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Entries in love story (2)


A Few Notes About Screenplay Subplots and Love Stories

True Love

Writer and teacher Cynthia Whitcomb gives a great synopsis of subplots in her book, The Writer’s Guide to Writing Your Screenplay.

The main plot—the A Story—always concerns the main character and his dramatic tension: What does he want and will he get it?

Subplots—the B Story, the C Story, etc.—run throughout the main narrative, reinforcing the main plot and holding it together. Subplots should have at least three beats throughout the story to work effectively. 

“If a moose sees something three times, it will charge it,” she says, meaning there’s a power in threes that doesn’t trigger in our brains (or a moose’s brain, apparently) on just second sight.

And subplots can be introduced at anytime, as long as the first of three beats isn’t in Act 3. As with films having a beginning, middle and end—as with a sequence within a film having a beginning, middle and end—subplots need a beginning, middle, and end, too. 

Love Stories: Why You?

The main subplot, the B Story, is often a love story, and Whitcomb outlines exactly how a love story best works in film: It answers the question, “Why you?”

For women, it’s often a wounded knight. For men, it’s often a woman at her moment of vulnerability. But the lovers, male or female, must have lives that overlap somehow and show a promise of how they might work out, even if they don’t, i.e. “A fish and a bird can fall in love, but where are they going to build a house?”

The love stories that work best:

  1. They are twins. Like Scarlett and Rhett, they are the same person in two bodies.
  2. They are opposites. Together, they equal one, like yin and yang. He has a career, no life. She has a life, no career. (One specific pair of opposites is the Lifeforce and the Sleepwalker, a love in which one character is going through life with blinders on, and the other removes them.)

Love Story Montage?

Whitcomb warns: Don't make characters fall in love in a montage sequence! As much a matter of taste as good storytelling, montages can not effectively answer the “Why you?” question. They are cliche and undeveloped as a love story device. Save the montage for something cool, Rock.

And Whitcomb add that there can be "no picnics" for lovers in Act II or Act III, unless there’s an iceberg about to slam into the boat.

No picnics goes for subplots, as well as the main plot. At no time in the middle of a narrative should things be perfectly okay. If everything's great in the middle of your story, you haven't gotten to the story yet.


The Hidden Structure of Successful Screenplays

In his book The Sequence Approach: The Hidden Structure of Successful Screenplays, author Paul Joseph Gulino outlines a way to write screenplays that has been taught at USC Film School and other leading film schools for decades. It’s called the sequence approach.

Screenplays—and perhaps stories, in general—use the three-act structure. "Every story must have a beginning, middle, end" has served as a guiding axiom as far back as Aristotle’s Poetics, 2000 years ago. It’s drummed into every professional writer.

But sustaining an audience’s emotional involvement in a story often goes astray in the middle. The middle is too big and too easy to lose the connection between beginning and end.

A 120-page screenplay has at least 60 pages of “middle” for plot twists, sub plots, minor characters, and other story developments that take place between introduction/setup and resolution/conclusion.

The sequence approach aims to parse the beginning, middle and end of the screenplay into smaller chunks, based on the legacy of film production, which used reels of film with a duration of about 12 to 15 minutes of shooting time each.

In effect, each film reel was shot as a small, miniature story of its own. Each reel generally had one location and one major movement to add to the story. Each set of scenes on one reel might hold together with their own beginning, middle, and end.

Why were films shot in sequences? Because in some cases, the ability to buy the unexposed film needed to finish a production may have been in question. Materials and developing processes were expensive. So whatever filmmakers had in the can might have to stand on its own, if funding fell through.

Thus, the birth of sequences. And viewers learned—and perhaps have evolved—to absorb film stories in this way.

In his book, Gulino also lists the “Big Four” dramatic elements of a successful screenplay while defining what happens in each of the sequences, labeled A through H, that comprise a typical feature-length movie.

Although formula is a contrivance, drama, too, is contrivance, except drama is a contrivance that won’t work if it feels contrived. That's the writer's job: to be original enough in character and dialogue to make the contrivance acceptable as a willing suspension of disbelief.

And although no formula can inspire you to write a great screenplay, perhaps the sequence formula will help you if you have otherwise excellent characters, artful dialogue, and an innate writing genius all your high school teachers fawned praise upon. Your work can still get lost in a story that falls apart somewhere in the middle without structure. 

The “Big Four”: Dramatic Elements Of A Screenplay

 1. Telegraphing: Something’s Going to Happen

Also called “pointing” or “advertising,” tells the audience explicitly what will happen in the narrative: a character makes an appointment or has a deadline—a ticking clock.

False telegraphing plays it off in reverse, as when the writer tells the audience something will happen, and it never does.

2. Dangling Cause: Somebody Says They’re Gonna Do Something

Like telegraphing, but carries more emotional weight, as when a character makes an expression of intent, issues a warning or threat, gives a hope, fear, or prediction that puts a question in the audience’s mind for which no immediate answer is provided.

Gulino gives an example of a character's cause from “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest,” when McMurphy says exactly what he plans to do: “Put a bug so far up her [Nurse Ratched’s] ass she won’t know whether to shit or wind a wrist watch.”

3. Dramatic Irony: We Know Something the Characters Don’t

Or “omniscient narration,” comes in two different flavors, suspense and comedy, and occurs when the audience learns something unknown to characters on the screen (revelation), creating anticipation (ironic tension) about what will happen when the truth comes out (recognition).

For example, in “North By Northwest,” Eve saves Roger from the police, but the audience knows she’s only doing it because she’s working for people who want to kill him, a fact he doesn’t know until the ironic tension plays out in the story.

4. Dramatic Tension: Somebody Wants Something and Can’t Get It

Comes in two different flavors, chases and escapes, and can be summed up as the reason the protagonist exists: somebody wants something badly and has trouble getting it. That’s the story.

The Eight General Sequences of a Screenplay

Act 1: A & B

Sequence A—The exposition or background that establishes genre and who, what, when, where, and under what conditions the story takes place.

  • Includes the “hook,” a curiosity or puzzle, usually within the first five pages.
  • A glimpse of the protagonist before the story begins. Their normal life, in medias res, how things would be if the story didn’t happen, often including a thematic image.
  • Ends with an incident, or “point of attack,” the first intrusion of instability in the protagonists flow of life.

Sequence B—Sets up the main dramatic tension: Will the protagonist get what he wants? 

  • It’s the first attempt by the protagonist to grapple with and understand the instability caused by the incident in Sequence A, and Sequence B makes the problem seem even worse.
  • A turning point by the end of the sequence, where we thought we knew what's happening in the story, but everything has somehow changed.

Act 2: C, D, E & F

Sequence C—The protagonist’s first attempt at solving the problem, usually by trying the easiest solution.  

  • The problem, even if initially solved, gets worse: bigger and deeper.

Sequence D—The protagonist tries more desperate measures to return life to stability after the first effort in the previous sequence failed, only to have new complications arise.

  • Contains the “first culmination”:
    a revelation, where the audience learns something the character doesn’t know, or 
    a reversal, where the audience gets the hope of success and a glimpse of the actual resolution to come (or its mirror opposite) before the problem seizes control of the narrative again. 

Sequence E—The protagonist works on the new complications.

  • The stakes get higher.
  • The clock ticks faster.
  • New characters, subplots, or opportunities add to the narrative.
  • The protagonist’s objective may reverse entirely.

Sequence F—The protagonist at last finds a resolution to the main dramatic tension.

  • Contains the “second culmination”: a situation that resolves or reframes what the protagonist wanted so badly.

Act 3: G & H

Sequence G—The unexpected consequences of the resolution. The climax.

  • Previously established subplots and dangling causes bring forth new problems, sometimes causing the protagonist to work against his previous objectives. 
  • It’s a new angle on what it means for the protagonist to have gotten (or not have gotten) what he wanted in the main dramatic tension of the story—a new angle.
  • (NOTE: No new subplots or characters introduced at this point, i.e. no gun on the mantle in Act 3 that wasn’t put there in Act 1 & 2.)

Sequence H—The protagonist’s instability from the initial point of attack is finally settled.

  • Contains the third or “final culmination”: a final ending, denouement.
  • May include the “epilogue” or “coda,” a brief scene that ties up loose ends and subplots and gives the audience a chance to come down from the story experience—a “button”: a small event that punctuates the energy at the end.

Know The Rules, To Break The Rules

Few stories adhere to formula for formula's sake. Sequencing is a guide for plot structure, not a replacement for ambious writing. It should reinforce, not retard, your ability to tell a story.

However, once the sequence approach gets in your head, it will be difficult for you to watch a movie without seeing many of the elements of sequencing at work, either explicitly or intuitively. You will watch movies differently, and you will be hard pressed to find a successful film that strays too far from the structure.

One thing's for sure, it will take some of the mystery out of movies for you, because once you recognize telegraphing, dangling cause and dramatic irony, you will find few movies surprise you.

And if you don't learn to keep it to yourself, your friends won't want to watch movies with you anymore, either. You will be more like an athlete training in the gym than a specator watching the game.