Structure: Elephant In The Room

Story structure has become a riddle. We have bona fide experts, people with solid credentials, telling us story structure is critical. Many argue that story structure comes in 1 or 3 or 4 or 5 or 7 or even 9 acts! Others proclaim story structure to be a myth.

by Lee A. Matthias

Set-Up: Blind Man’s Bluff

They say that we shouldn’t care about the structure in our stories.

New writers go from expert to expert, book to book, screenwriting boot-camp to guru seminar, never getting to a truth they can use. The answer eludes them.

So what is going on? Who is right? The answer, I will show, is everyone. Everyone is right. And, no one. No one is right. First, structure is a riddle, now it’s a paradox. Or, maybe not.

Design is not just what it looks like and feels like.
Design is how it works.
-Steve Jobs

In the modern age, Hollywood story analyst Syd Field identified, and, in a series of books, laid the ground-work for a structural model of screen stories. Field referred to it as a “paradigm,” three connected parts, proportioned approximately in a 25/50/25% relationship. Borrowing from the first wave of screenwriters (who, in turn, had borrowed from classic drama and Aristotle), he called them “acts,” functioning in the story as “set-up, confrontation, and resolution.” He numbered these acts 1, 2, and 3, and he separated them with “plot points,” 1 and 2. He said that they were story events on which the story pivots as it plunges forward into each successive act. Later, he identified a “mid-point” that had the effect of amplifying the story’s momentum toward resolution. He found all movies had this arrangement. And he saw that it was good.

But then, others saw movies that didn’t seem to fit. The acts proportioned differently, and worse, sometimes there seemed to be more than three of them. Some among the new experts identified a transformational “character arc” for the protagonist that, they said, was utterly necessary for a successful story. Then others found successful stories with non-transforming protagonists. What was this thing called story structure, anyway?

New “paradigms” were developed. Some looked to classic music, some to classic myth. Others found eight or even more components. Many theorists built flocks of followers who, in turn, duly considered any theory but theirs heretical. The world was thrown into chaos. Screenwriting anarchy ruled. Syd Field’s books were proclaimed EVIL!

A writer is someone who can make a riddle out of an answer.
-Karl Kraus

There is a classic book, Flatland, by Edwin A. Abbot, published in 1880, that tells the story of a two-dimensional being, a square, living in a two-dimensional world, who discovers he actually inhabits three dimensions, and that he is really a cube. It has a profound effect on his understanding of his world and his view of his own potential. It is required reading for many math and physics students.

Screenwriters, take heed: many of you are flatlanders. But know that you and your stories live in a multi-dimensional, multi-level world.

One is reminded of the story of the blind men all describing an elephant by feeling parts within their reach. One describes the trunk, a different fellow the ear, and another the tail. None can get it truly right. If there was a way to take the best of each description of the “story structure elephant,” what might it be?

As it happens, there is a way of looking at structure which allows this, and we will examine it in the next installment.

(Next week: “Confrontation: On The Levels“)

-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

1 thought on “Structure: Elephant In The Room”

Leave a Comment