From the Screenwriting Pitfalls List

#3: Bad Structure

I’ve been reading a lot of scripts, lately, and something keeps standing out. The scripts have a solid Act One, but they fall apart in Act Two and derail in Act Three.

Why does this happen so often? Well, I’m seeing several reasons, but the main one is that whatever makes the concept (and Act One) amazing, gets lost after the First Act Turning Point. The writer drops the thru-line, which weakens the storytelling.

What’s a thru-line? It’s the heart of the story that drives the action/drama from scene to scene.

When something else starts to drive the action/drama, it can derail the story and its structure, making for a confusing and disappointing script. Several story elements can do this, here are the ones I’m seeing the most:

  • Sub-plots compete with the main plot, instead of being there to shine a light on part of the main storyline.
  • Minor characters take on a life of their own, competing with the main character.
  • The main character breaks away from the main storyline to follow ‘interesting’ tangents, but they don’t really relate to his/her journey. (This is often done in comedies, for the humor.)
  • The Act One hook, that wow’d me in the logline, isn’t really part of the main storyline. It’s just a tease. See Pitfall #1 to read more about how to fix this one.

Identify the problem… The first way to fix anything is knowing why it’s happening to your script. If you figure out why, you can stop it from happening the next time you write. So ask yourself: Did you make a major script revision? Did you write without an outline? How much time did you spend on writing Act Three? (It never gets as much love as Act One.) Did you get any feedback on your script before you sent it out?

(The in-depth details about how these happen in a script is covered in the extra information in the newsletter and the special section of our website.

How to fix the problem… In all of the above instances, and probably a few others, you can fix this problem by working on your script’s thru-line.

  1. Figure out your thru-line. Write it down in one sentence. It should be the THING that makes your concept amazing. It should be central to your main character’s story arc. It should be that special something you love about your script, evoking passion, suspense, tingles, tears, shock or whatever emotion that fits your genre.
  2. Go through your script, starting with page one, and make certain the thru-line is actually driving the action/drama of every scene. Sure, you can have one scene where it doesn’t, but only one. It’s better to combine scenes, and make them do double duty, than to waste space. Just don’t let this cramp your creativity.
  3. When you get to the point where you feel like your work is done on the thru-line, get some feedback. Ask your readers to follow the thru-line. Tell some of them what it is, and see if they agree. Others, let them explain what kept them reading, and see if it’s what you expected. See if it’s what you would use to pitch your script.

Bottomline: Many things can derail a script’s structure, but if you get the thru-line right, it will compensate for any little errors you make.

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