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What is a Screenplay

What is a Screenplay - —u What Is a Screenplay Wherein we...

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Unformatted text preview: —u What Is a Screenplay? Wherein we introduce the paradigm of dramatic structure: What is a screenplay? A guide, or outline for a movie? A blueprint? Diagram? A series of scenes told with dialogue and description? Images strung together on paper? A collection of ideas? The land- scape of a dream? What is a screenplay? A screenplay is 3 STORY TOLD WITH PICTURES. It is like a noun—about a person, or persons. in a place er places. doing his or her “thing." All screenplays execute this basic premise. A motion picture is a visual medium that dramatizes a basic story line. And like all stories, there is a definite begin- ning, middle, and end. If we were to take a screenplay and hang it on the wall like a painting and examine it, it would look like the diagram on page 8. All screenplays contain this basic linear structure. This model of a screenplay is known as a paradigm. It is a model, a pattern, a conceptual scheme. 7* 8 * SCREENPLA Y The paradigm of a table, for example, is a top with (usu- ally) four legs. Within that paradigm, we can have a square beginning middle end Act I Act II Act [II ____.®_I_—____®+_ sitllp confrontation resolution pp. 1—30 pp. 30—90 pp. 90—120 Plot Point] Plot Point II table, long table, round table, high table, low table. rectangu- lar table, or adjustable table. Within the paradigm a table is anything we want it to be—a top with (usually) four legs. The paradigm holds firm. This diagram is the paradigm of a screenplay. Here's how it's broken down. ACT I, or THE BEGINNING The standard screenplay is approximately 120 pages long, or two hours long. It is measured at one page per minute. It does not matter whether your script is all dialogue, all action, or both. The rule holds firm——one page of screenplay equals one minute of screen time. The beginning is Act I, referred to as the setup, because you have approximately 30 pages to set up your story. If you go to a movie, you will usually make a decision—either consciously or below the level of awareness —about whether you “like” the movie or “dis-like" the movie. The next time you go to a movie, find out how long it takes you to make a decision about whether you like the iilm - . _._i.—g WHAT [S A SCREENPLA Y? a: 9 or not. It takes about ten minutes. That’s ten pages of your screenplay. You've got to hook your reader immediately. You have approximately ten pages to let the reader know WHO your MAIN CHARACTER is, WHAT the premise of the story is, and WHAT the situation is. In Chinatown, for example. we learn on the first page that Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholsen) is a sleazy private detective specializing in “Dis- creet Investigation.” On page 5, we are introduced to a cer- tain Mrs. Mulwray (Diane Ladd) who wants to hire lake Gittes to find out “who my husbandis having an affair with." , That is the major problem of the screenplay, and provides the dramatic thrust that drives the story to its conclusion. At the end of the first act, there is a PLOT POINT: A plot point is an incident, or event, that hooks into the story and spins it around into another direction. This event usually occurs between pages 25 and 27. In Chinatown, after the newspaper story is released claiming Mr. Mulwray has been caught in a "love nest," the real Mrs. Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) arrives with her attorney and threatens to sue. If she is the reai Mrs. Mulwray, who hired Jack Nicholson? And who hired the phony Mrs. Mulwray, and why? This event spins the story around into another direction; Nichol- son, as a matter of survival, must find out who set him up. And why. ACT II, or THE CONFRONTATION Act II contains the bulk of your story. It takes place between pages 30 and 90. It is termed the confrontation portion of the screenplay because the basis of all drama is conflict; once you can define the need of your character, that is, find out what he wants to achieve during the screenplay, what his 10 * SCREENPLAI’ goal is, you can then create obstacles to that need. This gen- erates conflict. In Chinatown, a detective story, the second act deals with Jack Nicholson coming into conflict with those forces who do not want him to find out who is responsible for the murder of Mulwray, and the water scandal. The obsta— cles that Jack Nicholson overcomes dictate the dramatic action of the story. The plot point at the end of the second act usually occurs between pages 85 and 90. In Chinatown the plot point‘at the end of the second act is when Jack Nicholson finds the glasses in the pool where Mulwray was murdered, and knows that they belong to Mulwray, or the man who murdered him. This leads to the resolution of the story. ACT III, or THE RESOLUTION Act III usually occurs between pages 90 and I20. It is the resolution of the story. How does it end? What happens to the main character? Does he live or die? Succeed or fail? A strong ending resolves your story in order to make it com- prehensible and complete. The days of ambiguous endings are over. All screenplays execute this basic, linear structure. Dramatic structure may be defined as: A LINEAR ARRANGEMENT OF RELATED INCIDENTS, EPI- SODES, OR EVENTS LEADING TO A DRAMATIC RESOLUTION. How you utilize these structural components determines the form of your film. Annie Hail, for example, is a story told in flashback, but it has a definite beginning, middle, and end. WHAT is A SCREENPLA Y? * ll Last Year at Marienbad does, too. So does Citizen Kane; Hiroshima, Mon Amour; and Midnight Cowboy. The paradigm works. Act I Act II Act III setup centrontalion resolution Plot Point I Plot Point II I II is a model, or pattern, or conceptual scheme, of what a well- executed screenplay looks like. It presents an overview of the structure of the screenplay. If you know what it looks like you can simply “pour" your story into it. Do ail good screenplays fit the paradigm? Yes. But don't take my word for it. Utilize it as a tool; question it. examine it. think about it. Some of you don‘t believe it. You may not believe in be- ginnings, middles, and ends, either. You might say that art, like life, is nothing more than several individual “moments" suspended in some giant middle, with no beginning and no end; what Kurt Vonnegut calls a “series of random mo- ments" strung together in haphazard fashion. I disagree. Birth? Life? Death? Isn't that a beginning, middle, and end? Think about the rise and fall of great civilizationsbof Egypt, Greece, the Roman Empire, rising from the seed of a small community to the apex of power, then disintegrating and dying. Think about the birth and death of a star, or the beginning 51.- 12 * SCREENPLAY of the Universe, according to the “Big Bang“ theory that most scientists now agree on. If there's a beginning to the Universe, is there going to be an end? Think about the cells in our bodies. How often are they replenished, restored, and recreated? Every seven years—- within a seven-year cycle, the cells in our bodies are born, function, die, and are reborn again. Think about the first day of a new job, meeting new peo- ple, assuming new responsibilities; you stay there until you decide to leave, retire, or are fired. , Screenplays are no different. They have a definite begin- ning, middle, and end. . It is the foundation of dramatic structure. If you don’t believe the paradigm, check it out. Prove me wrong. Go to a movie—go see several movies—see whether it fits the paradigm or not. If you're interested in writing screenplays, you should be doing this all the time. Every movie you see then becomes a learning process, expanding your awareness and compre- hension of what a movie is, or is not. You should also read as many screenplays as possible in order to expand your awareness of the form and structure. Many screenplays have been reprinted in book form and most bookstores have them, or can order them. Several are already out of print, but you can check your library or local university theater arts library to see whether or not they have screenplays available. I have my students read and study scripts like Chinatown, Network, Rocky, Three Days of the Condor, The Hustler (in paperback, Three Screenplays by Robert Rossen, now out of print), Annie Hall, and Harold and Maude. These scripts are excellent teaching aids. If they aren't available, read any screenplay you can find. The more the better. WHAT is A SCREENPLA Y? * 13‘ The paradigm works. It is the foundation of a good screenplay. at: * at As an exercise: Go to a movie. After the lights dim and the credits begin, ask yourself how long it takes you to make a decision about whether you “like" or “dis-like" the movie. Be aware of your decision, then look at your watch. If you find a movie you really enjoy, go back and see it again- See if the movie falls into the paradigm. See if you can determine the breakdown of each act. Find the beginning, middle, and end. Note how the story is set up, how long it takes you to find out what is going on in the movie, and whether or not you’re hooked into the film, or dragged into it. Find the plot points at the end of Act I, and Act II, and how they lead to the resolution. ...
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