The Seven Moments In Screenwriting That Really Matter
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The magic of this structure is that it can give the audience the sense that all life in the universe is somehow connected. If you do decide to connect the storylines somehow — as Francis Ford Coppola did in The Godfather Part II — each story can have an even deeper meaning.
Linear stories, like those found in the three-act structure, showcase somewhat of a domino effect. Each domino falls forward, causing the next to fall, and the next, and the next, until a final resolution is made. But some cinematic stories like those found in Magnolia , Crash , and Babel are like multiple timeline structures — but with each and every story hyperlinked, like multiple different rows of falling dominoes weaving in and out of each other but always ending in the same resolution at the end. The cause and effect of each story lead everything together. These types of stories give the audience a sense of how our individual lives can be so interconnected.
In Magnolia , Paul Thomas Anderson crafted a story where eight characters and their stories slowly started to connect as the film went on. And it makes the read of such a screenplay even better because it engages the reader as they wonder if and how all of these stories and characters are truly connected. Fabula is the meat of the story while the syuzhet is the narration and how the story is organized.
This specific structure employed by American cinema often utilizes original organization by showing the end first, and having the audience view how they got there.
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The story is about the journey and focuses on the how as opposed to the what. Forrest Gump opens with the near-ending of the story as Forrest waits for a bus. We learn the fabula of the story through his flashbacks as he tells various bus stop companions certain chronological stories from his life. The syuzhet of the story is present in the scenes at the bus stop being intertwined with those stories of his life.
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Had the film been presented in the three-act structure, we would have opened with Forrest Gump as a boy and progressed through to the point of him waiting at the bus stop. The moments of Forrest talking to others at the stop would have been unnecessary and the overall voiceover narration may not have been used at all.
Interview with the Vampire opens with vampire Louis being interviewed by Malloy. That is the fabula of the story while the interview scenes represent the syuzhet. The events of the stories fabula themselves exist independently from the telling of it syuzhet. The structure gives us an added sense of narrative and excuses the otherwise looked down upon usage of voiceover narration.
Memento is the prime example of this structure. With each regression of the story — as opposed to progression in three-act structures and chronological applications — we learn a little more, while at the same time more questions are presented. Reverse chronological structures are difficult to construct. You have to still write a compelling and engaging story that plays better in that reverse order, leaving cliffhangers and presenting questions that readers and audiences may ponder — all while answering questions at the same time.
This structure is derived from the classic Akira Kurosawa masterpiece of the same name — Rashomon. It centers on telling the same story from different points of view. This allows the audience to remember that there are always different sides to the same story. What great information on Story by Robert McKee. I went to his website and he has some amazing seminars of all genres. Thanks for providing solid leads. On longer scripts, those beats will get extended or some sub-beats will get added as needed, but the basic 40 beat structure seems to do the trick almost every time!
Thanks a million. This is it. Huge fan of Blake Snyder. Carry his beat sheet around in my heart. Our professor actually told us to make a beat sheet for our final film even before we knew what we were going to write seeing as this final film was just assigned. I had an idea of what it was but had no clue as to how to start formatting it.
A search online bought me to your page and I have to say this post was such a great help! Thank you! Big thanks for this article, Noam. Thanks a lot! I am writing a TV Series now and this was very helpful. I will be buying many books and I have read about a couple here, but do you recommend any others?
This is so helpful! I was wondering what does the 40 beat sheet translate to in scenes?
Like how many scenes per beat, and how many scenes per act? For others, each beat may be broken down into 3 or 4 scenes. Hope that makes sense! Noam, thank you for straight forward reveal into your process. For the last year, I was stuck on my script as my beat sheet exposed a big hole into my story — it took me a year to work through it mentally.
The beat sheet now flows and I feel it — for me this is the biggest value of the sheet. While it took me a year to fill in the gaps, my characters continued to develop etc. Thanks for the kind words, Seth! Hope to see you around the site again soon!
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Noam — love this beat outline. Question — do you always do the free write in that order — story, character, theme? Is it harder to take a theme and build a story out of it than vice versa. Yes, for me personally I always do it in that order. The very first kernel of the idea is the scenario. From that comes a rough version of the story, which is strengthened and clarified once I start working through character in more detail.
Although theme is of course one of the most important considerations, I find writing from the theme too early sometimes boxes me in. Noam, what are the unbracketed points? Good question! They are a continuation from the previous bracket.
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This is so helpful, Noam. Glad to hear this is all part of the necessary process. So glad it was helpful for you… And best of luck with your script. Very helpful, thank you! Smitley is a fantastic book on how to plot your novel. Got it free with kindle unlimited. Blew my mind how easy it makes writing my novels.
The hero has been tested and might be faltering in the new world up to now, but at this beat he starts figuring it out. Great addition!
Love that beat idea… Could be a great writing prompt too. Thanks for sharing this. Would you also recommend using this 40 beat format for writing a book?
If not, is there another process you would recommend? Your email address will not be published. Save my name, email, and website in this browser for the next time I comment. Posted On February 16, Step 2 — Identify Key Beats Having already gone through the concept development process in Step 1, you can now start to hone in on some of the specific elements of your story that you want to emphasize, and the elements you want to eliminate.