EDIT (3/25/15) – Wow, this article has been blowing up. If a commenter could mention where they came from, that’d be great! I’d like to thank whoever it was.
The average screenplay is like an Easter Egg. The structure is almost inescapably the same, but the variations are endless. Just as scripts that break formula aren’t necessarily bad, a formulaic script can be incredibly good. Take CASABLANCA. A single cliche makes us laugh, a thousand cliches move us. Many of the exercises here (logline, this 3 act breakdown) will give you something that is very familiar. This is not entirely bad.
People both underthink and overthink the complexity of screenplay plotting. In my last blog, I illustrated a simple mad lib to create loglines. I hope you had some fun with it. But don’t for a second think that the mad lib is all you need. The trick isn’t to show that you can “get the structure,” a moron could get the structure. COP AND A HALF will teach you more about the structure than 80 hours with Robert McKee. The trick is to show that you can use the framework of the structure to create an original and striking tale that you actually give a shit about (someone ask me how to do this, and I’ll write a blog on it. Seriously).
This blog assumes that you know the three act paradigm, a beginning, a middle, an end; a journey studded with touchstones like the inciting incident, the first act break, midpoint, and the second act break. The three act structure is a method, a lens that you can apply over the story. It’s reductive, it’s flawed, but it allows us the ability to communicate story with the industry, especially agents and managers. When people rail against the three act structure, I want to shake them. We are incredibly lucky that execs have a commonly agreed-upon framework of story, without it, communicating at story meetings would be even harder than it is now.
Obedience to the structure frees you to be creative in other ways. It’s less about reinventing Easter eggs (you could dye, say, chunks of deer antlers for artistic effect, but would they be a crowd pleaser like Easter Eggs are? I say no. Again, there’s nothing wrong with an unusual, artsy screenplay, but for the beginning writer, a script that is recognizable is more likely to get on the desk of a decision maker than a script that isn’t.
The market likes 95-115 page stories with likable characters who change, cool visuals, and a theme to reassure people that they don’t live in a bleak and godless world. The market likes other things too, but those will always have a market – I can’t see a world where people don’t want to be told that their work matters, that there is good, that life has a point.
Familiarity/structure is the egg. Your creativity the dye. Though the eggs will always be the same shape, the variations of surface details are endless and astounding. If you can link your creativity to the material, really invest yourself in it, you can turn even the hackiest premise into redemptive art.