Sunday, February 18, 2007

Inventorying Structures

In a recent post, I mentioned my problem with "paint by numbers" screenwriting guides that dictate exactly what page your beats should land on. Structures and stories vary. How can a person, list, or program possibly dictate where my beats go without knowing my structure, outline, beat sheet or even what's in my head?

For the record, I do not oppose rules and guidelines. I live by rules and guidelines. They keep me under the speed limit, keep me from driving on the wrong side of the road, keep me from walking into men's rooms (usually), and keep me from exacting my own justice in snack bar lines and at movie theaters. I only wish the rules made pre-pube brats sit down and turn their cell phones off during the film.

Alas, not all rules are enforced. And, alas, some unnecessary ones are. People can bring their screaming baby to the movie for free but I can't give them a frozen beer-sickle to shut them up so I can watch my eight dollar movie in peace? Where is the justice in that?

Anyhoo.. writing drama doesn't have all that many guidelines. Writing actually has more concepts than guidelines and even fewer rules. Even so, how can you tell me what the rules are if you don't know what game I'm playing?

So, let's talk about the various games.

In the first chapter of Linda Seger's book, "Advanced Screenwriting, Raising Your Script to the Academy Award Level", she discusses various structures. I had never even heard of a couple of these structures so if any of you (at last count, fewer than 50 a day - I gotta work on my readership) can add film examples, I'd appreciate it. Keep in mind, too, that while this is my synopsis, these are Linda Seger's categories.


This is a no-brainer. It's basically the progression of point A to point B with a beginning, middle, and an end and it's probably what all those "paint by numbers" people are telling you to do. There's nothing wrong with a linear structure and in fact, it's the way most of us probably write, especially our first drafts, but it's not the only way.


We don't see too many of these because it's hard to do. This is basically a broken record kind of structure. We date the same kind of abusive person over and over again. We work the same dead-end job over and over again. This structure is easy to botch because the writer has to keep the forward motion going beyond the repetition. Done wrong, the audience will easily grow bored or feel stuck. Sure, it worked for Groundhog Day but can you think of any others where it really worked? I mean really worked well.


This is an often used structure of dividing the story into separate journeys. It's like watching two or more trains running along separate tracks at different speeds. Sometimes they're at the same place. Sometimes they aren't. Parallel structure is not the same as subplot. These are separate journeys. Films like Crash, Traffic, Magnolia, and The Red Violin use parallel structures. Done well, it works, but this structure often puts the author in peril of creating a choppy mess. How many Rom Com's have you seen butchered in a You've Got Mail emulation attempt?


Okay, you know all the general reluctance to use flashbacks? Well, you don't have much choice here. In the spiral, somebody comes to terms with a traumatic past event. Films like Prince of Tides and Ordinary People use the spiral structure where each time we visit an issue, theme, or problem, the character grows somewhat as a person. Flashbacks are essential, prompted by something taking place in the present day story. This also happens to be the fastest way for a new writer to earn the disapproval of readers since so much of the story goes back and forth via flashback.


We like to unravel mysteries and again, this is a structure that will probably require some flashbacks. The Usual Suspects used flashbacks to unravel a complex story and then turned the tables on us, so it must work. But it's not easy to pull off.

Linda Seger uses Presumed Innocent as an example of a poorly unraveled mystery. At the end of film, the villain just spills the beans. We've gone through a complex journey and arrive at the end of the story only to sit through a confession from a remorseful villain. That's not unraveling a mystery.

Unraveling a mystery is planting seeds along the way and giving the viewer a fair shot at putting the pieces together without giving them too much rope. How's that for mixing metaphors? By the end of the film when the truth comes out, the viewer should be able to go back and add it all up without feeling cheated or as if somebody just vomited everything out in third act exposition.


One word - Memento. The beginning is the end and the end is the beginning. Betrayal is another backwards film. These stories are told in reverse. Like all the aforementioned structures, they have a beginning, a middle, and an end. They just aren't told in A, B, C order. They're told in C, B, A. The story unravels from end to beginning.


Okay, I'm not even going to pretend to understand what this means or how this can work because it plays with cinematic truth - well, if there really is such a thing. Linda uses Before the Rain, a Macedonian film, as an example. It's about an Albanian girl who runs to a monastery for refuge from somebody who is trying to kill her. She meets a photographer who helps her escape but she's killed anyway. Somehow, the story shifts back and she is alive at the monastery where the end of the film circles back to the beginning. I suspect in some time travel films this works, but other than that, I'm at a loss.


Unlike the reverse structure, while the looping structure has a beginning, middle and end taken out of order, it doesn't play them in reverse. It just plays them out of order. Pulp Fiction and Mulholland Drive play around with the order of events in order to make the viewer feel different story elements from different character perspectives. It's like forcing us to wear different hats in a twisted game of ring-around-the-protagonist and it's brilliant when it works.

That's eight structures.

Okay, so maybe there aren't THAT many different structures, but wouldn't it be great to create one that nobody else has ever tried before? That's my fantasy-- to develop my own ingenious structure -- one so creative and individual that writers everywhere will try to mimic it -- only they can't -- because it will be so unique that it will only work for my story.

Do you think there's anything out there left untried? I don't know.

I hope so.


Unk said...

Wow! 8 Structures! All this from a guru who's never written a screenplay! You gotta love it!

I can fit ALL those films into ONE structure if you let me explain it long enough... LOL.


MaryAn Batchellor said...

but you're smarter than the average bear

ECHenry said...

Marry Ann, what structure did Quintin Tarranteno use in "Revervoir Dogs" and "Pulp Fiction?"

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

MaryAn Batchellor said...

I've never seen Reservoir Dogs but Pulp Fiction is that hop scotch loop structure.

Tracy said...

Hey MaryAn,

Lately I’ve been thinking about structure as it relates to how particular cultures tell stories. Do European films use a different structure than films made in India, or Africa, or Mexico? Do different cultures within the US structure their stories to mirror their own personal upbringing and beliefs?

I’ve always noticed that films outside of the US felt different – not so sure how in particular. And I’m not just talking about the three-act structure; what about particular plot points that must be hit within the film – be it death, birth, a fall from grace, etc…? Are there particular symbols married to each act?

Okay, too much procrastination. Back to writing.