Ever wonder why rockets like the ones that put humans on the moon have several stages? Why even the space shuttle, which was designed to be reusable is blasted off by those huge non-reusable boosters which then drop away and burn up in the atmosphere? Why not just build ’em like a plane? Put plenty of fuel in, blast ’em off, bring ’em back empty.

It’s not that easy.

It takes a lot of fuel to get a capsule big enough to hold people into orbit – that’s at least 100 miles up. And if you want to carry a lot of fuel, you have to have a box big enough to hold it all. That box is big and heavy, and the more mass you’re trying to lift, the more fuel you need. Crunch the numbers, with reasonable estimates for the weight of fuel and the weight of the tank and you discover that it’s impossible to build a rocket which could carry a reasonable payload and which can be reused. What you have to do is build an enormous tank, use the quantity of fuel in there to get you part-way up, then ditch that tank so you can use a smaller amount of fuel to keep pushing the now smaller mass higher and higher. Two stages is the minimum and diminishing returns sets in after three, so most rockets which don’t need to be reused come in three stages.

If you want one stage, you can have one stage, but you can’t deliver a capsule big enough to take a human high enough to make it into a stable orbit, let alone go to the moon. This isn’t because of some tradition of rocket-building – it’s simple physics.

So in a world where everyone has their own pet screenwriting structure, whether it’s Chris Soth’s eight reels, Blake Snyder’s fifteen beats, Syd Field’s two plot points or any of the countless others, it’s worth bearing in mind that these structures all come from the same place – they are all different ways of describing the laws of storytelling physics. Each emphasises one aspect or the other, and some allow for a little more give than others, but everybody who writes stories obeys the laws of storytelling physics, whether consciously or unconsciously. 

“Rules” like make your hero active, not passive, don’t emerge in a vacuum. They aren’t a cultural tradition, peculiar to a particular form of western, Hollywood, 21st century narrative, waiting for some brave young iconclast to bring the whole edifice tumbling down with their revolutionary new take on the narrative form. They all come back to the basic elements which make stories stories, as opposed to not stories. And our ability to tell story from non-story is an innate part of what makes us human, which is why the fundamentals of stories have remained unchanged since history began.

A story must have cause-and-effect, which means somebody has to make things happen. And an audience expects the storyteller’s choices also to be purposeful, so if you spend the first thirty pages of your screenplay getting us to know and like some guy, you better be having that guy making things happen for the remaining ninety pages. You can no more ignore these forces in your audience than a rocket-builder can ignore how much the fuel tank weighs.

Can you think of successful movies that buck this trend? Sure you can, and so can I, but they are almost always violating these rules because something else is more important or because they want to achieve a very particular narrative effect. Alfred Hitchcock spends ages setting up a heist plot with Janet Leigh at its centre, only to bump her off spectacularly around the half-way mark. The cost to the narrative is that the audience is confused, shocked and frustrated, which is exactly what Hitchcock wanted. The benefit is that the remaining half of the movie is totally unpredictable. If Janet Leigh can get hacked up in the shower, then nobody is safe.

But you know what? It’s harder. It’s an awful lot harder to write an entertaining screenplay which ignores these rules than one which follows them. If the detail of your world is compelling and original enough, and you hide your plot points with grace and elegance, then nobody will ever know whether the superstructure you had in mind was McKee’s or Snyder’s or Soth’s or whether you just felt it. But the reader – and if you’re really lucky, the viewer – will be drawn in to the story and want to know what happens next. And your rocket won’t come crashing back down to earth, 12 miles short of orbital altitude.

If you want me or one of the other Script Surgeons to read your script and send you a detailed report on what works and what doesn’t then we are currently offering this service for just £50 with a guaranteed seven-day turnaround. Send your script in today.

Review of Watchmen
Liveblogging a script analysis