Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The Cameron Structure

I'm going to reveal the one secret bit of useful screenwriting knowledge that I think I posssess: the (James) Cameron Structure.

You've probably heard of various 8-sequence, or 12 sequence, or whatever structures, I assume this is like those books, but really short.

My first screenplay was an action-horror piece and I wanted to write something that had pace and energy, so I decided to take a more careful look at Terminator 2, which I remembered felt like non-stop action.

Surprisingly, T2 wasn't non-stop action at all. There's a humorous teaser, then a build as all the characters come together at the mall, then a big fight and chase scene.

Then more talking and setup bringing us to the set piece where they rescue Sarah Conner from the mental institution.

Finally more prep and character development leading into the final, very long set-piece where they blow up Cyberdyne and face down the T1000 at the factory.

That's just three set pieces, but it feels like you're constantly moving and still gives you plenty of room to fit in character development. The basic structure looks like the following:

The Cameron Structure
  • First Act: Intro characters and their issues, build towards -
  • First Action Sequence: Try to get to this fairly early, before page 30 usually. Doesn't need to be long (T2's is only five minutes).
  • Second Act, Part One: You'll probably need to do some explaining of what's happening in the film here, but this is also a good time to have characters relax a little and just show us who they are -- this means they can do things unrelated to the plot or their arc.
  • Middle Action Sequence: In T2 (and Mission:Impossible) it was a bit longer, but you might make it short if you've chosen a long first action sequence.
  • Second Act, Part Two: Here you're mainly setting everything up for the third act, because...
  • Third Act/Final Action: The third act is almost entirely an action set piece. Because of this, you'll need to somehow slip any unfinished character arcs into the action (watch Neo learn to believe when he thinks he can stop the helicopter from going over the edge of the building), or into a short interlude (the part where Claire gets killed in the baggage car in Mission: Impossible).

This sort of structure has also worked well for me in horror films, which I think supports my theory that horror films are just action films with weaker heroes and stronger villains.

Mission: Impossible clearly has the Cameron Structure -- the only difference being that the first action sequence occurs a bit earlier (but is also tamer, so the writer could fit some nice banter in). I think Aliens had the Cameron Structure too, but since I've only got the extended version on DVD, I'm not sure.

The key feature of this structure for me is that the story centers around three largish set pieces, roughly distributed as above, and this somehow makes it feel like you've got non-stop action, even though there's quite a bit of time just devoted to characters.

I'll typically work off the structure during the outlining process, since it gives me a place to start, then be willing to change stuff if cool ideas present themselves.

Undoubtedly, there are an infinite number of other structures that work as well -- but one interesting feature of infinity is that even though there an infinite number of ways to do things right and an infinite number of ways to do things wrong, discovering a way to do things right can still be much more valuable because the ratio of right ways to wrong ways is so horribly low.

Postscript: I call it the Cameron Structure because I learned it by watching James Cameron movies. There's a pretty decent chance it's been around for a lot longer so if anyone can identify earlier films with this structure I'd be interested to hear them.

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