A Basic Three Act Structure

FEATURES: Single protagonist, clear-cut theme, strong character arc, a happy ending.
CAUTIONS: It’s not about the idea, it’s about the execution. Any idiot can fill out a formula, the people who get hired are the ones who can fill out this formula in a way that is fresh and emotionally involving.

ACT ONE: Setup the world, the premise, the problem, and what the hero is lacking that prevents him from achieving the goal of the story.

ACT TWO: Explore what you’ve set up. This isn’t the time to add crazy new ideas, it’s time to explore the craziness created by the events of act one. The world is explored in the form of 4-8 memorable set pieces, cool visual ideas that you’d see in a trailer. Along the way, the main character grows and changes thanks to the machinations of the villains, the traits of the love interest, and lessons from a mentor. The hero appears to make progress, but there’s a final test at the end of act two and the hero falls short of the goal, seemingly further from it than ever before.

ACT THREE: The hero realizes that he only had 90% of the tools he needed to achieve the end. He gains the final realization and so embodies the theme of the story. So armed, he goes and saves the day, achieving the goal of the story in a big, climactic setpiece. In a story like this, you can’t go wrong with a happy ending. If you must use a downer ending, make sure it makes sense considering your theme.

* One final note – obviously this isn’t the only way to tell a story, but it is one of the major ways. If your idea can’t organically fit in this paradigm, you need to consider if its really an idea that would be best explored in a spec screenplay from an unknown writer.

In Defense of Story Coaching

When it comes to developing their craft, aspiring screenwriters would do well to take a page from the world of improv comedy.

In improv (at least in Los Angeles, at UCB and iO) neophytes start with the basic classes and journeymen aspire to make a performance team – to be one of the rare few who gets the official seal of approval to perform on the main stages.

These factors have created a demand for coaching. Students form practice teams and bring in outside coaches to develop their chops. These coaches are improvisors with a degree of success. The coaches are a million miles away from Saturday Night Live, but they have promising credits, they are knowledgeable, and they use their expertise to steer their clients in the right direction. In the world of improv, coaching is normal, affordable ($30 an hour), and wholly accepted by the community. It’s like the opposite of the online screenwriting world.

 The idea of paying for advice used to be a big don’t. In the olden days most “gurus” were con artists who strung people along with promises of access and easy riches. Thankfully, this is changing. There are more competent story coaches than ever before. The internet allows people with actual credentials to do connect and do business with people from other parts of the country. The power of the social media exposes the bad apples and highlights the many coaches out there who are qualified, helpful, affordable and honest. The prices are normalizing, for ever has-been studio exec who charges $1000 an hour, there are five guys like me, guys with actual credits and agency experience who charge reasonable prices that regular people can afford. 

Coaching has its detractors, but I don’t think anyone is actually arguing against the idea that people with more experience can help beginners develop. Rather, the biggest arguments against coaching seems to be that coaches may have dubious credentials, they may over-promise, they may under-deliver. Those pitfalls can be avoided by common sense:

  1. Do your research.

  2. Don’t believe anyone who promises you access and exposure.

  3. Understand that selling a screenplay is inherently unlikely, even for those who have done it before.

  4. Recognize that you are taking classes to build skills, not make a quick killing in the (non-existant) spec feature market.

  5. Don’t pay too much. Non-accredited screenwriting training should cost somewhere between a class at a community center and an hour with a personal trainer.

The world of screenwriting will never be like the improv community. Writing is too solitary, too idiosyncratic, and too zero-sum. That said, the idea of hiring an expert to give dispassionate analysis and helpful tips is universally applicable. The idea of personal coaching for screenwriting is here to stay. Writing can be learned without paying for training, but that training expedites the process.

Dealing with criticism, sensitivity, and how to grow a thick skin.

NOTE: I was stuck for a blog.  I really, didn’t want to write it.  I asked Reddit for a blog pitch and wrote up the highest rated question.
QUESTION: [Please write a] blog about being sensitive to criticism.  Both positive and negative.  How to grow a thick skin?
 
SHORT ANSWER: Suck it up.  By aspiring to make it as a writer you’re implicitly saying that you’re one of the 1,000 best writers in the Anglosphere.  If you’re not willing to own that, there are hundreds of other writers who will.

That’s true advice, but it’s also unhelpful.  You’ve heard it before.  If “sucking it up” were that easy, people wouldn’t need writing coaches.

Writing is hard.  Writing should be hard.  Sensitivity is a double-edged sword, the same sensitivity that holds you back will enable you to unlock amazing parts of your craft later.  Writing to the absolute top of your ability is hard and it will always be hard, the only thing that makes it a little easier is the discipline that comes from writing daily.  Similarly, paradoxically, rejection only becomes bearable when you see enough of it to become familiar with it.

A LONGER ANSWER:

There’s a certain kind of artist who is immune to criticism. No matter how hard, mean or wrong the note, they take it in stride. These people are rarely great in their field because improving at writing requires insane commitment and the ability to care.

The point of screenwriting is to create something that can be read and enjoyed by many, or at the very least by someone who can offer you a job. A script that doesn’t help your career his failed.  This is a long process.  Notes and feedback are how you learn, how you develop.  If you never let a note affect you, you’ll never improve as a writer.

Caring is hard.  New writers often write with a layer of protective irony.

NEW WRITER: The script didn’t sell, but I only wrote it to explore an aspect of craft.  I’ll be serious about the next one.

It’s psychologically dangerous to strive your hardest at a task and fail.  It opens the door to real pain.  That pain doesn’t go away. You have to learn to endure it.

If you wanted some more actionable advice, here are some exercises you can try:

1) Take an improv class. Learn about playing to the top of your intelligence.  Improv teaches you how to fully commit to material you’re working on.

2) Spend a day being super defensive. Don’t admit to being wrong ever. Come up with pathetic excuses to save your fragile ego.  Tell your friends you’re trying this exercise if they ask why you’re being a jerk.  This will teach you to identify the way defensiveness feels so you can avoid it in real life.

3) Do something really hard.  Run a marathon, sky dive, bungee jump. Often times. we run from pain but it’s the great teacher. No pain no gain.  To quote my old wrestling coach, winners are simply willing to do things losers won’t.

4) Read a publicly available script and write notes. Be nasty.  Do not send these to the author.  Rather, look at the notes and see how they apply to your own writing. Often the things that annoy us most about other writing are the problems we have or recognize in our own. You can’t point a finger at someone without pointing three at yourself.