She Flees to Structure: A Screenwriter’s Refuge when Writing Prose

January 11, 2022 § 11 Comments

by M. Tamara Cutler

I’m printing draft six of a “based on a true story” screenplay and wrapping my head around notes from my producers for an act three rewrite. It sounds daunting, but third act problems are usually the result of hidden flaws in act one. Now that everyone is happy with the first eighty-five pages of the script, the final thirty should be easily resolved.

My story with this script began in 2016. I read a ‘where are they now’ article in the New York Times written by Susan Antilla, the journalist who first covered the landmark sexual discrimination lawsuit filed by women against a major brokerage house on Wall Street in the 1990s. When we discussed adapting Antilla’s book, Tales from the Boom-Boom Room, into a screenplay, I knew she should be the protagonist. But her story wasn’t written. Thus began a year-long interview process to track her story with the one she reported so I could braid the two narratives into a film.

Transposing fact into fictional landscapes like film or television is similar to writing creative nonfiction. We start with the truth, as far as we can research or remember it, and shape it into a structure that keeps the audience emotionally and intellectually invested until the theatre lights go up. This requires a cultural deep dive into the era, editorial decisions like combining characters, compressing time, and cutting anything that impedes the trajectory of the main character’s journey. We don’t, however, divert so far from the truth that the story loses its credibility and becomes fiction (or libelous!).

Because the screenwriter’s job is to leave herself off the page, absolutely nowhere do we write about our feelings, impressions, memories, beliefs or intangible states. It’s maddening, but it’s a useful tool for mastering the omniscient point of view, allowing the viewer to make her own conclusions from what is presented on screen. This emotional remove was a huge hurdle for me to overcome when writing first person prose. I didn’t feel right expressing myself in my own voice and was often urged by readers to put myself more into the story.  

During my year-long creative writing course at Cambridge, a tutor remarked that my dialogue read as bodiless, appearing on the page without a gesture or a voice. In a screenplay, there is no “she said” following a set of quotation marks. It’s introduced simply with the name of the character. The actor’s spoken dialogue reveals the character’s internal wants and fears without a narrative saying what they want or fear.

A screen story also has no past. The industry standard for verb tense, and my go-to, is present active (“she flees to safety”), which permits little to no reflection, what Sue William Silverman defined as The Voice of Experience in her 2005 Brevity craft essay. I allow myself to free write in active present tense but follow up with a pass for the past tense. These are tricks I’ve had to learn so that I can write the way I do in cinematic and dramatic mediums, then transpose it into a literary form.  

Structure, the screenplay’s greatest strength, is my refuge. I wrote the storyline for my book on index cards, as I do with a film story, and posted them on a cork wall. I built tension through act breaks knowing I would flesh out the scenes once I wrote them in prose. When I hit what would be act three, I realized the story was running out of gas. I knew act three’s problems are often rooted in act one, and I played with various opening scenes instead of having to discover the issue after months of composing on my laptop.

Writing myself, my aunt, and my mother’s characters into dramatic scenes freed me from overthinking on the sentence level. I could see the scope of my story with me in it and still be true to the facts. The result is a memoir-driven narrative infused with investigative research and tangential, sometimes surrealistic, thematic interstitials. I believe this classifies as an experimental hybrid form, which is true to my way of processing experiences and telling stories, but with a narrative arc that tracks for the reader.

There are many how-to screenwriting books and blogs about structure and the hero’s journey. I learned by first analyzing movies that had a profound impact on me.

If you want to try:

  • Pick a film you love in its original language, ideally the one you write in.
  • Read the production or shooting draft (not the transcript).
  • Press pause every five minutes during a second viewing to write down the action.

You will begin to notice a formula, but the best films feel organic and surprising even once the structure is understood. They unhinge from plot points and come to life—which is where I want to be when writing creative non-fiction.

Give it a try with your favorite film and let me know how it goes in the comments below!

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M. Tamara Cutler is a narrative screenwriter and executive producer writing from a rural village in southern Spain. She works on feature length film projects in Los Angeles, New York and London and is currently writing her first book of creative non-fiction, Brilliant Miami Sunset. She has an MFA in film from New York University/Tisch School for the Arts. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

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