HOW MOVIES TEACH STRUCTURE: For Writers of Movies, Novels, Short Stories, even Flash!

by Gay Degani

Do you receive rejections remarking, “Some strong writing here, but this isn’t a story; there’s no arc” or “I like your character, but where’s the conflict?” And have you thought, “This editor is nuts! A guy’s chasing my narrator. She has a gun. She shoots him. Isn’t that enough conflict?”
No, actually, it isn’t. It’s “action,” but action is not the same thing as conflict. Have you ever sat through a movie that goes from one car chase to another, followed by an explosion, followed by a gun battle, then another chase, this time through the subways of New York?  Unless you are a kinetic energy junky, you’re probably sneaking peeks at your cell phone or dozing. This kind of action is brought into a story for its own sake.
Conflict, on the other hand, is choice followed by movement. What?
As writer (Brief Guide to Flash Fiction) and writing coach Randall Brown points out in his book :
Something happens (precipitating incident) to create a desire, and that desire creates a need for action that is thwarted by this and that and this and that until, finally, there’s resolution.
While some stories are “linear movement” designed to ramp up adrenaline, good stories are more complex. They are built around a specific structure that offers character depth and motivation, actions springing from that motivation, and emotions created through empathy. How do you create mindful structure for a story?

Good movies teach structure because they take the viewer on a journey of choices: setbacks and success, indecision and rash action, humor and pathos, determination and self-doubt, with endings that reveal something about the human condition. How did the movies find this out? For a quick understanding of what I’m outlining there’s always Syd Field’s Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting.For deeper understanding there’s Aristotle’s Poeticsand the 3-act play structure.

* How did I figure this out? Robert McKee’s classic text, Story.
One of my favorite movies to illustrate structure in that old reliable action flick (I know, I didn’t say “structure flick”), Die Hard, made back in 1988 when Bruce Willis was moving from Moonlighting on TV to the Big Screen.
Get the Die Hard DVD and watch it with a pen and paper and the timer on your DVD player. You want to be able to stop it when you get behind. Number the lines on your paper from 1 to maybe 120 or so because that’s about how many minutes the average movies contains. Maybe skip lines to make sure you can write big if you get excited. Get ready to start the timer on your phone. 
Now record what happens every minute or so all the way through. This may seem like a tedious exercise, but it’s amazing to see just how carefully the story is constructed. For the hot-shot movie critics out there who love those ponderous three-hour think pieces, Die Hard is too “on the nose,” but for learning about structure and character development (and for the simple joy of watching), it is one of the best.
Here’s how it goes:
Act 1 starts with a character living his regular life, something happens to turn his life on its head, and by the beginning of Act 2 (approximately 30 minutes in), the character’s life changes 180 degrees from what it once was and the character sets out to either change his or her life back or to figure out how to make the best of things. He doesn’t try all that hard in the beginning because frankly, he can’t really believe things could go this wrong.  You know that saying? Man plans and God laughs? When you’re the writer, you are the one to make sure something goes wrong.
About a quarter way through Act 2 (around 45 pages in), the character has some kind of epiphany that he’s going to have to work a helluva lot harder than he thought. His simple solution isn’t working. He needs a better plan. (Did you hear that chuckle?)
About half way through (60 minutes), he realizes who the enemy is (himself, his best friend, the woman with the man hands) and at the same time, there is a coming together between the character and his/her main relationship often including the washing of wounds or standing up sex or both).
In the second half of Act 2 some new effort is launched, but it doesn’t work (he-he-he) and leads to a dark moment around 75 minutes into the movie.  The character gives up the game as hopeless.
But by 90 minutes, the beginning of Act 3, the character has come up with new energy, a new plan, a new assault on his problem and works through his conflict until he either wins or loses.
Notice as you are jotting down what is happening on your lined paper, about when these things happen in Die Hard.  The timing won’t be perfect, but you’ll be shocked to see how close it is.
Look for: Set-ups and pay-offs:
On the plane McClane talks with the other passenger about being afraid of flying. The passenger offers a suggestion: After he lands, he should take off his shoes and grip the carpet with his toes.
Watch for this to pay-off when he is in the bathroom of the Nakatomi building, and then later when he’s in the elevator and because he’s barefoot, he considers taking the shoes of the guy he’s just killed, and later when he’s being chased by Hans. This suggestion from the opening sequence, pays off several times in this movie. THAT’s good structure.

Look for how exposition is handled: On the plane, in the taxi, between McClane’s wife and her boss, when McClane gets to the Nakatomi building and looks his wife up on the list of employees. Then consider set-ups and pay-offs again.  How is information given to the viewer in these scenes?
Look for character development:
The characters in this piece are well defined and consistent in their traits. We get to know them quickly with a building of clues, and their motivation and subsequent behavior help to hold the structure together when the twists are thrown in. There is suspense without confusion.
Look for how setting is used:
Think about the airplane, the limo, and the high rise Century City building. Then think about how this movement evolves and what happens in the building and how each of these places has its own twists and turns.
Look at the pacing:
This is an action film.  It unfolds remarkably fast, but with the right amount of time spent on relationships, on personal reflection, on what the characters WANT so the movie has meaning. And it does. It’s about loyalty, determination, married love, brotherhood, evil….
Okay enough. Now if you decide to do this experiment—this jotting-down-of-what’s-happening thing—here’s some of what you should discover.
By the first three or so minutes you know who McClane is, what his problem is, and how he thinks he’s going to solve it. Notice he HAS a problem and a goal: to find out what the hell is going on between he and his wife. That isn’t the PLOT of the movie, it’s a subplot, but it shows this is going to be more than one action scene after another. There is an human element, an emotional element, and these are the elements that makes this movie relatable and gives some universal meaning.
About thirty minutes in you notice that everything has changed 180 degrees from what it was at beginning of the movie (this is about where ACT 1 ends). The building is taken over and the story problem isn’t just about McClane and his wife, but it’s about surviving the “terrorist” attack. The conflict between these two characters is now accompanied by another larger conflict.
Act 2 comes next from running from around 30 minutes to about 90 minutes into the film. In that time, the major action is McClane fighting the bad guys.
The first part of Act 2 is all about everyone reacting to the take over.  Characters on both side of the “battle” are introduced by their reactions to the circumstances.  We see the gentle and wise reaction of the boss, the arrogance of a co-worker, and McClane’s wife’s smarts, as well seeing the hero trying to first get the police’s attention because he assumes, of course, that is the most logical thing to do.  It’s their job to solve the problem. He has to just survive and create enough chaos to keep the bad guys busy until the cops save the day.
But in the middle of the movie—around 60 minutes in—we see that McClane isn’t going to get any help. As a matter of fact, he’s now perceived as one of the bad guys. The stakes are ramped up. There is no help coming. He’s got to do it himself. However, if I’m remembering correctly, this is about the time John McClane’s wife begins to feel more kindly toward her estranged husband. She knows his capacity to fight and survive.  At this point, we see both the enemy for who they are and a kind of realization of love and admiration McClane and his wife have for each other.
And then, at about 90 minutes when Act 3 begins, John McClane makes his final assault to save his wife and everyone else who has survived. And he manages to do that in true action hero form.
The end? The enemy is defeated and he regains his wife.
Okay. Formula. Over the top. Right? Yeah, but it’s a learning tool too. Knowing why this movie works has helped me to have answers to story problems whenever I get stuck. What does the formula say at this point? Do I want to do that? If yes, make it a unique action with unique details. Lift it from stereotype. If I want to break the formula, I try to make sure that what does happen, has the same kind of emotional effect or performs a similar purpose.
I didn’t make this up. I don’t know that I would have thought of it, but understanding why good movies are good movies helps me to figure out what my next scene should be, what purpose I should fulfill.
If this idea has appeal, consider reading one of the books I mentioned earlier.
I can’t remember all the movies I did this with, but it is amazing to see how close movies THAT WORK stick to these structural elements.
Movies I logged:
Suspicion (wrong ending really but I still love it)
Outrageous Fortune
Trading Places
Happy movie watching!

* There are many good books out there (Robert McKee’s Story which is based on Aristotle’s classic Poeticsand The Art Of Dramatic Writing: Its Basis in the Creative Interpretation of Human Motives by Lajos Egri and for a quick understanding, there’s always Syd Field’s Sreenplay) to help writers learn the ins and outs of structure as well as the disagreements about rules, formulae, and art.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s