Script Structure: Whatever you do, don’t be boring!
Script structure is an essential part of screenwriting. But there is no greater sin in screenwriting than writing a dull story. That’s the danger of dogmatically following screenplay structure. This seems obvious – no one sets out to write a dull script. But sometimes, in plotting out the mathematical structure of a screenplay, it can happen unintentionally.
For instance, it’s a commonly accepted structural design in screenwriting to begin with the “ordinary world”. Typically, this is around 10 pages setting up the hero’s regular life, so the audience can then understand how the inciting incident shakes up the hero’s status quo.
As the writer, you know that inciting incident is coming down the pipe. Once the audience gets there, you’re going to be off to the races. That doesn’t excuse a dull first 10 pages. Yet in a way, adhering to this traditional structure can lull you into writing exactly that.
In many spec scripts, the idea that the hero’s ordinary world must be deficit in some way leads to a mundane “ordinary world” sequence, by design. The script tries to show that the hero’s life is boring/lame/uninteresting and needs to be shaken up. Again though, this doesn’t excuse a dull first 10 pages.
If you find yourself writing this type of first 10, stop. Because anything in a script that’s dull is a killer. If there’s no interesting way to show that a character’s life is uninteresting (a paradoxical challenge), change it up.
Structure is both screenwriting greatest asset (it’s math, it’s objective, it gives the story shape) and one of its biggest dangers. Again, don’t be boring. Maybe your inciting incident happens on page 1.
Alternatively, let’s say you are in this position, where you must show that the hero has a boring life – but in doing so, you contrast their reaction to what should be exciting events (sex, death, a sudden influx of money), illustrating they’ve lost their “spark”. This forces the story to have exciting events during the “ordinary world” sequence.
Considering an entire script, most screenwriters agree you’re going to have an ordinary world, an inciting incident, a turn into the second act, maybe a midpoint, an end of a second act (often a low point), and a third act climax. And most spec scripts adhere to this, and deliver “big” or “exciting” moments during these tent pole structural beats.
But those moments can’t be the only “big” or “exciting” moments in your script. Challenge yourself to make every single scene feel this impactful, even if the moment is small in context of the story… and you’ll avoid committing the cardinal sin of screenwriting.
What's the boldest choice you've made in writing a screenplay?