Story Structure and How Not To Write A Screenplay

John Yorke, Controller of BBC Drama Production, talks of ‘The Curse of the Screenwriting Gurus’ and how decades of ‘how to’ books have destroyed the serious study of structure. On the whole I’m prone to agree; like many I spend at least as much time reading about writing as I do actually writing. However, I’ve recently finished How Not To Write A Screenplay by Denny Martin Flinn, and I was very impressed with its no-nonsense approach. It was easily the best book on screenwriting I’ve read. And one of the topics covered was structure; essentially saying that there were different models.

Flinn essentially stated that there were a multitude of different models for the structure of stories. Which storytelling structural model you are comfortable with or is the best fit, is entirely up to the writer. And by no means are these structural models restricted to screenwriting; all storytelling benefits from structure, whether a novel, roleplaying scenario or an after-dinner anecdote. Here then are the models in question:

Syd Field’s Three Act Paradigm (From Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting):

  • Beginning – Setup
  • Middle – Confrontation
  • End – Resolution

(with two key plot points, in which the beginning becomes the middle, and the middle becomes the end)

Robert McKee’s Five Part Narrative (From Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting):

  • Inciting Incident
  • Progressive Complications
  • Crisis
  • Climax
  • Resolution

John Truby’s Seven Major Steps (From The Anatomy of Story):

  • Problem/Need
  • Desire/Opponent
  • Plan
  • Battle
  • Self-revelation
  • New Equilibrium

Linda Seger’s Eight Sections with three acts (From Making a Good Script Great):

  • Setup
  • Development of Act One
  • First Turning Point
  • Act Two
  • Midpoint
  • Second Turning Point
  • Climax
  • Resolution

Joseph Cambell’s Monomyth (from The Hero with A Thousand Faces):

  •  The Call to Adventure
  • Refusal of the Call
  • Supernatural Aid
  • Crossing the First Threshold
  • Belly of the Whale
  • The Road of Trials
  • Meeting of the Goddess
  • Atonement with the Father
  • The Ultimate Boon
  • Refusal of the Return
  • The Magic Flight
  • Rescue from Without
  • Crossing of the Return Threshold
  • Master of Two Worlds

Blake Snyder’s ‘Save the Cat’ Beats (from Save the Cat):

  • Opening Image
  • Theme Stated
  • Set-Up
  • Catalyst
  • Debate
  • Break into Two
  • B Story
  • Fun and Games
  • Midpoint
  • Bad Guys Close In
  • All Is Lost
  • Dark Night of the Soul
  • Break into Three
  • Finale
  • Final Image

Which of these structural models are correct? All of them. None of them. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t even matter when you refer to them, when outlining, writing or re-writing. You can cherry pick steps from the longer breakdowns and integrate them with shorter ones. Or you can subvert them entirely, for narrative purposes. But you will always, always need to at least be aware of structure. Structure is the bones, from which hangs the meat of your story.

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