If anyone tells you that a screenwriter must set up the story goal before the end of Act 1, avoid their screenwriting advice. They don’t understand drama. I’ll explain in a minute.
The internet is rife with advice of all kinds, and I find it increasingly difficult to locate useful gems. If you’re really critical, you could argue that even the best known and most respected authors such as Robert McKee offer very little in terms of workable advice. I’m talking about techniques that writers can actively apply during the writing process.
Most of what you will find falls in the category of analytical observations – and I have pleaded guilty to the same.
We do need analysis, and critical thinking about how stories play out. But a writer expecting to find practical guides during the actual chore of writing a story will often be sorely disappointed. Not much of this around.
This means that you will need to develop a BS radar when it comes to screenwriting advice. The best way to do this, is always ask “Why?”
I would place the worst kind of screenwriting advice into three separate categories.
The Obvious – and mostly useless
At first sight, these types of screenwriting advice sound perfectly plausible.
- “A high concept story is something that everyone wants to see, no matter who the actors are”. Sound legit, right? Until you question it. How do you know everyone wants to see it? Back to square one. Not a smidgen of useful advice here.
- “Just tell a great story.” I won’t even go there. Just watch my great video.
This type of tips you can easily undress by asking But why? and How does this advice help me today?
The Plain Wrong – and often dangerous
- “Script formatting doesn’t matter, as long as you tell a great story.” This is a variation on the obvious screenwriting advice above, only now with a dangerous sting. Trust me, formatting does matter.
- “The inciting incident must be on page 12.” The alternative goes: “The inciting incident must be at your story’s 10% mark”. These numbers may be correct if you consider the average. However, this means that the majority of films do not have this beat on that particular page or percentage, but higher or lower.
- “Show, don’t tell”. Now, this one must be correct, right? Yes, if you have the budget. Otherwise, you’ll have to put a lot of exposition in dialogue, whether you like it or not.
- “Register all your drafts with the local guild, and always have the registration # on the cover page.” No. Do your research.
Because this type of advice is often factual, just doing some more research may teach you the truth.
The Confusing – and hardly helpful
This is the toughest category of screenwriting advice to debunk, because often, there’s truth in it. Only, it appears not practical when you’re actually writing. I plead guilty to having given this type of tips in the past.
- “The 3-Act Structure is broken. Here’s something better.” A smart writer recently pointed out to me how John Truby attacks the 3-Act Structure, then replaces it with the same using different labels. Challenging existing paradigms is great, but ultimately terminology matters, as we use it to communicate about story. The reality is that you’ll need to speak the language of the person who will decide on the future of your script. Most of them still use the 3-Act Structure, or the Hero’s Journey. Sorry, John.
- “Your story’s halfway point should have a point-of-no-return.” I have never really understood the dramatic value of being closer to your goal than to the departure point. Unless you’re in a road movie, this metaphor can mean a million things. A failed film like Annihilation proves how this approach doesn’t work, which is why I much prefer a Mid Point Reversal. However, be careful: if the executive prefers a point-of-no-return, then call it that (but write it as a reversal anyway).
- “Strong screen drama is a visual expression of our deepest humanity, and it confronts our inner conflicts in a way that makes us question our reason for being.” Some people just love using big words to make it sound as if something matters. And the statement above may be true, but how is this going to help you in writing your flabby first half of Act 2? The advice in this category may sound inspiring, but rarely helps.
Screenwriting Advice – The bottom line
Don’t just accept the words of your favourite guru, even if they sound great. Always ask “why?” and “how does this help me?”
I know what you’re thinking now.
So what about that setting up the goal before the end of Act 1, from the title? Isn’t this sound screenwriting advice? Shouldn’t the goal be set up early, and definitely no later than the first half hour?
Okay, let’s go there.
You’re assuming that the first act should be thirty minutes in length. Why? Because some guru told you? And how does this help you?
Here’s my take – and that of many authors I respect. (If you want a name, I’d say Paul Gulino.)
The first act is over once the goal is established.
Stories are about characters responding to events or change, with a certain action or series of actions. Once the story’s main action or goal is established, in terms of dramatic tension we call this the end of Act 1.
So what this piece of advice above is really saying, is that you have to end Act 1 before the end of Act 1.
Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in acquisition, development and production. He has trained students worldwide, and worked with half a dozen Academy Award nominees. Karel speaks more European languages than you have fingers on your left hand, which he is still trying to find a use for in his hometown of Sydney, Australia. The languages, not the fingers.
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