By Jax Hunter
Welcome to the third installment of Story Tips From the Big Screen. This monthly column (to be posted the second Monday of each month) explores screen writing techniques that will help fiction writers tell a better story.
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Hello again from altitude. This month, as promised, we’re going to make a two minute movie. At least on paper we are. I know you’re all asking “What the heck is a two minute movie?” Be patient - we’ll get to it. First, just a quick review of three act structure.
Last month we did a more in-depth study of three act structure (TAS). If you missed it - stop right here - and go back to it. It’s important for our two minute movie.
TAS - Get your hero up a tree in Act I, throw rocks at him in Act II and get him out of the tree in Act III. Act I takes about one fourth of the book and ends with the first plot point (an event that spins the action in a different direction). Act II takes about half the book and ends with the second plot point. Act III takes another fourth of the book and brings us into the dark moment where all is lost, then resolves the story in a satisfying way.
With that in mind, let’s go on. The two minute movie is a plotting tool that will help us get past the page 30 crisis. You know the point - you’ve taken this wonderful idea and are happily typing along when you hit the wall. Your story comes to a screeching halt because you don’t have a clue what comes next. Writer’s block sets in and you either bang your head against the monitor until you need ibuprofen or you head straight for the harder drugs. Just kidding. I would guess, though, that we’ve all been there.
The two minute movie is a two page - not one or three or four - a two page treatment of your story. Whenever I hear the word “treatment” - very Hollywoodish - I can’t help but think of Cosmo Kramer. But I digress. In this treatment, you “consciously develop your idea” into a story. The idea comes from Lew Hunter’s Screenwriting 434.
In this two-page, double-spaced overview, you walk your story through the three act paradigm.
Act I gets three paragraphs or so, setting up the characters and their needs. The last paragraph here sets up the first crisis - plot point one.
You’ll use five or six paragraphs to tell the rising action of Act II. Remember to fill Act II with obstacles that stand between where your character is and where he wants to be. This section is the action - reaction part of the book. Each action forces the characters into situations in which the stakes are higher than the last. Each action cranks up the tension until you arrive at plot point two.
And that leaves two or three paragraphs to cover Act III - the dark moment where all is lost, and the resolution.
There’s your two minute movie. Hunter suggests that you may want to show this two page treatment to trusted friends who will be able to give good feedback. He states that this exercise not only helps you in the next process (the step outline) but will tell you if you really have a story at all.
Syd Field, in his book The Screenwriter’s Workbook has a similar exercise. He calls his the 4-page treatment. Syd says that “the hardest thing about writing is knowing what to write.” I couldn’t agree more.
His method has the author starting at the end and writing backwards, so to speak. He wants you to map out the ending, the beginning and plot points one and two before you start your treatment.
Here’s how Field’s four pages look:
One half page describing the opening scene or sequence;
One half page describing the general action of Act I;
One half page that describes the plot point at the end of Act I
One half page for the action of Act II
One half page for the plot point at the end of Act II; and
Three quarters to one page for Act III, the resolution.
These exercises are much harder than they look on the surface. It’s way too easy, as you’re writing these paragraphs, to wonder at the why’s - to get hung up with character motivations and the small actions that thrust your character into the bigger moments. However, if you’ll stick to the overview method in this phase of building your story, you will have much better luck staying out of the bogs and moving forward.
Another time that two minute movies are invaluable is in the midst of writing. I have a recurring problem with getting ideas for future books while I’m still embroiled in the current book. Somewhere recently I read that when these ideas come to you and you’re concerned about losing them, take a few minutes to an hour to get the idea on paper. That way, the idea doesn’t escape and it won’t be hounding you as you write the work in progress. The two minute (two page) movie would be perfect for getting this idea down before it escapes. Then simply file it away and when you get quickie ideas that go with that story - characters, locations, whatnot - just stick them in the file.
Until next month, campers, when we’ll take a look at outlining, I leave you to your movie making. Don’t forget the most important thing, BICHOK (butt in chair, hands on keyboard).
Cheers, jax (email@example.com)
(This series first ran in the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers newsletter in 2004.)
About the Author: Jax Hunter is a published romance writer and freelance copywriter. She wears many hats including EMT, CPR instructor, and Grammy. She is currently working on a contemporary romance series set in ranching country Colorado and a historical romance set in 1775 Massachusetts. She lives in Colorado Springs, belongs to PPW, RMFW and is a member of the Professional Writer's Alliance.