iOS 4

Rick Stout does most of the writing for his own films. He uses an iPad app that he programmed, which allows him to plot story structure by scene, storyline, sequence, and act. Below are some principles that he strives to honor in his writing.*

The Purpose of Story

Entertaining & Educating

A powerful film both entertains and teaches truth. To achieve both, a film must do the following:

First, establish early on a controlling idea or theme that will be explored in the film. The following are examples of a controlling idea or theme: "those who work hard will succeed," or "those who trust, always win."

Second, in the course of developing characters and plotlines in an entertaining manner, a film must honestly explore the theme of the film. This is done by alternatively proving and then disproving the theme in sequencial scenes.

Third, in the climactic end of the film, entertainment and truth combine to "confirm" in a final way, the theme of the film. Done right, the ending scene is described by many viewers as inviting a “spiritual confirmation of the theme." Others describe the same experience in different terms, such as “Aesthetic Emotion." Regardless of what one calls it, it is at the heart of what makes a great film both entertaining and moving.

Story Lines

Story lines are of two types: (1) a Plot, which is action based; and (2) one or more Subplots, which are relationship based (exploring a friendship, etc.)

There is typically a single plot, and multiple subplots, each comprised of ordered scenes. However, some scenes may realistically include elements of both plot and subplot.

Plots & subplots should generally have three-part structures: (1) a beginning--including a clear Setup; (2) a middle--or Development section--which encompasses the majority of a film’s action; and (3) the ending--or Payoff--where stories conclude, characters become who they will be, and controlling ideas are finally “proven.”

Such three-part story structures should generally be used in scenes, sequences, acts and films.

When initially writing a scene, sequence, act, or film, ask yourself three questions: (1) What is the most important information that the audience needs to get? This is the Purpose or Payoff. (2) What does the audience need to know in order to understand the purpose of the scene? This is the Setup. (3) What events (beats) take us from Setup to Payoff--including the Turning Points--and provide an interesting development of drama. This is the Development of the film.


Characters & Character Development

To be interesting, and to drive the story forward thru meaningful, plotted action, a character must make decisions and take actions over the course of the film. These decisions and actions also develop the character's character. A Character’s Development of character can be shown if we first establish (1) Motivations, (2) Goals, and (3) Actions. These help establish (a) who the character is, (b) what he or she wants & why, and (c) what he or she is willing to do to get it.

Motivation is a catalyst. Perhaps it is an event (or a life circumstance, or backstory) at the film beginning, that forces the main character to get involved. Motivation also serves as justification for actions and attitudes of characters in the film. Unless a character has clearly established motivations, audiences may find that character to be unrealistic.

A Goal is the desire that results from the motivation (going somewhere, finding something, etc.). Essential to drama in each scene, a goal is finally attained in the story climax. A goal must have great risk, create direct conflict, and require characters to make great changes or transformations.

Action is what a character does to get his or her goal: investigating, capturing, tearing down, building up, finishing, finding something, setting up, executing, etc. Action gives life to story plots, revealing who characters are, and how they will develop over time.

A story develops over time as characters both act and react (both are Action) to chains of events. In the process the main character Develops, or arcs, as he or she experiences an irreversible change in one or more "values" such as these:

- Self-deception / self-awareness (vice versa);
- Meaningless / meaningful (vice versa);
- Bad Attitudes of Life / Good Attitudes of Life;
- View of others negative / View of others positive;
- View of self negative / View of self positive;
- View of some culture as negative / View of some culture as positive;
- Disbelief in family / Belief in family;
- Disbelief in work / Belief in work;
- Disbelief in this world / Belief in this world;
- Disbelief in the hereafter / Belief in there hereafter;
- Hopelessness / wanting to live life fully;
- Giving up on girlfriend / trying to get back girlfriend;
- Giving up on trying to explain / trying to explain and move forward;
- No goals / trying to achieve goals;
- Not caring to understand / trying to make sense and understand.

Drama & Beat

The Dramatic Beat is the moment when the character experiences a changed circumstance. It is the point at which the character realizes something has happened, and that they must then react in some way, which then pushes the story forward to a new place. They also make audience members ask questions, and become engaged. Writing, shooting, and directing for Dramatic Beat are essential in dramatic storytelling.

The Dramatic Beat is occurs within a Dramatic Unit, of which there are typically one or more per scene. The Dramatic Unit centers on a character's Goal, and it arcs as follows: (1) there is an inciting moment--the character realizes that they must do something to achieve their goal, (2) there are rising actions and sometimes obstacles in their path, (3) there is an apex of action or a confrontation, (4) there is a Dramatic Beat, and (5) there is a resolution.

John Howard Lawson likens the first four steps of the Dramatic Unit to the stages of an internal combustion engine: (1) the piston draws explosive gas; (2) compression occurs; (3) ignition and explosion occurs; (4) the piston is forced downward, moving something, and initiating a new cycle. Just as an engine firing repeatedly makes a car move forward, so the Dramatic Cycle moves a scene, act, and film forward to its end.

For Drama to exist in a scene, there must be at least one Dramatic Cycle in the scene. A progressive building of Beats enables a building of Dramatic Tension, which is essential to sustaining audience interest. Since Acts are composed of Scenes, and Films are composed of Acts, the film has Drama, and dramatic tension, if each (or most) of its Scenes are composed of Dramatic Units.


Action Points

Action Points are dramatic events (action, not dialogue) that cause/demand a reaction by the protagonist. Action points drive the story forward in interesting ways, making us expect that something else must follow. When it does, the screenplay is said to have Momentum at that part. There are many kinds of Action Points, including these: Turning Points, Obstacles, Complications, Reversals, Twists. Note: many of these terms are not standardized among screenwriting scholars.

Turning Points are unpredictable turns of action that build audience interest and move the story forward in a new direction. They must be present at the end of Acts 1, 2, and 3 in a 3-act screenplay. Usually there will be a Turning Point at the mid-point of Act 2. They are sometimes called act climaxes, or plot points. Turning Points do the following kinds of things: (1) turns the action in a new direction; (2) raises again the central question / controlling idea, and makes audience members wonder about the answer; (3) raises the stakes / risk for characters; (4) requires a decision or increased commitment on the part of the main character; (5) pushes the story into the next scene, sequence, or act; and (6) allows us to later see the development of the character's character, via decisions made under pressure. Examples: a solution is found that may work; a ticking bomb is discovered; the stock market crashes; the person confesses true love.

Obstacles are barriers that force the character to make a new decision, choose a new action, or direction. For example, a clue that doesn't lead anywhere, the encountering of a guard dog whey you're trying to be unseen, or an action that does not bring about an expected result. Character development and momentum can both come from eventually overcoming obstacles. They are basic to drama. Scholar Robert McKee says that they should be a part of every scene, but Linda Seger says that they should be used more sparingly.

Complications are actions that don’t pay off immediately, BUT we sense that they may still, and we ANTICIPATE / WONDER about what will happen later in the story. A complication is typically the start of a new Subplot or Throughline. And it might affect a character’s intension (not goal, but approach to goal). For example, the audience learns that a character is different than what another character assumes (and the audience then anticipates that this will cause an issue at some point). Another example, a person meets another, and we anticipate that it will be the beginning of a relationship (good or bad) at some point.

Reversals are the strongest kind of Action Point and they change the story’s direction by 180 degrees--from what Robert McKee calls a positive value charge to a negative value charge (or vice versa). Action or emotion (or both) can reverse. Reversals catapult stories in an opposite directions. There is rarely more than 2 in a script, and they are great in in Act 2 where action may otherwise begin to drag. Examples: a lost soldier turns up at his sweetheart’s; a deathbed character recovers; lovers break up; a person doesn’t want to hire, but then learn that they must to hire; an official ruling by judge is overturned; a dead monster comes back to life; the dead person is not the bad guy. Look for emotional moments that can be expanded into reversals. For example, kind of sad / kind of happy, becomes: despair / ecstasy; or vice versa.

Twists are the most difficult Action Point to get right. They are events that turn the story in a new direction because of a reversal in audience EXPECTATION. Such as the plot changes in The Sting. It is important that audience expectations are set up, but never contradicted in the twist. In other words, the audience made reasonable assumptions (setup by the writer) that later prove false. Examples: we thought it was a violent robbery, but no; we thought it was the good guy, but bad; we thought it was a moon landing, but a fabrication captured on film; we thought he was a trusted advisor, but it was the very enemy we were searching for; etc.