Form, format and story

When I started writing my first feature film script in July last year, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. I knew the story I wanted to tell, having lived with it lurking in my mind for over two years, but I didn’t know how I should tell it. What I did was just to start writing. I could make some guesses about how I should structure the document and what it should look like, but I was really just groping about in the dark.

A few weeks later I found Zoetrope, a website run by France Ford Coppola for aspiring film makers. On Zoetrope I met other writers, both experienced and newbies like myself, whom I could ask for advice about how to write my script. I rapidly came to realise that this was a topic that caused a lot of people quite a bit of grief, primarily because there was a lot of confusion about the difference between form and format.

Screenplays – particularly spec screenplays which are written on the off chance that they will be bought rather than to a commission – are subject to a strict set of formatting guidelines. These rules govern the width of the margins, the font style and size, the indentations for dialogue, the way that sluglines (the text telling you where a scene is taking place) are composed, everything down to the size, type and number of brads used to hold the script together when printed out. Although there is some leeway in terms of exactly how many millimetres wide your margins should be, for example, if you stray too far from the accepted conventions, your script is seen as amateurish.

Some people, however, would regularly rail against these rules, hating the way that anyone could possibly have the nerve to tell them what to do and how to do it. There would be huge discussions about precisely which version of Courier was the best, exactly how far from the edge of the page your dialogue should be indented, and whether all this was just another form of film industry idiocy.

Many of these discussions failed to grasp a basic, but important, point: Format has no impact on story. It governs only how that script looks, not what the script says. In terms of the film that would be made from the script, format is inconsequential. In terms of the act of typing in your script, it’s even more inconsequential because you can get good software that does it all for you.

On the other hand, the form of the script has huge consequences for the resulting film. Form, not format, was what many of these people should have been discussing, but often they mistook form for format, confusing structure with typography.

Form, when it comes to screenplays, is about structure. A film, like a play, is usually divided into acts. You can have as few as two or as many as five, but the usual number is three. There should be turning points in the plot, escalation of risk, and expectation gaps (the character does something, expects a given result, but ends up with a different outcome).

These structural points, this form, often strays over into the domain of story, but where story is specific, form is universal. When I talk about form I can say that by page 30 in a 120 page script should come the first turning point, where the heroine must irrevocably commit to a course of action. That is a point of form, or structure but it doesn’t tell you anything about the heroine, what her course is, what her commitment is. It has an impact on the story, but it isn’t the story.

There are those who think that too much emphasis on form, on structure, is detrimental – by sticking to the classic three act form wherein I can predict key scenes around pages 30 (end of the first act), 60 (mid point in the second act) and 90 (end of the second act), I create a formulaic and weak script. These people will point to all sorts of films that do not follow the standard three act form and claim that this just goes to show.

These people too are mistaken. Form provides a skeleton upon which the creative writer can hang her best writing. These forms have evolved over a century of film making, and they work. The reason they work is because humans have been telling stories for as long as we have walked the earth. We are all born storytellers. Almost instinctively we know a turning point when we see one because these are reflections of our real lives, not in the detail, but in the general.

When Will Turner throws in his lot with Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean, we know that his life has changed irrevocably. We don’t need to be told that this is an important scene, we just know it. Whilst the detail of Will’s decision are unique to that character in that screenplay, we are more than capable of recognising the importance of that sort of life-changing decision from our own experiences: The job offer you accepted or the first time you asked your partner out on a date.

Form is not story, no more than format is. There’s overlap, yes, but it’s not the same. Format and form are meaningless constructs without story, without the writer’s expertise, skill and craft. The most beautifully formatted script is no better than toilet paper if the words on it are worthless. The most perfectly formed screenplay is no better than junk mail if the story doesn’t work.

(It not until this final aspect of story that we get to talk about issues such as genre. Genre – the ‘sort’ of film it is: thriller, comedy or action-adventure – is not the same as form, instead being entirely down to the story itself, the settings, the characters, the plot.)

At the end of the day, to be successful you need all three aspects of format, form and story. You need to be a skilled writer not just in your ability to turn a phrase, or create a character, but also in your ability to use form to your own advantage, to ensure that your script does not become some trite, formulaic waste of a dead tree.

The film industry has had some hundred years to develop. The blogosphere is but a three day old chick in comparison, yet we are grappling with the same issues.

We’ve all seen discussions over format – what makes a blog a blog? We can say that a blog should have permalinks, comments, trackbacks, be in reverse chronological order, have a blogroll, have archives, and all the other aspects that we instinctively recognise as being ‘bloggish’. But then, is a blog without permalinks still a blog? Is a blog without comments still a blog? How many of these attributes can be removed before a blog ceases to be a blog?

Like scripts, though, software is available to remove worries over format. Most blog software imbues the end result with a blog format purely by virtue of its use. The tool creates the format. The user doesn’t have to worry – and probably didn’t worry in the first place anyway – about format and whether what they are writing is a blog or not. It is only after the fact, or to other people, that the question of ‘what format does a blog have’ becomes important.

Blog form is about the structure of the content – is it a linklog, a diary, quoted or original content, essays or short posts, a moblog, a videoblog, a mixture of everything together? Just like scripts, the form of a blog has an impact on the content (the story) of the blog, but they are not the same thing.

(Indeed, it is not until we look at content, in this parallel set of parentheses, that we can talk about the genre of a blog. From klogs to warblogs to personal diaries, genre comes out of story, out of content, and is not imposed upon it by form or format.)

The success of a blog depends almost entirely, not on format or form, but on content. How well written is it? How interesting? How funny? How captivating? The successful blogs all have something we want – news, opinions or a good laugh. And just like scripts, good blogs are the product of the hard work of creative people.

Like screenwriters, bloggers must learn their art, they must learn about format and form and story in order to make the best of their blog. Unlike screenwriting, there are few books to tell you how to blog – the vast majority of bloggers learn through trial and error, through reading other people’s blogs and just writing and seeing how their audience (even if that audience is just them themselves) react to what they have done. We’re making it up as we go along, just like film makers a century ago.

Luckily for most bloggers, though, the object of their enterprise is not to make money by selling the resulting blog to the film industry. That, at the very least, makes life for bloggers much easier than for screenwriters: A blog post has achieved its aim when it has been published. It is a completed thing at that point.

A script is nothing but a blueprint for a film, requiring much more work (and not a little luck) before it reaches its full potential, if it ever does. A script isn’t finished until the film has been made, edited, released, re-edited for the director’s cut DVD, re-mastered for the Collectors Edition… You get the point.

But whether you blog for yourself and a small circle of friends, or for an audience of thousands, it is important to remember that form and format should always play second fiddle to story.

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