Where We’re Going, We Don’t Need Maps

I’ve been thinking a bit about screenplay structure recently. Particularly, about something I tend to find happening to stories as I get into the final stages, the last two or three drafts. The fact that the structure and the carefully chosen turning points seem to fade away.

What I mean is this. After a bit of initial brainstorming and throwing random ideas around to see what emerges, my first treatments and drafts are very focused on putting the structural elements in the right places. My inciting incident has to be here, and not there or there. My ‘all is lost’ moment had better be right at the end of Act Two, or else. I want eight sequences, I want them all roughly the same length, and I want them in the right order.

But after a few drafts, once I’ve got the story into some kind of shape, I start to forget exactly what I was calling my inciting incident, let alone what page it’s on. I’m not too bothered about the dividing lines between sequences, or the fact that the dividing line between them is a bit vague. There’s a bit between sequences three and four that isn’t really part of either, and I don’t even care.

Is that normal? What’s going on there?

Here’s what I think.

Screenplay structure is a map. It tells you which things to look out for in order to get where you want to go. When you’re making a journey for the first time – writing that treatment or that first or second draft – a map is incredibly important if you want to get where you’re going with reasonable speed and efficiency.

But a map is just a way of looking at the terrain. It’s not part of the, and the terrain exists even without the map. The grid reference and the compass bearing aren’t part of the hill –  they’re a way of understanding the hill.

And once you know the way without the map, that way of understanding the terrain is unnecessary.

So it’s perfectly natural for the labels we use to identify parts of our screenplay to drop away as we become more familiar with the story, because now we’re not looking at the map. We’re understanding the story as a whole, navigating by eye and ear through it, appreciating it in a new way.

So maybe we shouldn’t get too overexcited about those structural labels. If they’re useful to you as you explore the new and alien landscape of your story, use them. If not, don’t. They’re only a temporary reference anyway. Soon, you’ll know the story landscape for real.