I often talk to perspective clients on the phone to get a sense of where they’re at in the writing process and to give them a better sense of what I’m all about as a script consultant. And there’s one often-made statement that immediately gets me concerned:
“I know structure.”
This statement concerns me because it assumes screenplay structure to be some immutable, unwavering thing entirely independent of the unique story being told. It’s as if there is some specific technique for structure that, once you know it, you simply know it, and you then use it in the same way for every script you would ever possibly write.
And yet this could not be further from the truth.
Structure is inextricably linked to the internal fire of each specific story – it’s the outward vehicle for the deeper message you want to express with your script, and, as such, it is ultimately as individual as the content and characters of the story itself.
That is why there are so many successful movies that completely defy what we regard as traditional screenwriting structure.
Consider, for example, a project like No Country For Old Men, which won the 2007 Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay, and earned more than triple its production budget. The movie garnered all these achievements despite the fact that, upon close examination, it breaks almost every conceivable “rule” of screenwriting.
No Country For Old Men focuses on the quest of old-timer Sheriff Ed Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) to stop the escalating war over a suitcase full of drug money between ruthless killer Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) and opportunistic civilian Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin).
Traditional screenwriting would have Ed at front-and-center of the film’s proceedings – we would enter the movie through his point-of-view and largely stay with him as he undertakes a powerful, high-stakes mission to crack this last case at the end of his illustrious career.
In this context, Ed would largely power the story forward through a series of high-stakes decisions that pull him deeper into a dangerous world and he would ultimately arrive at a meaningful do-or-die climax that would dramatically pay off the building tension that had been established all along. It would be a very familiar structural experience that would satisfy our viewer expectations and thereby create an overall safe movie experience.
But the Cohen Brothers turn this typical dramatic paradigm on its head from the very beginning of the movie.
Instead, we enter the world of the story through the eyes of our two antagonists as they undertake their stubborn, deadly tug-of-war over the cash in question. Ed doesn’t arrive on the scene until the force of violence has long gotten underway and he largely takes a backseat to the main dramatic action for most of the movie. From a sheer numbers standpoint, Ed has very little screen time compared to the targets of his investigation.
In this respect, the otherwise competent Ed remains largely ineffectual in the world of the story – we periodically cut back to him as he slowly but surely locates the antagonists, but both Anton and Llewelyn otherwise remain oblivious to his presence for most of the movie as they escalate their competition largely unabated. And by the time Ed does finally arrive on the scene, he is entirely too late – Chigurh has already killed Llewellyn and has proceeded to retrieve the money in question.
In other words, Ed in no way commandeers the dramatic action of the film – quite to the contrary, he emerges as an almost irrelevant footnote to the dramatic action and ultimately proves powerless to do anything to stop it.
Even more daring, the Cohen Brothers elect not to show any of the expected climactic final battles between our constellation of characters – when Anton and Llewelyn finally come face-to-face, the Cohen Brothers make the conscious choice to cut away from the imminent confrontation and then return to the scene much later as Ed arrives to discover Llewellyn’s dead corpse on the motel room floor.
Likewise, Ed never gets his chance to duke it out with Anton: there is one near-miss point where they cross paths, but Anton manages to easily avoid Ed’s detection, leaving the viewer with a distinct feeling of unsettled anxiety and incompletion. Compounding this sense of viewer alienation further, villain Anton manages to not only stealthily escape with the money, but he then goes on to kill Llewellyn’s innocent wife for no other reason than sheer, twisted principle.
And just when you think that the Cohen Brothers might be angling for a cynical ending where evil neatly triumphs over good, Anton’s victorious seizure of the money gets unceremoniously upended by a completely random car accident that has nothing to do with the larger story and leaves him hobbling away down the sidewalk with a severely broken bone that would surely require medical attention to ensure his survival.
It’s an altogether deflated and hopeless footnote to a movie that previously derived so much dramatic mileage over who would end up with the coveted money.
These are all incredibly risky choices, as they intentionally rob the movie of both a formidable, identifiable protagonist with the power to effect any kind of positive dramatic consequence as well as any of the expected climactic moments that would pay off all the preceding action.
And yet these choices completely support the movie’s deeper point concerning the loss of an old way of life against the rise of a new tide of violence that completely overpowers anything resembling morality or law-and-order.
No Country For Old Men begins with Ed’s voiceover narration where he fondly recalls the “oldtimer” world inhabited by his lawmen father and grandfather, and ponders how they would deal with the modern world: “The crime you see now, it’s hard to even take it’s measure – it’s not that I’m afraid of it – I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job – but I don’t want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don’t understand – a man would have to put his soul at hazard – he’d have to say, ‘Okay, I’ll be a part of this world.’”
Essentially, then, the Cohen Brothers make it clear that this movie is very much about an old-timer Sheriff struggling to find his place in a spiritually-bereft new frontier. Ed does his best to put a stop to the nonsensical violence between Chigurh and Llewellyn, he does his best to effect old-timer justice, but he ultimately finds himself completely outwitted by “the crime you see now.”
By the end of the movie, Ed has resigned from his job in complete disillusionment and poignantly describes a dream in which he chases his father into the dark, cold night. In other words, he has made his decision not to be a part of this world: he has been rendered powerless, he has been defeated, he has been outmatched.
In other words, No Country For Old Men captures an aging Sheriff’s last failed attempt at instilling some kind of moral fiber in an immoral world, it represents his last dying wheeze as an effectual lawman. In this light, it makes complete sense that the Cohen Brothers would rob the movie of any kind of satisfying climactic fireworks. This movie isn’t about tidy conclusions, it isn’t about satisfying pay-offs, it isn’t about a higher order all falling into place; quite to the contrary, it is about an unstoppable tide of completely random violence, it is about complete ineffectuality, it is about the despair that kicks in the face of a world that simply makes no sense.
As such, its anti-climactic structure becomes a cinematic vehicle for the hero’s disillusioning journey. It is a huge part of what makes No Country For Old Men such a viscerally poignant piece of filmmaking. And it would never capture this deep sense of haunting futility had it employed a more traditional story structure.
It is a similar case with 2011’s hit film Moneyball.
The movie comes out of the gate as a traditional underdog story: Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) attempts to beat the money-driven baseball machine with the unprecedented plan of assembling a motley crew based on statistical averages – he’s a dogged veteran with an empty pocketbook, a failing team and a defiant quest not to end up another one of baseball’s many professional casualties.
Much to everyone’s surprise, the plan works against the odds – the movie sends Billy and his team on a tide of success that seems primed for a conventional Big Act III finish where the Oakland A’s will no doubt duke it at the high-stakes World Series.
But Moneyball is far from conventional, and rather than catapult us into the expected terrain of the World series, veteran screenwriters Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin totally abandon the usual sports movie arc with a crucial game loss at the end of Act II that effectively cuts short any remote possibility of our team making it to their final battle.
Instead, the movie takes an abrupt shift off the field to instead focus Billy Beane’s psychological terrain.
Though Billy has failed in his personal goal of seeing the team all the way to the World Series, he has nonetheless made baseball history and now fields a job offer from the Red Sox that would make him the most highly paid general manager in the history of the game.
Unfortunately, Billy remains so haunted by his internal feelings of failure and a compensatory need to prove something to himself to the world that he struggles with whether to accept the offer or to give the Oakland A’s another go-round.
The climax of this particular movie does not take place amidst exciting baseball fireworks with the bases loaded and expectant fans looming large in the stands; instead, it takes place in the comparative quiet of the darkened general manager’s office where dogged assistant Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) quietly presents Billy with his biggest challenge yet: forgive himself for his past professional failures, value himself for the major victory he has in fact achieved and move on to the more lucrative offer.
But it is a choice Billy is not willing to make. He ultimately turns down the offer from the Boston Red Sox (a team that goes on to win the world series using the method pioneered by Billy), and instead maintains his obsessive quest for misguided redemption at the expense of broader professional and personal opportunities.
It’s a decidedly understated and emotional third act for a sports movie.
But it works because Moneyball ultimately isn’t really about a baseball team overcoming the odds; quite to the contrary, the movie instead presents baseball as a cruel and fickle mistress with the power to make dreams come true and then tear them down just as quickly. It’s about what men sacrifice in their dedication to the sport, it’s about the toll baseball can take on a man’s spiritual and emotional welfare, it’s about the empty void that occurs when you cannot let go of past failures.
Moneyball expresses this love/hate, destructive/creative force through the character of Billy Beane – a man so tormented by his own fading star as a player that he will stop at nothing to redeem it as a general manager. He simply cannot concede defeat in his lifelong struggle with baseball, and it comes at a steep emotional cost.
It is this surprising, poignant emotional depth that made Moneyball such an unexpected critical success and had so many viewers proclaiming that it was much more than just a sports movie.
And it is why the unconventional failure at the end of Act II and the comparably meditative Act III works so well. The quiet, intentionally anticlimactic last third of the movie captures this sad sense of futility and loss better than any conventional climax ever could.
But nowhere is meaningful unconventional structure better illustrated than with something like Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood’s return to the Western that both earned over 100 million at the box office as well as took home the 1992 Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director.
I could write an entire essay on the ways in which Unforgiven subverts typical screenwriting form and how those deviations reflect the dramatic world of the story, but, for the sake of relative brevity, I’ll instead focus on the bridge from Act I to Act II.
Screenwriter David Webb Peoples initially sets up Unforgiven as the story of William Munn (Clint Eastwood), a former outlaw who long ago hung up his gun to raise a family but now finds himself forced to take one last bounty hunter job as a means of feeding his kids in a bad economy.
The movie starts out traditionally enough, with Munny breaking out his old weaponry, getting in some target practice, rounding up his former ally Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) and setting out on the trek to the town of Big Whiskey to kill the intended targets.
But just as the story is getting underway, the film makes an abrupt shift away from our hero and instead introduces secondary character English Bob (Richard Harris), another legendary outlaw with his own designs of collecting the hefty reward attached to the wanted men. We stay with English Bob as he arrives to the Big Whiskey and immediately goes toe-to-toe with reigning Sheriff Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman), who has resolved to subdue any man that attempts to bring violence into his tightly controlled jurisdiction. True to this word, Little Bill manages to render English Bob powerless in an emasculating public display and then throws him in jail for the night.
To add insult to injury, Little Bill further exposes all of the English Bob’s former legendary exploits as tall tales that have been trumped up through the grapevine. The extended sequence comes to its poignant conclusion when Little Bill sends a thoroughly deflated English Bob out of town with an admonishment never to return lest he end up killed as a result.
Little Bob’s role in Unforgiven defies all traditional screenwriting norms: once he leaves town, he is never heard from again – he never runs into Munny and Logan, he never teams up with the heroes to get the mission done, he never becomes a key player in the story. In point of fact, Munny goes the entire movie without ever knowing of English Bob’s preceding arrival.
On the surface of things, one might argue that English Bob, a man who occupies a good 20 minutes or so of screen time, has no dramatic effect on the larger plot (in fact, Roger Ebert criticized the movie for this very thing on his television show).
And yet deeper examination of Unforgiven’s dramatic content reveals why English Bob’s ejection from Big Whiskey works as such a masterful fusion of form and content.
For all intents and purposes, English Bob’s unfortunate fate serves as the bridge from Act I to Act II as it is the event that lets us know that we have now entered a much more dangerous landscape than previously expected.
William Munny has just set out on a journey that seems straightforward enough (head to Big Whiskey and collect the bounty reward), but English Bob’s demise effectively demonstrates Little Bill’s formidable antagonism – this is not just a matter of executing a simple, routine job; it is a challenge capable of tearing down former legends; and it is precisely this information that makes us aware of the perilous threat that lays ahead of our heroes back on the road.
What makes the use of English Bob as the bridge between the first two acts so brilliant is the fact that it keeps Munny from being the character that pushes the story forward. This is not a situation where iconic movie star Clint Eastwood has a chance to ascertain the danger of a situation and then make the bold, admirable choice to move forward anyway.
No, our movie star instead remains completely oblivious to what’s happening – he is off plodding away on his horse totally unaware of how the drama is unfolding in the world around him. In this way, Munny comes off like a largely impotent hero: he is not the agent of dramatic momentum in this story – instead, he is set up to be its unwitting casualty.
This makes total sense given Unforgiven’s deeper thematic concerns.
This is a movie that essentially deconstructs and deglamorizes the mythic gunslinger; it’s a movie that takes the tall tales of sexy, brave, outlaw derring-do and says, “These guys were just a bunch of miserable drunks who caused needless destruction and then trumped up their own reputations”; it’s a movie that shows the deep emotional pain and fear that underlies the blustering bravado of the Wild West.
What better way to cinematically communicate the gunslingers’ ineffectuality than rendering them powerless in terms of the movie’s overall structure? English Bob’s almost arbitrary entrance-and-exit in the film does an impeccable job of both setting the stage for tearing down the great myths of Gunslinger Legend as well as communicating the deep sense of meaningless futility in this cinematic landscape.
In the world of Unforgiven, these men are totally powerless: English Bob is powerless to withstand Little Bob’s humiliating assertion of power and Munny is powerless to take center stage of the plot. It’s truly a master stroke of plotting that both establishes necessary story information (Little Bob’s formidable reign) and also creates a very potent sense of ineffectual listlessness.
What This Means For Your Story
In my experience, the notion of “knowing structure” as some kind of unmoving, immutable thing is symptomatic of an overall unwillingness to get into deep, feeling relationship with the bigger picture of your movie.
When you look at projects like No Country For Old Men, Moneyball or Unforgiven, it becomes very clear that a film’s structure is very unique to the content of its story, and you have to know “the bigger picture” of your script in order to find the perfect vessel for its particular message.
In the context of this discussion, “the bigger picture” refers to what your script is about on a deeper level: What is the specific texture, tone and meaning of your hero’s journey? What is the specific texture, tone and meaning of the universal conflict being embodied by the world of your story? What is the specific heart of this movie?
When you’re locked into squeezing your story into what you think of as “proper” structure, then you’re essentially obsessing over all the little details/choices that will simply get your story from Point A to Point B in a kind of “connect the dots” creative process. You’re just taking wild stabs in the dark as you try to figure out structure as an entity separate from your story’s deeper core. And this kind of “smaller” thinking often leads to inorganic choices that can render a script altogether haphazard or unwittingly meaningless.
But when you’re willing to get really clear on the “bigger picture” of your story – what it wants to express on the deepest level possible – then you’re in a position to make intentional creative choices that help facilitate your unique artistic expression. And that is when you put yourself in a position to write the kind of deep, cohesive story that ultimately sings off the page and elicits audience identification.
Can you imagine if the writers/filmmakers of No Country For Old Men, Moneyball or Unforgiven had executed these projects trying to cram them into some predetermined concept of traditional screenwriting structure?
The very thing that makes them special works of art would immediately be lost.
This is why the bulk of my work with writers often lies in dismantling all the obsessive little choices they’ve made and instead getting to the essence of what lies underneath the surface of their script. Once we’ve locked into that “bigger picture,” we’re primed to come up with exciting structural and character choices that actually serve the movie’s overall purpose.
As you move forward with your script, allow yourself the opportunity to take a step backward from your movie world and hold “the bigger picture” questions:
- What is my hero’s arc in this story? What is the road s/he travels and what I am saying about this road?
- What is the universal conflict beating at the heart of this script? What deeper struggle does this movie represent? And what point do I want to make about this struggle?
- What is the emotional essence of this journey?
Once you’ve gotten clear on these underlying fundamentals, you should start to feel an organic structure emerging.