘Main Character,’ as some main characters are clearly not heroic.

[2] 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller (p. 276). Faber & Faber. Kindle Edition. (2008-10-14).

[3] This is not to say that sometimes a hero requires numerous inciting events to jar them into action. For instance, Luke learning that a beautiful princess needs rescue, that his father was really a Jedi fighter pilot, or even that a Jedi master needs his help, isn’t enough to overcome his earth-bound (er, Tatooine-bound) inertia. It is only after imperial Stormtroopers kill his aunt and uncle that he finally decides to go with Obi-wan to Alderaan and, “Learn the ways of the force like my father.”

[4] Edwards, Jonathan (1745) A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections (In Three Parts) (Kindle Edition, 2011) Locations 332-333.

[5] The Fellowship of the Ring (Boston: Mariner books, 2012), p. 83. (Italics mine.)

[6] This same alien transformation motif is also subtly evident in Spielberg’s more famous E. T. The Extra-Terrestrial  (1982).

[7] Actually, in this nearly four-hour long epic, one could argue that Moses transformation is the midpoint of the film. However, in the biblical account, Moses’ encounter with THWH at the burning bush is clearly the inciting event for his personal journey at the Exodus itself.

[8] Affections, 270-271.

[9] Ibid., 297-300.

[10] Matthew 7:16

[11] John 15:12, Mark 10:45