Lights, Camera, Flash!
Paul Alan Fahey
Published in April 2008, Byline, issue no. 320, pp. 31-32
Reprinted here by permission of the author.
Have you ever wondered what makes a terrific film? Is it a great script? Is it in the casting? The set design and costumes? The soundtrack? Of course, it’s all these elements combined in unique and amazing ways. Yet Hollywood insiders agree that fancy trappings rarely save a film that lacks a strong dramatic premise, a series of believable confrontations and a satisfying climax and resolution. Think for a moment. I bet you can name a dozen films that recently went straight to your local video store after lackluster reviews and poor box office attendance. Was the culprit a poorly structured screenplay? Chances are good it was.
Syd Field, the famous screen-writing teacher, would argue that structure is everything when it comes to creating outstanding films. Take Woody Allen’s Annie Hall or Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs. These classics have strong elements going for them, but it’s their three-act structure that seals the deal.
Mr. Field describes the importance of screenplay structure in his text, Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting. His paradigm consists of three acts and two major turning points called plot points that hold the structure in place. Act I, or the set-up, presents the major characters, the dramatic premise of the story and the surrounding circumstances. Plot Point I happens at the end of Act I, spins the action in another direction and propels the characters into Act II.
In Act II, the characters face obstacle after obstacle as they struggle to achieve their goals. Plot Point II happens near the end of Act II and leads to Act III’s dramatic climax and resolution. While reading Field, I wondered if his paradigm might apply to the writing of short stories and specifically to flash fiction where a tight focus and brevity are critical elements of the genre.
Several definitions abound, but many consider flash to be complete stories of around one thousand words. Even though it’s not necessarily mandatory that stories in this genre have discernable beginnings, middles and ends, I wanted to see if the three-act paradigm would keep me on target and hopefully produce leaner writing in my earlier drafts.
Field emphasizes you need to know four things before you begin to write your story: the beginning, ending and the two plot points. I had a general idea how my tale would begin. The setting of the story would be London near the end of the Nineteenth Century. A maid, working for a wealthy woman, has stolen her employer’s diamond brooch and has passed it on to her fiancé. They plan to meet later in the day and begin a life together with the proceeds from the sale of the brooch.
At the end of the story, the maid, having learned her fiancé has run off with the brooch and left her behind, decides to return to her employer and tell her the truth about the theft. The employer, touched by the maid’s honesty, welcomes her back but cannot completely forgive her betrayal. The employer now has the upper hand in controlling this “simple child.”
The Writing Process
Changes in the story occurred while writing the initial and subsequent drafts, yet I felt the paradigm held the story in place and kept me better focused as I passed through the plot points and the three-act structure.
I learned more about the characters as I thought about the plot points and the overall structure of the story. For example, I discovered the maid had a strong connection to her mother, one that led to the mother becoming an important presence that propelled the story forward. I also discovered the employer had a softer side, and this led to a shift in the story’s theme from one of power over others to one of loneliness and emotional need.
Act II began to take shape in the first draft and served as a bridge between the beginning and end of the story. The maid’s confession in Act III also led to a brief resolution scene that allowed greater insight into her employer’s character.
The Final Edit
The final version of “The Brooch” runs approximately 866 words, a length well within the previously stated limits for flash fiction. I’ll leave it to you, the reader, to decide if I’ve succeeded. See if you can visualize the screenplay paradigm as you read the story. Take note before the curtains close at the end of an act, and I bet you’ll discover the plot points that push the story forward in different, and hopefully, surprising directions.
Mavis was lost in thought as she navigated the main stairway at Devonshire House. She really wasn’t a bad person, yet she thought of herself that way, especially after taking the diamond brooch. “There’s good and bad in most folks, Mavis,” her mother once said. “Everyone has something dirty deep inside they can’t wash away.”
Mavis knew this was true of her as well since she’d left the house earlier, walked the three blocks to the Compass and Crown and handed over Mrs. Grainger’s brooch to Alfred.
Mavis was downstairs now in the hall. She’d just opened the utility closet, her hand about to grasp the duster when Mrs. Grainger called out from the sitting room.
“I can be depressingly sloppy, Mavis. Guess you have your work cut out for you. Did you lay out my green dress for tonight?”
“Good. I think I’ll see how it looks this morning with my diamond brooch.” Mavis suddenly felt queasy, lightheaded.
“I'll do the errands first, Mrs. Grainger.”
“Oh, you’re going out again so soon?”
But Mavis didn't answer. She was already on her way.
Ten minutes later, Mavis rang the bell at 231 Brick Lane, and Alfred’s landlady, Mrs. Harcourt, opened the door. “He’s not here,” she said.
“I know. I’ll just wait for him in his room.”
The bed looked hastily made. Mavis flung open the closet: nothing but empty clothes hangers.
“Didn’t I tell you?” Mrs. Harcourt said. “Best not to get mixed up with his kind.”
Perhaps an hour or so later—Mavis couldn’t be sure—she found herself staring at her reflection in the window at the Compass and Crown with no idea how she’d gotten there. The sound of carriages on the cobbled street, the chatter of passersby entered her consciousness. “Do the right thing, Mavis,” she heard her mother say. “Go back and tell her the truth.”
“Mavis you were gone so long. I was worried,” Mrs. Grainger said.
“I . . .” Mavis began, and it all poured out. How she’d taken the brooch, given it to Alfred, their plans to run off together to a new, uncomplicated life and the fact that Alfred had deserted her.
Mrs. Grainger gave a sigh. “I was young and foolish once, Mavis. The good news is you’ve come back to Devonshire where you belong and where you’ll stay. Run along now and fetch my tea.”
Okay, maybe this isn’t the whole story but you get the idea. In the Act III resolution, Mrs. Grainger meets her friend, Polly, in a café. Polly asks why she took the maid back when she obviously couldn’t trust her. Mrs. Grainger finally admits the brooch was a fake and says what matters most in life are her friends and the need for companionship.
And the curtain falls.
About the Writer: Paul Alan Fahey is a California Central Coast
writer. His work has appeared recently in Byline, New Times,
audience, Crimson Highway, Boston
Literary Magazine and in the Cup of Comfort Anthology for
Single Mothers. He is a five time recipient of the annual "Lillian
Dean Award" at the Central Coast Writer's Conference. Paul has just
completed two screenplays and three short stories using Syd Field's
three-act paradigm as a guide for structure. He lives in Nipomo,
California with his partner, Bob, and three loveable yet very unruly
About the Writer:
Paul Alan Fahey is a California Central Coast writer. His work has appeared recently in Byline, New Times, audience, Crimson Highway, Boston Literary Magazine and in the Cup of Comfort Anthology for Single Mothers. He is a five time recipient of the annual "Lillian Dean Award" at the Central Coast Writer's Conference. Paul has just completed two screenplays and three short stories using Syd Field's three-act paradigm as a guide for structure. He lives in Nipomo, California with his partner, Bob, and three loveable yet very unruly shelties.