Tag Archives: screenwriting

How to write almost anything – The basic story structure of the classic plot.

Painting of The Damsel of The Holy Grail by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1874)

Yesterday, I went to a talk by Robert Thirkell at Elstree Film Studios. He describes himself as “a TV repair man”.

He is said to be the first ‘go-to’ person if your TV script or factual TV series is not working and needs re-structuring – “arguably the world’s leading story consultant for television and factual features”.

He is worth listening to and part of his basic structural theory is the same as in Joseph Campbell’s 1949 book The Hero With a Thousand Faces.

Campbell’s book (which I have not read) famously analyses the structure of fairy tales and myths to come up with ‘the one’ universal story structure to rule them all; the one story structure to find them, the one universal story to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.

It is much-lauded in Hollywood and, as well as being the basis of Star Wars et al, has influenced the whole Movie Brat generation of film-makers.

Campbell’s story structure is for works of fiction, but Thirkell uses it as a structure to grab and hold the attention of the viewers of factual TV shows.

The Campbell structure is basically this:

A hero leaves his castle on a quest… overcomes obstacles along the way… and, at the end, succeeds in his quest. That quest may be to find an object – the Lord of the Rings or the Holy Grail or the Rabbit’s Foot in Mission Impossible III – or to rescue a damsel in distress as in John Ford’s The Searchers.

But The Quest it is basically the same, it is said, in any classic and effective work of fiction… and can be used in factual narratives.

You set up an unresolved problem at the very start of the story – the classic movie ‘hook’ to grab the audience’s attention. The development of the plot involves a series of attempts to uncover a way to resolve the problem and overcome the multiple obstacles encountered. And the climax involves the resolution of the problem.

That holds for books, movies, plays, even narrative comedy routines.

Any successful American movie or TV show has traditionally had a tendency to set up the ‘problem’ – the ‘hook’ – and to introduce the main characters within the first 2-5 minutes of the narrative. To hook the audience from the very outset.

I have sat through endless dull movies which do NOT do this. They are endless because they are startless.

They start by setting up atmosphere, place and time and even characters aplenty, but no plot. My internal reaction is always: “What the fuck is this story actually going to be about?” Watching atmosphere bereft of plot is like watching weatherproof paint dry. You have to have it, but you need to build the bloody shed first.

Another of the classic structural underpinnings of the universal story is that the hero starts a boy and ends a man because, under pressure of the problems surmounted in the course of the plot, there is a transformation in his character. He ends a wiser, braver and transformed character.

(NB ‘he’ can be ‘she’…! But, in traditional fairy tales and myths it tends to have been ‘he’ and the Campbell book is about Heroes. I did not invent the English language. Don’t give me unnecessary PC grief.)

Robert Thirkell has a theory that the hero has to lose some of his battles in the middle, retreat, re-think, try again and then win on the re-attempt. Because that makes the character more sympathetic and more admirable. If the hero constantly surmounts problems effortlessly, the reader/viewer finds it difficult to empathise with him.

Personally, the best opening to a movie I have ever seen – and all the better because it is not noticeable – is the opening credit sequence of the first Die Hard movie because all the central characters, their backgrounds, relationships and the basic starting ‘hooks’ of the plot are set up before the film actually starts for real. 

(I should, at this point, mention that I wrote a similar but different blog about story structure in January 2011, titled How to write the perfect film script: “Die Hard” meets Pixar animated feature “The Incredibles”. But – hey – if something is worth saying…)

Rule 2 of writing anything…

Don’t be silly. Nothing is truly 100% original.

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If you are in your 20s & from Glasgow, how do you get a sci-fi film script picked up by Hollywood?… Krysty knows…

So comedian Gareth Ellis told me I should meet 26-year-old Krysty Wilson-Cairns

“Gareth hasn’t told me anything,” I told Krysty when I met her this week at Bar Italia in Soho, “beyond the fact you have just had your film script picked-up by Hollywood after how many years at film school?”

“Two years,” said Krysty. “I did my MA in Screenwriting at the National Film and Television School. I graduated last year.”

In her first year at the NFTS, she wrote a short film All Dead Men based on the true story of a delayed action bomb which landed in BBC Broadcasting House during the Second World War. “We built a whole floor of Broadcasting House from scratch,” she told me. There is a trailer on YouTube.

She later won a BBC Climate Competition award for The End of An Era which follows two cockroaches in a post-apocalyptic future going to the cinema to see Jurassic Park, but instead of dinosaurs, the monsters are humans.

The animation is on YouTube.

“So,” I asked, “if the NFTS thing was an MA, you must have done a degree before that?”

“I did my degree in screenwriting at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland,” said Krysty, “which is part of St Andrews University… but based in Glasgow.”

“So how on earth did you sell a script to Hollywood?”

“In your last three weeks at the NFTS,” explained Krysty, “you get sent round in groups of ten to all the agencies. You have to pitch three ideas and then the agencies that like you meet you again. I had my heart set on United Agents and luckily Marnie Podos there said Yes.”

“And she sold your script to…”

“FilmNation,” said Krysty. “They made Memento and Looper. “I’ve been a massive fan of Christopher Nolan ever since Memento.”

“I didn’t like Inception,” I said. “Too complicated for me. He should have gone back about five script re-writes to when it was presumably simpler.”

Krysty Wilson-Cairns in Soho, London’s film-making

Krysty Wilson-Cairns in London’s Soho

“Oh no, I absolutely loved Inception,” said Krysty. “Stunning. I liked the way he took a heist movie and made it so cerebral and I think it’s what making films is about; a bunch of people sharing a dream. It spoke to me on a really deep level. At film school, I got absolutely hammered for saying I loved it, because we were meant to love kitchen sink dramas and French New Wave films, whereas I love Inception and Die Hard. I want to make commercial films. I want to make films that lots of people see.”

A few days before I met her, Krysty had Tweeted It’s kinda awesome being part of #HollywoodReporter trend alert after reading a piece about herself in the US film trade magazine.

“I think I was quite lucky with my script,” she told me. “It just captured something in the zeitgeist. It’s called Aether. It’s a dark psychological sci-fi thriller.”

“And what’s the elevator pitch for it?” I asked.

A machine that can turn up dead sounds and they use it to solve murders. Everything that was said in a room is still in the room… I wrote it over Christmas. I had to do something. It was really cold in Scotland and I wanted to stay by the fire. It took me six weeks – 112 pages.”

“112 pages?” I said. “So that’s 112 minutes and it’s sci-fi – so loads of special effects, – so very expensive.”

“No,” said Krysty, “Low on special effects because it’s mostly done through sound: a lot of audio effects.”

“For a movie, though,” I said, “it has to be very visual and very big screen.”

“Ah,” said Krysty, “But there’s a lot of murder, violence and it’s very character-driven; one man coming apart.”

Krysty told me she is flying to Los Angeles next Friday “for the re-drafts”.

Krysty’s Musical Star movie at the NFTS

Musical Star – one of Krysty’s movie projects at the NFTS

“Do they want to change the concept?” I asked.

“I have no idea what they want to do,” said Krysty. “It’s set in London so they might want to move it to LA, which would be fine.”

“Do you have ambitions to direct?” I asked.

“No, nothing like that.”

“But film makers,” I said, “change everything which writers write.”

“That’s the beauty of writing,” said Krysty. “It’s like a kind of shared, amazing dream.”

“More like shared frustrations?” I suggested.

“Well, no,” she said.

“The only way to really control your script is to be a director,” I suggested.

“I don’t need to control it,” said Krysty. “If I wanted to control it, I’d write books. I find it terribly exciting when people take something you’ve written and imagine it and act it out and embody something that you made up in your pyjamas.”

“It’s not a collaboration, though,” I argued. “You write your own script, then they bring in other writers with ampersands and ‘and’s between their names and your central characters will get unrecognisably changed – and the location and the plot.”

“Maybe,” said Krysty, “but I’ll still get to sit in the cinema and say There’s a couple of things I made up in my pyjamas and they spent £20 million on it. I think that’s exciting.”

“More than getting close to what you originally wanted?”

“Yeah. Well, I’ve already what I wanted in the original script.”

“But the film industry,” I said, “is famously full of shysters, charlatans and thieves.”

“I’d be excited to be among them,” laughed Krysty. “I’m from Glasgow – come on!”

From Shawlands in Glasgow (above) to Hollywood (Photograph by S Allison)

Krysty is progressing from Shawlands (above) to Hollywood (Photograph by S Allison)

“Which bit of Glasgow?” I asked.

“Shawlands on the south side,” she replied. “I hail from Craigholme Girls School.”

“Very posh,” I said. “What did you want to be when you were 13?”

“An engineer,” she told me. “I’m very interested in Maths and Physics. I wanted to be an engineer right up to the point I applied to university and then I realised it would be horrific to have to sit and build bridges every day and not make stuff up.”

“Strange,” I said. “I would think the scientific gene is different from the creative writer gene.”

“I liked quantum physics, quantum suicide and stuff like that.”

“Quantum suicide?” I asked.

“It’s an experiment that proves the Many Worlds theory. You’re sitting in a chair and there’s a gun pointing at your head. You make the decision to press a button, so the world splits in two. In one world, the gun fires. In the other it doesn’t. But, because you can’t perceive the world in which the gun fires, it always does not fire.”

“Sounds like Schrödinger’s cat,” I said.

Wikipedia’s attempted explanation of Schrödinger's cat theory

Part of Wikipedia’s attempt to explain Schrödinger’s cat…

“All that kind of stuff fascinated me,” explained Krysty. “I wanted to sit and make stuff up but they were like NO! BUILD BRIDGES!”

“So it’s quantum physics you’re into,” I said. “Fantasy physics.”

“Yes,” Krysty agreed. “Crazy physics.”

“You come from a creative family?” I asked.

“My mum’s in Health and Safety. My dad’s a mechanic,” said Krysty. “He fixes diesel engines. I used to like to tinker with cars. My grandfather was a roofer. He was very creative. He used to fix roofs. I’m still quite a bit of a petrol head. But I was never a very good mechanic. I’m quite good at roofs, though. Good with heights. I could patch something up if I have to, if this film thing doesn’t work out.”

“Have you got other scripts to follow-up Aether?”

“Yes. Eight scripts. Black comedy and sci-fi and thrillers. They’re the three genres I like to work in.”

“I don’t think you will need to mend roofs,” I said.

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