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The Story Structure

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The Story Structure

Story structure is one of the basic tools to play with in storytelling. The goal of the structure to organize the events in the story so they will be clear to the audience and also to built tension and a rising emotion in the script.  In this article, I will explain more about it and give you some story structure examples, but before we get deep into the classic structure of films, there are a few things you should know:

When to start working with the 3 acts rule?

When you are working on the first draft of your script, you should  have the film structure in mind, but personally, I recommend getting deep into the story structure only in the second draft so you won’t end up with a very formulaic script. I also recommend working with story structure only after you really understand your characters and the change they are going through.

Now:

as I said, script structure is a very basic tool and when you’ll start to analyze films, you’ll see that most of them if not all of them are using this structure.

The beat

To understand story structure, we have to understand the beat. If you read Robert McKee’s

Now:If you read Robert McKee’s

If you read Robert McKee’s book,Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting, then you’ve heard about this story element. For these of you who haven’t read it, it is a small change that happens inside a scene. Every scene should have at least one beat in it. When working on the story’s structure I would recommend starting with writing a list of all the beats in the script.

Timing each part of the story structure

Most script writing guides and lessons will also tell you how much time each part should have. I’m really against that kind of teaching. I don’t believe that there should be a fixed time limit to each part and this kind of thing depends on your film. Another thing about timing the acts is that those guides do not fit to short films. For example, they will tell you that you need to give about 12 minutes to the opening or at least 10 percent of all film, but in a short story, you don’t have time for that. In a short script, the opening shouldn’t take more than 1 page.

The 3 acts of a good story structure

A good story is generally divided into 3 major part: The opening, The middle and ending. Also known as act 1, act 2 and act 3. The important thing to remember is that all acts should arise from the protagonist’s desire. The one thing he wants should be your guide through these acts. I suggest writing down on a piece of paper the protagonist’s goal and keep looking at it while going through the acts. You can read about working with the protagonist’s desires in my Developing Characters post. It is also important to remember that the structure is not only for the plot but also for the internal journey that the hero is going through.

The opening- Act 1

The opening is the most important part. If it’s not working, you have a problem and I wouldn’t continue on until it is working. That is why I’ve also written an entire post about the opening of your film. The opening or the exposition is where we build the setup of the story. We get to know where the story is set and who are the main characters.

Quick Tip!
The opening is also where the writer should introduce the theme of the story or the general question of the theme. This theme will drive the rest of the story

The opening will end with a turning point (also known as the catalyst). We will have a few of this turning point and this is the first one. This turning point is something that happens to the hero and changes his life completely. It will bring our main character a conflict and an opportunity to solve it. The turning point should also introduce us to the theme of the movie.  In the movie Back To The Future, this is where doc brown show Marty his new experiment. The turning point is when the Libyan terrorists are trying to kill him. Marty is forced to run away in the Delorean and accidently fly into the past.

Things to be careful in act 1:

Don’t start the story too soon. If nothing happens for a long time, that might be a problem. Don’t waste your audience’s time with too many explanations. See if there are explanations you can delete or move to act 2. Also, make sure that we know the protagonist enough to feel empathy for him.

Act 2- Rising Action

This is the hardest act to write in the script. This act will tell us the consequences of the turning point and how the hero is going to deal with them. All of  the hero’s world has changed and now he will have to fix it by the time the film ends. The hero shouldn’t go right away to fix the problem.He will start by learning how to adjust to the new life first, understand what’s just happened. Only after he dealt with the problem, he can start taking action.

Quick Tip!
The second act is also the place where you should develop the relationships that were introduced to us in the first act. The act can also introduce to us other conflicts and sub-plots.

Things to be careful in act 2:

Sometimes we get to attached to the protagonist and try to much to think like him. It is a good idea to start thinking from the antagonist a little bit, especially in this act. The antagonist is as important as the protagonist.

The second turning point

This is still the second act. By now, our hero knows what he is doing. He has a plan and he is working on it, but something just went wrong and his plans need to be changed. This stage takes most of the second act and it will include mostly obstacles to the protagonist.

The third turning point

This is where the story really gets complicated and it looks like everything the hero have worked for is going down the drain. At this point, he has to make the biggest choice of his life so far. In a short film, this point should be the second turning point.
This is a very important moment because now we really get to know him.
A great third turning point is In the movie “Who framed Roger Rabbit”, this is where Edi understand he has to go inside toon town, the place where his brother got killed in if he wants to solve the case. For him, this is his biggest fear and while deciding that he also decides to stop drinking.

Quick tip on writing turning point:

When writing turning points always ask yourself if they are believable enough. There is a tendency with new writers to bring a turning point out of nowhere. Always do what you can to make them more believable.

The Climax

This is where the hero faces the consequences of his last big choice. He has no choice but to face his biggest challenge. He has no way of turning back and he has to face it all. Again in movie “Who framed Roger Rabbit” (spoiler alert!!!!) this is where Edi meets the cartoonish character that killed his brother.

It’s nice to have a twist in the plot when you get to the climax. Think of all the possible situation your hero can get to at this point and try to eliminate the obvious ones. The more the conflict get complicated at the climax stage, the more your protagonist solution needs to be. When you are writing a climax with a big twist in the plot, make sure you’ve put enough clues to it throughout the story and that you used them wisely. When I say “used them wisely” I mean putting them in a way the audience will not notice at the time. Putting them in the high point of an action scene is a good example.

The ending

Now we have to see how our main character’s life has changed. The main conflict and the sub-conflicts should be solved by now.

These are the 3 acts story structure. When you are working on the second draft, you should make sure that there is a clear distinguish between all 3 acts. Especially when you feel something is not working in your story.

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The Story Conflict

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The Story Conflict

 story conflict definition

A story conflict is a gap between what someone wants or needs and the forces that prevent him from getting it. To build a story conflict, you need two forces that will work one against each other. It’s an elementary tool in every story that creates tension. The conflict will result at the end of the movie.

Why do we need the story conflict?

This is the most important part in writing a script. The conflict is the tool you use to help your main characters face their fears and all other emotional issues. By seeing how they react to the conflicts, we learn more about them and get to know them better. If a conflict reveals other sides of the characters that we didn’t know before, then our character is a good 3 dimensional one. It is also a tool that will help us to understand our story’s premise better

Types of story conflicts

There are 3 levels of conflicts you can use in your movie:

Inner conflict – Thew hero has a problem with himself and his morality. For example, the protagonist doesn’t want to rob a bank, but, on the other hand, he doesn’t have any money to feed his family. Fear and guilt can be good obstacles. Other good examples of inner conflicts can be sexual, religious, cultural and etc.
Inner conflict is considered to be the most powerful one. It helps us to feel empathy towards him.
Personal Conflict – This is an external conflict between the protagonist and a different character (or characters). The other character will be the antagonist.
Universal/social – Protagonist is against something very big like a hurricane, the government, etc.

Sometimes the universal and personal conflicts will represent an inner conflict. Basically, what you need to remember is that a conflict is whatever that try to stop the protagonist from getting what he wants.

Finding out your story conflict and strengthening it

Identifying the main conflict in a movie can sometimes be a little tricky, but you have to do it or you won’t be able to get very far.
The main conflict should be summarized in one sentence: “The main conflict is between ___ and ____ (the opposing forces). If You have trouble to do that, then you need to investigate it.

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These are questions that will help you to strengthen your story conflict:

  • Who is our main character and what is her goal? The main character’s goal is really the first part of the conflict. What is it she is trying to achieve? You have to find what is the one thing they just have to get. This is going to be the fuel of your film so put some thoughts into it. It has to be something very strong. It has to be something that agrees with her beliefs and ideologies. Try to think even bigger and answer what is their goal for after the film end. What do they want to have 30 years from now?
  • The next question will be, what is stopping her from getting what she wants or need? There is a force that fights her. What is the motivation of this antagonist? Being a pure evil guy is not a good motive and if you are using an inner conflict and the antagonist is the protagonist’s fear of talking to strangers, it can’t be just because that’s the way she is. It has to have some kind of reason. Understanding that force will help you understand the obstacles that the protagonist need to go through. Make sure that this antagonist is equal in power to the protagonist. Nobody wants to see a fight between a lion and an ant- We know who will win right at the start.

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  • The third question is: What is at stake? If the protagonist won’t get what he wants, is there something he might lose? Is it something worth fighting for? Understanding what’s at stake is the answer to the question, why is it that our hero doesn’t give up?

Building a conflict up to the climax

We now agree that every good story needs a conflict, but your conflict needs to grow and develop throughout the film. The sooner you’ll bring in the conflict (as a very small one at the start), the better it will be for your movie. If you don’t want to start the conflict right at the beginning, it can also be good to insert some subtle clues and hints to the upcoming conflict. The conflict will grow with obstacles that get harder and harder to overcome into a point where everything that gained might be lost if the protagonist won’t win this last obstacle. That point is called Climax. The climax usually will reveal to us in what way the hero has changed.

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Use conflict everywhere you can

Every scene needs to have a conflict in it and every time you show a conflict in a scene you need the audience to care about the outcome. After you set the goal of your character, try to see what is it she wants to achieve in every action she acts, in every scene. She may say to her daughter not to go to the party because it’s dangerous, but what she really wants might be for her daughter not to grow up so she will not feel the she is getting old. Look for the main character goal in everything she does and says and then look for what is the force that works against this small goal.

Your Story Premise

 

Make A Strong Story With A Good Story Premise

The story premise is actually the leading force behind what we do in real life. In storytelling, the premise the concept that leads the plot and the characters in the story.

The biggest advantage of the story premise is that it helps you understand your story and your main character a lot better- Why is your main character acting the way it is? Why doesn’t it give up? What’s it desires? What’s the source of its obstacles? and Why does he having a hard time overcoming them?
Once you’ll answer those questions you will know the core of your story better.

How do I know if the premise is good?

It is important to understand that a good premise is not judged by the idea itself. We have plenty of ideas. The premise is judged by the way the director translate the idea to film. The premise has to enter the viewer mind without him noticing it.

All good premises are built from 3 essential parts:  An ambitious character, a conflict, and a closure. I will talk about these 3 things later on in my blog, but for now, you need to know that your premise will dictate those 3 elements. Once you find your premise, your characters are not free anymore, they need to serve that premise. Everything in the story- the characters, the conflicts and the actions should arise with the screenwriter’s premise.

Now:

Usually, you should be able to sum your premise up in 2 or 3 sentences. If you can’t, then it’s probably not accurate enough. Ask yourself what your story tell us that we have to know, what’s the point of this story? At first, you can start by formulating it as a question- for example- “Doe’s love wins it all?”
On the other hand, you have to make sure your premise is not too obvious. We still want to entertain them.


The 4th element of a good premise

There is another important element to consider, when writing the premise and it is the script writer’s point of view. It may sound like a not important thing to deal with, but trust me- it is! First of all, If you don’t have anything you want to say, why do you want to work on this art form? There are many other better ways to make money. But more important, your unique point of view is what can make your movie an original one. I recommend reading the find your own voice article to understand how to find your own point of view.
The theme doesn’t always has to be a very important one about mankind, it depends on your way of seeing the world, but every story has to have one. In my opinion, a movie should never be judged by his premise but, by the way, he proves his premise in the movie.


When do I start thinking about my premise?

The premise is usually the next step after the idea, although sometimes it becomes clearer after writing a few drafts. Although it will be easier for you to develop your story with a clear premise.
Once you find your premise I recommend writing it in a small piece of paper and putting it somewhere in front o
f you while you are writing the story.

How to deliver the premise in the film – 2 examples

In the movie A Clockwork Orange, the story premise is “Can we define goodness and evil with esthetics?” The answer according to the movie is NO. We see it best in this scene:

 

In this scene, the hooligans are breaking into the old couple’s house, beat the husband and rape his wife. For me, This is one of the most violent scenes in cinema’s history. Kubrick plays an evil game with us. He wants us to feel ambivalent about this scene.
So how does he do that? With colors!
The scene before has very gray colors. When we get use to the gray, blue cold and dead colors, we move on to the next scene. Now, we are in a house with lots of warm lights, the camera is very stable. We feel good about this scene. We are set to start the ambivalent feeling.

another good example will be the movie Rumble Fish. This is the most important scene in the film. Can you guess why?

So how does Francis Ford Coppola tells us to pay attention to the scene? First of all the name of the film is Rumble fish and Rusty’s brother is talking about rumble fish, but also, this is the only scene with some color in it. In this scene, Rusty James meets his biker brother in front of an aquarium in the local pet store. Rusty asks if everything is alright and his brother tells him to look at the fish. He explains to Rusty that the two tanks are separated because if they will be together they will fight themselves. The brother tells the officer that the fish belong in the river – “I don’t think they’ll fight if they will be in the river.” and this is the big question of the film- the great story premise, “Will they fight if they are free?”. The film premise is “Are we, humans,  evil by nature or does society makes us that way?”

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 Homework

Your homework now is to take a look at some of your favorite movies (choose at least 5) and find out what the story premise is. Not only you need to find it out, you will also need to prove it through the film. How does the film project this premise? I really recommend doing this homework and if you want to send it to me I’ll be glad to read it