Script Frenzy will be in full swing starting April 1. As the month wears on, there’ll be times when you’re typing away and blowing past your page goals. . . and then there’ll be times when you’re staring sadly at a screen as the sad trombone plays in the background. During those latter, sadder times, we’ll all need some advice from the pros. So listen to what a real playwright and screenwriter has to say!
Adam Chanzit’s plays have been seen in the Bay Area, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, New Haven, Denver, and Boulder. He has been a MacDowell Colony Fellow and won the 2011 San Francisco Film Society-Djerassi screenwriting award. His movie 3 Nights in the Desert (which stars the adorable, a-beardable Wes Bentley of The Hunger Games) is currently in post-production. Basically, Adam is awesome, and he suggests you take his advice very, very personally. Enjoy!
“Don’t take it personally” is no doubt great advice for writers when dealing with rejection. But when it comes to working with structure, taking it personally can make your script leap off the page.
Structure comes from a range of sources: genres such as comedy or mystery have many familiar structures. Take, for example, a mystery with a crime, a series of leads, red herrings, a reversal, and a final revelation. Or the family drama in which, over the course of the story, dark secrets of the past emerge. When you adapt myths, novels, or real events, they bring their own potential structures. And with the Hollywood three-act structure and Shakespearean five-act structure, there’s no shortage of options from which to choose.
Now before you start protesting about how stock structures will stifle your unique voice, I say that there’s a paradoxical freedom in form. And you may be surprised to find that structure—if you take it personally—can strengthen your voice.
Think of structure as architecture: a house with foundation, walls, and a roof. Ultimately, however, a house is for people to inhabit. Your inhabitants are your characters. And to create the vivid characters you want living in your house, you must get personal. When you can incorporate your fears, your desires, your regrets—experienced or imagined—into those of your characters, they begin to take on flesh and blood. No matter whether your “house” has the structure of a taut thriller, a comedy of manners, or a coming-of-age tale, by using your imagination to imbue characters with the personal, you give a beating heart to the inhabitants of your house—your structure.
Keep in mind that structure and story are different. Structure is abstract; story is specific. Structure is the pattern; story fills it with particular events. And what animates the whole system is… you guessed it: character! Once you know your characters personally, you allow the events of your story to emerge and fit into your given structure. When a script feels contrived, it is often because the structure dwarfs a group of puppet-like characters. When a script feels aimless, it is usually due to a weak structure—unfortunate characters wandering in the wilderness without a home! But if the desires of your characters propel a well-structured story, your audience will likely sense the work is character-driven and authentic, and the structure organic.
For adaptations from literature or real-life stories, the same advice holds true. When incorporating a figure such as a politician or a superhero who is familiar to your audience, you should find your personal version of that character. When developing a character such as a violent killer who is (hopefully!) unfamiliar, you should still find that personal imagined connection. This process will allow your audience to enter a new time, place, or consciousness and bring emotion to the structure.
So I say to you, Script Frenzy writer: armed with a drive to take the work personally, you should not fear tried and true structures. They are grand, wonderful architectures to explore. Structure will be your foundation, walls, and roof to keep out the nasty elements of doubt and despair, allowing you to focus on the personal as you race to the finish line.
Structure and the personal are ultimately symbiotic. Structure needs your heart and imagination. And you need structure to make your story speak to others. We don’t want to hear you ramble about last night’s dream. But we do want to feel the emotion underlying your dream, told within a compelling story.Structure allows you to transform raw feeling into something richer and more sophisticated. And if you take the work personally, your audience will, too.
Interested in putting Adam Chanzit’s advice into action? Sign up for Script Frenzy here. And don’t forget to enter Figment’s treatment writing contest, where you can share the 300-word summary of your planned screenplay for a chance at a phone consultation with screenwriting guru Scott Myers.