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Advocating for a Character-Driven Screenplay Structure

Thelma & Louise

Once upon a time, a long time ago, I was considering the possibility that there might be more to screen drama than external conflict-driven plotting when, as if hit by a thunderbolt, a new paradigm of story structure downloaded onto the page in front of me.

I had been teaching script analysis, a lecture class analyzing the dramatic structure of successful films, for a few years by then, and it had led me to notice ways that character elements were able to move stories forward. They were not simply providing an added layer of human interest. They were serving a structural function and, taken together, showed their own progression from beginning to end, distinct from the plot progression.

Back in film school, I had been taught the classical model of three-act structure: a problem is posed at the beginning, and various attempts at solving it are presented until a final, particularly formidable, obstacle is overcome, which opens the way to resolution. I had also been taught that a structure must be based on a single main character. Who that character is would be determined by two factors: that the character, one, undergoes a sympathy-creating moment at the beginning; and, two, experiences an internal transformation at the end.

I initially approached my script analysis classes as I had been taught, identifying the major structural markers: 1) the point of attack; 2) the end of the first act; 3) the first culmination of the second act; 4) the second culmination of the second act; and 5) the climax. But an emphasis had also been placed on taking a pragmatic approach to structure, grounded in human psychology. So I became curious to know the psychological function of each structural point.

This is when I began to see a pattern of cause-and-effect relationships: the external events of a story leads to an internal response from its main character, whose actions then prompt more external events, like an action-reaction engine driving the story forward.

But I was also struck by how these points advanced the character internally, in a steady progression towards his or her eventual transformation. Whereas in the plot, the character moves towards an external goal of solving a problem, unraveling a mystery or vanquishing an enemy, in the character’s internal life another end point is reached — one of behavioral, emotional or psychological change.

Observing this dance between the internal and external in my study of great films made me realize how weary I had become in my current-day moviegoing of externally-driven conflict that seemed to boil down to just a bunch of sword sparring. In contrast, it was becoming clear to me that the resonance of films that have lasted over time has as much to do with how the main character plays out his or her internal conflicts as it does with all the machinations of external plot.

But somehow having only two parallel structures felt out of balance. On an instinctive level, I kept wondering if there was a third story progression I should take into account, like the third leg of a three-legged stool. Maybe in the construction of a story it is also true that three foundational components are necessary for a work to be structurally sound. So I started to think about theme, that elusive element of story that comments on the nature of life or the world. I was newly willing to consider the possibility that there could also be a distinct structural progression in a story’s larger meaning.

That’s when it hit me: not only do character and theme contribute their own progressions to the forward movement of a story in addition to plot, but there is also no need for a hierarchy among the three. In fact, very likely it is the stories that present them in balance with each other that turn out to be the most satisfying to our conscious and unconscious mind and heart.

If indeed each of these elements is essential, it must also be true that each brings something that the other two can’t offer. To explore this idea, I decided to look at the potential interrelationships between them. As an experiment, I sketched a diagram, placing character, action (i.e., plot) and theme in a circle (making sure no one of them was placed on top) and began drawing dichotomies among them: character is being, action is doing; action is physical, theme is spiritual; character is personal, theme is universal; and so on. I sat back, pondering the peculiar symmetry of what I had just drawn, and wondered how to interpret it.

I introduced my Character/Action/Theme wheel chart on this website last year in an article entitled “On Finding New Screenplay Structures for Independent Films.” I titled the chart “A Meditation on Character, Action and Theme” as an invitation to the user to join in the same contemplation from which I had discovered it. My idea was that readers could let it seep into their unconscious and see what discoveries it led to in their own creative work.


Now, I would like to pose the idea that, just as plot has structural markers that each serve a specific function for moving the action forward, a separate but intertwined character progression can also be tracked through the psychological function of those markers. This is what I’ve observed in my analysis of great films. (It may also be true that a theme progression can be similarly tracked, but I have not yet observed a common pattern for this. So I stick with the assumption that theme structure is free form, meaning it shows up uniquely in each story. But more on theme in a later article.)

Before I present the structural model I have repeatedly found in character transformation stories, I would like to give an overview of the plot structure model that character stories ideally function in parallel with. In my explorations of structural models, I strive to identify only the minimum necessary pivotal points, to leave as much room as possible for the creative imagination to play.

1. The Point of Attack. An event occurs that throws “normal” out of control.
2. The End of the First Act. It has become clear something must be done and a course of action is set.
3. The First Culmination of the Second Act, or Midpoint. A first attempt to solve the problem has either failed or had partial success.
4. The Second Culmination of the Second Act, or End of the Second Act. A second attempt is made, which leads to the situation becoming as bad as it could possibly be.
5. The Climax. The situation goes from bad to worse, which leads to a release that makes everything better.

This is a highly effective structure for building a conventional, plot-based story to a satisfying conclusion. However, even in the most out-of-the-mainstream stories, I will often find, in some small way, these five markers at work. Likely, the reason is that these writers and directors know, if only instinctively, the sense of orientation it can offer viewers while being pulled into the wild ride the filmmaker has in store. (I gave a defense of this model on this site in my article entitled, “Save the Baby! On the Benefits of the Three-Act Screenplay Structure.”)

Nonetheless, by itself, and taken straight, its impact is limited. Here is how I’ve noticed the same structure markers functioning on a character level in the films that have resonated with audiences over time:

1. The Challenge to Assumptions. (Plot structure: The Point of Attack.) The same external event that begins the plot progression also serves to present the main character with a serious challenge to his or her bedrock assumptions about life.

2. The Decision. (Plot structure: The End of the First Act.) The moment in the plot that sets out a course of action also constitutes a decision on the part of the main character. It is usually the first proactive thing the main character does, often a bit outside their normal mode of behavior, stretching them in the direction of their transformation.

3. The Midpoint Shift. (Plot structure: The Midpoint.) Whereas, in the plot, the Midpoint is the first attempt to solve the problem, which either partially succeeds or completely fails, for the character progression it is a nearly cataclysmic external event that causes an internal shift in the main character. Up until this point, the main character could still go back to being the person they were at the beginning. But as a result of this event, the character’s internal balance shifts so that they are being pulled toward who they ultimately become at the end.

4. The Statement. (Plot structure: The End of the Second Act.) Throughout the second act, the character experiences more and more external pressure until, finally he or she makes a statement of transformation, either implicitly or explicitly, outwardly expressing an internal change.

5. The Test. (Plot structure: The Climax.) But the character’s transformation is not complete until it has been put to the test through action. In the plot structure, at the end of the second act things are seemingly as bad as they can possibly be and at the climax they get worse. This ties in with the character structure very neatly because, to motivate a statement of transformation, things must have become pretty bad, and then, in a high-stakes test, they will only be worse. This test gives proof that the character’s transformation is real and, likely, will last.

(I have left off discussion of the Setup and the Resolution since, functionally, these are simply the intro and outro to the story without providing any pivotal impact.)

In my observation, if you want to tell a character transformation story, these five points are the minimum necessary to provide credibility. As we all know, generally speaking, human beings are highly resistant to change. Thus, you make a character’s change more believable by motivating it in stages, over time. It is the structural transitions in the first and second acts that serve to incrementally progress, and, thus, give support to, your character’s ultimate transformation in the third act.

Traditionally, character has been considered secondary to plot. We have Aristotle to thank for that with his emphatic statements on the primacy of plot over character, which today’s mainstream moviemakers embrace as a justification for their heavily action-oriented scripts. Another factor in the subjugation of character is in what has been termed “American Redemptive Melodrama” derived from the medieval morality plays, which the Church used to give moral lessons on sin and redemption using a fundamentally generic “Everyman” character. It has also been said that America is a nation of extroverts, which may be another reason for superficial character treatment since the most effective way for a writer to discover deep character psychology is by looking inward at his or her own foibles and vulnerabilities.

Regardless of where it comes from, it is a limited notion. Hopefully, the above description provides at least an initial picture of how character can have equal weight to plot, with its own structure creating its own progression. But, obviously, there is no substitute for concrete examples, which is why I have endeavored the last year to make my script analysis lectures available in digital form.

This week I am releasing my first two “screenbooks,” a term I have coined for an ebook that includes videos, audio clips and interactive graphics integrated with the photos and text. Using this new technology, I have been able to faithfully reproduce my video-dependent lectures in a widely distributable digital form.

Although I have about 25 lectures that will eventually become screenbooks, I have chosen The African Queen and Thelma & Louise as my inaugural efforts precisely because of the beautiful character and theme structures they both display. These screenbooks give an in-depth demonstration of how this model applies in these two films. In honor of my longtime relationship with this magazine, I am offering a 20% discount to Filmmaker readers with this code: FILMMAKER2015.

Let’s get interested in character and theme.

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