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!

  1. Structure is of course one of the basic elements of any story but can be an elusive concept to get a handle on. I agree with you on doing what you can to visualize the story. I’m a big fan of Post-It notes myself. Thanks for the great post!

  2. @lara Thanks for your comment – pleased you enjoyed Sophie’s post. Good innit?
    @Jean Keep it under your hat folks, but Write for Your Life is currently undergoing a sexy redesign and fingers crossed, I’ll be penning an e-book explaining my post-it wall and encouraging you to do the same. I simply wouldn’t have been able to edit my novel without it this summer. Toot toot!

  3. Nice article Sophie.
    I think most people would rather just get on with writing the actual story. But any story can be greatly improved with a well thought out structure.

    I like your idea for watching a TV show and noting its dramatic structure. It’s amazing how much you notice when you start looking.

    And finally, can I just add that as good as Robert McKee’s Story is, I found it a little Heavy. I felt Mr McKee might be taking things a little too seriously for my taste. So I would like to recommend, The Writers Journey by Christopher Vogler, as an alternative. But both are very good 🙂

  4. @lara Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it.
    @Jean I use spray mount to put my index cards up, as I found post it’s kept falling off after a while. It does mean, however that my wall is always slightly sticky. Oh well!

    @Iain Thanks for having me!

    @Mr Uku I understand your point about Robert McKee, but have found that he was most people’s first ‘go to’. Then once the basic knowledge is there, you can go on to different books. Thanks for the recommendation.

    Someone on twitter, @spacemonkeygaz, said – “I’m writing a novel, and your post should help me with a few problems I’m having. ” Which made me all warm inside 😀

    Loving the feedback everyone, thanks for reading and I hope your storyboarding works out.

  5. Great article! I agree that structure matters. So much so that I feel lost without a road map. Some people say you should just dive headlong and let the story go where it wants but, although I agree there should be some element of spontaneity, if I don’t have a “skeleton” from the get-go I find myself wandering around aimlessly. Parts are either too long or too short, too rambling or too curt, too descriptive or not descriptive enough… playing by ear gets to be a frustrating and ugly chore for me. So I sit down and do a plot outline and fill in the more colorful stuff as I go.
    Why so much regimented planning? Because writing, I’ve found, is like almost every other aspect of life: timing is everything. Telling a joke, having sex, playing basketball, writing a novel or playing a piece of music – all these things are made or broken by RHYTHM. You wouldn’t sit down to play a piece of music without knowing the time signature a song is in. If I write without some semblance of a plan, I find that not only does it NOT bleed the life out of it, it makes it stronger because I’ve got my pacing down flat and pacing is extremely important.

    Yes, McKee’s book is essential. I read it when I was in college. Another favorite of mine was ON DIRECTING FILM by David Mamet, which is features fantastic discussions on pacing and hitting your mark.

    Thanks again for the brilliant article. Moar!

  6. With my first novel, I used a white board, the second one a Word document as an outline and the third an Excel spreadsheet – I’ve found the way I like to work – the spreadsheet. It holds all the things I want to see and allows me to move things around easily.

    1. @Alex I’ve used Word in all sorts of creative ways to try and plot and structure the novel. The only one that really remains is the Document map, which I think is an excellent way of navigating long documents and forces you to use ‘styles’ (good practice anyway). Apart from that though, I’m now very much a pen and post it person, which is also a satifying phrase to say out loud!

  7. […] importance of story structure | Write for Your Life July 22, 2010 by fletcherski The importance of story structure | Write for Your Life. from → Writing, writing exercise ← Back to work. No comments yet […]

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