Screenwriting: Four Levels of Structure

25/11/2010

We all know how important structure is regardless of what you’re writing. It doesn’t matter what type of structure you follow, whether you prefer three or five acts, or eight sequences, the structure is there to hold the story together. The structure will help organise the story, the material, so that the introduction won’t take up half of the story while the climax is spared a paragraph. What would happen if a building had several floors of just rooms without entrances and other floors just composed of corridors that lead to nowhere? Everything in a building is carefully arranged but for the average visitor the structure is invisible. You take notice only when there’s something wrong with it. When a door is under the ceiling or the ceiling is too close to the floor. Just like the building is a set of floors, each floor an organised set of corridors and rooms, and each room has a door, etc, there are also smaller structures within the main construction of a story, structures that will help you organise sequences, scenes, and more detailed parts of the story.

The four levels of structure are:

1) Story Structure

This is the bigger picture, the whole story from beginning to end. It will be handy to create a map that will help  visualise where each part of your story fits and whether all the parts are in balance. Do all parts of your story get the right amount of attention? Is there an appropriate causal relationship between the parts, and is it dramatic enough? Each part has its own status quo. Is it clear in each part that there’s no going back?

2) Storyline Structure

In a longer story you will have different storylines that sometimes connect and other times run parallel without ‘meeting’. Each of those storylines should have a structure of their own. Storylines should be analysed through characters because it’s the character the audience is following. It will help to take a character and separate them from the main story for a second in order to examine more closely what is going on with them, just in their storyline – how is it introduced? How does it evolve? Does it end up anywhere? Are there consequences and a resolution? This could be a a strand in a multi-stranded narrative, a secondary character, the antagonist, or any other character. By examining them separately, you can determine whether there are any plot holes, the storyline is too sparse, or too long. Each character is the protagonist of their own story and their motives and wants need to be as clear as anyone else’s.

3) Act Structure

Each act has their own structure. For example, Act I is the introduction (or The Routine and The Collision as in Frank Daniel’s Eight Sequence Method). This is not just a delivery information so that we can get to the story later but this, too, is a dramatic unit of storytelling. Which means it needs to just as dramatic as any other part of the story. It helps to view each act or sequence as a stand-alone story by itself in order to see whether it’s dramatic enough and moves forward.  Does it have its own a beginning, middle and end? Is there enough change between the beginning and end of the act or sequence?

4) Scene or Event Structure

Sometimes it takes several scenes to cover one event (i.e. when action moves from one location to another), other times a scene includes several events. Therefore, it can be useful to analyse both the scene(s) and the event separately (the event becomes ‘what’s happening? and the scene (structure) about how the event is depicted for the viewer, the way information is revealed).  Each scene has its own beginning, middle and end, and is a unit of dramatic storytelling. Beginning doesn’t necessarily mean exposition (i.e. showing who, where and what – you choose how you reveal your information and when) but it could include something that sets the tone or the context, you can begin with the obstacle, just as long as the scene will develop further – someone wants something and faces opposition, and therefore, there are consequences – which lead us to the next scene. It helps to take a scene apart and examine the paragraphs and sentences because this is where the magic happens – this is the level where you engage the audience. It won’t matter for the audience whether something is an important piece of set-up for something that will come later, for the audience each detail has to work now.

The emotional level

The audience engages with a story on a cognitive and emotional level. Intellectual tasks such as ‘who committed the murder?’ are not enough because the audience doesn’t care about events but about the people who experience them. Therefore, it will help to examine the emotional flow of the story at each stage and how emotion is conveyed through characters.  It’s important to focus on characters because the audience can’t empathise with events but only with other people. It’s been proven that even though the audience knows they are looking at fictional characters the reaction to what goes on on the screen is the same as in real life (i.e. when a character is afraid, we become afraid (when it’s plausible for both the character and us that there’s a threat)). What is the emotional status quo (of a character) at the beginning, middle and end of a unit? How does one emotion evolve into another (causality, relationships, conflict, reactions, etc.)? A story is composition of human relationships and it is a current that flows from one emotion to another. If the audience can’t sense that the character is going through something (whether basic emotions like love or anger, or social emotions like jealousy or rejection), it will be very hard to empathise and take an interest in the story as a whole.

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Working on different levels of structure will help make the whole story richer and more engaging. Separating different levels of the story in order to examine them by themselves will help analyse the story as a whole and by comparing them to see whether the different parts of the story are in balance. Viewing the characters’ stories separately will help with character development because the social/psychological/emotional status quo of the character at each stage of their personal narrative will become more distinguished.

You can use bullet-point lists or index cards for dissecting the story. Write only a a few keywords or a short title on each card, so that you will have an overview without having to take time to read each card. You can always add new cards or shuffle them around to discover new options for the narrative.

Structure is not to be confused with story. There are tons of books on structure because it’s easy to talk about but it alone is not enough. Story is what happens to people and why (Plot is ‘how’). Structure is there to hold the story together and structure itself should be invisible for the viewer. If you think about a problem –  a problem has a structure: first, everything was normal, then something happened, there was a reaction, a conclusion, a plan, something was done about it, there were consequences and a resolution. If you leave out one of those steps, the whole thing will look awkward and implausible because there’s a beat missing. It’s the same with stories. If all the parts are there, each given proper amount of attention, each conflict a sufficient cause and effect, the story will run smoothly and the viewer won’t notice a thing – the structure will become invisible.

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Note: this article was previously published on dexterouswriter.blogspot.com. As I’m closing that blog I’ve moved the article here with some modifications and additions.

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