Certain people who shall remain nameless have made way too much money presuming to teach the “right” way to structure a story, particularly screenplays, but the truth is that there is no magic formula to structuring a script. Sadly, in the film business, you have to make a screenplay look like it follows whatever flavor-of-the-month structure is preferred by the accountants running the show — they don’t know how to read scripts otherwise — but it really is a lot of obsession over a problem that isn’t as difficult as it should be.
There’s a term that comes out of the world of architecture but which really applies to any art: “Form follows function.” That is, if you’re building a bakery, you shouldn’t design it like it’s a library and vice versa. Otherwise, you’ll just wind up with a bad bakery (or a loathsome library).
Likewise, the overall structure of the piece you’re writing should reflect the story you’re writing, and you can see examples of this everywhere. A Beautiful Mind, for example, told the story of a man whose schizophrenia began to develop in college and it told that story from his point of view — it wasn’t obvious that he actually had mental issues until well into the movie.
Pulp Fiction takes inspiration from its title to structure the story, which is more episodic and novelistic — and also rattles the old rule that movies had to follow a strict three-act format.
You see this even more strongly onstage. For example, the musical Chicago was designed to mimic a vaudeville show of the era — the 1920s — a convention that was sort of kept and sort of not in the film version. Film and TV, by necessity, almost always have to be more literal than other formats, although there are those rare films, like 2003’s Dogville, a Lars von Trier movie in which the “set” is just a schematic diagram of the town it’s set in on the floor of an empty soundstage.
Of course, films like that don’t often find wide audiences.
But to meander back to the subject at hand, structure really works like this, and it’s worked like this for as long as people have been telling stories: There’s a beginning, a middle, and an end.
That’s it. Oh, except that each of those has its own beginning, middle, and end, so you eventually wind up with three sets of three.
- Beginning: This is the part in which we find out who the characters are, where the thing is happening, and an idea of what the situation or conflict will be — what is the event that makes the story happen?
- Middle: This is where the main story happens, with all the stuff set up in the beginning developing and complicating itself and the conflict building until we hit the climax at the end of the middle — the point where it looks like things couldn’t get any worse or more complicated. Or can they?
- End: This is where everything plays out and is resolved. If the story is a comedy, then the protagonist gets what they were after. If it’s a tragedy, then they don’t. Note that these are the strict, classical definitions of the two — meaning that yes, technically “The Martian” was a comedy and won its Golden Globe in the right category.
Now, here’s the fun part: Arranging things this way absolutely does not mean that you have to tell your story in strict chronological fashion. Pulp Fiction jumps all over the place but still progresses forward dramatically. Memento goes in one direction and out the other. Run Lola Run tells its story three times. Merrily We Roll Along is still backwards.
In all good art, the structure is not temporal. It’s emotional. Think of how different Citizen Kane would be if you found out what “Rosebud” meant in the first scene instead of the last — and yet it’s entirely possible that the revealing moment (in “real life”) may have actually happened much closer to what we saw as the beginning of the story rather than near the end.
So when you set out to tell your story, first find the form to follow your function, then pick two points: What’s the beginning, and what’s the ending? Next, figure out what complications and conflicts happen in the middle. Now subdivide your beginning, middle, and ending into their own beginnings, middles, and endings, and fill up those nine little boxes.
There’s your structure. Now build the thing to look like the form you came up with originally. Don’t worry that much about things like page count or what exactly happens when. If you can explain what happens in your story when and why, then you’ve already got the pitch that will make it look like your script tastes like the structure flavor-of-the-month — and if you’re writing for theatre, you’re going to be much less limited in that regard to begin with.
Don’t be afraid of structure. Embrace it and make it your own.