blog

Why Frameworks Beat Rules Every Time

WRITE SCREENPLAYS THAT GET NOTICED AND OPEN DOORS

Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.

Subscribe
As Seen On

For the past few weeks we’ve been getting micro with the dialogue series. This week I want to zoom out to a macro view and talk about why frameworks beat rules every time.

You know how I feel about screenwriting rules – there are no hard and fast rules!

Sometimes new writers cling to rules because rules feel safe and secure and definite. Rules are confident. Rules provide answers. But the more you write, read, and study, the more you see that screenwriting rules are an illusion. Exceptions exist, but more than that – each story is unique. With every story you create, every screenplay you write, you’ll run into unique challenges.

So if we can’t rely on rules, what can we rely on?

No rules, just tools

Rules provide only a false sense of security. But tools you can learn to wield like a craftsman. Part of that process is becoming familiar with what a particular tool is meant to do so you can use it as-is or adapt it to your needs, or know when to toss it aside and reach for something else. And making those choices becomes much easier when you understand the big picture.

Each of the individual tools we talk about is really part of a larger framework. The framework is what helps you gauge what you need and when.

A framework gives you the scaffolding to find the right answers for yourself. To understand the big picture so you can figure out how to address any individual story issue.

A framework is:

  • A guide: What do I do next?
  • A lens: How does what I’m doing now fit into the whole?
  • A diagnostic tool: What am I missing?

Though I’ve never referred to it as a framework before, the individual tools I share with you are intended to provide that type of help – no rules, just tools.

A few tools for developing a story idea

We start at a distance, with the 40,000-foot view. Once we see that clearly we zoom in a little closer and try to get that picture in focus. Once that’s clear, we zoom in again – and so on.

So, for this exercise, let’s pretend we’re adapting the novel to make the Netflix movie Enola Holmes. (Real world credit goes to screenwriter Jack Thorne, who adapted the novel by Nancy Springer.)

A movie about Sherlock Holmes’s little sister! It’ll be great! A detective for a younger audience, and a teen-girl character who’s smart and capable. Now, where do we go from here?

Start with the big picture: What’s the story?

Most movie stories are pretty simple and come down to:

It’s about [this person – the main character] trying to do [this one thing].

With this tool we’re simply stepping back to look at the whole thing. We want to identify what it is before we get bogged down or tripped up by details. Think of it as the difference between saying, “it’s a zebra” or saying, “it’s an animal with stripes and four legs and a tail and two eyes…”

Identifying what it is as a whole gives us a starting point but can also help us throughout the process because it gives us a North Star, a target to aim for.

You can write a screenplay any way you choose, of course. Without charting a course or aiming for an end point at all. This is just a tool, remember – the “know where you’re aiming” tool. It gives you direction, and if you like to write that way then you might find this tool useful.

And all it involves is telling us what the movie is. Aim for something even more basic than a logline here.

For our Enola Holmes project, if we ignore the details and just look at what the story is as a whole, what is it?

It’s about a teenage girl who uses a special set of skills to find her missing mother and help a young Lord in trouble.

At this point we don’t need to get specific about what kind of skills or where she got them. We’re just trying to identify the basic idea.

Zoom in on the transformation engine

Most good stories are about some sort of transformation, and very often it’s a change in the protagonist. It doesn’t have to be a big change to be meaningful, but we do need to understand how and why the transformation happened in order for it to land with a certain emotional logic and significance.

When plot and character are designed to intertwine effectively, it makes the story feel more meaningful because we can see how those elements are working on each other and effecting change. So we want to think about that now, in the development phase.

For our Enola Holmes example, we know she’s trying to solve two mysteries in this story. And she’s a young woman (a teen) so that naturally lends itself to a coming-of-age story. Really we can think of this as an origin story: that of Enola Holmes, younger sister to Sherlock, becoming a super-sleuth in her own right.

So to zoom in on the transformation engine in this story we might say:

Being on her own, working to figure out her mother’s whereabouts, and trying to help young Lord Tewkesbury causes Enola to learn a few things. One, that she’s capable and independent. Also that she can be her own person and still have relationships with other people. And ultimately that adds up to giving her life new direction and purpose: she knows what she can do and that the world can’t stop her from forging her own path.

Zoom in on the shape of the story

The stories we tell in movies typically have three big parts (which can be broken down into smaller parts, of course). The three big parts that make up the story are the set up, escalation, and resolution.

But set up of what? Escalation of what? Resolution of what?

Those three parts relate to the story goal, or you might think of it as the main story conflict (which is the pursuit of the goal against opposition).

  • In Act 1 the goal or main conflict is created.
  • In Act 2 the main conflict escalates as the goal is pursued and that pursuit is opposed by some antagonistic force.
  • In Act 3 the pursuit of the goal is resolved – the goal is achieved or not.

As long as we have an idea of what that thing is that the protagonist is trying to achieve, we can pretty easily find the broad strokes of the story. Again, we’re zooming in just a little bit, not too much. In this step we’re looking at the big picture from near enough that we can see it has three distinct parts, but not trying to get much closer than that.

In our example:

In Act 1 the goal or main conflict is created:
Enola’s goal of finding her mother is established. Brothers Sherlock and Mycroft want to bring Enola back, so they provide conflict to this goal. Enola also meets Tewkesbury and becomes involved in the murder plot against him; someone wants to kill him, and now Enola aligns herself with Tewkesbury so she’s in danger too.

In Act 2 the main conflict escalates as the goal is pursued and opposed:
Enola uses clues and lessons her mother left for her to try to find her while staying one step ahead of her brothers, and Enola also helps Tewkesbury stay alive.

In Act 3 the pursuit of the goal is resolved – the goal is achieved or not:
Enola helps Lord Tewkesbury expose and stop the person who’s trying to kill him, and reunites with her mother long enough to get some closure.

Remember where we started, by identifying the basic story? These three parts should clearly add up to that high-level view of what the story is.

Zoom in to find the major plot points

The major plot points are the big turning points that define the shape of the story. You get a sense of the whole in these plot points because they relate back to the story goal, that main conflict the entire story is built on.

You can use what you already know about the shape of the story and the character arc to find some of these major turning points, and then “do the math” of the story to figure out the rest from there.

Our example again:

Inciting Incident: Since Enola’s mother has disappeared, Enola is now a ward of her brother Mycroft. At this point in the story, Enola finds out he intends to marry her off as quickly as possible. She doesn’t want that but has no other option, so this is a real problem she has to deal with and that kicks the story into motion – the purpose of the Inciting Incident.

Break into Act 2: Enola saves the young Lord from the assassin and the two begin traveling together, and we also see Sherlock begin to pursue Enola.

Midpoint: After trying to go her own way so she can continue to search for her mother, Enola realizes she feels responsible for Tewkesbury’s safety and can’t abandon him.

Break into Act 3: Enola sacrifices a chance to run away from danger because she now knows you must take risks for what matters, and that Tewkesbury’s assassination has bigger, political implications. She intends to stop the murder plot for good.

Climax: Enola stops the assassin and the murder plot, and also reunites with her mother long enough to get some closure (and a push toward her new future).

A framework allows you to break the “rules” as needed

All of these tools add up to a framework – a way to look at your screenplay and understand how the parts work together to create the whole.

When you understand the framework, or the big picture, you’re better equipped to address the unique challenges that come along with every new screenplay. You address those challenges using the same set of tools, but knowing how to apply each one to the specific story you’re working on.

The more you write, read, and study, the more solid your mental framework becomes. And the easier it is to know how to use the tools you have in your kit – and to know exactly which “rules” you can simply toss aside.

WRITE SCREENPLAYS THAT GET NOTICED AND OPEN DOORS

Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.

Subscribe