The importance of story structure

Guest post by Sophie Johnson We learn from a young age that all stories should have a beginning, middle and end. Whatever you’re writing, you should bear in mind that all forms of story need some sort of structure, whether you’re working on a novel, script, play or short story.

Some argue that story structure is innate, and while I agree with this to a point, I believe that adopting classical structure can be extremely beneficial. In this post I focus on structure in screenplays as that’s my area of expertise, but you can apply this advice to any story format.

What is structure?

There are various types of structure specific to genre, but the one most commonly used is the three act structure, which dates back to Aristotle’s Poetics. It has translated well into the modern age and is used in most screenplays.

Another popular alternative is the five act structure taken from Greek plays which is employed by – believe it or not – Desperate Housewives.

You can find an excellent introduction to structure in Robert McKee’s Story, a book I would recommend to any writer, not just screenwriters.

'Anxious, inexperienced writers obey rules; rebellious, unschooled writers break rules; an artist masters the form' Robert McKee

How I approach story structure

Writers work in different ways, and there is no correct method. I know writers who set out with no written planning, merely an idea in their head of what might, or what might not happen.

I also know writers who plan out each step and the structure of each individual scene. Through practice you will find out what is right for you. For me, structure can be a life saver!

Bish bash bosh!

For my first draft, I write blind. Just bash it out. You might be surprised by how much structure and theme comes naturally. But it doesn’t always flow so easily, and this is where structure can be the most effective tool in your writer’s belt.

Storyboarding

Once I have my messy first draft, I then begin to structure my screenplay. The image at the top of this post is a photo of a board I set up for my latest script. And I know Iain took a similar approach with his novel!

This storyboarding technique allows me to ‘see’ my film. I can see where I’ve got too much going on, and where there isn’t enough. This is a map of a classic three act structure, essentially mapping the emotional journey of the protagonist.

In the screenwriting book Save the Cat, Blake Snyder lays out an entire chapter on what he calls 'The Board'.

While I agree that it’s useful to have a visual map of your story, Snyder is very prescriptive with his advice. He uses index cards and dictates that each script should use forty index cards and only forty!

Open to change

The danger of planning in too much detail is that you can confine yourself to that storyline. Sometimes while writing, you may completely change your mind. I know I do.

If you've spent days, weeks, months or even years planning your screenplay, you may be more resistant to change. Why put in all those hours of work if you're just going to change your idea?

This is why I always do a rough draft first, as it allows me to explore the ideas and understand what it is I am trying to say.

A final tip

If you’re having trouble understanding structure, you may find it helpful to write outlines or treatments of films you know well. Sit in front of the television with a notepad or laptop and write down everything important that happens.

You will soon begin to notice patterns and then you will be able to employ these techniques yourself! For example:

  • You will see how there is an inciting incident that sends the character on their journey.
  • There will be a high point in the film where everything seems like it's going right, but then things go downhill.
  • Then there'll be a low point where it seems things couldn't get any worse.
  • Then a race to the finish before the climax and conclusion is reached.

Over to you

Structure is one of the biggest causes of argument I’ve come across between writers. It echoes that age old argument whether writing is an art or a teachable craft.

I believe you need both elements to make a truly successful screenplay.

Using structure you could carbon copy blockbusters and probably have some success. But is that why you started out as a writer? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section below!