by Frank McAdams, M.F.A
Frank McAdams is an award-winning screenwriter who has been teaching undergraduate and graduate students at USC since 1991. The recipient of two Samuel Goldwyn awards, McAdams has worked as a story analyst for four Hollywood production companies and has lectured at six major universities including the University of Navarra, Pamplona, Spain.
McAdams is the author of The American War Film: History and Hollywood, a film studies/history analysis and Treason's Time, a World War II novel. McAdams is also the co-author of Final Affair, a Berkley True Crime book. He received a B.S. (History) from Loyola University, Chicago and earned his M.F.A. from UCLA.
Several years ago, at a UCLA Extension faculty meeting a discussion centered around screenplay preparation. I happened to mention about going from synopsis to outline. A writer of several television movies waited for me to finish. Then he said, “The synopsis and the outline are ka-ka. The crème is the script.” I couldn’t believe what stupidity I was hearing. The meeting ended shortly thereafter and I never got to voice a counter argument. That meeting was more than ten years ago and I will never forget it.
As a screenwriting instructor, former journalist and story analyst, I have taught various Screenplay Structure classes and seminars on six campuses including a Fulbright Grant at the University of Navarra, Pamplona, Spain, 2010. I am also the author of three books including The American War Film: History and Hollywood (Praeger Publishers, 2002/Figueroa Press, 2005). While a graduate student in the UCLA Screenwriting Program I was fortunate to win The Samuel Goldwyn Screenwriting Award, First Place, two years in a row. This was followed by working as a story analyst for four production companies in Hollywood. Presently I am an Adjunct Professor, School of Cinematic Arts, University of Southern California, Los Angeles.
Any worthwhile story attempt begins with an “Idea/Premise.” Often the idea comes first followed by formulating a premise. If the idea “sticks” in your head that is a good sign. Thinking about the idea usually brings about a premise. From this I draw upon the Classic Dramatic Formula: Protagonist Vs. Antagonist = Synthesis. It is at this point where I begin developing the antagonist or forces of the antagonist. Often the latter comes out of the former. At this point it is very possible that the premise needs to be rewritten, refined. This is the dramatic statement that your story is making. From the premise you can develop a “Log Line.” A Log Line is a one/two sentence description of the main story line. It should be emphasized, at this point, that the Log Line and the Premise are different. (Anecdote: I have been in countless meetings with development executives, producers and agents who consider a Premise to be a Log Line. I’ve even seen film critics make the same mistake. I’m constantly amazed at this.) When Michael Eisner was head of production at Disney Studios he once said, “If you can tell me a story in one sentence it’s probably going to be a good movie.”
We can look at the classic stories and films to draw premises. The most common that I’ve seen are: Good Conquers Evil; Ruthless Ambition Leads To Destruction; Sins Of The Parents Are Passed To The Children; Pride Leads To Tragedy; Obsession/Compulsion Leads To Tragedy.
This is an underlying idea, a point of view embodied and expanded with the main story line. It is also an intellectual abstraction. Like the premise the theme, in the initial stages, can be rewritten and refined.
Citizen Kane - Premise: Ruthless ambition leads to loneliness and destruction. Theme: A man born into wealth and privilege can lose everything.
Casablanca - Premise: War brings out nobility and sacrifice. Theme: The problems of three small people are dwarfed by the sacrifices that they are forced to make.
The Godfather (I) - Premise: Organized crime carries its own tragic price through generations. Theme: The American dream has opposite sides to success.
The Deer Hunter - Premise: War results in tragedy to the younger generation. Theme: War affects everyone, physically, emotionally and psychologically.
Witness - Premise: Evil is defeated by community, decency and courage. Theme: Many of us live without a nurturing sense of community and without it we are prey for thieves and traitors.
Thelma & Louise - Premise: Women can stand alone, at a price. Theme: Personal freedom and respect are worth dying for.
(Anecdote: When a student would "pitch" a Log Line to me I would respond with, "What's your premise here?" Often, that question would result in a few moments of silence while the thought process took hold, eye contact broken. Then the student would say, "I think the premise is…" Think is the keyword in this exchange. It's code for "I don't know what the premise is." At this stage if you cannot develop a sound dramatic premise go to another project thereby saving you an untold amount of grievous time and energy.)
Thought: Writing a script should be fun. Writing the outline should be the entangled process of working out kinks and glitches, story and character in a three act structure.
Starting with the premise write a three page synopsis, narrative style, double spaced, Times New Roman, 12 pt. The pages should cover the three acts, beginning, middle and end. Then give a study to the third act. Does it resolve the premise that is set up in Act I?
The pages are now leaving the synopsis stage, advancing to becoming an outline. This rewrite should go to 10-12 pages, staying in the narrative style. The emphasis should be on Act II, the confrontation between the protagonist and the antagonist (or the forces of the antagonist). Elaborate on the main story line along with developing subplots and supporting characters.
Four Acts Vs. Three. With contemporary structure, many feel that today's feature screenplays are four acts instead of three. When this structure occurs Act II is usually split into two sections. But nonetheless the script will still have a beginning, middle and end.
(N.B: The Antagonist. Anyone/anything who/that opposes the protagonist is the antagonist. The antagonist can also be an element…or even the dark side of the protagonist. Examples: Citizen Kane, Gone With The Wind. With the former Charles Foster Kane is a walking contradiction, saying one thing and doing the opposite. In the end his dark side wins out. With the latter Scarlett O'Hara is her own worst enemy, always wanting what she can't have. In the opening scenes she is surrounded by admiring beaus. In the final scene she is alone, plotting to get back with the one man she truly loves who has had it up to his eyebrows with her. What I've noticed about the antagonist is that beginning writers don't spend enough time here; they spend an inordinate amount of time on the protagonist. Ideally, time spent on both should be equal. For me, I spend more time on the antagonist (or forces therein) than the protagonist. Also, in the case of Dual Protagonists special care has to be given in defining character; they need to be contrasting, e.g. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Thelma & Louise, Lethal Weapon.
Subplots and Supporting Characters. The intertwining of these will help the difficult trip through Act II. This area is what I call "the minefields of the middle." When I was a story analyst I had to note when story or character problems emerged in a script (and cite the page number). It didn't take long to see a pattern. Most of those scripts began to fail in Act II. These elements included: a) too many subplots; b) a subplot taking over the main story line; c) a supporting character repeatedly "upstaging" the protagonist(s) thereby taking over the script. Then there's the worst one, usually written by a beginning writer, a main story line that wanders all over creation, confusing the premise that was set up in Act I. We (the story analysts) often referred to a certain section of Act II as "the Valley of Death." I was always amazed how a script could begin with an impressive, visual opening, introducing potentially interesting characters and an intriguing main story line only to trudge through Act II on literary life support. Like producing a film, nobody starts out to write a flawed script; it happens along the way. This shows how important the preparation is. What the writer is doing at this point is juggling several balls in the air at once: main story line, subplots and supporting characters and pacing. If the outline works the script should work. If there are recurring problems with the outline those should be attended to. If those problems persist it calls for two forms of action: solve them or shelve the outline.
Elaboration.This is a crucial point. By now, with rewrites, the outline has gone from 10-12 pages to approximately 20+. The acts are definitely taking shape along with the characters. Should this story be told in a straight line structure? Or should it be shaped as a "bookend flashback," e.g. Sunset Boulevard, Twelve O'Clock High, Saving Private Ryan? Other decisions include the two most common cinematic devices: visual flashback and a montage.
Flashback: This is a cinematic device shaped to reveal something crucial about the back story, going back in time, usually in a three act structure. One of the most celebrated examples is the flashback sequence in Casablanca. Careful attention should be paid as to where to insert this sequence. Best suggestion: late first act or beginning second act. Experiment with this in the outline stage. How/when do you want to reveal the back story? Don't be gratuitous, a flashback for the sake of having one. Avoid being flashback crazy (which is a one way ticket to the Valley of Death). Also, "flashback bits" are often used, revealing something in a quick second. However, revealing back story through dialogue can be just as effective.
Montage: Too often a montage is treated like a laundry list, 1…2…3…4, Etc. Montages work best when properly slugged and described so that the actions can be directed well. Leave nothing to chance. Like flashbacks, the better montages tell a story in three acts. Montages compress time whereas flashbacks slow the narrative.
Flash Forward. The opposite of a flashback. It starts out in one time frame then jumps forward, often in years. Example: The First Wives Club.
A piece of string. In my journalism days an editor assigned me to a story. After learning the background I asked, "How long do you want it?" He smiled and answered my question with a question, "How long is a piece of string?"
When I get to the 20+ page stage of the screenplay outline I am constantly moving the bricks around, experimenting. Likewise, I'm developing the subplots and supporting characters with the emphasis on Act II. For certain metaphors I look for the best scene in which to do a "plant" and down the line a "payoff" to that plant. At this point I know exactly where Act I ends. But I'm not so sure where Act III begins. Traditionally, Act III is the shortest of the three acts, a race to the end. And where it begins, at this point, remains flexible. By the time that the outline is ready the Act III point should be realized. This doesn't come overnight; it takes some head scratching.
Length. I work with a 1:2 outline ratio. That means, for a 120 page screenplay, the outline will be approximately 60 pages. I came upon the above method after observing all the mistakes that I saw as a story analyst and teaching a Screenplay Rewrite class in the UCLA Extension Writers' Program. The course objective was for a student to bring in a first draft screenplay and accomplish a page 1 rewrite within a ten week quarter. It meant a heavy reading load for me. But it was also an education. The first night I went around the room, 15 students. I asked each one what they used to write the screenplay. Several didn't know what I was talking about. They didn't know what I meant because they didn't even use an outline to write the script. They sat at the keyboard and wrote FADE IN: And one scene followed the other. When I looked at these scripts I could tell before page 10 how much trouble they were in. Other students responded by saying that they wrote the script from a two or three page "beat sheet." Of the 15 in this particular class one student said that he wrote his screenplay from a 30 page outline. As I recall his script was the best of the lot. And he wanted it to be better. As the general said years ago, "Proper prior planning prevents (a) poor performance."
Violations.Learn the basic rules first before you challenge them. Quentin Tarrantino broke a lot of rules in Pulp Fiction. But because he knew film and screenwriting so well he not only challenged certain rules he broke them. If Tarrantino had worked on that script in one of my instructor's screenwriting course he would have received a D.
Conclusion.Normally, in Hollywood, no one wants to see a screenplay outline from a new writer. But they do want to see how this new writer executes a script. The outline is between you and the computer screen, or you and your trusty agent (if you have one).
When I was in Spain on the Fulbright grant last year one of the faculty members observed, "The best scripts are yet to be written."