As expected my advice to try and avoid narration and flashbacks was controversial. I've just seen the pilot of Pushing Daisies, a TV show which has extensive narration and flashbacks, and it is my favourite pilot of this or last season. And yet I still advise to avoid them for this project because that pilot was written by a hugely experienced, legendary showrunner while we're working on a spec to get work from a showrunner and so we need to show our character, story and dialogue skills in the best light.
Your mastery of all the elements of cinematic techniques might impress the reader but not as much as another writer who tells a simple story with strong characters which emotionally engages.
The odd dinky flashback - especially for comedic effect - or starting with a scene later in the script - in the middle or the end - and then carrying on chronologically won't be a problem.
I’ll just go over the key elements I’ve covered previously in more depth before we start outlining our story.
Theme is defined by the way the character reacts to the conflict. It is the conflict that incites the story and drives the plot. Does your story have enough conflict?
Conflicts are usually described as:
- Intra (from inside the character)
- Inter (from another character they have a relationship with)
- Extra (everything the main character doesn't have a personal relationship with such as weather, society, a group of people, machines or ghosts)
It is also described, more gender specifically, as:
- Man vs Himself
- Man vs Man
- Man vs Nature
Every story must have conflict on at least one of these levels. Can you think of examples?
Your characters can take you in any direction but I would suggest the following as the easiest route to an interesting and emotionally engaging story:
You have a clear main character who wants something which brings them into conflict with a second character. After one or more challenges, the main character resolves the conflict themselves.
You may have already have something like this from the original premise or it may have occurred to you during the character and story creation. Basically all you're doing is laying down a chain of events that lead a character towards - or away from - their goal.
As an audience member I don't want bad things to happen to the main character I like but a story where nothing bad ever happened to the main character would be very much worse.
Once we have your story we need to structure it. I think it's best to let the ideas flow for a while and be sure of your story before adapting it to a strong structure rather than starting with the structure.
I'm not going to be apologetic about the three-act structure. I'm aware that people think it's over-rated or just don't understand it or think it's just wrong but the time spent debating it would be better spent on learning it and using it as it all comes down to some variant of it in the end unless you're making art films for no money and no audience.
The three act structure basically determines what happens and when it happens and is defined by the Main Character's outer motivation. The three act structure is the basis for the vast majority of drama we see and more importantly that we subconsciously want to see. It isn't a formula for success or rules to be obeyed, it's just a guideline to ensure your story keeps moving and stays focused. What determines a script's success is going to be the characters and their story but as William Goldman says “screenplay is structure.”
Calling the three-act structure the beginning, middle and end is over-simplistic but it is simple: 1) setting up a goal 2) confronting obstacles to that goal 3) reaching or failing to reach that goal. That's perhaps all you need to know really but I find going into it in more depth helps.
The more you look at it and think about it the easier it gets. My last outline followed the three-act structure naturally from beginning to end when at one point, years ago, I didn't understand it at all.
Whether you want to learn about it or not it's part of the language of screenwriting and script readers, script editors, producers and directors will expect you to know about it.
We are dealing with a sixty minute character-driven drama here (half the timing if you’re doing 30 minutes) and so there won't be the need for lots of complications and twists as there would for a more plot-driven Hollywood action feature film.
Act 1 (about 15 minutes)
- Introduce the Main Character (the person whom the story's about)
- Kick the story off with an initial event (or inciting incident)
- Elaborate the problem/goal created for the Main Character by the initial event
- Introduce the other characters
- Start subplot
- Get the main character going trying to solve their problem and reach their goal
- Major turning point
Act 2 (about 30 minutes)
- Complicate the main character's mission
- Keep complicating it, raising the stakes
- Carry subplots forward
- Mid-point or minor turning point
- Raise the stakes again
- Main character is at their lowest having failed to get their goal
- Major turning point
Act 3 (about fifteen minutes)
- Main character rises with a new determination to reach their goal
- Deal with subplots
- Make things more difficult for the main character
- Tie up subplots and loose ends
- Climax. Resolve the story with the main character achieving the goal or not.
- Maybe a denouement
Reading that back it feels like a formula and you can't imagine that you can possibly get thousands of completely different stories from it but you can. That's why I spent so much time on writer's voice before we started, we all have a skeleton but we all look different. We can all have a three-act structure but they can all be different
According to McKee you need four memorable scenes in a three act story: the inciting incident, Act 1 climax , Act 2 climax and Act 3 climax. Major turning points cease to be major if they're happening all the time and the audience will get bored.
McKee defines the effects of a turning point (or reversal) as surprise, increased curiosity, insight and new direction.
We need to know our ending because knowing our destination helps us to get there quickly and more effectively than wandering around hoping we reach the right ending in the end.
Basically the ending of the story can be judged in two ways.
- Desirable Success - this is the happy ending in which the Main Character is rewarded, the bad guys punished
- Undesirable Failure- this is more a tragedy, where the Main Character falls from grace or was unable to overcome their flaw leading to misery and/or death
- Desirable Failure - the Main Character didn't get what they wanted but learned a valuable lesson or inadvertently got a better reward
- Undesirable Success - in which the Main Character got what they wanted but sacrificed something important like their soul, their loved one, their life.
Once we know our characters quite well and have a rough idea of our story with the beginning, middle and end, we can move on to outlining the story more formally. The legendary Jane Espenson calls the outline the bones of a story and boneless is for chicken strips.
I know that many writers don’t like doing outlines and refuse to do them. The outline is your friend, not your enemy. It lets your creativity breathe rather than stifles it. The argument used most against it to me is “what if I wanna change my mind about the direction of the script during the writing?” Then change your mind.
If during the writing you want to change character motivations and the outline then do so. But every change has a knock on effect and you should make sure that change is reflected throughout the script. So you go back to your outline, change it, check it again and work from the revised outline.
Suppose I’m writing the script and have a character that loves eating meat. I realise that it will work better for the story if she is an animal rights activist and a vegetarian. It’s not just the dinner party scene that has to change but the scenes where she’s working in the butchers, where she enters a meat pie eating contest and the scene where she is so hungry she eats a passing poodle.
I think character and story are too important and too difficult to be made up as you go along. If you get a job writing for television you will be expected to use outlines. Outlines are generally re-written and re-written before the go-ahead to write the script is given.
Many writers write out each scene on cards or Post-its and move them around on a wall or board. An alternative is using Google notebook to do it.
Andrew Collins outlines his comedy series "Not Going Out".
For each step of your outline try and answer these questions:
- Where does this scene take place?
- Who are the main characters involved?
- What happens in the scene?
- What’s the main conflict in the scene?
As you read your finished outline then you can see at a glance what scenes need more conflict or what scenes you can merge or cut or need to include.
Now it's your turn. Plot out your drama using the three-act structure as a rough guide - your story doesn't have to follow it exactly.
You'll need to have a very strong opening. Try and start the story as early as you can. When only the first ten pages are read the temptation will be to put in lots of attention grabbing stunts but there's no need. Something subtle if written well can be just as attention grabbing. Don't give everything away early on but try and retain some mystery and surprise. Allow the reader to get curious about your main character and their story. Remember they are going to want to see the synopsis and what happens beyond the first ten pages.
Once you've done the outline read it and re-read it and make changes if you need to. If something doesn't make sense or isn't logical or isn't character driven or isn't psychologically true or isn't relevant to the story then change it. The outline stage is the best time to make changes and shuffle scenes about because you haven't spent any time writing and so will be less reluctant to change it.
If you can, try and get feedback on your outline - don't wait until you've finished the script - as someone else might be able to spot something you haven't seen because you're too close to it. However experienced or how much we think we know, we always need to take a step back to look at our outline objectively.
My mantras are:
- Character-driven plots not Plot-driven characters.
- Simple Story, Complex Characters not Simple Characters, Complex story
Structure and Character - Excerpted with Permission from the Book "Story" - Robert McKee (Part one)
Structure and Character - Excerpted with Permission from the Book "Story" - Robert McKee (Part Two)
The Myth of Three Act Structure - Alex Epstein
Why 3-Act Will Kill Your Writing - John Truby
What’s Wrong With The Three Act Structure by James Bonnet
The Three-act Paradigm by Syd Field
The Paradigm Worksheet by Syd Field
What is the Three Act Structure? - Stephen J. Cannell
Creating Dramatic Structure for Screenplays
The Need For Structure by Josh Becker
Common plot errors: Deus Ex Machina - Janra
Deus Ex Machina - Lucy
The Big Finish - Terry Rossio
Outlining Your Script or Story - Thomas B. Sawyer
Hollywood's Best Kept Secret: The Expanded Scene Breakdown - Christopher Keane
Screenwriters Toolkit: Outline/Structure
How To Scriptwrite - Part 1 - Structure
Beat Sheets - Danny
A Screenwriter's Challenge: Visualization - Guy Magar
The Emotional Pattern of Plot - Linda Cowgill
The Middle: Meddlesome or Mythical? - Martha Alderson
Lean and Mean: Using Reverse Cause and Effect to Construct a Tight Script - Jeff Kitchen
Characters Make the Plot - Martha Alderson
"Because of Mama" - outline
"Actual Innocence" - outline and screenplay
Screenplay Outliner (Shareware)