Story Structure in Film. The Multi-Level Model

Essay 2019 75 Pages

Film Science



For new writers, an understanding of story structure is essential.

Yet, today, this is almost impossible due to the enormous variety of conflicting theories and views. The scene is filled with controversy and confusion. Three act, five act, nine act, no act… which is it? How does it matter? What will it get you? Writers need to get on with the important work of writing great stories.

This essay is intended to get a handle, once and for all, on story structure. So much has already been written on the subject that the new writer investigating her/his craft is confronted with literally hundreds of volumes of conflicting information and theory, ranging from authorities proclaiming structure as “God” to others arguing that structure is a myth. It is interesting how the subject has begun to take on the trappings of religion. The “guru” fervor has reached an all-time high.

In order to deal with all the confusion, we’ll have to go to some effort to lay a foundation, before advancing an approach to story structure that applies to the length and breadth of storytelling. From there, the rest of the text is devoted to testing the idea against some of the most well-discussed, “structure-less” films in cinema history.

I recommend that readers make use of the footnotes, as they are full of interesting background. They use notation as follows: Part I, Footnote 1, is listed as I-1; Part II, Footnote 1, is listed as II-1. They go up from those as I-2, I-3, I-4, and II-2, II-3, II-4, etc.

Should you have any comments or questions, you can contact me (Lee Matthias) at LateralTao@gmail.com.

© 2019 Lee A. Matthias

Structure: A Dissent – I

“Theory: when you have ideas. Ideology: when ideas have you."


“In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice; in practice, there is.”

---Chuck Reid

“I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.”

---Richard Feynman

First, a definition (or, perhaps, “the name of something”):

“Structure: The way in which parts are arranged or put together to form a whole.”

--- The American Heritage Dictionary, 4th Edition.

“Grok”-ing Structure (I-1)

In this section and the next, we will examine the nature of structure. Structure has become such a thorny issue in screenwriting circles, however, that we need to demolish all of the mis-understanding and build a definition of structure that actually works for writers. First, we need a serviceable description of what true story structure is. Then we need to employ it in a model that encompasses all of narrative film. The truth is this has never been adequately done until now. I realize that may seem arrogant. So, let’s test it. Let us see if, after I have put this claim up against every so-called “structure-less” movie I could find, it doesn’t hold up. (See my analyses ahead in Structure: A Dissent - II) For the record, my definition of a “movie” is: all mass-audience, narrative fiction, feature-length, theatrical films exhibited to enlighten and/or entertain for profit.

There has been a great deal of confusion as to just what the term, “structure” refers to when it is applied to screenwriting. Many students of the form regard structure as merely the manner in which story plots are put together. This, as I will show, is due to widespread misunderstanding and multiple conflicting definitions of the term in several screenwriting books over the past 20+ years, and in numerous university curricula around the world, not to mention that dictionary definition.

Before we concern ourselves with structure, however, we must have a definition of story itself. And, in our case, the dictionary is not much help, because despite multiple attempts, it fails to offer anything specific enough to apply to screenwriting yet distinctive enough to exclude the typical newspaper article or child’s bedtime tale. What we need is something that fits good movies as we know them. While everyone knows a film story when they see one, in order to advance our arguments about the nature of structure we must establish as a platform, a defined and relevant narrative concept that story structure, then, supports. Consider:

In an article entitled, The Secrets of Storytelling: Why We Love a Good Yarn (Our love for telling tales reveals the workings of the mind), Jeremy Hsu writes: “To study storytelling, scientists must first define what constitutes a story, and that can prove tricky. Because there are so many diverse forms, scholars often define story structure, known as narrative, by explaining what it is not. Exposition contrasts with narrative by being a simple, straightforward explanation, such as a list of facts or an encyclopedia entry. Another standard approach defines narrative as a series of causally linked events that unfold over time. A third definition hinges on the typical narrative’s subject matter: the interactions of intentional agents—characters with minds—who possess various motivations.” --- Scientific American, September, 2008.

For our purposes, the third definition is the most persuasive. We will consider or examine, in-depth, widely-accepted stories that challenge or even defy the first two definitions’ listing of facts and requirement of causality: these might include such films as LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD, MY DINNER WITH ANDRÉ, PULP FICTION, MEMENTO, and various films by David Lynch. But our concern is not merely conceiving stories. We need to conceive good stories. It is my contention that at least one essential characteristic of a good story is that it is transformative. In other words, through the transformation of one or more of its characters, it has the potential to transform us (our understanding). Therefore, let’s consider a definition:

Story: A narrative recounting of one or more events—usually causally-linked and in sequential order—unfolding over time, with at least one primary character, who, with an audience, through interaction with that narrative’s world, experiences an internal transformation in understanding—or absent the character’s transformation, the audience’s alone—thereby achieving some measure of story value.

Admittedly long-winded and ponderous, I contend that it nonetheless accounts for the wide variation in the bulk of filmed narratives (thus far described as “story”) that matter. And, more importantly, it paves the way for an understanding of a description of structure that matters.

Echoing others before her, author and screenwriting consultant, Dara Marks has pointed-out in her book, Inside Story, structure as applied to storytelling can be seen to function on both the plot level, and on a deeper emotional/intellectual level. Stories tell of events which their characters experience. This is the plot level. They also tell of the growth (or non -growth) of their characters as the result of experiencing these events. This is the emotional/intellectual level. A principle reason we continue to enjoy stories today, often watching the same film over and over, and despite the similarities one bears to another, is that we find things in successful stories which go beyond the surface events. These resonate within us, relate to our concerns, and inform us of truths which we can apply to our own lives. We can even evolve in our understanding of the same film through successive viewings over time. So there are at least two structures: the plot structure, operating on the surface, among the events of the tale, and something operating on a deeper, interior level, within its characters’ and audiences’ heads, something I will call the story structure. This is because plots are essentially just narratives with beginnings, middles, and ends. Stories, on the other hand, are what narratives mean to us. And stories have structure, too... meaning structure, as embodied by the people in them.

A caveat: this discussion of structure applies to feature theatrical and television film stories only. I’m referring to single-sitting-viewing-experience films, NOT web-based short videos, or television series’ meta-stories spanning multiple episodes, seasons, or entire series. While there can be structural similarities in these variants, they are not constrained by the same factors. In the case of television series’ meta-stories, casts are often larger, events can span greater narrative real estate, and oftentimes, multiple stories are told simultaneously, each of which has its own structure operating: “wheels within wheels.”

Screenwriting, perhaps to a greater extent than story-telling generally, depends upon surprise, the unexpected, unpredictability, to achieve its results. This is because, ideally, movies must run from beginning to end with no break. They must hold the audience, compel the viewer to stay to find out what comes next. It follows that the richer a story is, the more potential there is for such surprise elements to occur. Stories which function merely on the surface or plot level fail to take advantage of the emotional/intellectual potential found latently present within them. The lateral screenwriter can tap into this level and make use of it to parallel, echo, amplify, undercut, or even subvert the events ostensibly driving the tale up on the plot level.

Screenwriter, William Goldman has written that “screenplays are structure,” (italics, mine). Adventures in the Screen Trade, Warner Books, 1983, p. 460. He has gone on to indicate that because of time constraints—movies often telling novel-size stories in 90 to 120 minutes of screen time—there is only room for material in a screenplay that directly advances the story through the essential story elements: theme, premise, plot, character, dialogue, and action. No elaborate descriptions, excessive multiple viewpoints, endless diary entries, internal monologues, etc. The art lies in telling your fiction in such a way as to create the illusion of reality through artifice and calculation. He’s saying that there’s room only for the essentials in telling your movie, and, to the extent you wrap your truths in lies un-recognized and in the guise of a fictive reality, the movie succeeds. He’s right about keeping it lean and almost visibly structured. Interviewed in Backstory 2, p. 70, screenwriter/director, Richard Brooks (THE PROFESSIONALS, IN COLD BLOOD) echoed Goldman, saying, “...if the structure is not right, you can have forty great scenes in a movie and still have no movie. Structure is the beginning and end of a movie.” And, in the same book (p. 20), screenwriter, Leigh Brackett (THE BIG SLEEP, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK) said, “…I don’t think there’s anything better than screenwriting to teach you the construction of a story.” In a conversation with George Stevens, Jr. at the American Film Institute, director Elia Kazan goes deeper:

Kazan - “One of the best laws of structure is ‘unity from climax’ from John Howard Lawson’s book on screenwriting, which says that if you know what the climax is going to be, you know you’ve got to get there, and so everything is determined by the climax you’re going to arrive at.”

Stevens, Jr. - “Do you think in movements as opposed to acts?”

Kazan - “No, in inner acts that cause behavior as opposed to movements. If you think of people as changing things, as dynamic rather than static, you have to have structure. [French New Wave director, Jean Luc] Godard, for example, shows people in a static state. They are in conflict but in a static state. I don’t see life that way.” --- Conversations with the Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age at the American Film Institute, p. 405.

Perhaps one of the best, most concise, and, as I’ll show, most accurate definitions of structure is from Walter Brown Newman:

“It has to do with decisions on the part of your leading character. The beginning has to do with the first big decision he makes that starts the story going. And the middle has to do with some of the decisions he faces because of the initial decision he made. The end is the result of all those decisions.”--- Zen and the Art of Screenwriting 2, pp. 130-31.

Structure, however, is not the end-all, be-all of screenwriting. In the earlier volume, Zen and the Art of Screenwriting, 1996, Silman-James Press, p.15, author William Froug points out:

“...we teachers and professional writers have emphasized structure so fervently and convincingly that structure has become the god of screenwriting. This fixation has led to a mound of look-alike screenplays that could reach to the top of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s bank roll. This addiction to structure “über alles” puts aspiring writers into a mechanical mindset before they conceive the first idea...” and later, “It’s all about structure, so they say. They’re dead wrong. Structure (i.e., craft) follows art, not the other way around.” (I-2)

So, while structure has become a kind of Holy Grail in screenwriting, it has its place in the form’s hierarchy of importance. For audiences, it’s nothing. It should not be seen or even sensed by them. But for writers, as Froug says, after the subject itself, it is paramount. This is because it can help them to improve the piece. For them, there are two reasons to gain an understanding of story structure: to both better write, and to write better; to improve the process, and to improve the product. If a structural model can be found that can apply to all or even most stories, it will benefit writers to know and apply it to their story ideas. I will show that, despite the myriad (and, ironically, mostly valid) story models out there muddying the waters and confusing new writers, there is, in fact, a single model that can be applied consistently across the length and breadth of storytelling. This is no small thing.

Sources of Structure

As we’ve said, there’s a lot of confusion as to what screenplay structure really is. Just after sound established itself in films, in the 1930s, screenwriting was taken up by imported writers: playwrights, novelists, and news journalists. The playwrights brought with them a concept derived from the theater: act structure. Commonly, many full-length, modern plays contained three acts. These, in turn, were derived from Aristotle’s, The Poetics, wherein he elucidated what made for a successful story. Essentially, he broke stories into three parts: beginning, middle, and end, and described what made them each separate and distinct. He stated:

“A whole is that which has a beginning, a middle, and a conclusion. A beginning is that which itself does not of necessity follow something else, but after which there naturally is, or comes into being, something else. A conclusion, conversely, is that which itself naturally follows something else, either of necessity or for the most part, but has nothing else after it. A middle is that which itself naturally follows something else, and has something else after it. Well-constructed plots should neither begin from a random point nor conclude at a random point, but should use the elements we have mentioned (i.e., beginning, middle, and conclusion).” --- The Poetics, Aristotle, Translation by Richard Janko, Hackett Publishing Co., Indianapolis/Cambridge, 1987, p.10.

While this seems both obvious and pedantic, it implies certain things which I will show fail to account for modern narrative unless one takes a different view than the leading and accepted structural models offered today. First, his use of the word, “whole” implies that a story must be seen as a unified thing, an interdependent organic corpus, rather than a mere collection of linked, or even related, parts. The parts require reason for their being linked, i.e., structural support. But while Aristotle’s ideas are a starting point for structure, they have been superseded by the advancement of narrative. His notion of “The Three Unities,” (time, place, and action) have long ago been abandoned. Stories extend over unlimited stretches of time and many, many locations. Perhaps only action continues to adhere by compelling story events to relate to one unifying plot. But, today, even this is up for debate.

Next, as used, the term, “naturally,” in relation to following and preceding the three parts, implies causality of some kind, not necessarily limited to causal events in linear time. I submit that it can include causality of meaning even when causality of linear time is lacking. The last sentence supports this notion of causal meaning rather than just causal time, because, for example, any time preceding a meaningful one could apply if time was the only requirement. But, if meaning is a requirement, then, and only then, a random beginning is excluded, precisely what is called for by Aristotle.

By the thirties, screenplay structure was described, for example, as “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back.” Writers like Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur used to say, “first, you get your character up a tree, then you throw rocks at him, then you get him down.” So, classic Aristotelian structure as adopted by Hollywood was a story unified by a protagonist, with a causality of meaning and time. As narrative film evolved, the causality of time became malleable and even optional in certain cases.

In the late 1970s, Syd Field, a reader and story analyst for an independent film producer, applied these ideas to modern screenwriting in his first book, Screenplay, Dell, 1st Ed., 1979, wherein he described a “paradigmatic” approach, refining the three-part, or, as it had become known since the 1930s, the “three-act structure.” He stated that the parts broke down into a paradigm, a model with a consistent pattern of about 25% - 50% - 25%, proportionally, for each act in succession. And though he never said it, it had an obvious correspondence to Aristotle’s beginning, middle, and end. This was based on Field’s analysis of several thousand screenplays. And Field’s general definition of “screenplay structure” is: “A linear progression of related incidents, episodes, and events leading to a dramatic resolution.” – Screenplay, MJF Books, 3rd Ed., pp. 14-15.

Field described items he called “plot points,” the primary ones (I and II, though there can be many other “secondary” ones) of which always preceded a transition from act to act. His paradigm consisted of Act 1 (the set-up), running about a quarter of the story, Act 2 (the confrontation), running about half the story, and Act 3 (the resolution), running the last quarter of the story. Each act transition was preceded and precipitated by events (plot points) which happened to (or because of action by) the protagonist, thereby generating an urgency for resolution. The first transition (Act 1/Act 2) is the moment when the hero formally sets out to resolve the dilemma he has had thrust upon him. The second transition (Act 2/Act 3) is the moment when complications have reached their nadir for the hero, and decisive action is begun in order to force a successful resolution.

This structural notion has its supporters and its detractors (I-3), but there is no denying that it holds sway in a great many films. Consider these exchanges, however, from Lynch on Lynch, Edited by Chris Rodley, p. 62:

Rodley – “Is that (Lynch’s preference for European films) something to do with the fact that they’re not so driven by narrative as American films?”

Lynch – “Yes. Exactly. I think so”

And from Gilliam on Gilliam, Edited by Ian Christie, Faber and Faber, 1999, p. 255:

Christie – “You think today’s audience is corrupted by simple storylines, structured in three acts with strong motivation, just like the screenwriting manuals teach?

Gilliam – “Exactly.”

Christie – “Whereas your natural instinct is to construct a Chinese box of as much complexity as you can get away with...”

Gilliam – “I no longer know who does and doesn’t like my work. I’m confused. I know almost everybody who loves movies loves (FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS). I know people on the technical side and musicians love it, and people from a generation that isn’t in denial love it, and there are these fourteen year old kids from high school who love it. I’m trying to corrupt youth in my own way, not in Spielberg’s: mine is a Socratic corruption. It’s interesting to see kids write on the Web, ‘This is the best movie I’ve ever seen.’”

His, “mine is a Socratic corruption” is worthy of note. By one definition, the Socratic Method is (my truncation):

“—a form of philosophical inquiry in which the questioner explores the implications of others' positions, to stimulate rational thinking and illuminate ideas. It is a dialectical method that often involves an oppositional discussion in which the defense of one point of view is pitted against another; one participant may lead another to contradict himself in some way, strengthening the inquirer's own point.”--- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Socratic_method


“The term Socratic Questioning is used to describe a kind of questioning in which an original question is responded to as though it were an answer. This in turn forces the first questioner to reformulate a new question in light of the progress of the discourse.”

Gilliam, and artists like him, above all, are trying to provoke thought, to confront questions, and through the process, yield new and better answers. One will find, however, that what I will be calling, the deep structure in such stories, is still classically present, and, in fact, remains unscathed.

Over time, various writers introduced concepts such as the “inciting incident,” the “strange attractor,” the “two goals with a reversal,” various increases in the number of acts, and “whammos,” or sequences of scenes which comprised a three act-like sub-unit within acts, a sequence of scenes built around an escalation of tension or comedy. STAR WARS and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, for example, were classic “whammo” pictures, as were the serials of the 1930s and 1940s like FLASH GORDON and BUCK ROGERS (I-4).

In his second book, Field identified something he called the “Mid-Point,” (The Screenwriter’s Workbook, p. 128), which fell approximately at the center of the story, and broke the middle and longest act into two roughly equal parts. This was supposed to signal an overall elevation of the stakes and a corresponding heightening of the tension, something that Field, himself, had earlier identified as functioning incrementally throughout the entire second act. I submit that this mid-point, as an identifiable moment at the heart of the story, is common but not necessarily always found in successful or produced screenplays. Its identification, along with his concept of what he calls, “Pinch I” and “Pinch II” coming, in turn, around the middle of each half of act two (pages 45 and 75 of his 120 page idealized model) (I-5), seems to be Field’s response to the difficulty he was encountering in his work with writers who were using his paradigm and becoming stalled in getting through their own second acts. He needed to find a way to break the second act into more manageable parts, as were the first and third, so he looked for and found a possibility in this “here today, gone tomorrow” notion of the mid-point. The elegance of finding films breaking down into equal quarters must have seemed irresistible to someone for whom mathematics suddenly describing art implied a formula for successful screenwriting.

Structure from Character

One insight Field had in formulating his paradigmatic approach to Aristotle’s three parts, the element tying the structural components together, was mentioned in the first edition of his first book and, since then, has been almost forgotten (likely, even by Field, himself—he refers to it in print not at all since first identifying it). It was never, as it should have been, sufficiently stressed in his books, and it was almost universally missed by his students and members of the academic community, many of whom initially took up Field’s paradigm with great enthusiasm, only to later reject it as too formulaic and restrictive (I-6).

But the insight Field had that has never been given its due was the profound observation that (his notion of):

The Plot Point is a function of the main character.

Because Plot Point I and Plot Point II are fundamental structural components of his paradigm signaling the transition to the succeeding acts, this, then, means that:

A story’s structure, itself, is dependent upon, and a function of, the protagonist (I-7).

When one examines the key implication of this (an implication that seems to have gone un-recognized even by its source (I–8), one realizes that the idea requires that:

She/he/it must transform (or not, despite the implicit and apparent-to-its audience need for it) as the result of contending with the story’s dilemma.

While this may sound like so much rhetoric of our own, it gets at the heart of structure like nothing before or since has managed. And Field’s implied liberal definition of the protagonist (Screenplay, 3rd Ed., pp. 123-4) as any one of several possibilities including a person, couple, group, city, country, species, idea, or even a metaphor (also mostly ignored by his readers), paved the way for a structural model far more powerful than the one that has become identified with him. Field, while recognizing the possibility of the protagonist transforming, sees it as incidental, dependent on the particular story, and just as easily not present in serviceable stories (I-9). While this last point may be true, Field misses the notion that the vacuum created by such an absence is filled within the mind of the audience.

The importance and value to storytelling of our notion of the growing or changing hero is that the unity it supplies to stories is actually of concrete and profound use to its audience. It is of far more use, in fact, than the earlier unifying element according to the structure-as-function-of-plot advocates, i.e., subject. To wit: unity supplied by the structural presence of three parts about a common subject provides information, i.e., data, essentially resolving the mystery of the ending of the story. On the other hand, unity supplied by the structural presence of three parts about a common and growing hero provides resonant illumination, essentially insight into both the story’s resolution, and potential insight into the individual audience-member’s own human experience. “Resonant,” because the audience is now experiencing the events in the story in common with the protagonist, and, “illumination,” because new truths are emerging. In this second example, the potential exists, based on the quality of the story and its execution, not just for the story hero’s growth, but for the audience’s growth.

Improving Structure

Today, more than a quarter century since Field first refined what the original sound film writers had done with Aristotle and his Poetics, the three acts have been broken up, thrown out, and even forgotten for other models entirely (I-10).

Concurrent with Field, George Lucas mentioned that his structural model for STAR WARS was rooted in Joseph Campbell’s insights into the structure of myth. Campbell, in his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Princeton University Press, 1949, described a pattern he identified in virtually all mythic tales told world-wide since the dawn of storytelling. He described various motifs which he found to recur from culture to culture, such that they could be formalized and even identified in modern storytelling (I-11).

This was further refined by Christopher Vogler (first in a paper, later in a book, The Writer’s Journey, Mythic Structure for Storytellers & Screenwriters, Michael Wiese Productions, 1992) into a Field-like model, or paradigm, for screenwriting. A superb tool for the storyteller, the Campbell-Vogler model sees stories as heroic journeys, quests, involving 12 stages of the journey and 8 archetypal characters. Stages include, among others, “The call to adventure,” “Meeting the mentor,” and “The return with the elixer.” Archetypes include “The Hero,” “The Shapeshifter,” “The Threshold Guardian,” and “The Trickster,” among others. This is an elegant and extremely useful model for story-construction, just as it has been throughout history, from the earliest Cro-Magnons gathered about the first fire, to George Lucas at his typewriter in the 1970s, and beyond.

But, do we really know much about Odysseus or Gilgamesh and what internal needs or convictions made them go on their heroic journeys? Even though the character of the hero is central to the Campbell-Vogler model, because there is never a requirement to the contrary, the hero can effectively make the journey in a superficial manner, i.e., attaining the goal of the quest, but without really growing in understanding. Let’s be clear: despite the fact that elements within the screenwriting community have found a kind of equivalency by contrasting Vogler’s approach with Field’s, nowhere does Vogler claim his and Campbell’s ideas encompass all of story structure or supplant Field. Structurally-speaking, the Campbell-Vogler hero is effectively incidental, as its presence is not required to achieve a unified resonance of meaning within the audience. The model, in effect, does not recognize that potential in its stories. So, while it is a highly useful plot-construction tool, even superior, the stories it yields can lack the transformative and resonant illumination found in the best tales employing the transcendent hero of the Field paradigm.

In later years, the Campbell-Vogler model had replaced Field in the vogue of the moment. Disney studios went so far, prior to Vogler’s publishing his book on the subject, as to make Vogler’s seminar required attendance for its development executive corps. Many saw this model for storytelling, as I just indicated, superior to Field’s, in that the thorny issue of how to write the second act was elegantly sidestepped by the multi-section approach with archetypes advocated by Vogler. The greater number of parts yielded smaller pieces, and writers who struggled to understand their stories had more sign-posts to work from. But where Field talked about screenplay structure, Vogler talked about story conception and assembly, primarily confining himself to the plot level. As I will show in the next section, if it is (erroneously) interpreted as a structural model, Campbell-Vogler fails to account for certain examples of contemporary narrative cinema.

Following Field and Vogler, from the late 1980s to the present, there came a series of screenwriting teachers offering seminars, articles, and books with their own variations on both the Field and Vogler paradigms, and offering their own tips and insights into the art. Collectively, however, they had the effect of improving that Aristotle-Field notion of structure to death. They all had useful things to contribute, but most suffered from a restrictive and biased my - view - above-all notion of structure.

They call to mind something the philosopher and psychologist, William James once said, “A great many people think they are thinking when they are really rearranging their prejudices.” Also, not a one of them is, or has become, a successful screenwriter. Collectively, they became known informally as screenwriting “gurus,” and their ardent followers functioned almost like a group of warring religions. Selling a script is difficult, and experts offering methodologies for success are always very popular.

Among the individuals who otherwise might be lumped into this group of gurus, are some (Linda Seger, Dara Marks, and Richard Walter, for example) who may not deserve such designation in any pejorative sense. Robert McKee (whose “guru” membership his supporters and detractors have fought over to a standstill), offers a well-known seminar that claims a vast pool of successful graduates. McKee’s book, Story, however, establishes his considerable (though not preeminent) knowledge, of the art of screenwriting. His credentials include some (not vast) experience as a screenwriter and director along with his extensive credentials as a teacher (I-12).

McKee defines structure as would a classicist (as might Aristotle) using a generalized, non-story-specific, universalist’s terminology: “A selection of events from the characters’ life stories that is composed into a strategic sequence to arouse specific emotions and to express a specific view of life” – Story, Regan Books, 1998, p.33. For him it is closer to an arrangement of the classic drama’s pre-defined parts (acts, scenes, beats, etc.) for story advancement, emotional change, and statement of point-of-view. While I don’t dis agree, I find that aspect of structure that really matters missing from his definition: transformation (I-13). Transformation amounts to the element that structure serves, i.e., the protagonist in flux. An expression of a “specific point-of-view,” is not sufficient to embody our concept of transformation as it progresses within a story in what we will risk (I-14) referring to, ahead, as the protagonist’s Arc of Transformation.

Architects don’t merely design rooms and floors and elevator shafts. They design buildings with lifetimes of transformative usage for which those components must serve. While McKee is obviously aware of the films his structural “events” are part of, he fails to make the connection. His reference to “life stories” refers to what is our “story universe,” something greater than the whole, or what represents our concept of transformation. He does reference a story’s “spine,” in places, and that, for me, is closer to what matters about structure than any arrangement of parts, emotional content and viewpoint notwithstanding, because it implies an organic unity (the protagonist’s spine of transformation). Ultimately, for McKee, structure, it appears, is merely an explication of plot conditioned by a character’s emotion and view. For myself and others (such as Dara Marks), it is an explication of character in transformation, i.e., the element the plot, conditioned or not, is itself about.

Screenwriting as Religion

Following the lead of the gurus, a new ad hoc group emerged on the scene populated by disaffected screenwriters, frustrated story analysts, and writer wannabes. Mostly, they operate on the internet, appear at screenwriting conferences, or consult to writers for heavy fees. As the difficulty in selling scripts left the possibility that certain secrets lay between writers and success, customary practices by the film industry became codified into sets of rules which some of these self-appointed screenwriting authorities maintained writers broke at their peril. These pseudo-experts, heavily invested, as they are, into the minutia of screenwriting practice have now become, as we’ve argued, a kind of screenwriting priesthood. These clerics accept no nonsense from writers who don’t use the precisely correct font (Courier 12 pt., NOT [until recently] Courier New 12 pt., to name one anal-retentive bit of screenwriting fundamentalism), or fasten scripts with two (not three, despite the three holes) brads. They demand that screenwriters keep description, indeed page count (to the exclusion, at times, of dramatic clarity), to a minimum, and keep all references to or even implications of the presence of the camera and the editor out of their works. White space on the page (i.e., text-free) became a kind of “Holy Grail,” rationalized as taking the “pain” out of script-reading for overworked executives. No one seemed to notice that this dubious goal (literally toward nothing), amounts to the triumph of a screenwriting version of the modern dumbing-down movement: take the substance out, and sell the sizzle rather than the steak. This, all in the service (read that, kissing-up) to heavy-lidded “creative” executives. This, to prevent stepping on the jobs of the other “authors” of the piece (actors, directors, editors, costume designers, development executives, girlfriends, etc.), whose jobs would not exist, were it not for the presence, already, of the story to which they then graciously bestow their authorship.

These and other rules amounted to excessively analytic practices reputedly rooted in tired industry executives with a need to get to bed on time, or story analysts with severe Napoleon Complexes, subordinating, as they do, the story at hand for the deal ahead. These experts apparently assumed that someone with one or two screenwriting seminars under his belt and an hour skimming through a script knows more about the writer’s story than that writer, himself. The rules extended so far as to include a set of “anti-rules,” in which Fieldian structure and other models were to be shunned as overly simplistic, or too regimented—as though counting your brads was not! Jonathan Swift’s small-end egg-openers have nothing on these folks. Demystification, of course, always threatens a priesthood. But thanks to the hegemony of this self-appointed standards group, the rules, when broken, were easy to spot, unlike the causes of a failing story. They yielded the needed results: the flow of fees continued, jobs were not at risk, innovation and individuality were squashed, priesthood power was maintained.

Has anyone noticed how often the movies we hold up as leaders and innovators break these same rules? Has anyone noticed how few credits their innovating writers often have when said rules were broken? The priesthood’s party-line that rules may be broken only when the writer’s track record is firmly in place (i.e., when the priesthood’s own influence is firmly trumped anyway) has no basis in the marketplace. David Lynch’s first feature, ERASERHEAD, didn’t just break the rules, it was unaware of them. It would’ve been turned into the cinematic equivalent of processed cheese had it conformed to them. Because of the flashbacks alone, Christopher McQuarrie’s script, THE USUAL SUSPECTS, couldn’t have been written had it been forced to follow the priesthood’s rules. Joel and Ethan Coen’s script, RAISING ARIZONA, would have been scorned merely on the basis of its excessive narration. And Quentin Tarantino’s third produced film script, PULP FICTION, thanks just to the length of its dialogue scenes, would have resulted in his being sent to a series of guru seminars for re-education (never mind its perceived structure, a subject I will discuss in some detail in the next section). Ultimately, the Priesthood demonstrates the fallacy of its own dictums when it lauds screenwriters and filmmakers like David Lynch, Quentin Tarantino, Christopher McQuarrie, the Coens, and Charlie Kaufman, yet derides new screenwriters who practice similar techniques, all on the grounds they have no track record. What was Kaufman’s track record before BEING JOHN MALKOVICH? It was a lot of television, and not of the incredibly ground-breaking kind, either.

On the question of structure, in fact, the most zealous among the priesthood reserves its most severe penalty: denial. For them, as some have stated on the web, Field’s 3-Act structure is essentially a myth. When forced to acknowledge it exists, the priesthood points to its own patented list of successful films (some of which we’ll be examining in the next section) which are, according to them, “structure-less.” For the gurus, the film industry could not exist without such rigid control of the rules of screenwriting, for every rule is accompanied by a rationalization designed to support it: speed, simplicity, visual-only writing, respect for the other artists, etc. But one only has to go back to scripts of forty or more years ago to find lengths in the 150-page range, extensive setting description, camera direction, actor instructions above and within the dialogue, and directions for the editing process (I-15). I’m not arguing for a return to those far less readable and pedantic times. But such practices attest to the earliest intent of screenwriters to communicate a vision rather than just the dialogue and action. The fact that such practices have disappeared demonstrates the erosion of such an original vision, and, not coincidentally, it was concurrent with the ascendance of the director as auteur.

Still, up on the official level, in print and in consultation, each of the gurus, the experts, had valuable insights into screenwriting. And they accomplished this, despite often disagreeing violently with one another in competition for their flock’s money and loyalty. As may be all too familiar to some people of faith, there were advocates of the two-act, the four-act, the five-act, the seven-act, and the nine- act structures. There were advocates of musical approaches (I-16). Even no-act structure was proposed. Perhaps the most useful approach for writers, and one I would certainly endorse as a practical method of dealing with the surface-level structure of the long-story form in screenplays is an approach used since the early days of narrative film, called by some, “The Sequence Approach.” (I-17) As a method of taming the enormity of the long-story form, this approach has no peer, for it manages to break the story down into manageable units that each have their own unique goals and characteristics. Because of its value, we will summarize it here.

Building screen stories from individual sequences is one of the original methods used by screenwriters who began taking stories from single-reel shorts to the feature-lengths we know today. Rooted in the thousand foot reel lengths of the silent shorts Hollywood produced in the tens of thousands, sequences running no more than ten to twelve minutes were the original screen stories (I-18). Then, as stories grew, film-makers simply added sequences. Eventually they reached what amounted to an average of eight sequences (sometimes more, but more often, one or two less), for a full-length feature. Up to about the late 1940s-early 1950s, screenwriters identified their sequences in the typed script by letter. They would generally structure out with Sequences A and B comprising the “Field-ian” Act One, Sequences C, D, E, and F, comprising Act Two, and Sequences G and H comprising Act Three. There often would be a culminating moment in the story at the end of Sequence D (this is Field’s Mid-Point), and another at the end of Sequence F (this is Field’s Plot Point II). Of course, all of this, has the effect of essentially ratifying Field’s original paradigm: “A rose by any other name...”--- Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare, Act II, Scene 2, 1594.

The screenwriter, then, could focus his thinking down to accomplishing specific general story goals in each sequence. And here is where the sequence method achieves its benefits: it breaks down the primary tasks for each sequence. So, having broken the story into 8 parts, it now breaks these into potential functional components, enabling us to conceive, develop, and manage our story on the scene and even page levels. For example (and here, we will “bold” the key words or concepts for each), in Sequence A (Field’s Act 1) the screenwriter would be concerned with setting up the story: the setting, the people, the arena or milieu, etc. Often it would establish the hero in his normal world so that when the problem of the story arrived, it would contrast significantly, establishing a measure of the primary dramatic tension. It would establish the story’s tone or mood, often beginning with a defining image. So, with the arrival of the story problem (often called the Inciting Incident), Sequence B would then set up the playing field for the story’s primary dramatic tension. It would deepen the tone or mood. This all would culminate at the end of Sequence B in the hero being formally set on a path toward taking on the job of resolving it (Field’s Plot Point I).

Act Two -proper (Field’s), in the form of Sequence C, would begin the hero’s effort at resolution. This would often be a weak or half-hearted first-effort, or it would be a valiant one that, in any case, is met in failure. But information is gathered, characters are introduced, threats loom, and mysteries appear. Complications therefore ensue as Sequence D confronts the hero with surprising new difficulties, plot developments, and people. (In Field’s model, this is “Pinch I,” a moment or scene at the end of Sequence C or the beginning of Sequence D that “pinches” the narrative to the through-line or spine of the story, keeping it on track.) There are unknowns as the tension escalates, ending in a possible culmination (the Mid-Point), where the scope of the dilemma is finally seen for the difficult thing it is. Sequence E escalates things further, possibly with new characters, sub-plots, reversals and/or twists for the hero to struggle against. There are more surprises, and the tension continues to escalate. (We are, here, at Field’s “Pinch II,” again serving to re-connect with the narrative’s through-line or spine.) In Sequence F, the hero is definitely on the main track toward resolution, though the outcome is certainly still in doubt. The sequence ends in a second Culminating moment (Plot Point II) wherein the dilemma is understood, or the truth is revealed, posing the hero with the story-altering task of doing something about it. In effect, the hero achieves a measure of success, because the full scope of the story’s problem is now grasped. Nonetheless, the antagonist remains, and the resolution must still be achieved.

Sequence G (Field’s Act Three) begins the final or true process of resolution undertaken by the hero. Here there will still be unexpected events and consequences as things unfold out of the action of the hero. Here the tone of resolution is made palpable. Here we enter the arena of climax. The stakes can still rise. There can be additional twists. But the hero is resolute, undaunted. Sequence H, the final sequence in the sequence model, formally resolves the dilemma of the story. It may have surprises and/or stages, as the antagonist and the story’s problem are both overcome and defeated (or not). The major tension of the story is relieved. In a final tag or coda, story threads are often tied up and any remaining plot holes are closed. The sequence approach, then, is a most (perhaps the most) useful method of putting the words on the page.

So the approaches to screenwriting have become legion, with many being just new patterns of arranging what amounts to the lasting and key, fixed, attributes of storytelling. Through it all, though, like the most enduring faiths, three-act structure, though diminished, held a core group of proponents. It still does, today. I believe that the reason for this isn’t so much a loyalty to Field or Aristotle, but to a non-articulated, undeveloped, but nonetheless intuitive affinity for the accuracy of the three part paradigm. Why?

The Arc of Transformation

First, the reason traces to this remarkable recurrence of threes: sometimes called the ternary unit (a model composed of three parts). We’ve seen (and will continue to see) the number three appear throughout our discussion of storytelling. We’ll call it the Three-Component Model. It might be seen as the minimum unit to result in a conclusion of meaning. One can have a single element in isolation yet conclude nothing definite about it. This is, perhaps, why the Central American natives, when seeing the Spaniards for the first time, could not describe the ships. They literally could not see them as anything apart from the horizon. They had no reference for them, so the ships had no meaning. Only by the presence of an additional conditioning element can meaning be assigned. This, conditioned by that, means thus.

But the real answer to why the three-act paradigm survives, I believe, is Field’s original insight that the Plot Point is a function of the protagonist, and our addendums that this means structure itself is a function of the protagonist, and usually one in change. While the Aristotelian model required three parts with causality of meaning, this model requires the structural presence of an evolving protagonist (or evolving audience instead) to support, define, and apply Aristotle’s meaning. These insights are an improvement on Aristotle’s foundation. With such contributions in place, story structure emerges as:

Story Structure: The change in understanding that the protagonist undergoes through contention with the central dilemma within the story.

This is the deep structure, the true structure of storytelling, here called—forgive the “highfalutin” term--the protagonist’s Arc of Transformation. I am not alone in recognizing this. It is also the basis of Dara Marks’ recent book, Inside Story, and it was observed by Linda Seger in her first book (I-19). But it emerges again and again, directly and by inference, in the words of screenwriters interviewed all the way back to Hollywood’s golden age, script gurus notwithstanding (I-20). So, while the sequence approach is an eminently practical method for writing screenplays, it is not the entire solution. Writers need to be able to not only produce completed drafts, but also understand what they are completing. Our approach to the familiar three-part “paradigm” achieves this, allowing writers to quickly evaluate concepts, ideas, even proto-ideas for value as eventual feature films. It allows the writer to, in effect, see the movie in the mind’s eye.

Aristotle’s and Field’s three parts are an elegant concept with parallels in joke structure (set-up, delivery, and punch-line), the Hegelian Dialectic (thesis + antithesis = synthesis), and Aristotle’s own logic paradigm, the Syllogism (major premise + minor premise = conclusion). These comparisons support and ratify the validity of the Aristotle-Field paradigm, as, in concert, they also ratify our observation that through that three-component model, this is how meaning and logic function at the deepest levels.

But the truly sublime ingredient in this tripartite concept is the unifying element of the protagonist as the key to a rigorous structure. It alone connects the three otherwise distinct parts, making it all a single consistent whole. The three parts by themselves are structure-like, even causal, but irrelevant. If the events need be merely causal, any group of connected events would qualify as a story. Only by the connective tissue of meaning through the experience of the protagonist does the model find unity and transformative potential, and only with a hero in ascending (or descending) flux does the paradigm find true resonance within its audience. Only then is the story dynamic, only then of real use to its consumer. This insight is so powerful, in fact, that it finds support even when not consciously understood. In effect, even though there is a logical explanation readily available, for many writers, it just feels right. To illustrate our portrait of the various story structures briefly, then:

- Aristotle’s Structural Model:

Three parts linked by causal meaning (through unity of subject, time, and place) = structural whole.

- Field’s Structural Model:

Three proportioned parts, linked by subject and causal (or related) meaning = structural whole.

- Current Structural Models (including, Hollywood’s 3-Act Structure, the Campbell-Vogler, and the Sequence model):

Multiple parts linked by subject, causal meaning, and a (potentially static) hero = structural whole.

- Our Structural Model (to this point):

Three usually proportioned parts, linked by subject, causal (or related) meaning, and a transforming protagonist/audience = structural whole.

Thanks to the insights of Aristotle, Field, and others, the structural model had advanced beyond mere parts linked by subject. And yet, contemporary understanding of this ignored the advance in favor of a simplified and sometimes inadequate model of surface-level parts linked only by subject with an incidental hero, i.e., one with no requirement of a unifying transformation.

So, what of the myriad models which have come along since Field? Well, there’s money at stake. With the opening of the weakness which the three act paradigm had in its definition of a long second act, those entrepreneurs, many well-intentioned, arose to supply the answer. Not 3 parts, but 5 or 6 or 12, or as many as your story needs, provided you use their methods. The funny thing is, they are all partly right, a fact many don’t even realize (I-21). Structure, according to that dictionary definition at the beginning, is defined as parts linked to make a whole. Aristotle and Field have contributed subtle enhancements which effectively make for improved stories. Campbell-Vogler contributed enhancements which aid story conception and assembly, but sometimes at the expense of both the Aristotle and Field improvements, and the contribution of the evolving hero. Campbell-Vogler resonates thanks to its rich pedigree spanning all of human story-telling and myth. But, even as it draws from all of human myth, it fails to recognize the element of the transforming hero or audience that, of course, has been present as a part of mythic oral tradition all along. Its archetypes offer invaluable insights for screenwriting. Its structure, however, as reduced and described by Vogler, is plot-based, not character-based. It contributes mightily to the narrative, making for a strong tale, while, unlike its source, myth, often failing to yield the deeper truths within the characters or the meaning they’ve implied. Virtually all the post-Field models offer positives which can aid in writing screenplays. Only the concept of the evolving hero (and/or audience), however, allows for a universally applicable structural model of use to writers and audiences, one that provides both story meaning, and audience resonance.

Conventional screenwriting is often limited or constrained by its own narrow notions of its world, its people, and its narrative possibilities. Lateral screenwriting, by contrast, is open to a wider universe of possibilities, both within its world, and within its narrative potential. Being inclusive of all of the possibilities is what lateral screenwriting is all about. It brings to mind the story of the blind men all describing an elephant by feeling parts within their reach. One describes the trunk, a different fellow the ear, and another the tail. None can get it truly right. If there was a way to take the best of each description of the “story structure elephant,” what might it be? As it happens, there is a way of looking at structure which allows this, and we will examine it in the next section.

“A careless speech writer includes the word ‘paradigm’ in President Reagan's speech on superconductivity. Yes, he pronounces it ‘paradijum.’"

---Paul Slansky, The Clothes Have No Emperor



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University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
screenwriting story-structure story-telling film-writing screenplay script-writing script writing movies films




Title: Story Structure in Film. The Multi-Level Model