Why Story Structure Matters, Even If You Don’t Want It To
Cat! Mike Rinaldi introduces today’s guest blogger: Chris Riley is an inspiration. He’s a successful screenwriter, teacher, and author. He’s actually pleased with the film that resulted from his first produced spec sale, which is rare for a writer. His career spans from the Warner Bros. lot to university classrooms and he’s married to a beautiful woman who looks half her age. That’s even more rare for a writer! But in the grand scheme of things, that’s not why Chris inspires me. I met Chris about a year after I met Blake and though they didn’t know each other, I’ve been struck by how many qualities these men share.
Many of you knew Blake’s kindness, generosity, endless enthusiasm, and his unlikely combination of high energy and gentle spirit. Because these characteristics are so uncommon, they really jump out at you when you see them and I noticed this immediately about Chris. And also like Blake, when they aren’t educating and encouraging young screenwriters, Chris and Kathy Riley have another life outside of Hollywood, quietly affecting lives in profound ways.
It’s difficult for me to grasp that Blake has already been gone for a year because his ideas are discussed here every day. But when I see an uncommon spirit that Blake had also at work in the lives of people like Chris and Kathy, I’m reminded that everything Blake stood for has never left. And we thank Chris for contributing today’s guest blog:
Structure kills creativity.
Structure is for paint-by-the-numbers hacks, mindless, slavish screenwriting hordes laboring in the sweatshops of Snyder, Aristotle, and McKee.
Structure is a four-letter word. Count ‘em. Str-uc-tu-re. Four toxic letters that spell death to art.
So let’s not talk about structure. Let’s talk about butterflies.
I wonder if airplane designers debate whether the laws of aerodynamics matter. If they entertain the notion of casting aside those outmoded, restrictive physical laws that mandate things like thrust and lift, and that result in a dull sameness among aircraft, each with some form of motor and wing.
I wonder if any of those free-thinking designers build flying machines without regard for the rigid and stultifying laws of aerodynamics, build them in bright colors and novel, bulbous shapes without wings, without motors, then wrap silk scarves around their necks and take their machines to the skies.
I wonder if they die in pain.
The good news: no one dies when a screenwriter defies the principles of screenplay structure. What terrible thing does happen? The story loses its way. The audience loses interest. The film bombs.
I have no interest in propounding rules for rules’ sake. I’m a screenwriter. I aspire to create films that explore and expand the boundaries of cinema in all its forms. If I could craft a story with no structure, or with some radically new structure heretofore unknown to humankind, I’d love to do it and take home the Nobel in Screenwriting. But I don’t want to commit the cardinal sin of the would-be entertainer, boring the audience. And I must tell you that having read thousands of scripts, and watched many, many films, and worked with hundreds of students on their stories, and written an award-winning European film, and written scripts for Hollywood studios, and written scripts for the Web, I’ve made this observation. Stories without structure don’t work. They don’t sustain audience interest from beginning to end. They bore.
A movie is a delicate thing, typically consumed by a viewer in one sitting, dependent on a story that constantly moves forward, upping the emotional ante, riveting us in our plush seats. Without a sound structure capable of grabbing audience interest at the start and holding it until the end, a two-hour film collapses under its own weight. It sags in the middle. It fails to provide the setups and payoffs, the emotional ups and downs, that create a cinema experience that satisfies.
We know this from observing films that work, the same way we know about the laws of aerodynamics by observing planes that fly.That’s where Aristotle got his material.He didn’t make it up.He wasn’t a structure czar.He was a scientist.He observed the stories that worked best and then described what he saw.Same with Robert McKee and Chris Vogler and Syd Field.Same with Blake Snyder.They observed the common structural characteristics of stories that manage to hold audience interest all the way to the end, which is the most fundamental definition of what it means to entertain.Then they described the principles that shape those stories.And despite the variances in terminology and details, their descriptions are remarkably similar.That shouldn’t surprise us.They all looked at the same thing.
Screenwriter Akiva Goldsman has described structure as being like the clothing dummy used by the fashion designer. It always looks the same. If you don’t understand the shape of the clothing dummy, which is the shape of the human body, you’re not going to make clothes that any humans can wear. You might congratulate yourself on your innovation, having sewn a pair of pants that are all puff sleeve, but you’re not going to clothe anyone.
Director Ron Howard offers his own elegant definition. Structure, he says, is the rope that pulls the audience through the story. It’s the one-thing-leads-to-the-next, the-answer-to-one-question-raises-an-even-more-compelling-question quality of films that makes us want to stick around and find out what happens next. And so it is.
Look closely at successful films that appear to defy the principles of story construction and you’ll see that in fact they conform. Memento is a hummingbird of a story, appearing to defy gravity even as it obeys the aerodynamics of story structure. You’ve got a beginning, ingeniously built of stuff that happens last chronologically, and this beginning, as in all good film beginnings, is where we meet and begin to root for the main character. It’s where we’re introduced to the world of the story. It’s where we discover what the situation is, what problem our hero faces, and what he wants. How could it possibly be otherwise? You have a middle, where the main character pursues a plan to get what he wants, where he tries his best against all obstacles to reach his goal. And you’ve got a decisive, cataclysmic ending, even though it’s built of stuff that actually happens first chronologically.
That’s three acts, structure at its simplest and most irreducible.
Want four acts? Split the middle act into two. Five acts? Split the second act into thirds. Have as many acts as you like, only don’t tell your producer or studio executive, because that’s not the language they speak.
Now you don’t necessarily need to study film structure or even believe it exists in order to make a film that works. It’s true. This is because you don’t have to understand structure in an explicit way to write or make a well-structured film. Some storytellers simply know structure implicitly, the way some people always know which way is north. I think that for most of us, however, an explicit mastery of the principles of structure saves weeks and months of wandering in the jungle without a compass. It certainly makes it easier to describe our stories to other Hollywood professionals, nearly all of whom speak the language of structure. But, to be fair, I have to tell you about the case I know in which a writer-director of a high-profile film publicly announced that he’d disregarded the whole three-act structure conceit and simply shot his movie. I saw this infidel’s movie in his presence at a Writers Guild screening in Beverly Hills. The thing worked beautifully. It wasn’t boring. It didn’t collapse under its own weight. It grabbed my attention at the beginning and held it all the way to the end. Which seems to contradict everything I’ve just told you.
In the Q&A following the screening, the filmmaker described the first, bloated, four-hour cut of his film, and the months of sitting in the editing room sifting through his story, discovering his movie, which ultimately came in at around two hours and had a classical three-act structure.Whether he’d admit it or not, he discovered that structure by gut, because he’s a gifted filmmaker and storyteller.He felt his way to it in the darkness of the editing bay.He might have saved himself some of those months in post, and he might have saved his investors some of the dollars he spent shooting scenes he didn’t need, if he’d discovered his structure at the writing stage.
The hummingbird doesn’t need to know how he flies. But to hedge your bets, just in case you’re more human than hummingbird, I say read up on the observations of Aristotle, Field, McKee, and Snyder before you take to the air. The magic of flying isn’t the laws of aerodynamics any more than the magic of cinema is the principles of film structure. But those laws and those principles make the magic possible, enabling mere mortals to harness the power of flight.
Christopher Riley is the author of The Hollywood Standard: The Complete and Authoritative Guide to Script Format and Style. He wrote the German-language courtroom thriller After the Truth with his wife and writing partner Kathleen Riley, and executive produced the provocative web series Bump+.