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Story structure, can the rules be broken?

Sep 3, 2015

Interview with Genevieve Clay-Smith

We all watch movies and most of us have a sense for how they flow. So why is it so hard to sit down and write one! What exactly is screen writing structure and what are the rules? Can the rules be broken? With these questions in my mind I thought that it might be useful to list some of the different rules out there before we kick off our interview with Genevieve, so here we go…

  1. Feature films are usually told in three acts, particularly western films from Hollywood. The audience expects a three act structure with key story plot points in place at specific points.
  2. Film is visual, avoid exposition in your scenes that tell the audience information, when it could be shown.
  3. You only have a short period of time to tell your story, make sure your dialogue is economical; usually scenes shouldn’t go longer than 3 pages unless completely required.
  4. Film is action, you must force your characters to take action and be on a journey.
  5. All screen plays are developed around an unforgettable character. Big characters are important to engage your audience.
  6. Beware of clichés.
  7. Find single moments, ones that have the story at its heart.
  8. What happens next? All scenes should move the story forward or reveal more of that character.
  9. Writing an outline your story before writing is very useful in developing the script.
  10. Keep your screen play under 120 pages.
  11. Be practical and keep your budget in mind.
  12. Make sure you write your screen play in the appropriate screen play format. Buy ‘Final Draft’ or download the free screenwriting software ‘Celtx’ so you can write in the appropriate format.
  13. You must know your logline, it helps you to understand the story and make it clear. Also if you’re ever in the position to pitch your screenplay knowing the logline will help you tell it without stumbling!
  • It is widely agreed that story telling and in particular screen writing is one of the most difficult arts to master, has this been your experience?

Yes, it’s very hard. I used to think early on that I could just open my laptop and write a feature film, but it’s essential to learn the craft of feature film structure. I deliberately chose to go back and study to learn about structure and how to write. Trying to keep an audience engaged for 98 – 120 minutes without being bored is one of the hardest things a person can do. With novel writing, the reader can consume a story at their own pace in their own time. But with film, whether it’s a feature or a short, the viewers are stuck there for one sitting and you must keep the audience entertained.

  • Can you tell us a little bit about your process for writing and how you approach story telling?

My process has changed since getting formal training, I use to just sit down and write, but I now do an outline and work out the characters first, then I start writing the actual script. I find it helps me find the flaws and plot holes in the story quicker, rather than me making all the effort to write the script first.

  • Apparently screen writing is bound by more rules than any other form of creative writing, which rules do you think are essential to keep and which ones are meant to be broken?

I think it’s essential in any screenplay to have conflict between characters. Conflict is interesting and it keeps us engaged. High stakes are essential; there must be something at stake for the character. There has to be a through-line and an overarching question we want answered to keep us sitting there for the entire film. I also believe the basic three act structure and plot points that help push the film along are important; inciting incident, point of no return, climax and so on.

I think that once you know the rules, you can break them and create cinema that plays with time and space, for instance Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run, tells three versions of the same story, but each story still has a structure and the three stories themselves act as a sort of three-act structure for the entire film. So the rules are still there, they just take a very bold form.

  • What is the ‘three act’ rule is and is it imperative?

It can be explained as simply as the beginning, middle and end of the film. Every film needs a beginning middle and end! But there is a lot more to feature film structure than just three acts though. A lot of script gurus have different ways of explaining key points that a film needs, so it’s good to do a lot of reading and learning about the subject to grasp the basics of structure.

  • There are examples of filmmakers who break the rules of screen writing regularly. For example Quentin Tarantino’s characters in Pulp Fiction do a lot of talking. Why does he do this?

Tarantino was a reader before he was a director, he read a lot of scripts for a living and even sold some before he made his directorial debut. I believe that Tarantino learned the craft so well that he could take it to new and distinct places with confidence. He knew that bold and witty dialogue, driven by heightened characters, accompanied by an incredibly unique story-world, high stakes and action would work. Craft plus talent equals genius.

  • Can you please recommend some films which are good examples of tossing out the rule book?

A lot of filmmakers push the boundaries and throw the rule book out, once rules are formed artists often want to break them!

During the French New Wave, filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard pushed the boundaries. Gordard’s Breathless (À bout de soufflé) and other films were a reaction against Hollywood’s format and structure.

So too, films by Italian director, Federico Fellini pushed boundaries, his films 81/2 and La Dolce Vita are very influential for how they challenged the status quo of filmmaking at the time.

Run Lola Run as previously mentioned is a fantastic film; a lot of Charlie Kaufman’s work takes the rules to bold places, such as Being John Malovick, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and AdaptationMemento is a fantastic film that relies on the audience wanting to know what happened to keep us engaged. Terrance Mallick’s Tree of Life is another film which pushes the boundaries, as it is more like watching a visual poem about humanity rather than a story about a character who is on a quest for something.


  • How does screen writing for features differ for a short film?

I believe feature films are a lot harder, there is so much more to consider and incorporate into a feature to keep the audience engaged in one long sitting. With shorts, I view them as more of a two act structure. When I was at film school I thought my lecturer at the time articulated it really well; the first act is the problem and the second act is the miracle. I have learned with shorts that the shorter the film the better. So establishing a problem straight up is important, and then leading the audience on a journey to the conclusion, twist, realisation or answer takes you to the end of the second act.

  • Can you give us some examples of scripts that inspire you?

I’m very inspired by Kaufman’s script Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I think it’s a beautiful script that pushes the boundaries just enough to make it fresh and engaging, but no too much so that you don’t get lost and confused! It’s a really beautifully balanced film that I can watch over and over again. It’s definitely a film that you have to watch twice.

I am also inspired by The Kings Speech, it is deceptively complex. It hits all the right notes at the right time, it’s plants and pay offs are exceptional, the character development is beautifully orchestrated and natural, and all that stuff is really hard to do. You can sit back and watch it and think that it’s ‘simple’ but it’s not. What the screenwriter David Seilder did was beautiful and difficult.