What is the best theory of story structure for screenwriting, and why?

Answer by Sean Hood:

Most theories of screenplay structure are based on the Three Act Paradigm, inspired by Aristotle's Poetics and supported by the simple observation that all stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end.

These three acts correspond to the audience's emotional experience. In the beginning, the audience becomes emotionally involved with the characters. In the middle, the emotional commitment is heightened by rising tension and expectation. The end brings the audience's emotional involvement to a satisfactory end.

Interestingly, this emotional structure mirrors the phases of human sexual response: excitement, plateau, climax and resolution.

A detailed look at the Three Act Paradigm, with its "turning points, rising action and climax" can be found on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three-act_structure

However, many have criticized the Three Act Paradigm, and claim that an over-emphasis on act breaks, reversals and climax can lead to weak plots and poor characterization.

At USC's School of Cinematic arts, the theory of story structure most often taught comes from Frank Daniel. In his lectures, he said that "a good story well told" had five elements:

  1. The story is about somebody with whom we have empathy.
  2. This somebody wants something very badly.
  3. This something is difficult but possible to do, get, or achieve.
  4. The story is told for maximum emotional impact and audience participation.
  5. The story comes to a satisfactory (but not necessarily happy) end.

(See The Tools of Screenwriting, by David Howard and Edward Mabley.)

Brian McDonald, in both his blog and book Invisible Ink, claims that all effective stories have the basic structure of a fairy tale:

  1. Once upon a time_____________
  2. And every day________________
  3. Until one day_________________
  4. And because of this___________
  5. And because of this___________
  6. Until finally__________________
  7. And ever since that day_______

There are also certain filmmakers who discard traditional story structure altogether, and have proposed alternatives:

  • David Lynch, in such films as Lost Highway and Mulhollland Dr., uses dream logic and circular (rather than linear) storytelling. His theories of story and creativity can be found in his book, Catching The Big Fish.
  • Andrey Tarkovsky, in such films as The Mirror and The Sacrifice, embraces a poetic, rather than traditionally dramatic, approach to cinema. His theories can be found in his book, Sculpting in Time.
  • Raul Ruiz, in films such as Three Crowns of the Sailor, challenges the idea that every plot should have a central conflict as its backbone. His theories can be found in his book, Poetics of Cinema.

What is the best theory of story structure for screenwriting, and why?


Author: E. Thompson

I make movies. Sometimes people see them. I have been a martial artist for a very long time. I'm in a personal war with the Oxford comma.

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