Structure: Elephant In The Room (3)

The physical structure of screenplays does “the carrying” up on the surface or plot level in any grouping of components which the writer deems necessary and which allows the story to succeed.

by Lee A. Matthias

The logical structure of screenplays, on the other hand, succeeds at a level below the surface, and is always and only in three parts, where the meaning is found.
The logical level, the level of meaning, is below the physical or plot level because the meaning is, when done serviceably, not obvious. In fact, when done well, it is sub rosa, hidden, and must be divined or inferred from the events of the plot.

Why is this? Because it’s true to life. Life rarely offers answers. And when it does they are concealed among questions and the struggles of living. When meaning is concealed, infinite meaning can be derived.

Life rarely offers answers.

Infinite? Effectively, yes, because the meaning comes not from the story, but from the viewer, all the viewers. Greater and different meaning, even opposing meaning from the same viewers over the course of their lives. In truth, there is no meaning in the story, only en-coding that is de-coded and then interpreted, by each viewer in each viewing based on the experience of their own lives. That is why writers, are often able to find surprising new meaning in their own stories.

When meaning is concealed, infinite meaning can be derived.

So, how is the story’s meaning on that deeper level, the logic level, conveyed? Answer: through the experience of the protagonist. The protagonist either alters, transforms, as the result of the events of the story, or he/she/it/them fails to transform, despite the need for it. In that case, the meaning still transforms. It transforms where it always has, where the meaning of the tale really ever exists, within the audience. So there is a transformation of meaning, and it is articulated in the three parts, the three “acts,” wherein a protagonist encounters a dilemma (1), chooses to confront it (2), and ultimately either succeeds or fails to resolve it (3).

there is a transformation of meaning,
and it is articulated in the three parts

On the logical level the parts are always in threes. That is the simplest configuration from which to fully convey meaning. It is also the essential structure found throughout human reasoning: the logic syllogism, the dialectic, jokes, all of them work in threes. Anything more is superfluous, anything less risks failure to communicate. And that leaves room for the writer to, up on the physical level, create a plot in any configuration, any numbering of parts, he/she chooses. Provided it works for its audience.

the logic syllogism, the dialectic,
jokes, all of them work in threes.

The value of the multi-level model of story structure is (what else?) three-fold:

  • It offers writers the ability for quick analysis of both existing stories (for study) and their own story ideas (for analysis).
  • It offers the potential for audience illumination and growth.
  • It more readily assures an entertaining and satisfying story experience.

Make no mistake, the physical and logical structures are always both present in serviceable works. Sometimes the logical exactly corresponds with the physical. Other times the two co-exist in separate configurations, on their own levels, and with little or no correlation between them.

The way to test the notion that a story’s structure is tied to the protagonist is to pick a successful story, ask oneself whose story it is, and chart the arc of transformation which that protagonist, either undergoes, or fails to undergo despite the need for it. “Whose story is it?” This is the most important question to ask in determining a story’s structure. Examples of films analyzed in this manner can be found beginning in the three articles found here.

For all of this, an awareness of structure is good only to writers. As long as it works, audiences don’t care. To be sure, audiences would rather not know the structure of a beloved story, because it takes away the magic created by the piece and kills it. So, structure is for writers. It is useful, as we’ve pointed out, for conception, for efficiency, and later as the story is written, for unity, and for focus.

audiences would rather not know the structure of a beloved story

For audiences, then, it is valuable to the extent it works to yield its magical results. It is important not just to help writers work their way through huge blocks of narrative plot-line. It is valuable because it explains its subject to its creators. And, thanks to such functioning on the deeper level of meaning, it helps audiences in understanding their own lives.

So, both surface, physical-level structure, and deeper, logical-level structure are useful.

One helps writers find a way to tell the story, and the other helps writers find a way to tell the truth.


-Lee A. Matthias

I am a writer with one published novel, a nonfiction book on the way, and several screenplays written and in development. During and after college, I worked as a theater projectionist and manager, in public relations, and as a literary agent selling to publishers and producers. I currently work as a computer network administrator in government. I’m married and the father of two daughters.
Creative Commons License photo “elephant” credit: David Blackwell

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