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Five Films That Prove There Are No Rules When It Comes to Script Structure

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To all feature screenwriters – I’m sure you’ve all been told one way or another how to properly structure your screenplay. Whether it’s the inciting incident before page 20, or the mid point ant page 60, all the classic teachers of screenwriting have taught us to follow a specific formula.

I’m here to tell you to ignore all of that and forget formulas. Write the story you need to tell and devise the structure of your plot as organically as possible. Forget what pages your act breaks happen and when your major plot points occur. They will happen when your story organically calls for them.

I came across this great article on www.filmindependent.org written by Corey Mandell. In it, he regales us with a story of an exchange he had with a screenwriter named Lisa whom was having difficulties fitting her inciting incident by page 17. This is the industry “standard” as to where inciting incidents should happen in film according to the common formula. To help Lisa with her struggles, Corey simply told to her ignore all she ever learned about formulas and structures and have her inciting incident occur where she felt was right for the script. To support his advice, Corey brought up five critically acclaimed films who’s inciting incidents did not happen on page 17. Check them out here:

The Godfather
Lisa said the inciting incident is when Michael Corleone’s father is shot. She’s not alone. This is the most common answer. 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.

However, one might argue that the inciting incident happens later in the film. It’s only after Michael visits his father in the hospital and ends up thwarting the second assassination attempt that he realizes Sollozzo (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 Sollozzo and his police captain bodyguard, McCluskey. 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.

Regardless of which assertion is correct, if it’s the latter the inciting incident is on page 62. If it’s the former, it happens on page 32. Neither of which are 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. Again, NOT page 17.

Juno
The inciting incident is arguably when Juno confirms she’s pregnant. This radically upsets the balance of her life and is the call to action she must answer. This happens on page 3.

 

The Hangover
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 Fugitive
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 17 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 a specific plot points occur on specific page numbers —is insane.

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.

Read full article at www.filmindependent.org

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