Know Where You Are Going
By Barry Willis
Screenwriting guru Syd Field worked for a long time as a script reader for major film studios. Each morning he would face a stack of scripts to be read and passed further up the development chain or rejected as unusable.
Hundreds of scripts—each one a potential feature film—passed through his hands. He came to the realization that if he was not hooked a few pages in, the script was not worth pursuing. And he saw a pattern in those he rejected and those he recommended. What he learned on the job became the basis of his famous “plot point” theory put forth in his book “Screenplay” and the foundation of his seminars in successful script writing.
“If you want to drive from San Francisco to Seattle,” he told his students, “You look at a map and plan a route. San Francisco is your starting point and Seattle your destination. There are infinite numbers of ways to go from one to the other but having a definite start and stop gives your trip a structure. Without it, you’re just driving around aimlessly.”
Driving around aimlessly is a great metaphor for most amateur writing—blogs, journals, social media posts, Internet musings. Lack of structure and the motive force of a strong opening and a definite conclusion induce lethargy in readers. You have got to know where you are going. This may mean writing your ending first, even if it is just your closing sentence. That gives you a goal to work toward. Then write your opening. Now you can do whatever you want between these two bookends, because you have a structure to work within.
Every compelling story has at its core a three-act structure, whether it is a 30-second commercial, a 30-minute sitcom, a three-hour opera, a 500-word op-ed, or a 1,000-page work of historical fiction. Exposition-development-resolution: these are the creative tripod on which your work depends. Secondary to these—but not by much—are premise, point-of-view, and narrative style. Understanding the importance of each and how they work together are essential to honing your craft as a professional writer.
Some writers have an innate organic understanding of these elements, but it is an understanding that any intelligent person can develop through active reading, watching, and listening, even during lazy recreational periods. Do not simply veg out with a favorite TV show. Analyze why you like it—what is the setup, the conflict, the resolution? Why are the characters appealing or despicable? Does their interaction make sense? Is their dialog believable? Is their situation realistic? Why is the story funny or sad?
You can apply these analytical tools to every bit of media that comes your way. Doing so will make you less tolerant of fuzzy logic and sloppy writing and much more eager to communicate on a higher level—both intellectually and emotionally. The trip you take your readers on will be a lot more fulfilling than merely driving around aimlessly, despite the fun it may seem while you do it.