When we were all young whipper snaps, adults entrained us with fairy tales. These stories were all very simple. They were short in length, were filled with characters making clear, straightforward actions, and all had an obvious beginning, middle, and end. Fairy tales were the ideal mode of storytelling for us at that age because they were storytelling at its simplest. So simple that our developing minds had no problem following the story's action and understanding the logic that inevitably led to the story's conclusion.
Screenwriting, on the other hand is among modern society's most complicated forms of storytelling. This is mostly because of a movie's far greater length (from a three minute fairy tale to an over ninety minute movie), and because of the structural rules needed to maintain the audience's attentions for such a long span of time. Many times, a young screenwriter bravely ventures out to create a cinematic story and ends up getting lost along the way. In the attempt to just make enough “stuff happen,” to fill what to some can seem like an epic length of time, writers can end up with a first draft that is a cluttered, meandering journey where the simple structure found in the stories of our childhood has been either lost or ignored. Misguided attempts to fix things in later drafts- a tweak here, a rearrangement there, a new scene over here, often manage to only make things worse. The script's story becomes a patchwork of flaws, turning what the writer first imagined as clear and easy to understand into the kind of confused quagmire that drives many aspiring scribes into complete surrender.
However, screenplays and fairy tales, despite their differences, are both forms of the same art. They are birds of the same feather and follow the same basic rules. Whether it be Little Red Riding Hood or Casablanca, they are all simple tales of human confronted by problems, who then take goal-oriented actions to overcome them. If you are a writer currently confused in the murky depths of plotting, if you can't seem to figure out how to make your story work no matter how hard you try, if you have read all the books on screenwriting but still can't seem to put it into practice, it would well do you some good to take a look at fairy tales. This is because within the simple sentences of fairy tales there exists a microcosm of cinematic structure.
Take a look at Hansel & Gretel.
Hansel & Gretel
Once upon a time, there was brother and sister named Hansel and Gretel (introduction of the protagonists) who lived in the forest with their father the woodcutter and their wicked stepmother. The stepmother always complained of there never being enough food and demanded that her husband abandon the children in the woods (the story setup). One day, the woodcutter could take no more and took Hansel and Gretel deep into the woods and left them there. (inciting incident) However, Hansel had overheard his parents' argument the night before and had filled his pockets with white pebbles, which he left in a trail and their father led them into the woods. When night fell, Hansel and Gretel followed the pebbles back to the safety of their home. (end of the 1st act)
The next morning the stepmother was furious to find that Hansel and Gretel had returned. She screamed at the woodcutter all day until he agreed to take the children back into the woods, deeper this time. However this time, Hansel had no pebbles and could only mark their way with bread crumbs. When the time came to find their way home again, Hansel and Gretel were shocked to find that all the crumbs had been eaten by birds. (an obstacle complicates the story situation) They were lost.
Hansel and Gretel wandered the woods for days until they came upon a strange house made entirely of candy. Starved, they ran to the house and ate the candy that made its walls. But they had fell into a trap. In the house lived an old witch who lured them into the house and captured them. (end of the 2nd act)
The witch locked Hansel in a cage so she might fatten him up to eat him. With Gretel, she forced to do housework until she decided to eat her too. Eventually the day came for the witch to have her meal. But when the witch bent down to check whether her oven was ready, Gretel pushed her in and closed the door. (climax) Gretel freed her brother, and in the witch's house they found a casket of gold coins.
Hansel and Gretel went back into the woods and when they found their way home, they learned that their stepmother was dead and their father begged their forgiveness. (story resolution) And they lived happily ever after.
Think of some of your favorite films, films with stories that never fail to captivate your interest. If you look past all the details, and focus just on the bare bones of the how their plots unfold, you will find that any and every well-written screenplay story can be completely told in a half-page fairy tale like the one above. Here's an example.
Once upon a time, there was a whiz computer hacker named Neo. (introduction of the protagonist) Through Neo was successful, he was not happy. He always seemed to feel like there was something fake about the world he lived in. (story setup) One day, Neo was contacted by mysterious strangers who offered to tell him about the secrets of “the matrix.” However, his mysterious friends also got the attention of the evil Agent Smith, who now wishes to capture Neo. (inciting incident) Neo's new friends help him escape Agent Smith. They then offer him a magical pill with the promise that it will show him the truth about the world. Neo takes the pill. (end of 1st act)
Neo wakes up in a strange new world. Morpheus, the leader of Neo's new friends, tell him that the world he knows is a lie, and that humanity is enslaved by machines. Neo does not want to believe this, but Morpheus insists he does, because he believes Neo is “The One,” the man prophesied to help them defeat the machines. Neo and his friends go back into the matrix to see if this is true. However one of the friends has betrayed them to Agent Smith. (a complication to the story situation) Agent Smith's forces attack them and take Morpheus captive. (end of 2nd act)
Neo and his friends are very sad over the loss of Morpheus. But, rather than give up, Neo decides to go back into the matrix to rescue Morpheus. In an epic battle, Neo and his friends save Morpheus. However, as he tries to escape, he is cut off by Agent Smith and they are forced to fight to the death. In the battle, Neo comes to believe that he is in fact The One, and with that confidence, kills Agent Smith. (story climax). Neo and his friends return to safety, stronger than ever (resolution). And they lived happily ever after.
Now, you're probably thinking, 'yeah, of course this works for The Matrix. A fantasy/sci-fi story would naturally have a lot in common with a fairy tale. Well then, let's go a step further and try a fairy tale of a story that couldn't be further from the likes of fantasy.
Once upon a time, there was a boy named Conrad. Conrad had recently come home from a mental hospital after attempting suicide due to his survivor's guilt over the boating accident that killed his older brother Buck. Conrad's father struggles to re-connect with his troubled son, but his mother has grown cold to her surviving son, and has become fixated on maintaining the appearance of normalcy around her. (story setup) One day, Conrad decides to see a psychiatrist named Dr. Berger. Conrad has troubles re-establishing his relationship with his friends and family, so Dr. Berger suggests he talk to someone he feels he can be open with. This makes Conrad contact Karen, a girl he knew from the mental hospital. (end of 1st act)
However, Conrad attempts to make things normal again do not get good results. His friends treat him strangely and his mother rejects his attempts to communicate with her. This leads Conrad to choose to quit the swim team, which only makes both his friends and mother more angry. Things start to look better when he start seeing a non-judgmental girl named Jeannine. However, a bad date with Jeannine and a violent fight with his friends pushes him toward depression. But when Conrad tries to call Karen to cheer himself up, he hears that Karen has committed suicide. (end of 2nd act)
Conrad is driven off the deep end by the news. He briefly considers killing himself, but decides instead to reach out in the middle of the night to Dr. Berger for help. In an emotionally agonizing battle with Dr. Berger, Conrad comes to realize that he blames himself for his brother's death- but that he was not responsible. This realization helps him overcome his problem. (climax)
Understanding this, Conrad is able to move on and start a healthy relationship with Jeannine. However through all this Conrad's father has noticed how cold his wife is to Conrad and tells her he doesn't love her the way he used to. Conrad's mother decides to leave. In the aftermath, Conrad and his father are able to come to terms with eachother. (resolution) And they lived, more or less, happily ever after.
HOW TO USE THIS
Take a look at the script you are working on right now. Are you sure that your story is clear and easy to understand? Does the action take a clear course, or does it wander? Does the story situation develop because the action contained in each event naturally triggers the next event to happen? Or do people do things arbitrarily, without a good reason forcing them? Does it have strong, dramatic turning points that give it an obvious beginning, middle, and end? Does all the action of your story stick to a strong, dramatic Story Spine in which characters constantly struggle with a Main Story Problem, and tirelessly pursue a Main Story Goal? Don't just say “yes” and move on. The only way to be sure is to put it to the test.
Write out your script's story as if it were a fairy tale. Start out with “Once upon a time...” and using simple language, tell your entire story in a block paragraphs that takes up no more than half a page of paper. Now of course, you can't fit in everything, just the important moments and characters; the stuff your story won't make sense without. Until you can tell your story in a way that even a kindergartener can understand, your script will lack the elegant, hidden under the surface simplicity that makes a great cinematic story. A great movie is made of a simple story with complex characters. This test makes sure you don't have it the other way around.
Look at what you have written. Where you able to fit it into half a page? If not, this means your plot is too cluttered. You are trying to cram too much into a movie's limited space. You may be attempting too many subplots, serve too many characters, or it many have gone off its spine into unrelated areas. Maybe it tries to do too much with the story too fast, tearing into oblivion like a runaway train. A cluttered script leaves reader and viewer alike feeling like their brains have been fried. There is just too much to keep track of and they get confused.
Also take warning if you weren't able to make it to half a page. This means that despite your script's length, you have a story were nothing much happens. It is most likely filled with long scenes of unnecessary dialogue, or uneventful action with no relevance to the main story. Maybe it is filled with scenes unrelated to the Story Spine. Or, more likely, it has no Spine at all to guide it, creating a narrative that wanders without purpose. If you don't have enough story to fill a half page, this means that the story does not develop at a sufficient pace to keep audience interest, and they will end up being deathly bored.
Can you see a clear cause-and-effect relationship from sentence to sentence in your fairy tale? Thing should happen in manner so that because THIS happened, it caused THAT to happen. And then because of THAT, THIS was made to occur. If instead your fairy tale has a lot of “then this happened, then this other unrelated thing happened, and then the character went and did this other thing” without much of a causal thread connecting every event, this means that much of your action is arbitrary and does not effectively follow a story spine. When a story stays on its spine, removing one moment from your fairy tale would make everything fall apart, causing everything that occurs afterward to make no sense. If you can remove something and there is no real damage, this means your script is nothing more than a collection of random events, not a tightly-plotted cinematic story that unfolds with the natural momentum a movie needs to have.
Do the main turning points of your story (the inciting incident, end of first act turning point, end of second act turning point, and story climax) clearly stand out from the rest of your fairy tale? Do the turning points that end your first and second acts work to divide your story into an obvious beginning, middle, and end? Or are these moments lost in all the other details? The latter would indicate that your story still has problems with its structure, and more work needs to be done to strengthen these moments or else they will become insignificant events awash in all your other scenes.
Once upon a time, there was a screenwriter who had trouble making their script work (inciting incident). Then, one day they found this blog article encouraging them to think of their story as a fairy tale (1st Act Turning point). The screenwriter took the article's advice, did the exercise, and found where the problem lay in their script. (2nd Act Turning point). They fixed their script, and it became a wildly successful feature film. And they all lived happily ever after. (We hope.)