Philip Brewer's Writing Progress


Saturday, 09 March 2002

I spent the day in a screenwriting class taught by Dan Decker, the author of Anatomy of a Screenplay and head of The Screenwriters Group, which does classes and workshops in the Chicago area. The event was arranged by the Unit for Cinema Studies at the University of Illinois.

Decker began by talking a bit about the screenplay (versus the novel, short story, etc.). He said that screenplays are not much like novels--they're closer to short stories. He talked a bit about the form of a screenplay, and compared the rigid structure to the structure of a poem. Just like staying within the form of a sonnet adds something to the beauty of a poem, there's a certain kind of beauty that comes from the structure of a screenplay.

There are two big factors imposed by the nature and structure of a screenplay. The first is the fact that a movie is a visual medium. It's a great form for telling a story where things happen external to the characters; it's lousy form for telling an introspective story. The second is that a screenplay needs to be about 120 minutes. In standard screenplay format a page of script equals about one minute on the screen, so that means that the script needs to be about 120 pages long. (He said a marketable screenplay is 90 to 130 pages.)

Knowing that your script is going to be about 120 pages long plays into everything you do. It makes many things impossible, but helps other things a lot. He gave an example: "Suppose your doing a road story of a trip from New York to San Francisco. You already know many things. On page 1 you're in new York. On page 120 you're in San Francisco. Where are you on page 60? It's up to you--maybe Kansas or Oklahoma? But, if you're only in Pennsylvania, you're doing it wrong."

The biggest part of the class was spent on story structure. That was great for me, because I'm interested in story structure. (You can read my article on story structure in the current issue of Speculations.)

Decker says, "A person does something" isn't a story, but it becomes a story when "A person does something, and it works out." Of course, you need more than that to make it a satisfying, marketable screenplay.

The first thing you need next is obstacles. (Otherwise, how are you going to make your screenplay 120 pages long?) This is typically an opponent (or opponents) but doesn't need to be. He said that screenplays without opponents tended to be episodic. (If the obstacle was getting over the mountain you don't do 60 minutes of hiking up and then down. You instead have mini-obstacles: the brush, the rocks, the outlaws, the altitude, the ice, etc.)

Next, he suggests you need what he calls a "window character." The window character is the character that the main character talks to that fills the gap left by the fact that you can't do introspection very well in a movie. If your character is a loner (or is alone) you need to do something else, such a voice overs, but generally a window character is the way to go.

Decker says that the marketable screenplay needs to be in a genre. It can be in two genres (action-comedy) or even more (comedy-romance-western), but producers actually ask for screenplays by genre. He says he gets calls from production companies saying things like, "We need an urban action-adventure with a female lead." If your story isn't in a genre the producers aren't going to know how to produce it or market it or even think to ask for it.

The story needs a theme. He talks about theme in terms of the main character's change. (Your main character doesn't need to change, of course. Remaining steadfast in the face of adversity can also be a satisfying theme.)

Finally Decker says that you need an emotionally satisfying resolution to the character's objective. It can be success or failure, but it needs to be resolved and you need to know it's the final resolution.

So, Decker's structure is: "A character peruses an objective in the face of obstacles (or opposition) with a character to talk to, in a genre, with a theme, to an emotionally satisfying resolution." Or something like that.

One point he emphasized is that every scene needs to be driven by the main character's objective. He said that one way you know you've taken a wrong turn is when you find yourself saying "This scene is to show X." If a scene is there to show something, take it out.

Two other things stuck with me. First is his list of 4 resolutions that you need to get in the end:

Second is the distiction he makes between "decisions," by which he means things that happen in the story that are under the control of the main character, versus "events" which is everything else. A story that is driven mostly by decisions is a character movie, one driven mostly by events is a story movie.

Putting things in his structure is sometimes interesting. For example, the structure for a standard modern romance is:


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