The Usual Suspects - audiences don't say: What a wonderful screenplay structure

The Usual Suspects – audiences don’t say: “What a wonderful screenplay structure!”

There’s a great deal of hot air talked about screenplay structure – much more than about any other area of screenwriting – and most of it entirely misses the point. It’s great fun for the screenwriting gurus, like McKee, Truby and Fields, but at best academic for most writers.

At worst, it actively gets in the way. Producers latch onto three act structure and turning points as if they prove (or disprove) anything and everything. But how does a writer actually use any of this in writing a real screenplay.

1. Audiences don’t care about screenplay structure

Everything comes down to the audience. That’s who we make our films and TV programmes for. I personally never heard of an audience come out of a cinema saying, “What a wonderful structure!” or “What a brilliant first act turning point!” They might say “What a clever ending!” (The Usual Suspects) or “What the hell happened!” (The Usual Suspects). But what they really want is a well-told story, engrossing characters, entertainment, strong emotions, new thoughts…

These should be the first things you’re thinking about when you write your first draft script.

2. Screenplay structure is about the second draft

Hey, I thought you said… I said audiences don’t care about “screenplay structure”. But they do care about getting bored, about overlong introductions and sagging middles and undercooked endings. The structure is there to help you get the whole shebang to its destination with the minimum of fuss.

Second draft is the time you seriously address that. Cut out all the introductory scenes in your first act. You don’t actually need them. Find the focus of the middle act and make sure your protagonist pushes the drama through his actions. And push your third act further than you thought you dared.

3. Screenplay structure is mostly instinctive

One reason that writers disagree about structure is that most of the good ones do it without consciously thinking about it. (The crap writers just think they can get away without thinking about it.)  But to get to write instinctively takes an enormous amount of writing and reading before you reach that point.

Read as many screenplays as you can get your hands on – good and bad. Take them apart, study how they work and why. Get them here… And write. Imitate them. Try different angles. Try your best to see your writing in action: have a read-through, make a short, get friendly with your local fringe theatre group… Get your hands dirty.

4. Three-act structure is actually easier

For 99% of stories, three acts is the best way to go. It makes life easier for you and for the audience. It means you can concentrate on more important things without worrying that the whole story will fall apart in your hands. 99.9% of the world’s greatest films (and plays, operas and novels) are in three acts. Even Shakespeare’s plays (which appear to be in five acts but for the most part break simply into the basic three on inspection).

Are three acts restrictive? Yes. And it’s a romantic myth that artists don’t like rules. From sonnets to sonata-form, the best artists love bouncing against the rules.

5. It’s the ingredients that make it work

It’s not whether structure works, but whether you work it. And the way you work a screenplay, whether it’s in three acts, seven acts, 32 acts or no-acts and told backwards, is by providing high quality ingredients.

The difference between The Love Punch and Bringing Up Baby, To Catch A Thief or Her isn’t in the screenplay structure, but in the characters, the story elements, the quality of the dialogue, the subtlety and truth of the emotions and observations.

Have another look at that redraft. Is it true? Is it subtle? Have you chosen the best quality ingredients, or could you do better?

That’s what audiences get excited about. It’s not easy to do, but it’s the only way to make it work.