Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A Screenplay Approach

Building A Story: Plots, Characters, and Settings—Oh, My!
Tuesday, January 18—A Screenplay Approach

In May 2009, I flew to San Clemente, California, to attend my first picture book boot camp. My sister, Dr. Pat Sanders, gave me the admission for the conference and airfare to California as my birthday and Christmas gifts. I attended the Children’s Authors’ Bootcamp led by author Linda Arms White and Laura Backes editor of Children’s Book Insider, the Newsletter for Children’s Writers. Months later when I spoke about this training with other writers, I started realize what an extraordinary opportunity I had experienced. . . at the time I only knew I learned a lot!

Linda and Laura spoke in depth about the three-act structure used in screen writing. This linear approach really made sense to me and I’ve applied it to my writing frequently. You can find the structure in many picture books and novels. In some ways, it’s similar to the story arc mentioned yesterday. I think I canrelate to the three-act structure because it is a screenwriting approach. I can see the structure in TV dramas so easily. Take a look . . .

Think about your favorite two-hour TV drama. ACT ONE is the SET UP. As soon as the story begins you are introduced to the characters, setting, and a bit of the situation the characters are in—then WHAMMO! Martha Sue is murdered. (This is the INCITING INCIDENT.) Before we get to the first commercial, TURNING POINT 1 occurs—a point that usually makes the situation even worse and takes the story in an expected direction. Oh, no! Not only was Martha Sue murdered—BUT HER BABY, TIMMY, IS MISSING! COMMERICAL—end of the first act. Now TURNING POINT 1 moves us into ACT TWO.

The middle of the program (just about everything except that last little scene after the last commercial) is ACT TWO and it’s filled with CONFRONTATION and story DEVELOPMENT. Think of this as the trials and errors/attempts and failures of the TV show . . . The detectives go in one direction, but find that the suspect is still in prison; they think they have their man, and then he’s got an alibi. The trial and error/attempts and failures continue until the situation grows more and more desperate. Where is Baby Timmy? Will he get his medication? Is he even alive? TURNING POINT 2. Duh-duh-dum! the music plays. The seemingly sweet, “innocent” Nanny reveals her hand and there’s a pacifier in it! But where is Baby Timmy? The problem has been solved (almost). COMMERICAL—end of the second act.

Did you notice the Midpoint in the diagram above? Screen writers call this S.A.S. which literally means “sex at sixty”. At the sixty minute period in the two-hour drama (halfway through) a sex scene is often thrown in to give the viewer a break. Everything in the world is going wrong and Baby Timmy is still in danger, but the fearless detectives have a little romp as a distraction (for them and for the viewer). Often this happens in novels, too. A break in the action, a second story line/plot that interrupts to give us a break and let our hearts get back to a normal pace. Picture books often do this with illustrations—something funny in the illustration can break the tension/suspense and encourage us to keep going.

TURNING POINT 2 leads us from ACT TWO to ACT THREE and the TV show starts moving more quickly now. We’re coming to the RESOLUTION. The Nanny is arrested she spills her guts. Then the story wraps up. Baby Timmy is rescued and given his medications in time. And finally comes the climax. Baby Timmy’s father, Dr. Timothy, who cares for orphans in Tanzania, flies home and lovingly cares for his own baby—the one he never knew was his. End credits and . . . COMMERICAL!

In a less dramatic and usually much more humorous manner, picture books follow the Three-Act Structure. The diagram above helps me see if I’m spending too much time in the beginning as I set things up, helps me remember to keep the action growing and the excitement building, and reminds me to get to the conclusion that is not only an end but a climax to the action. Give it a try!

P.S. By the way, if you’re ever in San Clemente, don’t just go to a conference. Check out the downtown area and a host of quaint shops, eat on the peer, and watch for dolphins and sea lions.

NOTE: Check out Linda and Laura's Children's Authors' Bootcamps (for children's writers of all genres) at http://www.wemakewriters.com/. One bootcamp will be held in Austin, Texas, April 30-May 1, and plans for a bootcamp in the San Francisco Bay area are being finalized.

1. Indulge yourself and watch a two-hour TV drama (or even a 30-minute sitcom) and look for the Three-Act Structure.
2. Gather up two or three of your favorite picture books. Analyze how closely the story lines follow the Three-Act Structure.
3. Look back at your most recent draft. Superimpose the Three-Act Structure on your story and see if this way of planning and outlining a story could be helpful to you.

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