Story Structure Lies ‘Gurus’ Told You
We need to talk about story structure.
The screenwriting world—and screenwriting blogs—are obsessed with story structure.
Those interested in writing novels also often look to popular screenwriting books for ideas on story design and story structure.
These screenwriting books and blogs lay out their theories, systems, and formulas, always making sure to say their systems aren’t in fact formulas but instead flexible principles or guidelines.
Perhaps, like me, you found these structures appealing at first because they seemed to tell you the exact story beats to use to write a script or novel. All you needed was a midpoint, three acts, an all-is-lost moment, and a few other plot points.
But you’ve probably also discovered that these ready-made structures generally don’t work: that the stories you’re interested in, no matter how hard you try, don’t conform to these systems.
The good news is that if you listen to Scriptnotes and talk to working screenwriters, you’ll learn that nearly no one follows these structures, and writers in fact look down upon them.
The even better news is that there is a much simpler, more effective way of thinking about stories and how to craft them—a way of thinking that works equally well for screenplays and novels.
In particular, if you want to construct a meaningful story, the kind that actually touches and moves people, a few simple ingredients work best:
- Characters that you make your readers care about.
- An emotional and philosophical journey for that character or characters that leads them to a different emotional and philosophical position by the end of the story than the one they had at the start of the story.
- And a powerful theme or central dramatic argument.
That’s it. You don’t need a midpoint or any of the other nonsense.
Figuring Out the Rest
The above simple ingredients will also help you figure out everything in between the start of the story and the end.
All you need to do is imagine the events and, more importantly, the relationships that will cause your character to shift from their starting philosophical and emotional position to the one they hold at the end of the story, when they recognize the theme as true.
So, what is a theme or central dramatic argument? There is no fixed definition, but some writers, including myself, believe a theme is a full-sentence statement about life.
For example, consider this central dramatic argument: you should always be afraid. And consider its opposite: you should never be afraid.
This argument is what the movie The Croods is really about. The Croods is about a protagonist, Grug, who at the beginning believes one thing—you should always be afraid—and by the end, believes the opposite: you should never be afraid.
The movie charts this emotional and philosophical journey of Grug, with each plot development designed by the writers to move the protagonist from one belief to its opposite by the end of story.
For example, Grug’s daughter continually challenges his values. And then Guy comes along and shows Grug a different way as well, even though for Grug the process of learning from his daughter and Guy is painful and humiliating.
(If you haven’t already seen the movie, you should: it’s visually beautiful, charming, funny, and meaningful.)
So, if you want to plot out your story beforehand, think about your character’s emotional state and beliefs at the beginning and where you want the character to end up emotionally and philosophically at the end. In other words, think about the theme or central dramatic argument you want your protagonist to recognize as true by the story’s end. And then think about what events or relationships would move your protagonist, often unwillingly, from the starting emotional and philosophical position to the one he or she has by the end.
The protagonist often finally embraces the new value system either just before or during the climax, and it’s this philosophical shift that enables the protagonist to triumph during the climax.
Again, see The Croods: Grug uses his former enemy, the tiger—the kind of creature he used to fear—as part of his solution to the climax’s problem. He stops being afraid, and, because of that, he solves the daunting story problem before him: getting from one side of a chasm to another, where his family waits.
I’m not saying you have to do any of this. I’m not trying to push a rule.
I’m instead arguing for a design system that works well and that produces stories that have meaning.
The value in creating a story that has meaning can’t be emphasized enough. Those are the stories that people remember. Present a story that actually has something to say about this crazy experience called life, and people will love it.
These ideas about story design are not original to me, and the below Holy Grail of story design elaborates on them.