Fairy Tales and Screenplays

You might think I’m going off on a Disney trip, but I’m not. Over the past few days I’ve been having an interesting email exchange with a friend on the long-established story structure for screenplays. 

He feels that structure is too limited and is what’s giving us many of the cliché movies (blockbusters) out in theaters today. And he’s correct in that thinking because if your brilliant screenplay does not follow the standard structure, no agent will even look at it. 

And most of us by now have figured out that structure. Some big change/decision after the first 10 minutes, a life altering choice. Then some solid time building up to the conclusion and after the climax, another 10 minutes or so of wrap up to show how wonderfully it all came together (that’s for the happy ending ones anyway) 

I’m oversimplifying things here, but that’s because the structure as taught in screenwriting is fairly basic and simple once you grasp it. 

But what I realized in my email exchange is that the structure has been ingrained in us from an early age, not through film, but through stories told to us as children. The tradition of fairy tales and folk tales goes back centuries in our collective memory, to become part of our collective subconscious, if you will.  

Literacy and sharing stories through the written word is still relatively new in our long human history. Before that we had oral traditions. Stories told to teach others. And of course to keep the attention of the audience there had to be difficult choices that drove the main character on. Tension built, the audience felt fear, excitement and finally relief once the hero was safe. Tears,laugher, fear; by feeling those intense emotions while listening to the story, the lesson of the story was often imprinted on the listener. That’s how you remembered the lesson. 

Hollywood continues that tradition. But, today, do we really still need that very rigid structure for screenplays to tell a compelling story an audience would want to see? 

Of course the protagonist will continue to need challenges and choices to spur him/her on, but that is true of every story. Even the ones we tell each other over coffee. The ones we remember are those that have difficult choices and satisfying endings. 

Little Red Riding Hood learned her lesson about strangers and made it home safe and sound. 

Cinderella was rewarded for her patience, suffering and hard work by going to the ball and meeting prince charming. 

The little mermaid learned a very painful lesson and made a dramatic final choice. Not the one Disney shows you … Hans Christian Anderson wasn’t into happy endings, but he did follow the prescribed structure. Look it up, but bring tissues.