In order to explain how I like to teach people to go about creating stories for both TV and Film, I have to cover the three act structure first. You have to know the basics of how to tell a story before you can find a story. In short, you can’t recognize or evaluate a story until you know what a story is and how it works.
I have studied storytelling for years; first at university and then a fine arts diploma in writing. I’ve attended and paid for countless workshops, worked with leading dramaturgs on my produced plays and been lucky enough to work alongside very experienced and knowledgeable storytellers for over 14 years in television - all on produced dramas. Over the last four years I’ve been fortunate enough to teach screenwriting at Open Channel in Australia, where I learnt as much by being challenged by students as I’ve ever learnt. Over my career I’ve come across many professionals who espoused many variations on how stories work and how to structure them for best dramatic effect. Not all of them, but most of them firmly believed their way was the only way - or at very least, the best way.
Very occasionally I’ve worked with people who tell stories that don’t work for a variety of reasons. Quite occasionally I’ve worked with people who tell stories that are outside my story ‘tastes’. In short – I didn’t like their stories – but, and this is a really important thing to learn about storytelling and to come to terms with – not liking a story does not mean that story doesn’t work.
It’s important to understand that and be able to acknowledge the difference. You don’t have to force yourself into those subject or style areas as a writer – but to be a good story teller you need to know and understand what your preferences are and make sure you’re never declaring a piece flawed, when it is sound. It's simply not to your taste. Analyze the story and the essential structure, not your personal taste or response to it.
Everyone who taught me, or I worked with, whether they acknowledged it or not, worked with or around the three act story structure. But I have to admit, as I learnt and continue to learn, I often found myself confused. Whenever I saw a scene or film that broke the rules someone had assured could never be broken, I’d challenge what I’d seen. I often felt stupid asking because everyone else seemed to understand how the example fitted the model.
But the answer would often be a convoluted explanation that circled my query, without ever concisely and definitively answering it. For a long time I cursed what I assumed was my simple mind.
Every scene must contain conflict.
Every scene must progress the story.
Every scene must result in a physical or emotional change.
Every scene must build and raise the stakes. So simple!
Other students, and later colleagues, would usually jump in and confidently, even patronizingly answers my ‘stupid’ questions. I’d tell myself they must have a more analytical mind than mine – a mind for sorting and collating and categorizing such things as they rattled off why, what, where and who is included in the conflict, the progression and all the rest I was meant to be seeing and understanding to get the structure right.
My mind likes to be sure – not guessing, or relying on someone else’s model and explanation – but truly understanding what was being proposed – understanding it in my own terms and without any grey.
Perhaps that’s next to impossible. Experts – who make their livings out of analyzing films - argue over intent, content, metaphor and meaning. So it’s not a science with definitive answers – it’s a subjective field - there’s an element of interpretation. And yet, we’re still schooled on very detailed structural models, whose creators set down hard and fast rules. So we pick up our pens and note it all down.
What happened to me was that I'd get home – launch into my screenplay with renewed enthusiasm and write myself into a dark room created by my new set of rules and discover there’s no way to write myself out. I spent many years in the abyss of dark writer's rooms searching for a way out.
Some explanations about where the conflict is held or the progression to a scene, relates to a sequence – that is, a forward progression in a story requiring multiple scenes to achieve the one beat, so the scene in a literal sense becomes a sequence of scenes. The individual scenes that make up that sequence struggle to contain either independent progression or conflict – but together we get clear conflict and progression. Oh … I see, when they said every story beat, or every scene – their definition broadened to include a sequence .
There always seemed to be qualifying exceptions to make things fit the rules.
I am meant to intuit. The use of terms may mean in essence of the broadest definition, not the narrow literal definition. And when they refer to a scene they might mean a story beat. I guess my experience and judgement will inform me when I should intuit and when I'm breaking a cardinal rule.
It might seem I’m being harsh or pedantic – but not nearly as harsh or pedantic as readers reports seem to be when they find I, or any other writer, has strayed from the model.
I’m very aware I may be wrong or just not quite on the same page as everyone else who seems to see the structure of a story so clearly. Trust me - that thought has kept me awake nights – but then I wonder if there’s not a little of the ‘Emperors New Clothes’ going on as well.
I wanted to understand how to best tell a story – any story – any of the many stories that kept popping into my head.
I grew very tired of working hard to meet the structure, only to have it ripped apart by people who saw it all so clearly and could see all the areas I’d gone wrong. I wanted to be one of those people.
That’s why, as I became a more confident story teller, I kept getting frustrated by all the qualified explanations and exceptions to formerly hard and fast rules and through teaching and seeing this torment in others I noted how debilitating it was to novice writers trying to learn how to structure a story.
Once I had multiple episodes of tears in the classroom I began to question how I taught. That’s when I went back to how I was forced to teach overseas when I was faced with training writing staff, many of whom had never written scripts before, and guide them, within eighteen weeks, to where they could produce two and a half hours of broadcast quality scripts a week.
That’s when I started to question if some successful films, scenes, character action and story progression aren’t pushed and shoved around, in some cases – beaten up and mugged, in order for every beat to fit someone’s stated story model. And each different ‘model creator’ has slightly different parameters and rules, but they all manage to fit every beat or scene of the better (more successful produced) films into their theoretical model.
Admittedly, many fit like a glove… but not all and forcing a story to fit their model doesn’t help any writer trying to become fluent in their structural model. If I genuinely understand their model, it simply leaves me confused as I see something that doesn’t fit, being made to fit and then being qualified with a non-answer answer as to why it does fit.
I believe story analysis has become such a science and an acknowledged part of the business – that it’s now viewed as a tool for seeing the future of a film before it’s realized and because of that it has been allowed to lead the storyteller.
I believe this is wrong. It delivers formulaic stories - it allows ‘development’ readers and executives to deconstruct and then reconstruct a story as if it’s a set of building blocks and, treated this way, can only possibly deliver a structurally sound, but emotionally empty story.
The story tail is wagging the story dog. The analysts have taken over the creative process and their hindsight explanations of successes has awarded them the right to apply their formulas to a script before it’s produced and to declare and list its problems, based on any aspect that doesn’t fit their understanding of the generic structural story model.
Sometimes a story needs to go through development – but it is death, in creative terms, if that story is forced to change to fit a predetermined model rather than developing the story being told. It may be the characters are not evolved yet for the writer, the places, the metaphor, the underlying themes are all one or two or ten passes away from being realized – and when they are the story will far better fit a classic structure – but it needs that time and that work to the story. Push it into the mold straight away and your making the same cookies everyone makes from that mold.
And for the record, the better analysts are more often right and helpful to a writer, but their success means very inexperienced people, mastering (or not) other people’s models, are suddenly holding the keys to what scripts are developed or turned away.
You have to look at the story. The story will dictate the structure. And sometimes it will be just as the analysts/readers said it would or should be – but sometimes they get it very wrong. If they didn’t they’d be able to predict hits and misses at the box office with accuracy – and just like the financial analysts predicting the future of the financial markets, these script analysts are far more accurate after the event (after a film proves a failure or success) than before.
Tell a story. Find a great story with great characters and tell it. Understand the structures of storytelling in order to write that story as a well crafted and well constructed story/screenplay/play/novel/TV show. The story will dictate even this – what form it best suits.
The story is king!
Write out that story, with a ‘structural muscle memory’* , adjust the story forward and back, push it around and polish it until you have the story in a beat map and treatment form just the way you want it – then look at the structure that the story dictated from you and find any problems and adjust again without derailing your story – remember, story trumps structure. If it’s good enough, told well enough, no one’s going to care that it doesn’t quite hit declared beats a structural model.
Write your screenplay and adjust the small details within scenes as you go, but, as much as possible, try to do this writing without consciously thinking about structure. (Please read my last post to understand how and why I feel this is important and works).
* Muscle memory is most often used when referring to a sport that requires complex motion to perform an action. Through countless repetition in training the body learns that motion so you no longer need to think of all the components to remember how to perform the task. The same can apply to learning story structure – when it becomes so well known that you instinctively tell a story within those structural parameters without having to consciously plot the story points to the points of the structural model – you’re ready to write a great story.
If you get to the end of your story, or hit a dead end or an unsolvable kink – then it’s time to study the structure you’ve plotted more closely. But even then, don’t adjust your screenplay – adjust your treatment. Get the formula as far away from your first draft as you can get it – without abandoning the formula and model altogether.
I believe the traditional structure of storytelling is absolutely sound and can be followed for almost every story – provided it’s followed to lay down the foundation alone and then ‘guide’ the rest of the story in the broadest possible strokes.
I’m saying the basics work every time. It’s the rest that derails things. The incredible amount of detailed 'window dressing' poured on top of the basics by countless models is just confusing. Strip it away. If you get the basics right and your story is good enough, 90% of the rest will fall into place organically as you write. Then let the analysts create their complicated diagrams and flows to explain what you’ve done by studying, dissecting and analyzing every beat and twist. That’s clearly what they enjoy.
Writers tell great stories. And great stories – beyond the structural basics – dictate how, where and when their intricate details should be told. Think of it like going on a road trip. You need to know where you’re going, but if you spend the whole trip with your head in a map, you’ll miss all the sights on the way.
The basics will help and define what needs to be done in act one and where and when the basic twists and turns of act two should be placed. It will tell you when to jump into the resolution of the third act and when to write your final ‘Fade Out’.
The basics of structure make up around 60-70% of the models. And it’s the major signposts of story that match up, not the intricate details in between.
The rest of YOUR screenplay needs its structure looked at, set out and adjusted with a specific view to your story, style and tone. There is no SPECIFIC help that can be relied on from trying to fit the last layers and detailed structure of a stated model onto YOUR screenplay. The published theories on structure will give you clues or a rough guide – but it’s death to try and fit the specific details of your new original story into the complex and detailed formulaic analysis that is out there.
You do need to get the basics, the 60-70% of your story in line, which is why you need to know it so well. The rest will or may fit some of the detailed models, but not all. It may borrow a little from all but not fit any one in particular – it may – every once and a while – be something that breaks the mold of that last 30-40% completely.
The only way to analyze a great story perfectly is to do it in hindsight – once it’s been written. The confusion comes when someone writes a great screenplay and then the authors of structural – ‘how to’ books, try to fit this new film into their model and make every aspect fit perfectly.
If it fits – great! But rarely do you come across a ‘script gurus’ who admits a successful film falls outside their model or contradicts their theory. That’s because you can justify almost anything through analysis and fit almost anything into any model – look at how successful business and politics are at being on the right side of things through effective ‘spin’. It’s not hard to talk after the fact as if you predicted the whole thing just as it turned out.
More often than not, the films that fit a previously declared model perfectly are the ones you watch for five minutes and know instantly what you’re about to see. I firmly believe it is the expert’s efforts to fit every part of every film into their models that creates and causes so much contradiction in the minds of writer’s learning the craft: too many original takes on the structural model, too many experts, too much analysis of other films that is presented as fitting all films.
In other words, two very experienced noted story analysts may fit a film into their model in a slightly different way – framing certain components of the film differently. That’s how we get descent between rival reviewers after all – why not story analysts as well?
But the dueling analytical breakdown leaves the learning writer, trying to master their craft, with multiple or contradictory answers to what works and what doesn’t. Once you try to apply it all to future projects you end up dealing with inconsistencies and contradictions at every turn.
The 60-70% of the structural analysis that is so incredibly helpful to a storyteller/writer in virtually every story – is being lost and clouded by the last 30-40% that is being packed with contradictions and qualifying exceptions in order to fit every moment of the successful film into established models.
What I found worked best, to teach writers that I had to turn into working professionals quickly, was to separate those strong foundation stones of structure from the rest. Don’t discard the rest, just don’t try and apply it directly. Use it to gain more creative tools in your armory – one day you may be looking for that exact tool and there it will be – but no one uses every tool for every job.
I’m going to go through the structure that I feel is common and shared to all. I’ll cover when I think the GUIDELINES within even this ‘solid’ story structure requires lateral thinking, or a term breaches its traditional definition. It’s all about making things clear and avoiding confusion at this first level.
If you’re on that road trip and you don’t know the major roads – you won’t get far.
The final 30-40% of the model is dependent on so many variables that I feel it often causes more harm and confusion to try and apply it directly to a new story being written. By all means learn it – but don’t expect it to fit your story – learning what will fit from the models and what will not is part of your own individual writer’s journey.
Next: SCREENWRITING # 3 - THE ESSENTIALS OF THE THREE ACT STRUCTURE:
A final thought – Have you ever considered that 99% of all unproduced screenplays tell a story that’s just not that good; not that entertaining; not appealing enough to enough to make money? And it’s not that good because it’s not that good – not because its protagonist is doing something he shouldn't; not because a turning point is missing; not because the journey of the character isn’t clearly defined. All those things are amiss - no doubt, but if the story was stronger, clearer, more compelling, the chances are a its sound structure would have forced its way onto the page. The more work you do at the pointy end, the less work you'll do in the wake. Story is King - but you need to find a worthy king!