Student – Hi David, thank you taking the time to talk. I’m having a little trouble grasping how five-act structure can be implemented. Do you have any tips?

David Roden – Well, there’s any number of tips I could give you, but actually putting techniques into practice is the best way to improve your writing. Shall we write a quick five-act story now?

S – Sounds great!

DR – Okay. We’ll focus on the Panama Canal video prompt you used last session, as it’s fresh in your memory. 

Let’s say the story is about saving a hospital. Create a main character, and an inciting incident.

S – We’ll use a female doctor in Dr Gorgas’s team. The inciting incident will be Colonel Goethal withdrawing funding, and perhaps even closing the hospital.

DR – Possibly, yes. I think the threat to the continued existence of the hospital is the inciting incident, so a threat of withdrawing the funding will work well. What’s the worst point – the end of act four?

S – The worst point would be Goethel burning the hospital down.

DR – Pretty much! It’s the most terrible thing that can happen. So, what’s the midpoint? Remember, that’s the point halfway through act three where the truth is revealed. A point of no return. 

S – The hospital being burnt down?

DR – That’s probably the worst point. The midpoint could be the actual withdrawal of money, and the closing down of the hospital.

It helps to plan it out in stages:

Act 1 – ?

INCITING INCIDENT– announcement that the hospital will close.

Act 2 – ?

Act 3 – ?

MIDPOINT – the closure of the hospital, and staff are sacked.

Act 3 – ?

Act 4 -?

WORST POINT– the hospital is burned down.

Act 5 – ?

S – That makes sense. So what about the question marks?

DR – The question marks are where your creativity as a writer comes in. You have the ‘tent poles’ of your story now, and they serve to guide you, your character and audience through an emotionally engaging story.

S – Oh dear, I need to think!

DR – That’s okay. You’re effectively writing two stories. One focuses on the incidents, and the other on the emotional journey of the character. 

Let’s fill in some question marks. Act two will likely be the main character fighting to save the hospital. This goes well for her, and at this stage she thinks she will succeed. Then, at the end of act two, there is a turning point where things start to go wrong.

Act two is all about the character having a clear mission which goes well initially, but ends with something going wrong. What do you think then happens at the start of act three?

S – Our protagonist realises she is in serious trouble, and starts to rethink her choices?

DR – Absolutely! So what will act three be?

S – The point of no return. The hospital closes, and she is jobless.

DR – Yes. In the first part of act three, our protagonist should be trying to encourage the staff to take action to stop the hospital closure – they could go on strike – but this results in our midpoint: the hospital closing, and the staff being sacked. So far, our table is looking like this:

Act 1 – ?

INCITING INCIDENT – announcement that the hospital will close.

Act 2 – the main character fights to save the hospital, and her battle goes well.

TURNING POINT – things start to go wrong.

Act 3 – she tries to encourage the staff to take action to stop the hospital closure. They go on strike, but the result is:

MIDPOINT – the closure of the hospital, and staff are sacked.

Act 3 – ?

Act 4 -?

WORST POINT – the hospital is burned down.

Act 5 – ?

S – Is this the time to show how emotionally traumatised she is?

DR – Definitely, but it just gets worse for her. Act four will be terrible for your character.

S – So how, and what, should I write to make the audience see and feel her sorrow?

DR – Well, you make her care for the hospital and her patients, and then do terrible things to her, the hospital, and the people she cares about. Your main character is someone both you and the audience love. Then you do awful things to her, and put her through a terrible ordeal.

S – So, these terrible things could make her cry, and maybe the audience too. Is this how we display emotion in screenwriting?

DR – Yes, but you don’t have to force any emotions. All you have to do is make your audience care for your main character. If you treat your character badly, not only will she be upset, but the audience will be too. It’s all about empathy.

S – You make it sound so simple!

DR – Well, it’s as simple – and complex – as that.

S – Thanks for your help, David. I’ll always make sure to keep these points in mind when I’m writing.

DR – Thank you, it’s what I love to do! Good luck with your writing, and I’m glad my tips have helped you.

________________

David Roden is a writer, script editor and director (Dr WhoEastEndersCasualtyCoronation Street, Red Rock). He ran the BBC Writers Academy for John Yorke for four years, mentoring a new generation of TV writers through a year’s intensive training. He is lead tutor on the Storytelling for Screen course.

The next Into the Woods: Storytelling for Screen online course starts on Monday, 23 January 2017. Applications are open, and spaces are very limited. Book now to avoid missing out. For more information on all John Yorke’s Into the Woods courses, go to www.johnyorkestory.com.

Share This

Share This

Share this post with your friends!