Be The Best Writer You Can

Eternal Story Beats and Superstar Screenwriters

Lionboy stage play
Some people get annoyed when I bang on about three act structure, lose all patience when I talk about an ancient toolchest of eternal story beats.

Those people think it’s cheating to even talk about such a thing. To them writing a script is a creative act that descends to them somehow from somewhere far off and mystical.

To be told there is a workable box of simple tricks which, if used wisely, can help shape their raw ideas and emotions into a compelling story seems (to them) just crass.

I go into these beats in some detail in one of the bonus books in the Screenwriting Goldmine package. (But if you’re one of those people who relies on mystical invention and a wing and a prayer then you won’t have read this bonus book.)

THOSE PEOPLE

Those people don’t believe that sort of thing works.

Those people think it leads to formulaic storytelling.

Those people would rather “explore their wild imagination” (as one non-believer recently wrote to me).

I do wonder how many scripts by THOSE people actually end up getting made?

Whatever.

COMPLICITE

But, if following this story toolkit leads to unoriginal story-telling, then how come one of the UK’s theatre companies, Complicité, (famous for their wildly imaginative, highly experimental shows), is using a whole load of these story beats in their current, non-naturalistic, super stylised theatre piece?

If you know about British theatre you’ll have heard about Complicité. They started in 1983 as Theatre de Complicité, an experimental travelling theatre company, and have since become perhaps our premier ‘independent’ theatre company. Whatever ‘independent’ means these days.

They’re famous for the integrity and experimentation of their pieces and also possibly for the fact that one of their two leaders Simon McBurney dabbles in screen acting to keep his acting hand. (When I say ‘dabbles’ I mean he has run up a string of meaty acting roles in movies such as Harry Potter, The Golden Compass, Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy, and the latest, as yet untitled, Woody Allen movie).

Basic point: Complicité are an A list theatre company. They certainly know what they are doing, with form and with structure.

LIONBOY

Their latest show Lionboy started off as a dramatization of a series of childrens’ books.

I know that Marcelo Dos Santos’ script went through a series of almost daily revisions over several weeks, as Annabel Arden directed the actors in workshops and improvisations around the story.

Apparently whole scenes and sequences would be created, included, and then cut. The story was mixed, and remixed, and re-remixed, to find the best possible form.

That’s a lot of work, from a lot of highly skilled and very experienced story-telling professionals.

Here’s my question – do you think people like this would use any old box of story tricks?

THE PESKY ARCHETYPES SURFACE WHATEVER YOU DO

And yet last week, as I watched the play unfold, I saw the story hit archetypal story beat after story.

I kept smiling as I began to realise just how closely this highly improvised and workshopped play, by this extremely well thought of,and famously experimental, theatre company, matched the classic structure I talk about in the Goldmine package – and the ‘Eternal Toolchest’ booklet.

For example. If you know the Goldmine you’ll know I’m big on having the hero torn in two by some huge dilemma. I say you need to give your protagonist a real world desire and a deep subconscious need that are clearly, explicitly, diametrically opposed. Come the climax of the play, the hero Charlie Ashantie had a terrible debate with himself. He had a decision to make, and was practically torn in two by the impossibility of the situation. He could get his desire (his parents back) but if he did he was denied his need (to live an ethical life in harmony with the natural world).

lionboy eyes

For example. I also say that you MUST get the protagonist and the antagonist face to face in the same room, in a scene of direct conflict, towards the very end of the play, so that they can slug it out once and for all. I recommend you make this scene as physical as possible, so that a physical battle can vividly dramatise the struggle between the deepest themes of the work.

Come the climax of Lionboy, Charlie and his antagonist, the villainous CEO of the Corporacy, literally donned boxing gloves to trade punches in a highly stylised version of this nose-to-nose thematic slug-fest.

For example. I insist that writers should try to include some experience of death somewhere in the third act which revs up the protagonist to achieve a deeper, more spiritual victory. (That’s a simplification – it’s based on ancient ideas of death and transubstantiation, but I haven’t got time for that here.) I was getting worried, as we got nearly to the very end of the play before we saw Lionboy’s near death moment. But then it arrived. Just for a moment we think a lovable chameleon character dies in the act of destroying the Corporacy’s mainframe.

The actors told me in the bar afterwards that, as this is children’s theatre the character lived, but I couldn’t help wondering: Would the play would have been stronger if there had been a genuine experience of death much earlier in the story, as I suggest?

Maybe. It’s a moment like that which made ‘Bambi’.

I could go on, but you get the point.

ALL ROADS LEAD TO HOME

With all the freedom in the world, the skilled practitioners of Complicité created a workshopped, free-form play – that contained a whole ton of ancient story beats, just like the Goldmine describes.

Of course, I’m not suggesting anyone at Complicité sat down and read the Goldmine and deliberately covered the beats. I think they arrived in the story subconsciously, and that they were found anew by a process of applying superior story-telling instincts and experience to the Lionboy source material.

And, of course, I’m not suggesting Complicité included these classic beats with a heavy hand, or without thought. No, these beats were embedded in the deep structure of the story, as scaffolding, as foundation. The fabric of the story had been worked up to conceal these beats to all but those who know what they are looking for. Just as I recommend in the Goldmine.

THE ETERNAL TOOL KIT

My experience of this Eternal Toolkit of story beats is that I can use them in whatever story I’m writing, however conventional, however mainstream and commercial – and however experimental.

I’m glad to see that Complicité agree.

If you’re already a Goldmine user, then take encouragement that one of the world’s leading experimental theatre companies think in the same way.

And if you’re not, and you want to know more, well, one way would be to work with the experts at Complicité. Or… you could just download your own copy of the Screenwriting Goldmine package where I explain the whole thing in great detail!

You can download Goldmine here.

AUTUMN COURSES ANNOUNCED

I’m very excited to say that Philip Shelley and I have been locked away in a room plotting our Autumn course schedule, and so far we’ve signed up two Superstar Screenwriters for our Authoritative Guide seminar series

First of all, on September 28-29, we’re proud to present Chris Chibnall, one of the best and most successful screenwriters currently working in TV drama.

Most recently Chris wrote and executive-produced the hugely successful ITV crime drama series ‘Broadchurch’. He is now working on the 2nd series; and filming has recently finished on his twobroadchurch-part BBC TV serial about The Great Train Robbery, starring Jim Broadbent.

Chris’s other work includes ‘United’ (BBC), ‘Law & Order UK’ (ITV), ‘Doctor Who’, ‘Torchwood’ and ‘Life on Mars’ (all BBC). He has also written for the theatre – the acclaimed one-man show ‘Gaffer’ and ‘Kiss Me Like You Mean It’ (Soho Theatre).

And then for the 16-17 November seminar we’re delighted, (and honoured!) to present Lucy Gannon. Lucy started as a writer in theatre back in the 1980s, but has gone on to become one of this country’s best and most respected TV dramatists, with an MBE for her services to drama.frankie

Most recently she wrote and executive-produced the excellent BBC1 series ‘Frankie’.

Her other acclaimed work includes: ‘The Best of Men’ (BBC, winner of an RTS “Best Writer” Award), ‘The Children’ (BBC), the hugely successful ITV series ‘Bramwell’, ‘Soldier Soldier’, ‘Peak Practice’ and many other impressive credits.

Both Chris and Lucy will answer all your questions, in the usual frank, fearless and slightly off-the-record manner we encourage..!

Though September and November may feel like a long way in the future seats are already selling strongly so, if you’re interested, don’t delay too long – book here

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2 Comments
  1. Hi Phil!

    I hate to admit that I too, was a nay-sayer when it came to structure. Its very theory seemed counter-productive to creativity. How dare anyone stifle my imagination. BUT! That was before.

    Since then, I have taken several classes. One on 3 ACT structure (with Syd Field), one on 7 Act structure and even one on 8 ACT structure (which are both fundamentally just 3 act structure fine-tuned).

    Much to my surprise, I learned that without structure, my creativity rambles and floats like an endless array of shape-shifting clouds on a sunny afternoon. And in doing so, it loses its panache, its ability to strike awe or to sear itself into the memory of its audience.

    So, I’m with you, Phil. 3 act, 5 act, 10 act, 12! Call it what you will, but embrace it. Structure enhances the creative process. Like pruning the stragglers off the elm tree, it gives it shape. It makes the images you create stronger, clearer, indelible.

    I hope you can reach those non-believers and help them realize that they’re journey is just beginning. And what they see as restrictive is actually quite liberating. Go Phil!

  2. I always get my idea first, and my “hook”, and often my title. I find the hardest part is following a beat sheet, but it always makes me dig deeper and makes the story better. If you know the beats, and the reasons for them, you can choose to ignore or adapt them for the sake of the story, but keep in mind that they work for a reason.

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