William Goldman has written some of the best movies in the past few decades that you can learn much about screenwriting structure by reading some of his screenplays for “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “Marathon Man,” “The Princess Bride,” and “Misery.” “Misery” is particularly interesting because the story is basically about one crazy woman keeping the hero trapped in her home before she plans on killing him.
The looming threat of a ticking time bomb deadline hangs over the hero’s head, the hero has two broken legs and is physically weaker than the villain, and the hero has to battle the villain in her own house where he’s trapped. To create a sense of false hope, there’s also a police officer who’s slowly piecing together the clues that will lead him to the hero. Not only is there suspense between the hero trying to outwit the villain, but there’s also suspense as the police officer keeps getting closer and closer to finding the hero.
“Misery” lets you see how to boil down the conflict between the hero and the villain where nothing else in the story matters except this conflict. Where bad movies go wrong is that they often introduce subplots or characters who have nothing to do with the hero vs. villain conflict. In every screenplay, the main focus should always be on this hero vs. villain battle.
“The Princess Bride” is another great screenplay to study for how it keeps the audience engaged. In this story, the hero actually dies. More importantly, all of the secondary characters are in pursuit of a goal. There’s a Spanish swordsman who’s hunting for the man who killed his father. There’s a giant who’s out to prove he’s not stupid. Then there’s the hero who wants to rescue the woman he loves. By studying “The Princess Bride,” you can see how multiple characters can pursue their own goals and still help the hero achieve his victory over the villain.
By reading screenplays and seeing the movies, you can see what scenes were cut and why. In “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” there’s a scene where the heroes watch a fictional movie depicting their own deaths. Despite being a great scene that foreshadows their eventual deaths, this scene got cut because it simply slowed the action down. Watch the movie and you’ll see that there’s no need for this scene, yet when reading the screenplay, this scene seems integral to the story. That just shows that what looks good in a script won’t always work when actually filming a movie.
“Four Screenplays” gives you four excellent screenplays to study from a master story teller who has created some of the most popular (and profitable) movies of the past few decades. Read screenplays, watch movies, and more importantly, keep writing. Do those three tasks and you can’t help but become a better screenwriter over time.