Structure is perhaps the most teachable aspect of screenwriting. I suspect this is the primary reason it gets so much attention in screenwriting education. So many of the other aspects of the craft (Characterization, dialogue, and the all-important “voice”, among other things) can often rely more on god given talent and personal experience. Not so, structure! Story structure can be explained in a book!
But mastering structure is a whole other matter. It takes a long time to really get it and that’s still no guarantee you will not finish a draft before realizing you made a HUGE structural mistake that will require a massive rewrite.
One thing I have noticed over the years is that it helps to understand the purpose of structure. Those screenwriting books and classes spend a whole lot of time on the “how to” of structure without addressing the all-important WHY of structure.
Because of this, we can get it in our head that there are “rules” to it all and that good structure is somehow a goal in itself. This is not true. We do not strive for good structure for its own sake.
Good structure is a means by which we achieve something else.
In this earlier entry, Defining Structure, I once defined structure as:
Choosing what the audience knows and when they know it in order to maximize dramatic effect.
But what did I mean by “dramatic effect?” In this context, dramatic effects means two things:
1. Dramatic momentum.
2. Emotional resonance.
That is, if you achieve these two things, you maximize dramatic momentum and emotional resonance, then by definition, your story is well structured.
Forget about what your supposed to do. You’re not supposed to do ANYTHING other than the two things above. What we understand to be “story principles” are things that help you achieve these two things more easily. If you defy all the known story principles and you STILL achieve these things, then more power to you! You may be a genius. But your story is still well structured.
The thing is, it’s just very difficult to do it.
These story principles that people call screenplay structure did not emerge because somebody wanted, “rules.” No one decided that flight requires lift. It was observed. It’s a fact, whether one likes it or not.
Story structure was not decided upon.
It was simply observed over thousands of years that certain things help a story achieve the two goals mentioned above. Do you have to do it that way? No. Not at all. It’s just a helluva lot easier.
And note, there are TWO THINGS. Your story needs a balance. Dramatic momentum and emotional resonance work together. The audience needs both and if you neglect one, your story suffers and you shrink your audience. People check out.
Dramatic momentum is, of course, what keeps a story moving forward. It is what keeps the audience engaged and anticipating what happens next. As you write you are establishing a series of dramatic questions that the audience anticipates answers and resolutions to.
Emotional resonance means that the moments on screen evoke an emotional response from the audience. We care about the stakes. We anticipate the answers to dramatic questions because we care about the outcome. We care about the characters, or to be more precise, we care about what happens to them. We empathize with them. We hate them. We want to see them triumph or defeated. But we have an emotional reaction to them. It’s impossible to create tension and anticipation if we don’t.
So when you’re structuring out your story, you don’t make choices based on what you’re “supposed to do,” but rather what PUSHES the story forward and creates moments that the audience has an emotional reaction to.
And when you put these things in a certain order you can maximize both of them.
Which is why since I wrote the previous entry, I have changed my definition of structure to now read:
Choosing what the audience knows and when they know it in order to maximize dramatic momentum and emotional resonance.
And that’s it. That’s all structure is and these two things should be the only reason we worry about it.
Just keep in mind, we have learned a whole lot about how to achieve these goals through thousands of years of storytelling. Resisting that collective wisdom seems the unnecessarily more difficult road to learning how to do it yourself.
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I am teaching a series of online workshops beginning April 10th, 2021. You can the first one here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/story-and-plot-online-story-structure-for-screenwriting-workshop-tickets-141200996983
For more information about other classes and workshops in Texas, Los Angeles and online, visit storyandplot.com.