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Thu 8.6.2015

Why Story Structure Formulas Don’t Work

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The following is a true story.

I did a script coaching session for someone I’ll call Lisa. Lisa had spent the past four years pursuing her dream of becoming a professional screenwriter. She had written six scripts with nothing to show for it. No agent, no manager, no meetings, no nothing. Lisa was obviously discouraged. Her husband was obviously discouraged. They decided she’d write one last screenplay, and if it didn’t sell, that was it, she would quit. She wrote the script then hired me to help her with it.

Lisa’s script started out great. It had an interesting premise with unique multi-dimensional characters. The dialogue was sharp. It had strong pacing. But then it hit page 17 and started to fall apart. The characters started saying and doing things that didn’t seem consistent with who they were. The plotting felt forced. The more I read, the worse it got. It literally felt like there had been two writers: the one who did such a graceful and masterful job with the first sixteen pages, and the clumsy amateur who took over from there and destroyed the script.

I told Lisa all of this.

She nodded. She wrote down page 17 in her notebook. She looked out the window. Then she looked back at me. Then she looked down at her notebook. She underlined page 17. She gazed back out the window. And with a heavy sadness she said, “I know.” Then she started to cry.

She told me she knew the script went bad. She knew it when she wrote it. She could feel it. She said she was going to quit.

I asked her to tell me what happened. What was it like writing the first 16 pages, and what had happened at page 17?

She told me she was having fun writing the beginning but then she had to create the page 17 inciting incident and couldn’t figure out a way to make it work, to make it feel organic and truthful. She rewrote it a million times and it just kept getting worse. She knew it was terrible but didn’t know what to do about it.

I asked her why she felt she felt so compelled to have an inciting incident on page 17.

She told me a story I hear a lot. When people read her scripts they always compliment her characters and dialogue. This is what she’s good at, what she’s always been good at. But the structure isn’t there. People tell her she needs to learn how to funnel all her good writing into a properly structured script. So she took the seminars. She read the books. She took classes. And they all said the same thing. In order to succeed, a writer needs to write screenplays in the classic three-act structure. Which is as follows:

Start by introducing the characters, world and tone, followed by the inciting incident—also known as the catalyst or call to action the protagonist must answer. This is the event which turns the protagonist’s world upside-down and introduces the crisis they will spend the rest of the movie trying to solve. It is what launches the main story.

In the Wizard of Oz, it’s the tornado. This is what propels Dorothy to Oz, turning her life upside-down, thus launching the main story of her quest to find a way home.

The seminars and books tell you that not only do you need a strong inciting incident, it needs to be properly located.

When I was in film school, we were told it should come between page 15 and 20 (The Wizard of Oz tornado blows in on page 19). Nowadays, probably due to shorter attention spans, writers are told it needs to come between pages 10 and 17. Lisa had been told page 17.

I asked Lisa to make a list of her all-time favorite movies. She scribbled down titles. I asked her to pick the best structured film from her list. She chose The Godfather. I asked her which of the movies she most wished she had written. She picked When Harry Met Sally. I asked which was closest in tone and feel to her current script and she answered Juno. To round out the genres I asked her to pick a broad comedy. She went with The Hangover. For a big-budget action movie it was The Fugitive.

I asked her what the inciting incidents were in each of these movies.

The Godfather
Lisa said the inciting incident is when Michael Corleone’s father is shot. She’s not alone. This is the most common answer I get. But I would respectfully disagree with it.

Michael is certainly upset to hear his father was almost killed, but it doesn’t throw his life out of balance. It’s not yet a call to action he must answer. Nor does it launch the main story, which is his journey to become head of the family.

It’s only after Michael visits his father in the hospital and ends up thwarting the second assassination attempt that he realizes Sollozzo (rival mob boss who ordered the hits) won’t stop until his father is dead. In the next scene, Michael concludes the way to keep his father alive is to kill Sollozzo and his police captain bodyguard, McCluskey.

This is a textbook inciting incident. It’s the call to action Michael must answer. The event that dramatically turns his world upside-down as he’s forced to leave his non-mafia life forever. It’s what launches Michael down the path to becoming godfather.

If I’m right, the inciting incident is on page 62. If Lisa (and others) is right, it happens on page 32. Either way, it sure isn’t anywhere close to page 17.

When Harry Met Sally
Harry and Sally drive from Chicago to New York then go their separate ways. They meet up again five years later on a plane and talk, then once more go their separate ways. No life thrown out of balance, call to action, major crisis to be solved stuff yet.

Five years later, Sally tells her friend that she and her boyfriend have broken up. And Harry tells his friend that his wife left him (page 34). This could be the inciting incident as their lives are (sorta) thrown out of balance, although Harry and Sally aren’t really that distraught about it and there is still no real call to action for either of them.

Then Sally and Harry become friends. This begins the main part of the movie but still doesn’t truly fit the parameters of an inciting incident. Later on Sally discovers her ex-boyfriend is getting married and is thrown for a loop. It’s the first time we see her carefully constructed ‘in control’ demeanor crumble. She calls Harry and he rushes over to comfort her and they end up having sex (page 92), which definitely throws their lives dramatically out of balance. This could certainly be the inciting incident.

Or perhaps part of the movie’s charm is that it doesn’t fit the traditional three act structure model, and so there really isn’t an inciting incident.

So it’s either page 34, page 92, or there isn’t one. Lisa decided it was page 92.

Juno
The inciting incident is when Juno gets pregnant. This radically upsets the balance of her life and is the call to action she must answer. It happens before the movie starts. Which means there is no inciting incident in the script. Although some people argue it’s when Juno confirms she’s pregnant, which is on page 3. So it’s page 3 or there isn’t one.

The Hangover
The inciting incident is when groomsmen Phil, Stu and Alan lose the groom after a wild night of Vegas bachelor party celebrating. Page 29.

The Fugitive
The inciting incident is when Dr. Richard Kimble’s wife is brutally murdered and he’s wrongfully convicted of the heinous crime. This certainly turns his life upside-down and launches the main story. And it occurs before the movie starts, although the first eight pages show us snippets of this in flashback. So either the script has no inciting incident (since the event’s already happened) or it occurs somewhere in the first eight pages.

The must-follow page 17 rule
Not one of these movies has an inciting incident on page 17. In fact, none of them have an inciting incident anywhere in the neighborhood of page 17.

And it’s not just these movies. You can play this game with any successful movie. If you look through the AFI’s 100 Best Films of all time or the WGA’s 101 Greatest Screenplays, here’s what you’ll find:

A successfully structured screenplay absolutely must have the inciting incident occur on page 17—unless it comes on page three, page 29, page 62, page 84, or it doesn’t have an inciting incident at all.

So trying to write a screenplay where you believe you have to have an inciting incident occur on page 17—or any specific page—is insane.

And it’s not just the inciting incident. This applies to all the structure and character edicts taught in books and seminars. Professional writers don’t use these formulas because these formulas don’t work. And it’s heartbreaking how many writers don’t realize this and destroy their chances by following what they are told are universal must-follow rules.

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Corey Mandell / Screenwriter & Guest Blogger

Corey Mandell is an award-winning playwright and screenwriter who has written projects for Ridley Scott, Wolfgang Petersen, Harrison Ford, John Travolta, Julia Roberts, Warner Brothers, Universal, 20th Century Fox, Fox 2000, Fox Family, Working Title, Paramount, Live Planet, Beacon Films, Touchstone, Trilogy, Radiant and Walt Disney Pictures. Corey teaches screenwriting at UCLA and offers private online classes using real time video conferencing.

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  • http://aucoinink.wordpress.com/ Tim

    I generally follow the “before or on page 10” inciting incident rule. With Juno I think the II is when she decides to “nip it in the bud”, considering the story begins with her already pregnant.

  • https://sites.google.com/site/k1n0fiction/ Joaquin Gil

    Dear Corey

    Good points but I fear you have a confusion. The page counts are guides for the major “beats” or “plot points” _general_ location, not for the structure of the piece. They are, further not meant to be more than guides in terms of length, but using them for shoring up the structure is simply not going to work for the reason you point out and others. To learn and teach structure, I’d use Aristotle’s Poetics and Screenplay Systems awesome “Dramatica” software. Also your colleague Hal Ackerman has a few useful tricks up his sleeve.
    Best.

  • MC

    well, I have to say: thanks! Finally someone sez it in public! The ‘rules’ are very useful for illustrating the principles, but then, loosens the stays. Breathe into yr creativity.

  • David O’Brirn

    Good article! Following any screenwriting guru can be dangerous because it is about sacrificing originality to formula. When that formula has maths as its guideline it seems to go against everything a writer does. Why aren’t aspiring writers being told to do the best they can, to find their way through failure to an authentic voice? My approach in running workshops is to use formula as a demonstration of traditional structure but to urge that the writer explodes and subverts it. Use formula and you will always be predictable, and there’s nothing worse than a predictable script.

  • http://pagecraftwriting.com Heidi Hornbacher

    I have to say I disagree with this. I coach on too many scripts where there are no goals resulting in those big story turn moments or a character does something “just because” to advocate throwing out rules of structure. A good structure is key to a solid story that moves with momentum.

    In Juno, the inciting incident is there – the pregnancy – it just happens before the start of the film. A good writer can break those rules and move things around but it doesn’t mean the story beats don’t exist. That’s why Cody won an Oscar for that script. But you must learn the rules before you can break them or you’re just a kid moving shapes around and not Picasso.

    In When Harry Met Sally, I’d also argue that the inciting is the car drive to Chicago since it sets their love story in motion and provides the key question: can men and women just be friends.

    In The Hangover, losing the groom is the end of act one as it changes the direction of the story and truly is a point of no return. As such, it’s right where it should be between 25 and 30. The inciting is the plan to go to Vegas in the first place.

  • https://everyonelovesacritic.wordpress.com/ Matt

    Thank you.

    My only objection to your article is that isn’t more thorough and exhaustive. All the trendy screenwriting gurus from McKee to Snyder deserve to be taken down a peg or two… or three… or seven…

    Obviously every story needs a structure. But it needs its own structure, not a preprescribed formula. Trust your vision and refine it accordingly…

    Unless, of course, you’re one of those who thinks that calling screenwriting an art is pretentious bullshit. In which case, why the hell are you writing in the first place…?

  • Corey

    Hey all,

    Great comments. But to be clear, I’m not suggesting that structure isn’t important. Structure is vital. But formula isn’t structure.

    I was fortunate. I broke into the business by selling a pitch to Ridley Scott. I worked with Ridley and his team in structuring the project. They taught me how silly the rules were, and how to organically structure an authentic story. If not for that experience, I could easily have wasted years following all the rules I was taught in my MFA program. Most of the working writers I know say the same thing. I’m Just trying to help folks avoid that mistake.

  • http://fotoeffex.com Peter Roach

    I admit this all all very confusing to novices like me. In the beginning I was told to put in scene transitions then I was told to take them out. Then I was told to put an exciting plot point in Act One. Well what if occurs before or later in the natural build of the story?

    My lastest critques are ” your characters are non-traditional.” I don’t know what that means.

    I have to trust my story. When is doubt I pull out a well worn copy of Syd Field “Screenplay”

  • http://fotoeffex.com Peter Roach

    Another reason we beginners blindly follow structure is that we are threatened with the “it will never get read” unless you follow the template rigidly at all times. For us trying to get in this is not an idle threat; we believe so we comply to awkward story pattern to fit the mold.

  • Damian Begley

    Mr. Mandell,

    I’m not a writer but your analysis is excellent.