The Dirty Little Secret of Screenwriting Books
The best advice I ever got about writing was from my ninth grade English teacher Richard de Rosa who said, "The only way to learn how to write is to write." While this advice hasn't turned me into a great writer (yet), it has definitely made me a better writer.
The proliferation of screenwriting books has been a double edged sword. It gives us a common vocabulary to discuss story, plot, character arcs and themes. Unfortunately, it also sets an arbitrary standard for expectations that oftentimes quashes creativity and innovation in favor of mitigating risk: the risk of losing all that money someone (usually not the writer) is spending to bring the screenplay to life.
Successful and respected screenwriters are able to employ their unique creativity within the restrictions that modern screenwriting requires. Very few reasonable people would label this skill as a betrayal of some vague notion of "artistic integrity."
We aspire to become the things we admire. However, as you live your life, the desire to use your experiences, point of view and all the things that make you unique, will force your writing to expand beyond imitation and mimesis.
In the meantime, I offer you my synthesis of all the analyses performed in those screenwriting books. If you're trying to emulate popular films with your writing, chances are you're emulating some variation of this structure. Like all tools, its success depends on the person using it.
THE INCITING INCIDENT
Something happens or has happened that throws the world out of balance. If someone can't figure out how to restore the status quo (the "central question"), the world as we know it will come to an end (the "stakes").
THE CALL TO ADVENTURE
The hero is given an opportunity to solve the problem but he won't participate. His refusal usually results from some anti-social behavior he engages in (the "flaw") to avoid re-experiencing some deep-seeded, emotional wound. Re-experiencing his deep-seeded, emotional wound is typically the hero's greatest fear.
THE ANTAGONIST MAKES HIS PRESENCE KNOWN
The hero is compelled into action by the antagonist.
LEARNING NEW SKILLS
Usually with the advice of a mentor, the hero learns, but doesn't fully appreciate, a new set of skills and values.
ASSEMBLING THE TEAM
New friends join the quest to save the world. Their friendship is usually bonded by some sort of initiation rite or shared ordeal.
THE FIRST VICTORY
The hero scores a small but decisive victory and erroneously believes that the quest is easy and will be over soon.
THE ANTAGONIST STRIKES BACK
Having suffered this setback, the antagonist proves to be much more formidable than previously believed. Will now actively hunt down and destroy the hero.
FEAR LEADS TO DEFEAT
The hero battles the antagonist or his agents. All his skills and abilities prove inadequate and his confidence is broken because the antagonist is able to embody and exploit the hero's greatest fear.
MAY AS WELL BE DEAD
The hero comes as close to death as he can without dying. He has lost everything and suffers.
CHANGE OR DIE
The hero can't return home nor is he able to live with his failure. With great pain he fundamentally transforms himself by embracing the lessons of his mentor, atoning for his past sins and healing his emotional wound.
THE FINAL BATTLE
The hero takes the battle to the antagonist. Once he chooses to apply the lessons of his mentor and conquer his own fear of emotional pain (thereby, fixing his "flaw"), is he then finally able to face his antagonist without fear and vanquish him by answering the "central question."
The pithy life lesson the hero had to learn to heal his emotional wound is typically the story's theme.
BALANCE IS RESTORED
A new status quo for the world is achieved. Society is safe, life goes on, mostly the same but presumably a little better for the experience. The hero reaps the reward of his victory.
If you find this tool unsatisfactory or inadequate, may I suggest you break down 3 to 10 films of your own choosing and analyze them for their patterns. After all, that's what screenwriters did before 1979, the year Syd Field first published Screenplay.