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The skeleton in storytelling to hang your story on - narrative structure

Needless to say movies of today are great mediums for story telling. The screenplay (script) of the movie is where the story is first told and it becomes the blueprint for the movie. The script-writer is who creates the narrative structure for the story telling that results in the script for the movie.

“The reality is that the single most important thing contributed by the screen-writer is the story structure.” - William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men, The Princess Bride)

In constructing a building, the architect, designs the basic structure first, to hang on it the walls, rooms, roofs, windows, doors, hallways, bathrooms, etc. to make it a finished building. Just in the same way, the script-writer has to develop a narrative structure for the story to which he/she can hang the characters, dialogues, scenes, settings, etc.

The narrative structure is fundamentally about two things – the content of the story (i.e., story - what is it about), and the form used to tell the story (i.e., plot - how a story is told). Story refers to the raw materials of dramatic action as they might be described in chronological order in a movie. Plot refers to the form of storytelling, or the structure that the story follows.

The analysis of the narrative structure of a movie can be done by asking questions:

To flush out the content of the story in the movie, we could ask “who,” “what” and “where” questions. The questions used here might include:

  • What events begin the story?

  • Who are the main characters?

  • What kind of conflicts do they confront?

  • What are the consequences of the conflict to the characters?

  • What kind of resolution is achieved for the conflicts?

  • Who is advantaged by the resolution?

  • What kind of rewards or consequences do the characters face from the resolution?

To flush out the plot structure of the movie, we could ask the “how” questions. The questions used here might include:

  • How are the main characters in the movie introduced?

  • How is the major conflict in the story set up?

  • How does the story move along as the main characters face the central conflict in the story?

  • How is the dramatic confrontation set up, as the movie gets closer to the end?

  • How are the minor and major conflicts resolved towards the end?

If we can take a look at the audience’s perspective, the story and plot are constructs used in the movie to make meaning for them. Unfortunately, in majority of the movies we see, while the stories may change, the plot structure is virtually identical to each other. They are organized in a three-act format that arranges the story in the following structure:

Act 1 – The Setup

In this part of the plot, we are introduced to the main characters, their goals, motivations, emotions, and the conflicts. The main conflict of the story is introduced along with the antagonist (the villain) who stands as an obstacle for the protagonist (the hero) in achieving his/her goal. Typically this stage concludes with an inciting incident that kicks the narrative into the next stage. Typically, Act I takes up a quarter of the whole story from start to finish.

Act II – The Development

At this stage, the narrative adds several more plot complications to increase the sense of urgency for the character to resolve the conflicts as they move along their transformational journey. The cause and effect relationships of the events in Act II propel the characters forward. Cause and effect relationships involve actions that prompt a reaction by some characters in the story, leading to new actions and reactions. This becomes the basis for sequencing the beats of the story. Often the Act II includes a false resolution of the main conflict in the story pointing to major climax in the next Act. Typically, the Act II of the narrative would occupy the middle two quarters of the whole story.

Act III – The Resolution

All the build-up through the Act II around the main conflict of the story, results in a dramatic confrontation during this stage, called the climax. This is where major struggles are waged and a victor is determined. Usually, the protagonists win the main conflict. Following the climax, the closure stage of the narrative is introduced and becomes the space for all the other minor conflicts, issues and ideas that propelled the story so far also get resolved for a satisfying ending.

This is the classical narrative structure that is adopted in majority of the western movies.

As much as the narrative structure provides the skeleton to hang the organs, flesh and skin on, it can take different forms by taking innovative approaches. An even more, we defined structure evolution of the three-act narrative structure is in the late Blake Snyder’s story beats introduced in his book called “Save The Cat.” Blake says the structure has to be iron clad to even the number of pages for each beat within the Acts. This is probably fodder for another blog.

As much as having a structure for your narrative is critical, what form it should take is still up for grabs. What ever works for your movie, is what is advised.

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