Story Structure

Some ways of constructing a story work best for a movie script while others work better for a full length book or a short story. The length of the work should help you decide. If you’re only writing a 2000 word story, you aren’t going to have two changeovers and deep character development. Conversely, the many twists and turns of a full length book are too much for a 120 page script (a 120 minute movie).

You develop your story through the plot and outline. When you write the plot, work out a one paragraph description of the entire story. It’s worth the time to craft a tight plot. Stories with no focus don’t work out well. Get it right early on and you will save yourself a lot of rewriting.

The outline expands the plot and this is where story structure enters the picture. There are many kinds of structure and they can look a bit like formulas. Follow the formulas if you want, but don’t let them interfere with your creativity. I’ll give you a couple of variations here but by no means an exhaustive list.

Types of Story Structure

Classical Structure

The emphasis is on cause and effect in relation to external conflict. The story moves forward through time as it would happen in real life. Nothing really weird or unbelievable happens. The protagonist is in control or takes control. All issues are resolved by the end.

Traditional, linear, three act structure.

The story has a setup for the action, the confrontation and all of the complication that entails, and a final resolution. The switch between acts is called a changeover in the screenwriting game. Each changeover needs to be a significant event that changes everything. There can be no way back to the situation before the change.

Non-linear three act story

Some stories start at the changeover between the confrontation and resolution. This allows a film to start with a bang instead of the slow calm pace of the setup act. Before the changeover has time to climax and segue into the resolution, the audience is taken back to the beginning. Now they are wondering how they will arrive at the introductory scene.

Flashbacks

In the flashback story structure, the audience is moving between two settings. Usually they are taking place at different times, thus the name flashback. It can also be used for two stories happening at the same time that will converge at the end. Because two stories are involved, it can be that much more dramatic when they collide. They can solve each others mysteries or escalate the conflict and force the final resolution.

Saga with mini stories

This is what I think of as the Stephen King story structure. There’s a great main story filled with all kinds of short stories. They can be glimpses into the personalities of characters, background information, or key bits of plot development. This kind of story structure is best for books; not so good for screenplays. Stephen King’s books make great movies because the mini stories are dropped for the screenplays.

Minimalist

This kind of story is heavy on internal conflict and leaves gaps in the story, often ending without a clear resolution. There may be more than one main character and important characters may only react to what happens to them rather than being active forces themselves.

Existentialist or Anti-Structure

Reality in this kind of story is usually not based on our reality. There may be clashing realities or absurd realities. Nothing is resolved by the story and there is no character change. Any way that a normal story can be broken is a possibility.

Structure Based on Genre

The genre of your story can drive the structure too. You need to give your audiences what they expect. Most of your viewers will see your movie or read your book once. You don’t want them puzzling over what is going on and missing the point. Learn the genres.

The Common Structure

Every story is about a hero on a quest; for love, money, survival, freedom, justice, pick any one of the great ideals that have started revolutions and founded governments.

The hero wants to achieve something or acquire something. Another something is standing in the way, usually the villain. How you help your hero achieve their goal depends on your story structure. Choose wisely.

Article by Ivan Izo.

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