Three Types of Screenwriters & The Focus on Structure Instead of Story
by Mandi Harrison
Charlie Kaufman's film Adaptation stars Nicholas Cage as twin brothers Charlie and Donald, each at various stages of their screenwriting careers. Charlie has been writing for years and considers himself to be a true writer- he's just going through a little writers block at the moment. Donald has just decided to be a screen writer, and after attending a seminar by Robert McKee (considered to be a god, or at least a legend, by most writers), feels confident that by following the "principles" he learned, he'll be able to write a movie. Charlie obviously thinks differently.
From what I've observed, there are three types of writers. There's the Charlies, who think that they understand the material and that principles just restrict you, ending up with no structure and getting stuck constantly. Then there are the Donalds, who follow the principles as gospel truth and have a little too much structure and a predictable story. Then there are the Charlie Kaufmans- the ones who know the principles and flip them in a way to give their story structure and creativity.
Most screenplays follow a Three Act Structure- Act 1 (The Beginning), Act 2 (The Middle) and Act 3 (The Ending). It's basic story telling: the set up- the action- tying it all up. There are many places to learn the principles for screenwriting. There are three books that Chris and I like to use:
Story: Style, Structure, Substance & The Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee
Save The Cat! by Blake Snyder
Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting by Syd Field
They all have their own method but at the core, it's the same thing. The story has to flow. There has to be a beginning, which introduces the problem. There has to be a middle, which is the problem is unleashed. And there has to be an ending which is how the problem gets resolved. These methods help the writer work out how to keep the story interesting and moving. The Donalds get so caught up in following the principles and the Charlies are so adamant on avoiding the principles that they forget what the purpose for the principles are: to help shape the drama that is your story.
This is an example of a paradigm. A road map for the 3 Act structure. There are many variations, but at the end of the day, their job is the same. To help you put the pieces together.
It's very easy to get caught up with putting your puzzle together and lose site of what your story is. I consider the paradigm to be the spine of the screenplay, but it needs heart. It needs a brain. That's where your story comes in. What is your movie about, at its core? Not the emotion or what it makes you think of. Can you say what it's about in two sentences? If you are struggling with that, your road map won't help you get back on track. Before you can even begin writing, you have to figure out what it's all about.
Studying screenwriting principles, using the structure to build your story, will only make you better writer. Once you understand the basics, then you'll be able to make your own path. Doing the exercises that come from studying will help discover your voice and fully flesh out your story. Chris and I read the books. We did many, many, many writing exercises. We study many, many many screenplays and movies. When we first started, writing seemed like a paint by number. Now we might color outside the lines a bit, but you can still make out the picture. By using the tools constantly, now Chris is able to just write and then we can go back and see structure. Our copies of Story, Save The Cat! and Screenplay are always close by.
In the end of Adaptation, Charlie incorporates Donald's love of principles into his love of story and finds his voice again. By understanding the purpose of structure, he was able to use structure with purpose. Charlie Kaufman's movies all seem to avoid any "normal" structure, but he is a master; his story is structure. At the end of the day, it's your screenplay. You are the one writing it. But if the story isn't there, the audience won't care to watch. Studying the principles helps you refine your writing, just like studying a recipe helps you become a better cook. There are always going to be the three types of writers- it's just human nature. I'm working to be a Charlie Kaufman- someone who understands why structure works, but isn't afraid to shake it up.
The quote that best describes the writing process:
(Voiceover) To begin... To begin... How to start? I'm hungry. I should get some coffee. Coffee would help me think. Maybe I should write something first, then reward myself with coffee. Coffee and a muffin. So I need to establish the themes. Maybe a banana nut. That's a good muffin. -Charlie, Adaptation.