For our first actual foray into Screenplay Techniques Adapted for the Novel, we’re going to look at screenplay structure. And we’re going to look at it a lot. Like for the next two installments after this as well. Because it’s really important.
And yes, I can actually hear your eyes roll through the ether of the internet when I invoke the specter of structure. Why? Because it’s boring. Like paint-drying boring. There’s no way around this. And although the smirking nerd in me disagrees with what I’ve just wrote, I’m not going to argue with you. Structure is effectively basic math, the multiplication tables you are forced to memorize as a child. And while no one likes being forced to learn something boring, there’s a reason our teachers drill this into us. Because it’s a foundation of mathematics; a basic building block other concepts are built upon. Which means you can’t do other math like algebra or geometry (and let’s not even mention the dreaded calculus) without a stable foundation of multiplication.
Yes, structure is this important in my mind.
But it wasn’t always this case. I, like dozens of young screenwriters I’ve met over the years, thought structure was something for lesser writers; that my inherent genius meant I didn’t have to sully my hands with it. Structure was “the rules” that “the man” was trying to impose on me, and I, like a petulant child, refused to abide by (I added the “quotation marks” because I’m sure at that age I was incapable of saying either of those phrases without adding “air quotes” with my fingers).
I believe I wrote about six screenplays before reality eventually forced me to learn structure, and I regret those years I spent wandering in the wilderness. Long story short, I had won a few awards with those screenplays and somehow attached a big-name director and bluffed my way into a producer’s office, a man who instantly recognized me for the fraud I was. But instead of throwing me out, he was kind enough to try to find something nice to say about my abomination of a screenplay. So he offered “well, you adhere to the 3-act structure really well.” And, since I was a young, ignorant idiot, I decided to flaunt my ignorance further by asking “what’s a 3-act structure?” Again this producer went against the stereotype we writers portray producers as by kindly explaining the basics of structure, which turned out to be an eye-opening moment for me.
Mainly because I discovered, much to my chagrin, that I was unconsciously writing 3-act screenplays all the while without being aware of it. I mention this anecdote because I think it illustrates that structure is so important that we do it without even being aware of it. That’s because structure isn’t an arcane set of rules created by some unnamed authority up above, rather an observation of how we, as humans, instinctively tell stories. I like to think of structure as Newton’s theory of gravity: He formulated his rules not based on what he wanted the world to be like, or even logic (I mean, isn’t it freaking obvious that a 10 pound rock would fall 10xs as fast as a 1 pound rock?), rather from what he observed through experimentation.
Structure is like this. Almost as immutable as gravity.
It’s also the skeleton that you build the muscles of your story around. Without a strong skeleton creating a feasible foundation (there’s that word again), the story cannot stand on its own. And yes, you can argue that many successful screenwriters ignore conventional structure, but I would argue that they’re not doing this in a vacuum. And to illustrate this, I’m going to tell my favorite joke in the whole wide world:
The bartender says, “We don’t allow faster than light particles in here.”
A neutrino walks into a bar. *
Okay, I admit, that’s pretty esoteric and requires a few key bits of information, the first being that neutrinos are faster than light particles that can travel backwards through time. Which is why the punchline comes first. That’s the joke.
And the only reason that joke works (at least for me, my wife just informed me yet again that joke sucks) is because it inverts the common structure of the joke: Setup followed by a punchline. This joke only works (again, debatable) because of its awareness of the structure of jokes. The creator could only break the rules because s/he was aware of the rules.
But enough setup, let’s get to the punchline of structure. And to do that we’ll look at its history.
I’m sure everyone’s aware of Freytag’s dramatic arc from high school, and if you aren’t, you should have gone to a better high school. This type of structure isn’t our focus here, but it does illustrate nicely how there’s a rise and fall to stories. Other astute high school students can also tell me that Shakespeare wrote within a 5-act structure, and kudos to them though we’re not really talking about that. No, we’re discussing the 3-act structure today.
Though it predates the concept of 3-act structure, the true origin story lies with the mythologist Joseph Campbell and his 1949 book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which explored what he called the monomyth. Much like Newton observing his falling objects, Campbell observed myths from all over the world and discovered they shared a similar pattern. This pattern could be structured into phases, including The Call to Adventure, Refusal of the Call, Supernatural Aid, Crossing the Threshold, Road of Trials, Apotheosis, The Ultimate Boon, Refusal of the Return, Crossing the Threshold, Mastering the Two Worlds, and Freedom to Live. I won’t dig into all of these (and while I love Campbell, I wouldn’t recommend reading his book unless you really want to dive into myths), but I know that George Lucas specifically kept this book in mind when he wrote the original Star Wars trilogy (and, as far as I’m concerned, the only three movies in the Star Wars universe). **
But Campbell wasn’t examining film theory, and the 3-act structure as a concept wasn’t born until 1979 when Syd Field published Screenplay: The Foundation of Screenwriting. It cannot be stressed enough how important this book was to the field of screenwriting. It was the tectonic shift sort of moment, one that I tried to get across in my anecdote about the producer schooling me on 3-act structure in that it was the first time screenwriters had the vocabulary to talk about why they were doing the things they were. This is a seminal work and probably should be read by anyone serious about structure.
That said, the most useful book I’ve read on structure was Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat. I know this book is frequently derided by screenwriters as being simplistic, and, to a certain degree, it is. But it was also the most effective book on learning about film structure because it was the least theoretical and most focused on real-world rules I could apply. Snyder is actually pretty draconian as to where he believes his beats should take place, like right down to the specific page number. And while I disagree with him and believe the beats have a little leeway as to where they can lay (lie?), I do definitely agree with him in that they NEED to take place in the order he lays (lies?... no, that can’t be right) out. Mainly because they completely coincide with the beats laid (la--… no, I’m not going to abuse that joke again) out from Campbell many decades before.
I seriously suggest picking up this book for a more in-depth understanding of these phases and what they entail, but for now I’m just going to give the briefest of overview.
Setup: As the name entails, this is the establishment of your protagonist, his/her everyday life, as well as the world in which the story takes place. This includes Snyder’s eponymous “save the cat” moment where the protagonist establishes empathy with the audience by doing something to endear him/her with said audience.
Catalyst/ Inciting Incident: This is the event that disrupts the everyday life of the protagonist, the moment s/he realizes something is wrong with the world that has to be set right. But the protagonist doesn’t immediately rise to the challenge, instead rejecting the call to adventure (I’m using Campbell’s terms here now) until s/he can’t anymore. This leads to the…
Break to Act II: …when the hero takes DECISIVE ACTION to try and overcome the catalyst/ problem upsetting the status quo. This fires the story off in an obvious new direction and really kicks the story into gear. In terms of Star Wars (the REAL Star Wars), Luke has decided to rescue Princess Leia and had boarded the Millennium Falcon to leave his status quo home.
Fun and Games: This is where everything is still going well for the hero in that his/ her adventure is still pleasant and not too harrowing.
Midpoint***: This is the second shift in that the adventure is no longer fun for the protagonist, rather that something has happened to add a time-specific deadline to the protagonist’s initial goal. In screenplay theory, this is often referred to as “the ticking clock.”
Bad Guys Close In/ Dark Night of the Soul: If the Fun and Games section is things going well for the protagonist, this section is the inverse in that nothing seems to go right. In Star Wars this includes the death of Obi-Wan Kenobi (I hope I don’t have to include “spoiler” there) as they try and escape the Death Star.
Break to Act III/ Finale: Much like the Break to Act II was kicked off by the protagonist taking DECISIVE ACTION, this is where the protagonist takes the lessons learned over the course of the second act to decide to overcome the original problem established way back in the catalyst/ inciting incident section via the finale. This is basically Luke learning to trust the Force (as he learned from Obi-Wan over the course of act II) to defeat Darth Vader by destroying the Death Star.
Yeah, you have the falling action/ denouement after that, but really the important beats in the 3-act structure are: Setup, Catalyst, Break to Act II, Midpoint, Bad Guys Close In, and Break to Act III/ Finale.
And yeah, I know that was a crash course in terms of structure, and I firmly believe you should go read a book or two about it. Like right now. Because this stuff is how successful stories are told efficiently. Yes, you can muddle your way through a story that hits many of these beats without being aware of them. I know this because I did it. But there’s also no reason to ever be ignorant, and if someone finds a pattern that can improve your life or writing, you’re really a fool not to at least take those patterns into consideration.
And while this structural paradigm is definitely focused on screenplays rather than novels, I strongly maintain that the core story structure is actually universal, as demonstrated by Campbell’s exhaustive examination of myths dating back before recorded time. So, again, if someone (namely Campbell) has demonstrated that stories in their purest form adhere to this structure, one can assume that the structure would hold true despite the medium that the story takes place in.
So that’s it for now. Return in two weeks to learn how these basics of structure can be applied on a macro scale, be it a TV series or a novel. Or even a series of novels.
Only those who know the best part of the unicorn to eat will find Dyga's Vault,
And only those that can answer the ursine riddle may enter.
* I learned this joke from one Matt Duffy, and am deeply indebted to him to this day.
** And don’t even get me started on the fact that there are only THREE Indiana Jones movies.
*** It could be argued, and I would definitely be among the ones to argue it, that this moment actually makes the traditional 3-act story a 4-act story, but will refrain from doing so for now for simplicity’s sake.
MD Presley is a screenwriter, blogger and occasional novelist… which basically means he’s a layabout. But if you’ve ever got a hankering for some grimdark gunpowder fantasy with a female anti-hero, I have a suggestion...
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