Why story structure is inescapable

Why story structure is inescapable

Discussions about structure in screenwriting (or any writing for that matter) always divide writers into two camps. In one corner are those that swear by the three act structure, midpoint reversals and scenes noted on index cards, while on the opposite stool are those screaming that structure and formulas stifle creativity, preferring to dive in and find where the story takes them.

Currently, I’m reading Russell T Davies’ brilliant book The Writer’s Tale – my pick of this year’s Chrissy pressies. It is a fantastic insight into the real thoughts, insecurities, trial-and-error desperations of one of Britain’s best TV writers. For any aspiring writer, it is a revelation in displaying that all the insecurities about not being good enough or not being disciplined enough are not exclusive to me, but are shared by a multi-award winning scriptwriter that I truly admire. Yet, his observations on analysing story structure were very telling.

I’ve never read any of those how-to-write books. They scare me. I was once bought a copy of Robert McKee’s stuff. I opened it at a stray paragraph, flinched at what I read, and closed it. I’ve never opened it again. But not because I disagreed with it. Rather, the paragraph that I read was so accurate that it sort of shocked me.

Structure happens – whether you like it or not!

Rather than claiming that structure was unimportant or to be avoided, Davies recognises that stories that work fall into particular patterns. A writer may not be aware of necessarily why one story works while another doesn’t, but he or she would instinctively feel the ebb and flow of pace and character exposition, even if they resist deconstructing the story into acts and formula. In fact, throughout his book, as he describes the experience of scripting a season of Doctor Who, Davies talks almost entirely in structural terms – even if he doesn’t recognise it as such. Davies talks about needing to introduce the monster by a particular page, that every scene needs to change the direction of the plot and have specific consequences, that a script needs to have some excitement or a chase at a particular point. These may be Davies’ own instinctual thoughts as he crafts a story that flows in a way he finds pleasing, but they also conform pretty closely to every screenwriting teacher’s formula for screenplay structure. Davies continues.

Maybe it’s inbuilt. Maybe I’m more disciplined than I realise. Maybe that’s why I run away from a single Robert McKee paragraph, because I like the arrogance of imagining that I’ve worked it all out for myself… when, in fact, it’s commonplace.

Obeying the ancient principles of storytelling

Rather than being a formulaic method of plotting out a screenplay in the beginning, an understanding of structure can assist a writer to identify why a scene or an entire story is not resonating with the reader in the way it should. Syd Field is up there with Robert McKee in the pantheon of screenplay teachers. In the introduction to his book The Screenwriter’s Problem Solver, he wrote:The basic principles of storytelling have been understood for centuries. Going back into ancient civilisation, storytellers knew when a hero should enter, when a plot should take a turn for the worse and when a climax should rise and fall. Whether we are discussing an ancient poem like Beowulf or modern television such as Doctor Who, these things hold true; just as it is also true that a story that fails to capture the audience’s imagination can often be found to be lacking in one of these structural areas.

To solve any kind of problem means you have to be able to recognise it, identify it, and then define it; only in that way can any problem really be solved.”

McKee points out very strongly in his book Story, that an understanding of structure does not mean an adherence to strict laws.

A rule says, “You must do it this way.” A principle says, “This works… and has through all remembered time.” The difference is crucial. Anxious, inexperienced writers obey rules. Rebellious, unschooled writers break rules. Artists master the form.

So is the argument over story structure and screenplay formula irrelevant? Is it more accurate to say that you cannot escape the basic principles of storytelling, no matter what the medium and the subject? Just as an engine requires parts to fit together in a particular way in order to work, a story cannot gain momentum without an understanding — either instinctive or learnt — of how the elements fit together and why.


  1. The curse of the screenwriter