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7 On Structure #1: Preference

Structure. We all know it, we all do it… Don’t we?

Well actually, structure is probably the most talked-about element of screenwriting since it’s probably the element that is most maligned, misunderstood and misused. Certainly it’s the element that I write most about in my coverage for private clients in particular, but also in reports for writing initiatives, funding cos and indies in terms of whether a script is “ready” or not for development (the usual assertion being that, if a structure is bad – or as my favourite non-technical term goes, “lumpy” – it isn’t).

So, here are the first of my seven posts on structure: what it is, why it’s useful, how you can approach it, what constitutes good/bad/indifferent… The list is endless as to how we can tackles this. And it needs tackling. I get a whole heap of questions on this from my Bang2writers and there are so many interpretations, assertions, implications and whatnot, that I feel it would be a really useful exercise to get some thoughts together, in one place, about it – otherwise we could all be going round in circles forever more. But first I’m going to talk about preference and structure.

It’s not secret that I am a Three Act Girl. It makes the most sense to me. You got your Set Up, Conflict and Resolution – a beginning, middle and end if you will. You then have your two turning points, one at the end of Act One, the other at the beginning of the Resolution, kicking off the run-up to that all-important ending. Then you have the midpoint – which is, unsuprisingly in the middle and (usually) heralds that moment your protagonist makes a momentous decision or act and stuff starts to change – either for good or ill, towards an “explosion” metaphorical or literal. Pretty simple stuff.

To me. But not to everyone. I read for Lizzy some time ago who says, “I just don’t get The Three Act Structure. It’s so big, it’s daunting.”

Anya says, “We don’t look at life holistically, we look at it sequentially, so why can’t you utilise that whilst constructing your narrative? There has to be some use in that?”

Or we have Eat My Shorts who says, “Subplots help balance out your main plot – you’re always going on about the power struggle thing vs. the monsters in PITCH BLACK – so where the hell does that go on your Three Act Structure??”

And as we know there are plenty of alternatives to The Three Acts. Whilst I see them only as a re-imagination of those initial Three Acts, others see them quite differently – as a complete and whole set of NEW rules in their own right. And if it works, why not? Surely all we want here is a coherent story – that is all that counts? Or is it?

We’ve heard so much about “structure is good/bad, useful/useless…” What about those questions that surely go through all our heads when sitting down and composing our stories, those like those posed above but also–

Which version do you use? Why?

Do these “alternatives” muddy the waters even more?

Do they offer false hopes to scribes when the industry only ever talks about those Three Acts?

Are five acts something only Shakespeare ever did successfully?

What about commercial breaks in TV scripts — do they affect your structure? Should they, especially in spec pilots?

Why is it some writers put thought into structure only to be told their structure is bad, meandering or lacks pace?

Why have say, 22 Steps when you can have much fewer? On the flipside, why have less when you can have more?

And is bad structure the main reason why scribes are unable to tell that “coherent” story and why there are so many scripts doing “the rounds” that will only ever be unsuccessful no matter how many times they are read?

Over to you…

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15 thoughts on “7 On Structure #1: Preference”

  1. I’ll be really interested to see people’s comments on this – but I have to confess I’m not even going to try to reply (at least, not yet) as the topic’s potentially vast: it links with the idea of ‘starting late and leaving early’, pacing, and so many other issues that I fear any reply I might make would end up being a rambling mess which would make no sense whatsoever.
    Which, of course, suggests that I understand structure completely, and have mastered it.

  2. I’m not sure anyone ever “masters” structure so much as “masters structure in a PARTICULAR draft” John. Regardless of how much one thinks about structure, no one EVER writes the perfectly structured draft first time. +here will always be opportunities missed, scenes that are too long etc etc in early drafts and that’s what you need to look out for (and be receptive to) when you’re rewriting in my view.

  3. I can safely say I don’t “get” structure at all… Everyone goes on about it, I read about it, try to put it in my screenplays – only to be told it’s not there. Which must mean one of two things: structure is subjective or I suck. My ego tells me it’s the former and not the latter.

  4. Yeah Lucy, how can you do that to us, *SOB*???

    So, subplots vs. main plots… They run side by side as part of the DRAMATIC CONTEXT in order to JOIN UP TO THE RESOLUTION, right? I get the lingo. I just don’t get how I personally do it.

    Sounds dodgy. Let me rephrase:

    What is the best way for the joining of a sub plot and main plot?

    Apart from their eloping and getting married? Which is what’s happening in my drafts at the moment. Which is possibly why no one understands them. Ta.

  5. Doesn’t matter how you do it, just as long as you do it… But yes all these alternate versions only confuse writers – coherency is key. Have a start, middle end. Set something up, draw it to a conclusion. That’s what audiences want. Too many scripts where you don’t know what the hell is going on…Then writers look at you as if you are mad. Hmmmm

  6. Well, I dunno about 3 acts (that’s a lie, I really really really *get* 3 act structure) but I think it is only important after the act. Ahem.

    I mean this: The universe works in beginnings, middles and ends. (It’s in the Veda.)

    It’s the way things work, so saying that stories should have 3 acts isn’t really saying a lot. ‘Cos (not to put too finer point on it) it’s what happens *in* the structure that’s important.

    There is only one rule: Don’t bore your audience.

    Applying structural rules only helps you achieve it. But I think there is an over-reliance for this reason. It’s easy to think that structure gives you drama, and it doesn’t, it only gives you … structure.

    The drama of the piece comes from the content.

    At this point I get boring and say “read Jeff Kitchen’s ‘Writing the Great Movie'” he doesn’t talk about 3 act structure particularly — or any other overall structure — but he does talk about how to build something that’s got dramatic content. Which gives you a 3 act structure naturally (though it could just as easily be 4- 5- 7- act).

    [Steps off podium, trips and falls flat on face to delight of bored audience.]


  7. Anon – I’m *sure* it’s the former too!

    Elinor – I do that, sometimes it;s really obvious though and that takes the fun out of it.

    James – Very good. Now get in the corner! Naughty.

    ESM – Your main plot and subplot GET MARRIED?? That is quite weird. Do you think that maybe people don’t understand your drafts ‘cos people don’t understand YOU? ; )

    Structure Stu – Definitely agree, too many structure-less drafts out there… Or is it that structure can rely so heavily on how it’s interpreted that it might seem like it’s structure-less to one reader and not to another? How do we combat that?

    Steve – We’re hearing lots on the blog about “not boring” audiences and that being the “only” rule (think the NCI ruck was the last place that turned up), but I’m not so sure. Start messing with people’s expectations and it can be brilliant… But equally it can be an unmitigated disaster, regardless of what is “in” the content of that structure. I see lots of scripts that strive to be non-linear for example… But to change something, you have to know what that “something” is you’re changing and too often writers aren’t sure about that initial starting point. I think I would say, “Don’t bore the audience… Once you know what you’re trying to achieve” maybe?

  8. You’re right, “Don’t bore the audience” is only half of it. The other half is “Don’t do anything so unexpected as to drive them away”.

    But that’s far less concise 🙂

    I would suggest that the best stories get as close to the upper limit as possible without driving away the majority of the audience.

    The problem is that people are different and have different tolerances. Some people can take complete weirdness and love it, others can only take complete predictability.

    Most people range somewhere around the middle, but I think we’re supposed to challenge them — at least a bit.

    Dennis Potter was a genius at this. (Well he was a genius.)

    I think the great writers take you down an easily understandable road and then turn left suddenly.

  9. “Easily understandable road, then turn left suddenly”

    Love it Steve! This is DEFINITELY what writers should do. Tho what if they turn right?! Is that better, worse? There’s a question for you…

  10. Whether he used five acts or not, Shakespeare’s plays still had a beginning, middle and end. The five act structure might seem an outrageous idea but if you look at it as the first act sets up the conflict, the final act resolves the conflict and the three acts in the middle are different stages of the conflict, there’s no problem.

    I remember discussing the act structure in Full Metal Jacket once before – it appears on the surface to have two acts: training and vietnam. But those two acts both have a beginning, middle and end so it could be argued that the film has 6 acts.

    Even the order isn’t necessarily important. Both Memento and Following play with the timeline to good effect. It doesn’t matter though because both stories are well structured and make sense when seen as a whole.

    Good structure is like a jigsaw puzzle: it can be assembled in any order but at the end, all the pieces fit and the picture is complete. The bad films that try to be non-linear or different and don’t work are like a jigsaw puzzle where all the pieces fit together but come with different pictures on.

    I think I’ve mutilated that analogy. Probably because I’m talking out of my arse.

  11. Hi
    I’m new.
    My thoughts on subplot: it has to be interwoven with the main plot, which means you can actually have a scene that advances the subplot and not the main plot, as long as you get back to the main plot soon and connect them smoothly. If you’re a “central theme” type, then you could usefully make the subplot illustrate another example of your main theme. There’s no magic principle that tells you how long is too long to spend on subplot(s), though, that’s just a matter between author and audience.

  12. Hello Dragon and David,

    I like your jigsaw analogy Dragon. I do a similar mutilated version with the notion of plot and what goes into it in one of the posts, think there’s a label for it actually in the list of links on the right hand side of this very blog.

    I think there is a “good” way of ensuring subplot doesn’t take over from main plot David – I think subplots should feed into the main plot and kick off the resolution, so as to stay away from the dreaded KING LEAR draft…

  13. But I LOVE King Lear!
    I guess any film attempting to mimic that structure had better be pretty long in order to develop both stories satisfactorily. KL also has what David Bordwell calls “baggy” plotting, where characters like the Fool just disappear, and Cornwall and Gloucester die offstage in rather surprising throwaway fashion. Old Shakes must have had enormous confidence in his ability to get away with reckless storytelling like that!

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