When I was young(er) and (more) naive many of my friends and I fancied ourselves as artists. Our creative outlets included poetry, plays, painting, photography, music, and eventually film. We were so original, or so we thought, that we didn’t fit nicely into any specific labels that society had for us or our art. We were the first Renaissance men of the new millenium. But where we were long in ideas we were short in execution. We started many things but finished few.
Once we had shot our first feature-length film (post-production dragged on for a couple of years) we started planning our next project. We wrote a couple of scripts but then got bogged down in disagreements. While I believed in the three act structure, having learned it in creative writing in college, I struggled to implement it effectively on the screenplay I wrote. Still do. A couple of the other guys didn’t believe in structure at all. “Labels and rules don’t apply to my art.” Any notes on it dissolved into alcohol fueled arguments that lasted late into the night. Neither of those scripts have ever been filmed.
I don’t think there is a definitive answer to the arguments we had about screenplay structure. However I do believe that you give yourself a better chance of writing a great script if you have learned the structure. Know the rules before you break the rules.
There are many books that provide an outline of the three act structure for a screenplay. Save the Cat! is the most popular one at the moment but my favorite is The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. It was used by my professor in college and I’ve bought it four times since as I’m always giving away my copy.
What Vogler does is takes Joseph Campbell’s story structure (the Hero’s Journey which you can read about in his book A Hero With a Thousand Faces) and applies it to movies. He goes over the various character archetypes (including hero, mentor, ally, and trickster) and how they fit into the story that is being told with the script.
He sets up twelve stages of the hero’s story and explains how they fit into a three act structure.
Call to Adventure
Refusal of the Call
Meeting with the Mentor
Crossing the First Threshold
Test, Allies Enemies
Approach to the Inmost Cave
The Road Back
Return with the Elixir
Throughout the book he uses examples from well-known movies and does thorough analysis of some movies including Star Wars, Titanic, and, one of the movies that figured heavily in our arguments on screenplay rules, Pulp Fiction.
One way (perhaps the only way) to make a great movie is to start with a great script. Reading The Writer’s Journey won’t guarantee a successful filmmaking journey but it is a great mentor to help you along the way.