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 sixteen 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.
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 Sollazo (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 Salazzo and his police captain bodyguard, McClusky.
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.
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 inciting incident is when groomsmen Phil, Stu and Alan lose the groom after a wild night of Vegas bachelor party celebrating. Page 29.
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 SEVENTEEN 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.
Lisa took all this in. She looked pretty upset. She wanted to know why she had wasted so much time torturing herself trying to adhere to the rules if they were in fact bullshit. This is never an easy question to answer so I gave her the Gloria Steinham quote:
“The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.”
I’m not sure Lisa appreciated that. She wanted to know why she had been told over and over she had to hit certain plot points by certain pages when this was not true. More importantly, what was she supposed to do about it? Everyone tells her that her scripts lack structure, and so if the story structure paradigms weren’t going to help her solve this problem, what would?
In a follow-up post I’ll share the answers I gave her to both those questions.
FORMULA ? ... WHO THE HELL YOU CALLING A FORMULA?
I recently saw a posting for a class where the instructor promised to share the nine essential story beats found in all successful screenplays. But the teacher also stated that he didn’t believe in formulas or must-follow rules since they deprive writers of creating truly original and memorable stories. I was curious how he reconciled this with his nine essential story beats, which certainly sounded like a formula to me. So I emailed him and he emailed back that he doesn’t like to call his nine story beats a formula, since formula carries such a bad connotation. And more importantly, since all successful screenplays contain these nine story beats it’s imperative that writers know what they are and use them in their scripts. Hence the reason to take his class.
He’s not alone in this.
None of the books or seminars say they teach formula. Nobody wants to pay for some cookie cutter one-size-fits-all recipe. It’s much better to say you’re teaching universal principles and essential story beats found in all (or at least most) successful scripts.
But if what if this isn’t true? What if there is no magic formula?
And what if far too many writers are needlessly destroying their scripts by following a set of well-marketed but basically bogus rules?
THE FOOD PROPULSION SCENE
The popular books and seminars that teach the nine, fifteen or whatever number of essential story beats all suffer from the fallacy of composition, which states that what is true for the few is not necessarily true for the many.
They present a supposedly universal principle, like scripts need an inciting incident on page 17, or the first act must end on page 25, then show examples of successful movies that do this, ignoring the multitudes of successful movies that do not.
For example, let’s say we were going to offer a story structure seminar. Knowing that a lot of writers struggle with the middle of their scripts, one of the essential beats we’ll teach is what all well structured screenplays do at the midpoint to keep both the momentum and reader interest going. Because this is valuable information. People will be willing to pay for it.
We explain to our audience that all (or almost all) successful screenplays do the exact same thing at the midpoint. Then we hit them with some examples…
We start with The Godfather, which pretty much everyone agrees is one of the best structured films. The midpoint is when Michael guns down Sollozzo and McClusky in an Italian restaurant. McClusky is sitting there enjoying a nice veal supper when Michael throws over the table, sending the food flying, then shoots and kills both men.
Now for a successful romantic comedy. The midpoint of When Harry Met Sally is the deli scene. Sally loudly fakes an orgasm while Harry, surprised by this, drops his corned beef sandwich to his plate. One of the most famous scenes in cinematic history.
What about a smaller character-driven movie. The middle of American Beauty finds the Burnhams having dinner at home when Lester, fed up of being treated like he doesn’t exist, hurls a plate of asparagus against the wall.
Each of these wildly successful movies has a midpoint where food is thrown, or at least dropped. So we can therefore reasonably conclude that such a scene is a universal requirement of any properly structured screenplay and must come at the midpoint as it did in these three examples. Why? Because food represents survival, and so any character willing to hurl it about is thematically demonstrating a fierce determination to achieve his goal even if it means sacrificing his own survival. Very powerful stuff.
The food propulsion scene is what all successful movies do at the midpoint.
So if you want a well-structured script you absolutely must have your protagonist chucking about food-stuffs at the midpoint. And to really drive home the point we’ll tell everybody that whenever we’re handed a script, the first thing we do is flip to the middle to see if food is being propelled, and if not, we know the script is no good.
THE FALLACY OF COMPOSITION
And of course this is ridiculous. Just because a certain kind of scene exists in three successful movies does not mean it exists in all successful movies.
A small handful of examples do not make a universal principle. In the vast majority of successful movies, characters are not flinging food around at the midpoint. In fact, most movies somehow manage to avoid food propulsion throughout.
So how silly would it be to believe you have to have your main character throwing food at the midpoint?
Just as silly as believing you need to have a ‘false down’ scene at the midpoint just because that’s what happened in the 1970’s screwball comedy, What’s Up Doc?
Yet, that’s what one of the popular formula books teaches. And I have seen many a script destroyed because the writer forced such a moment into the midpoint because it was “required” for a well-structured screenplay.
This same book mandates that the second act must launch on page 25 with “something big happening”. It’s quite adamant about this. The second act can’t start on page 28 or page 30. It must happen on page 25 with “something really big happening”. The author states that when he’s handed a script, he turns to page 25 to see if something really big is happening in order to see if the writer knows what he/she is doing.
But what would have happened if he had been handed the scripts for the movies we just discussed?
Page 25 of The Godfather is a nice quiet character scene where Michael and Kay are out Christmas shopping. Nothing big happens. In fact, very little of anything happens.
Page 25 of When Harry Met Sally is Sally on a plane ordering a drink in her endearingly anal way. No big event second act launch. Just another nice character moment.
Page 25 of American Beauty is Angela explaining to Jane how she likes to have men drool over her and how someday she’ll be a famous model that men will want to have sex with. Another character scene.
There is no one-size-fits-all formula. Every story is unique. At least any story worth giving a damn about. Yet how many writers will read that book and tragically march off the ‘I must have something really big happening on page 25 or I’m doomed’ cliff?
But please don’t take my word for any of this.
Get a bunch of the greatest scripts ever written. You might want to use the AFI list of the 100 greatest movies. Or the WGA list of the 101 best screenplays. Add some of your all-time favorites to the mix.
You also might want to include scripts that unknowns have used to launch A-list careers. Scripts that literally changed people’s lives, such as The Hurt Locker, The Wrestler, Little Miss Sunshine, Juno, Thelma and Louise, Lethal Weapon, Rocky and such.
Read these scripts and you’ll see there’s something unmistakably original and unique about each of them. Now look to see how many of the so-called universal rules and paradigms the scripts follow. Or more importantly, don’t follow.
What you find might surprise you.
A WELL-TRAVELLED PATH TO FAILURE
I was recently on a story structure panel discussing how every story is different and there are no magic formulas. One of the audience members came up to me afterward and said I really hope you’re wrong.
He told me how he used to write screenplays that always fell apart in the middle. He told me he has a whole drawer of 50 page half-scripts that couldn’t go the distance. Then he bought a book with the 15 essential story beats, and by following this road map, he was able to finish a whole script. He told me that without these story beats he’d be lost.
That’s the upside of formula. If you follow it, you will get a completed script.
So what’s the downside?
It may not be a very compelling script.
Over the years I have brought in agents, managers and producers to speak to my UCLA classes, and they all pretty much say the same thing. They can spot a script written to one of the popular structure formulas a mile away, and these scripts almost never succeed. Writers who use these road maps almost always run into the following problems:
Their scripts read a lot like all the other scripts following the same rules and formulas and so probably have little or no chance to stand out.
Their scripts are predictable since the reader knows what specific plot points are going to happen on what specific page.
Their scripts are populated by less-than-compelling characters that feel like puppets forced to say and do things in order to serve pre-ordained plot points.
Even worse, writers following these formulas tend to destroy what’s original and unique-and hence interesting-about their scripts by forcing them to conform to a set of one-size-fits-all, paint-by-the-numbers rules masquerading as universal principles.
SO, WHAT’S THE SOLUTION?
None of this is to suggest that structure doesn’t matter. Because of course it matters. Structure absolutely matters.
But structure is not formula.
That’s the real tragedy here. Too many writers think they’re learning structure when in fact they are simply being sold a bunch of rules that hold no real value.
In order to have a chance at launching and sustaining a career, writers need to know how to create flexible non-formulaic structure that can support and enhance, instead of destroy, what is unique and original about their stories, characters and writing.
How can this be done?
I would suggest two steps:
Step one is to throw away any book or class/seminar notes detailing the nine or fifteen or whatever number of essential story beats, universal principles or narrative building blocks found in all (or most) successful movies.
Story structure is hard. Anyone who has ever tried to write a screenplay knows this. And as the above email illustrates, most aspiring writers tend to take one of two approaches.
Some become students of structure. They read books, take seminars and classes, learning as much as they can. They want to understand and utilize the universal paradigms and structural beats needed to tell a compelling story. But unfortunately, more often then not, this path does not lead to success.
Others take a more intuitive approach. They eschew the popular paradigms on the grounds that, no matter what claims are made, they are all basically cookie-cutter formulas that deprive adherents from creating original material. These writers strive to produce unique, character-driven scripts that will succeed based on the freshness of the stories and characters. But unfortunately, more often then not, this path does not lead to success.
I would like to offer an explanation for why both approaches are so damn hard to pull-off and present a third option with better odds of success. But first I will start with a metaphor illustrating the true challenge of story structure.
THE WINE GLASS
Imagine you just sold a script for a million dollars and an outrageous celebration is in order. You invite your favorite person to an expensive restaurant and decide to go all out. When the sommelier presents the wine list you throw caution to the wind and order a $3,500 bottle of Petrus Pomerol.
Now imagine you and your companion are driving home after dinner discussing the meal and the subject of the wine comes up. What might that conversation sound like?
You might rave about how truly special it was, the subtle hint of berries, vanilla, mocha and oak–the perfect compliment to an exquisite meal. Or perhaps you say you can’t believe they had the nerve to charge $3,500 for wine that didn’t really taste any better then the Trader Joe’s two-buck chuck you recently consumed. Or you might comment on how much you drank (hopefully you’re not the one driving). There’s a whole bunch of things that might be discussed, but there’s one thing you probably won’t be talking about….
The wine glass.
Unless there was something wrong with it.
I know this is absurd, but imagine the waiter informs you that, in order to cut costs, the restaurant is no longer using actual wine glasses, which need to be washed after each use. Instead it is using disposable Dixie Cups. And after explaining this, he proceeds to pour your $3,500 Petrus Pomeral into tiny wax-lined paper cups.
Or employing even more aggressive cost-cutting measures, the restaurant had stopped buying Dixie Cups and the waiter plops the bottle of wine in the middle of the table, instructing you guys to swig away. This would probably warrant a place in the post-meal discussion.
This is the sad plight of the wine glass. If it does its job correctly it never gets noticed. It only gets attention when something is wrong with it.
In screenwriting, story structure is like the wine glass.
And the wine is the reason we all want to be writers. The wine is our characters, dialogue, subtext, themes and emotional connections. It is what makes stories memorable and meaningful. It is why we go to the movies. The job of structure is to contain this wine in an appropriately designed vessel to allow the reader/viewer to fully experience and enjoy it. When the structure does its job properly, we tend not to notice it. But when it doesn't do its job, we aren't able to fully experience and appreciate the wine. With this in mind, I'd like to explain why the two, commonly taken approaches to structure are so difficult to pull off.
THE WINE-DRIVEN APPROACH
Imagine you are dining at a restaurant with a great wine list but no wineglasses, so when you order wine they simply pour it over you and your companion. No matter how amazing that wine might be, you’re probably not going to go back.
This is the problem writers tend to encounter when they write from an intuitive, character-driven perspective.
They might create great “wine,” but it’s not being properly contained in a “glass.” So these writers often have unique, well-drawn characters wandering about in search of a compelling story that they never quite seem to find.
It’s no surprise that these writers tend to have a drawer full of aborted half-scripts that started out strong enough but couldn’t go the distance. And the scripts they do complete aren’t usually successful. These writers receive praise for their original characters, dialogue and overall voice, but are told it doesn’t add up to anything. The story lacks the narrative momentum required to sustain a reader’s interest. This is because they have great wine but lack a strong wineglass.
These writers are told they need to learn structure if they want to have a career.
After hearing that enough times, many of them throw in the towel on the intuitive approach and start forcing their scripts to adhere to the popular story paradigms, no matter how creatively frustrating or constipating such an approach might be. But unfortunately that path leads to it’s own type of failure.
THE ONE-SIZE-FITS-ALL APPROACH
Imagine you’re opening a new restaurant and need to buy glasses. As you’re looking over a vendor’s cost sheet you notice that shot glasses are a heck of a lot cheaper then other kinds of glasses, so you decide to buy a whole bunch of shot glasses and nothing else. So when your customers order red wine they will get it served in a shot glass. When someone wants an after-dinner coffee, it will come in a shot glass. The same with champagne, cocktails and water: everything delivered in a shot glass.
Of course you would never actually do this. Sure, you’d save some money in glass procurement expenses, but it’s going to be terribly hard to keep your customers coming back after they tried to drink hot coffee in a shot glass.
Because we don’t live in a world with a one-size-fits-all approach to glasses.
There are different shapes and sizes of glasses designed for different kinds of beverages. And it’s not just aesthetics, there are important functional reasons for these different designs.
It’s the same with screenwriting.
Every story has its own unique type of wine that needs to be contained in a custom-shaped glass designed to best support and enhance this particular wine.
That’s why, as discussed in Part Two of this article, the agents and managers who come to my UCLA classes always warn my students not to use the formulas. They lead to boring, predictable, homogeneous scripts populated by puppet-like characters forced to say and do things to serve pre-ordained plot points.
The story structure paradigms are blueprints for a one-size-fits-all wineglass. And prostituting our wine to make it fit a generic, one-size-fits-all glass, is a terrible way to write a screenplay.
Because nobody walks into a restaurant and orders a wine glass.
Just like nobody goes to see When Harry Met Sally because of its structure. We go because it’s funny, smart and romantic, and it has great characters we want to spend time with.
We go for the wine.
But in order to fully experience and enjoy that wine it must be served in a wineglass custom-designed to support and enhance it.
When Harry Met Sally doesn’t fit the popular story paradigms. There’s no page 17 inciting incident. No big event happening on page 25. No page 30 act-break. When Harry Met Sally has a uniquely shaped wineglass specifically designed to support and enhance it’s own type of wine.
The same is true with The Social Network and King’s Speech, and countless other great scripts. This is what successful writers do.
Successful writers learn how to design and build custom-structured glasses that best support and enhance their own flavor of wine, whatever that might be.
A BETTER APPROACH
In Adventures in the Screen Trade, William Goldman writes, “Yes, nifty dialogue helps one hell of a lot; sure, it’s nice if you can bring your characters to life. But you can have terrific characters sprouting just swell talk to each other, and if the structure is unsound, forget it.”
That is obviously true. But it would be equally true if the quote were rewritten to say:
Yes, having a well-executed structure helps one hell of a lot. But if you can’t bring your characters to life, and you don’t have compelling dialogue, and your individual scenes are boring and flat, forget it.
Because we need both: great characters and great structure. Wine and wineglass.
And following the paradigms usually leads to neither.
Forcing our characters and stories to serve some pre-ordained one-size-fits-all structure means corrupting our wine in order to make it fit into a highly predictable, formulaic glass. Which is why the agents and managers who come to my UCLA classes warn against this approach. It is also why professional writers don’t use the paradigms, no matter what those who make a living selling story formulas would like us to believe.
The key to success is knowing how to create strong, organic, non-formulaic wineglasses specifically custom-designed to support and enhance our unique type of wine.
Special thanks to,,,
Corey Mandell | Professional Screenwriting Workshops
310-243-6758 | Hermosa Beach, California, USA
firstname.lastname@example.org | http://coreymandell.net
On facebook: http://bit.ly/coreyfanpage
Return to MAIN PLOT PAGE