I started blogging when I realized the greatest weakness in Australian screenplays was structure. Since then I have studied story structure to the point some people now call me “Structure Man” and others call me ‘Cookie Cutter’.
by Karel Segers
This post is for those in the latter category. Those who claim that overly structured stories don’t work.
Let me begin by saying I yet have to read an Australian script that is ‘overly structured’. In fact, there is no such thing as ‘overly structured’. Scripts are ‘unoriginal’, ‘boring’ or ‘predictable’. But ‘overly structured’? No. Among the most mathematically structured scripts I know are The Untouchables and The Incredibles. Did you find those boring or predictable? Probably not.
Those who don’t see the merit in strong structure skills mostly haven’t done the hard work.
Oh, and before I see the same hands go up again, let me state the obvious: you don’t write in the creative zone while thinking of structure. You only get to look at your story structure when you’re in the left brain. Over time, structure skills become second nature in the same way you drive your car without thinking about how you shift gears or which foot to use to break.
Why movie structure works
Movie structure is nothing more or less than emotional logic. It is the order of things as we understand them subliminally, on a deeper level. It is the psychology of characters as we experience it in our everyday lives.
Recently a student wanted to write a story about a character going through the various stages of grief. No coincidence that these stages match beautifully with the Hero’s Journey.
Movie structure is nothing more or less than emotional logic.
Because this model is all about the necessary steps a character needs to go through before we believe that this character can change.
We’re talking here about change of any kind. Have a look at the Kübler-Ross model with the 5 stages of grief, compared with some of the Hero’s Journey stages.
|Kübler-Ross model||The Hero’s Journey|
|Loss||Call to Adventure|
|Denial||Refusal of the Call|
|Bargaining||Approach to the Inmost Cave|
Another student once asked me if there is a correlation between the Hero’s 12 journey stages and the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. The answer is: yes, but not because of the number twelve. In fact Joseph Campbell used a few more stages than Vogler’s twelve.
Wherever we see character change or any behavioral change such as addiction recovery, the character will have gone through a minimal number of steps, or we won’t buy it. Character change follows certain patterns and this emotional logic is reflected in the 3-Act Structure and Hero’s Journey. It is firmly grounded in human psychology and therefore ignoring it makes your story unbelievable to a mainstream audience.
This emotional logic is reflected in
the 3-Act Structure and Hero’s Journey.
For this reason, you can’t just skip steps unpunished.
The Mythology of Redemption
An incident at my son’s preschool some years ago gave me an interesting insight. I learned about my own darkest emotions – and how the principles of character transformation are engrained in our collective unconscious.
The school management stuffed up, in a major way. As a result, fifteen adorable pre-school kids lost their teacher and were subsequently left rudderless for the last three months of the school year. The decision was irreversible and as a parent all I could do was accept it (after going through the stages above).
The principles of character transformation
are engrained in our collective unconscious.
Then the management kept bungling and I felt that something – or someone – needed to change.
The principal had been making mistakes that reflected a lack of competence or at the very least a temporary incapacity to manage the school’s affairs satisfactorily.
This person was the Hero in her own story and she needed to go on a journey of change, or…
How I became The Shadow
When the parents asked for an explanation, the management responded that no mistakes had been made and the principal would continue to take the children’s best interests at heart. No acknowledgment. No redemption.
I didn’t buy it, nor did any other parent. When we called a meeting of the school’s Board, all we got was another litany of denial.
Ironically, in the meantime slowly things started to change for the better at the school. But I was not happy, nor were most other parents.
That doesn’t make any sense. Things were improving?
What more could we hope for?
There had not been a public apology. There had not been an open redemption for all the mistakes from the past.
As human beings, we need to see this redemption. We need to see the perpetrator of the wrongdoings taking the blame – publicly. Or else we don’t believe any improvement is genuine.
It took Australia many generations to say ‘Sorry’ to the indigenous people for stealing their land, then their children. But it had to be done.
This is emotional logic.
This is why The Hero’s Journey works. This is why we see a scene of public redemption at the end of Act Two in so many movies. It is what we subliminally need to see before we believe character change to be real and lasting.
This structure is not dogmatic; it works because it reflects the true nature of the human kind.
Hey, look at those stages again…
They map your journey to successful screenwriting:
- you’ll deny the need for structure
- you’ll be angry that without, it doesn’t work
- you’ll bargain and compensate with extra-awesome dialogue
- you’ll be depressed because your efforts still don’t pay off
- you’ll accept the need for structure – and be successful
Now go and start your grieving.
– Karel Segers
Karel Segers is a producer and script consultant who started in movies as a rights buyer for Europe’s largest pay TV group Canal+.
Back then it was handy to speak 5 languages. Less so today in Australia. Karel teaches, consults and lectures on screenwriting and the principles of storytelling to his 7-year old son Baxter and anyone else who listens.
He is also the boss of this blog.
Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in acquisition, development and production. He has trained students worldwide, and worked with half a dozen Academy Award nominees. Karel speaks more European languages than you have fingers on your left hand, which he is still trying to find a use for in his hometown of Sydney, Australia. The languages, not the fingers.