On Breaking Structure

First, let me be clear about one thing.

All new, aspiring writers must master the three act structure first.

That’s the most basic building block of screenwriting.


At every team practice, Michael Jordan always, always, always returned to the basics – the free throw. And that’s the three act structure for us screenwriters.

It’s not enough to have seen lots of three act films and have the knowledge of how a three act structure works. You need the experience of shaping stories within a three act structure, of building tension, of molding that rising climax, and creating satisfying payoffs. That’s not easy. And I think all aspiring screenwriters should have at least 10-20 scripts under their belt and received feedback on all those scripts and been validated about how well they handled their stories before stepping onto the world stage.

You gotta be damn good. Plus, so much of a career is assignment work and most of those assignments will be three act structures. You need that experience writing three acts so you can deliver great scripts, which is what you’re getting paid to do.

Much of a career is assignment work and
most of those assignments will be three act structures

It doesn’t matter what the concept is with your first 20 stories. What matters is your experience, how well you handled characters and structure, and what you learned from feedback about your own weaknesses. Bergman, Fellini, Godard, Altman all spent YEARS working mainstream and mastering stories in the classical form before they ventured into alternative storytelling. There’s wisdom in that.


With that said, once you have three acts down cold, I say play with structure. So much fun! But you must have a solid reason to tell a story using a different structure. I recently watched La Vie en Rose, which had a non-linear structure. We flowed seamlessly from her middle years to her childhood to her later years without much connection (that I could determine on a first viewing). The transitions were great. The individual scenes were great. The placement of the emotional highs and lows in the narrative was wonderful, and the performance by Marion Cotillard was just a tour de force. Her performance in and of itself is worth the time to watch the film.

I say play with structure. So much fun!

But what about that damn structure? I recall reading a review by one of my favorite critics, James Berardinelli, who had this to say:

The film presents Piaf’s life via a broken chronology, leaping back and forth across time without apparent rhyme or reason. The movie dips into nearly every phase of her life, which lasted from 1915 until 1963, showing her in one scene as a dying woman who looks 20 years older than she is and in the next as a young girl during post-World War I France. La Vie en Rose‘s blatant disregard of linear progression is similar in some ways to Todd Haynes’ approach to Bob Dylan in I’m Not There, but there’s a key difference. Oliver Dahan may choose to present Piaf’s life in a fragmented fashion, but everything is ultimately connected (and, except for the childhood scenes, there is a single actress playing the lead character). Haynes essentially made six short films and jumbled them together. The end result is more satisfying in La Vie en Rose, although there are still difficulties becoming immersed in a storyline that jumps around so much, especially when there’s no clear purpose for presenting Piaf’s life in this fashion.

There are still difficulties becoming immersed
in a storyline that jumps around so much.

That last sentence just hits the nail on the head. That’s the reason this film is sitting at 75% on Rotten Tomatoes and failed to reach the height of greatness because there was no definite reason to the non-linear structure, which was uneven at times and existed just for the sake of highlighting sections of her life. They did this, I think, to make a story that would’ve been episodic (if told in chronological order) more digestible. But perhaps if there had been a direct causal relationship between the different sections of her life, that one section, say, with a heartbreak, was the reason why, later in her life, she did X, Y, and Z, it might’ve made more sense. In the final sequence of Rose, Edith was lying in her bed talking about her memories, how her mind is making her relive moments she didn’t want to see. I wondered if this whole film was a collection of her memories as it was flooding back to her the final night of her life, but no, that was meant just for the final sequence. A framing device like that might’ve helped, kind of like Point Blank, in the sense that the film is all of her final thoughts before she dies. (In Point Blank, Lee Marvin is double-crossed and the entire film is what takes place in his mind moments before his death as he imagines taking revenge on his betrayers. Great film.)


Oh, in Annie Hall, Allen’s non-linear structure punctuated a point he was making about Annie and Alvy, that is, they were fated to always be searching for a love that lasts but never find it. THAT was the reason for his non-linear structure and it worked.

How about Sex and Lucia? I went to see this movie for the structure. It’s true! Yes, the sex was nice, as was Lucia, played by the very pretty Paz Vega. But here’s the thing. The film starts with the beginning. Then, it gives you the ending and ends in the middle. Imagine that! Without getting too deep into the story, they presented a conflict, gave us a tragic ending as it was imagined by the writer living with Lucia as he was writing his book, and then they ended it in the middle where the characters were given the opportunity to choose. Nobody got it. Maybe people were too distracted by the sex and nudity to notice the story. I don’t know. I thought it was pretty damn clever.

So what about films that go in reverse?


In Memento, the backwards structure helped us to understand the condition of the protagonist. We didn’t know what the hell was going on anymore than he did. Tell me, though, if the last thing Leonard remembered was his wife dying, then how does he remember the fact that he has short-term memory loss? How does that happen?

But I want to talk about Irreversible.


I cannot in good conscience recommend this film. It opens with angry men looking to take revenge on another man, and we’re witness to a tragedy that is so realistic and so brutal, it is one of the few times I had to close my eyes as I watched a film. It made me ill. But then we move backwards in time and we’re made to see the reason for their anger, that is, the rape of Alex, played by Monica Bellucci, in one of the longest, most brutal rapes scenes ever portrayed on film. This, too, made me ill.

I had to close my eyes as I watched a film. It made me ill.

But in all that time we watch this rape scene, we realize that the angry man who sought revenge on behalf of his violated lover, actually killed the wrong man. Then, we’re made to see all the different events that led up to the rape. We’re forced to contemplate all those mistakes along the way, because this could’ve been avoided. If only he treated her better and wasn’t such an ass! It is about cause and effect. It also forces us to appreciate more the good moments in life, as we saw in the warm, loving ending. Ebert makes five points about the film that are worth noting.

By placing the ugliness at the beginning, Gaspar Noe forces us
to think seriously about the sexual violence involved.

But the most important one is this:

The fact is, the reverse chronology makes Irreversible a film that structurally argues against rape and violence, while ordinary chronology would lead us down a seductive narrative path toward a shocking, exploitative payoff. By placing the ugliness at the beginning, Gaspar Noe forces us to think seriously about the sexual violence involved. The movie does not end with rape as its climax and send us out of the theater as if something had been communicated. It starts with it, and asks us to sit there for another hour and process our thoughts. It is therefore moral – at a structural level.

What are your thoughts?

– Mystery Man

I’m famous yet anonymous, failed yet accomplished, brilliant yet semi-brilliant. I’m a homebody who jetsets around the world. I’m brash and daring yet chilled with a twist.

I also write for Script Magazine.

1 thought on “On Breaking Structure”

  1. A great exercise in structure is simply watching Memento chronologically vs. the theatrical cut. More flaws are exposed, but the nature of the structure and just how well it works is also much more apparent. (Also in the way those flaws are disguised by the structure).

    I disagree with your interpretation of Point Blank but that’s the beauty of Point Blank, isn’t it? The structure adds to the films mystery.

    Nice post!


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