The Scriptwriter’s Temper Tantrum

What to do when your writing student is sobbing, screaming, and throwing things...
The scriptwriter’s temper tantrum goes something like this:

"I have had it with all the writing theory and the lectures on story structure and the beat sheets and the outlines. I don’t need it. Aristotle is ancient history. Joseph Campbell is borrrring. And if you even mention Robert McKee, I will beat you over the head with ALL 480 PAGES of his HARDCOVER BOOK! I don’t need any of it. I am an ARTIST. I don’t follow rules. I break the rules. So, forget it. Forget all of it. There are too many guidelines, too much lingo and I’m pretty sure it’s all made up just to sell books and to torture me. Where did all this come from, anyway? Can you tell me that? Why should I listen to any of it? Why why why why why why why whyyyyyyyy?”

I’m familiar with the scriptwriter’s temper tantrum because I spent several years teaching playwriting to undergraduates. Every year, I’d begin the class with a discussion of dramatic structure. I’d give examples of how this structure has been used in stories throughout human history. In subsequent classes, I’d delve into the intricate details of script construction: how stories move on a river of a thousand conflicting currents, how the writer must control and direct this deluge, carrying the audience on the raft of story as it careens through this class 5 whitewater. How the writer must maneuver to keep everyone in the boat so that no one gets thrown out, no one gets swept away by a wild wave, no one drowns in the details, and everyone experiences this journey from beginning to end.

And that’s when someone in the class would think to themselves “Wait a minute, this sounds hard. This sounds COMPLICATED. This doesn’t sound like art— art is wild and fun and free. This sounds like engineering. This is all formulas and best practices and manufacturing. This teacher obviously doesn’t care about my artistic process!!!”

And that’s when the temper tantrum would begin…

Here’s the thing: it’s very easy to teach the “rules” of scriptwriting. The really difficult thing is to get students to understand why those rules exist. The rules are reductive and confining. The why is expansive and liberating. Think of small children. Adults give children a million rules, but the children are too young to fit any of those rules into a larger context: Don’t talk to strangers. Don’t play in the street. Don’t put dirt in your mouth. To a small child, one who doesn’t understand the complications of society, the patterns of traffic, or the nature of germs, these rules seem arbitrary and needlessly restrictive. Is it any wonder that kids throw tantrums?

As grown ups, we know and follow these same rules, but we have context for them. We understand how they serve us. And because we understand their purpose, we don’t resent them. And while we follow the rules naturally, we also have the experience and the judgement to know how to break those rules safely.

So let’s take a step back and talk about the “why” of dramatic structure. How do all of the rules fit into a larger picture? What purpose do they serve? Where did they come from?

Let’s begin with a simple observation: Plays and films are experienced over a period of time. They are not instantaneous events. They last. Sometimes they last five minutes, sometimes they last eight hours. But they always last for some unit of time.

So you go into a theater, you sit in the dark, the curtain rises (or the film starts) and… what happens? What exactly happens?

Things change. On a basic fundamental level, when you are watching a play or a film, you are watching a series of changes. If things didn’t change, the curtain would go up, you’d see the actors and… they’d stand there… frozen… perfectly still… forever.

Not so interesting, eh?

So, as a scriptwriter, the first job is to make things change. The writer creates the series of changes that moves the audience through the duration of the show. The audience sits down at the beginning and when they leave at the end, things are different, things have happened, the audience has traveled on a journey.

So how do we do it? How do we create moments of change? Somewhere, thousands of years ago, the first dramatic writer faced this problem. The answer that she came up with is the answer that most writers still use to this day: we get other people to make these changes for us. We call them characters.

Within the world of plays and films, characters are very good at changing things. Sure, there are other things a writer could put in his script that would, without the help of any characters, cause things to change. Lightning could strike, for example, or a wild animal could go on a rampage. But those things aren’t very reliable. It’s hard to build a two hour sequence of changes around them. People are much better at changing things. Unlike lightning, people have free will. Unlike wild animals, people have large intelligent brains. If you want to make something happen on stage or on film, the easiest way to do it is to put some people up there. (Some writers find other ways to do it: they create a world in which lightning has free will or wild animals are capable of intelligent thought, but the ultimate effect is still the same: things start changing).

So, you create a world; you fill it with characters; the characters run around and start changing things. They say stuff, they do stuff, they move around; suddenly the world is filled with activity. All sorts of characters are changing things all the time. You’ve solved the problem of nothing happening, but you’ve created a new problem- everything is happening- all the time- and in no particular order. You’ve got changes happening in all sorts of directions and the audience doesn’t know which ones to follow. Let’s imagine what this might look like. We’re writing a script. We’ll call it Hamlet.

Change 1: Hamlet’s Father’s Ghost appears. He tells Hamlet that he was murdered by his brother. He begs Hamlet to avenge his death.

Change 2: Hamlet goes to the salon and gets a facial.

Change 3: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern open a dog training facility outside of the castle.

Change 4: Ophelia and Hamlet’s mother bake cookies for the court.

Change 5: Hamlet’s Uncle kills himself.

Change 6: Ophelia decides to take up basket weaving.

Change 7: Rosencrantz asks Ophelia to marry him.

Change 8: A group of players arrive at court. They do a production of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

You can see why an audience would eventually get frustrated.

What we need is a way to organize things. Thousands of years ago, dramatic writers stumbled on two organizing principles that still work to this day:

1. Focus on one central character. Rather than trying to follow what everyone in this entire made-up world is doing, have the audience just follow one character. We’ll call him the “Main Character” or the “Central Character.” Let’s just follow Hamlet, for example.

Change 1: Hamlet’s Father’s Ghost appears. He tells Hamlet that he was murdered by his brother. He begs Hamlet to avenge his death.

Change 2: Hamlet goes to the salon and gets a facial.

Change 3: Hamlet goes to a bar and gets drunk with Ophelia.

Change 4: Hamlet decides to take a fencing lesson

Change 5: Hamlet polishes his shoes

Change 6: Hamlet and his mother go into psychoanalysis

Change 7: Hamlet goes riding with his friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

…And so on. So, this is a little better. At least we’re following the same person. We’re not completely confused any more. We’re just bored. We don’t care about what Hamlet is doing. The whole thing doesn’t seem to add up to anything. What we need is another organizing principle:

2. Give the central character a goal. If the central character has a goal, he’s not going to initiate random changes in this world. He’s not going to just wander around doing stuff. He’s going to try to change things in a particular direction. He’s going to try to make changes that will achieve his goal. Let’s give Hamlet a goal:

Change 1: Hamlet’s Father’s Ghost appears. He tells Hamlet that he was murdered by his brother. He begs Hamlet to avenge his death.

So, Hamlet’s goal is to take vengeance for his father’s death by murdering the King. That leads to…

Change 2: Hamlet makes the guards, who were witnesses to the ghost’s appearance, swear an oath of secrecy.

Change 3: Hamlet begins to behave erratically. This behavior confuses the King and Queen. Everyone at court tries to figure out what is wrong with Hamlet.

Change 4: A group of actors comes to court. Hamlet writes a play for them to perform. The play imitates the King’s murder of his father. Hamlet hopes to see evidence of the King’s guilt in his reaction to the play.

Change 5: The King is horrified by the play. Hamlet realizes that the King is truly guilty.

Change 6: Hamlet goes to kill the King, but he finds the King praying. Hamlet is determined that the King should die in a state of sin, so he does not kill him.

Change 7: Hamlet goes to his mother’s room. While confronting her, he notices something move behind the curtains. Thinking that it is the King, Hamlet stabs the curtains with his sword. He kills Polonius, who was hiding there.

Change 8: The King exiles Hamlet to England. He arranges for Hamlet to be murdered in England. Hamlet escapes and sneaks back to the kingdom to confront the king.

…and so on. Now that Hamlet has a goal, he doesn’t just change things willy-nilly. Every change he makes on stage is in pursuit of that goal. Hamlet doesn’t get a facial; he doesn’t polish his shoes; he doesn’t take his Ophelia out to a bar. Why? Not because he can’t do those things, only because they are not part of his agenda. The result is that the audience has a clear set of stepping stones which lead in a particular direction. Out of these changes, the audience can assemble a narrative. They keep leaping onto new stones because they want to find out what happens next. They want to see where the changes will lead them.

The goal is a powerful tool for focusing a story, setting it in motion, and giving it direction. Because it is so powerful, 99% of all successful plays and screenplays introduce the goal somewhere within the first quarter of the story. It is, in effect, the story’s beginning.

So when the writing teacher insists that you have a main character with a clear goal, she is not trying to torture you. She is not simply trying to sell her book. She is trying to give you a powerful tool which will help you solve three fundamental problems in storytelling:

1) How do I make something happen? Put characters in your story.

2) How do I stop everything from happening all at once? Focus on one central character.

3) How do I put all the things that happen in sensical order? How do I decide what happens first, what happens second, what happens third, etc…? Give the main character a clear goal and have him pursue that goal throughout the story.

And these are only the first three problems in storytelling. Once you’ve solved these three problems, you will quickly run into another one.

4) How do I make my story last?

Imagine you’re writing Macbeth. The Macbeth’s goal is that he wants to become king. Without any other forces in the script, the existing king (and his subjects) would just hand over the crown. No fight, no argument, no debate, they’d just give it to him. Macbeth wants it in scene one. He gets it in scene two. Play over– go home.

In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones wants to find the Lost Ark of the Covenant. Without other forces in the script, he’d simply fly to Egypt, dig it up, and bring it back to the USA. Ten minutes– movie over. And you haven’t even started your popcorn yet.

As the writer, you’ve got to do better than this. People are paying good money to see your work and if it’s over in scene two, they’re going to want that money back. So, you’ve got to find a way to make your story last a while.

So, the main character pursuing the goal can’t be the only force in the script. There must be other forces at work. Why? Because if there aren’t, you’re going to have some very short scripts. You must create competing forces within your story. The dominant force (the goal) is not the only force. There are other forces which will cause twists, bends and setbacks in your character’s path. It is the wrestling with these forces that will give your story a middle.

But where do these forces come from? How do you get these competing forces to show up in your script? And how do you get these forces to not only thwart your main character, but stick around to thwart him consistently?

Well… how about you put in another key character? One who has a reason to work against the main character? In fact, let’s give that new character his own goal— one that completely opposes the main character’s goal. Now you’ve got someone in the story who isn’t just going to launch one single obstacle. Now you’ve got someone who will launch obstacles and over throughout the story, keeping the main character away from his goal and lengthening the distance between beginning and end.

“Now,” your writing teacher says, “let’s call this character ‘the antagonist.’”

So, from the attempt to solve four basic problems, we get the fundamental “rules” of dramatic structure: A main character pursues a goal in conflict with an antagonist pursuing an opposing goal.

And this is just the beginning. The gazillion scriptwriting “formulas” out there are all attempts to either 1) make change happen within the story 2) Keep the audience engaged with those changes or 3) Help the audience draw meaning from the sequence of changes from beginning to end.

So don’t just learn the rules. Work to understand the why of the rules. If you understand what problem the rule is trying to solve, then you will know how to apply it judiciously. And you will assemble a more comprehensive and intuitive understanding of how stories work. And once you’ve mastered that, you can throw out the rule book entirely— not because the old rules are invalid, but because you have figured out your own.

Penny Penniston is a Chicago playwright and screenwriter. She is the author of Talk the Talk: A Dialogue Workshop for Scriptwriters. She has written articles on screenwriting for MovieMaker Magazine.