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The Ultimate Guide to Mastering Story Structure in Film

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Stories of all kinds, even those that are seemingly simple and straightforward, are complex entities with many moving parts. We, as filmmakers and storytellers, want to tell the best stories we possibly can. Therefore, we attempt to analyze and dissect every film, TV episode, play, and every other type of story we can find.

Understandably, we desire to find patterns, identify similarities, and learn how we can create repeatably successful stories. Thus, we turn to story structure as a tool to help us understand why stories work, how they work, and hopefully how we can repeat that success.

In this article, we will explore some of the most popular types of story structures used in film today. We’ll look at how each structure works and discuss examples from well-known films that demonstrate each approach.

What’s important to understand is that no structure is better than another, and in many cases, you could apply multiple structures to the same work.

Perhaps the best way to think about structure is that it’s a point of view; if you image your story as a physical object, a sculpture, in the middle of a large empty room, structures would be various vantage points spread around the room.

Moving from one vantage point to another would not change your story in any way, but it might change how you perceive it, and it might reveal to you weaknesses or missing elements.

Act Structure: Understanding the Basics

One of the most common story structures is the act-based structure. This structure divides the story into multiple acts, with each act having distinct beginnings and endings.

Two-Act Structure

Conflict, Resolution

The two-act structure is most commonly used in short films, television sitcoms, and the theater. In this type of structure, the first act introduces the characters and establishes the conflict, while the second act shows how the characters attempt to resolve that conflict. This approach is often used to create comedy, as the audience can easily understand the conflict and anticipate how it will be resolved.

Three-Act Structure

Beginning, Middle, End

The three-act structure is a classic framework for storytelling, and it’s widely used in film due to its simplicity and effectiveness. In essence, this structure divides the narrative into three parts: the beginning (Act I), the middle (Act II), and the end (Act III).

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In Act I, or “the setup,” we’re introduced to the main characters, their world, and the central conflict that will drive the story forward. This act typically ends with a turning point or an inciting incident that sets things into motion.

For example, in The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy being swept away by a tornado, marks the end of Act I. Next comes Act II, or “the confrontation,” where characters encounter obstacles as they try to resolve their problems or achieve particular goals—a process that builds tension throughout this part of the story.

In Star Wars: A New Hope, Act II begins once Luke Skywalker joins Obi-Wan Kenobi on his mission to defeat Darth Vader. Finally, we reach Act III (“the resolution”), where all loose ends are tied up; conflicts come to an intense climax before being resolved, and our heroes—often changed by their experiences—reach their ultimate conclusions.

Five-Act Structure

Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, Resolution

The Five-Act Structure is another popular narrative structure used in film, breaking a story into five distinct parts: Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, and Resolution.

The exposition introduces the main characters and their world while setting up the central conflict that will drive the plot forward. The rising action section of a movie showcases how things are getting complicated for the protagonists by introducing various obstacles or creating tension.

The climax section is where everything comes to a head; it’s often regarded as the most exciting part of any story because this is when we see who wins and at what cost. After that follows falling action – which can either be subtle or explosive – where consequences of all actions become known to both characters and audiences alike.

Seven-Act Structure:

Introduction, Rising Action, Turning Point, Climax, Falling Action, Final Turning Point, Resolution

The seven-act structure is a less commonly used story structure in film, but it can provide a different approach to storytelling. In this structure, the story is divided into seven distinct acts: Introduction, Rising Action, Turning Point, Climax, Falling Action, Final Turning Point, and Resolution.

The introduction act sets up the characters and their world, while the rising action builds up tension with conflicts and complications that lead to the turning point where everything changes for the protagonist(s).

The climax presents the most intense conflict or challenges for them. It is followed by falling action that shows how they deal with the consequences of actions taken during climax before reaching another turning point, which prepares us for resolution.

The Seven Act Structure has been implemented in films such as David Fincher’s “Gone Girl,” Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” trilogy, and Pixar’s “Up.” This format allows creative freedom while still providing enough guidance on what should happen next in your script.

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Story Chronology (Timeline)

Linear Structure:

Chronological Order

Linear structure, or chronological order, is the most common and straightforward story structure used in films. It follows a logical sequence of events starting from the beginning and moving towards an ending.

This type of storytelling allows viewers to follow the plot easily without confusion or distraction caused by time shifts or multiple timelines.

With a linear structure, filmmakers have more control over their audience’s emotions as they can build up suspense, leading to an expected climax and resolution at the end.

This traditional approach has proven successful for many classic narratives because it naturally mirrors how we perceive stories – with a start, middle, and end.

Nonlinear Structure:

Flashbacks, Flash-forwards, Multiple Timelines

The nonlinear structure is a technique used in film to tell the story out of order, whether it be through flashbacks, flash-forwards, or multiple timelines. This approach can create a more engaging and thought-provoking experience for the audience by keeping them on their toes and making them actively piece together the narrative.

For example, in Quentin Tarantino’s cult classic “Pulp Fiction,” the story jumps back and forth between different characters’ lives in non-sequential order, creating a unique viewing experience that challenges traditional storytelling conventions.

Similarly, Christopher Nolan’s acclaimed thriller “Memento” uses reverse chronological order to tell the story of a man with short-term memory loss trying to solve his wife’s murder.

Parallel Storylines:

Two Or More Characters With Separate Storylines That Intersect

Parallel storylines are a popular narrative device in film and TV, where two or more characters have their own separate storylines that intersect at some point in the plot.

This storytelling technique allows for multiple narratives to be explored simultaneously, often providing a broader perspective on the central themes of the movie. One great example of parallel storylines is the Oscar-winning drama Crash (2004), where we follow several interconnected stories that explore issues of race, class, and identity in modern-day Los Angeles.

By using this technique effectively, filmmakers can create complex and engaging narratives with multiple threads running through them. Parallel storylines offer opportunities to develop diverse characters who impact each other’s lives while exploring different themes relevant to each character’s individual journey.

Multiple Plotlines:

Multiple Storylines That Are Related To Each Other

Another common type of story structure used in film is the multiple plotline structure. In this approach, there are several different stories or plotlines happening simultaneously, but they are all related to each other in some way.

One great example of this type of structure is the 2004 film “Crash,” which follows the lives of several people living in Los Angeles from different backgrounds and ethnicities.

The movie weaves together multiple storylines that include issues like racism, classism, cultural biases, and personal struggles. As each character’s story unfolds, audiences begin to realize how interconnected their experiences truly are.

Other Story Structures In Film

Time-Loop Structures: Repeating The Same Day Or Period Of Time

One intriguing story structure in film is the time-loop structure. In this type of plot, the main character experiences a repeating cycle of events within a specific period.

They are forced to relive the same day or series of events over and over again until they can break out of the loop. This type of structure allows for unique opportunities to explore character development and add layers to the plot as different versions of events unfold with each repetition.

It’s been used effectively in films like “Groundhog Day” and “Edge of Tomorrow,” where viewers get to see deeper into the character’s motivations and inner struggles as they try to figure out how to escape their endless cycle.

Episodic Structure: Self-contained Episodes

An episodic story structure divides a film into individual episodes, each with its own self-contained plot and character development. This approach is often used for TV shows but also works well in films that are not intended to have a linear narrative arc.

Episodes can be unrelated or loosely connected by themes or characters. The beauty of this structure is it allows the filmmaker to showcase different facets of their story world and explore different moods and tones while keeping viewers engaged from one episode to the next.

Examples include Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction,” where each chapter centers around different main characters within the same overarching storyline, and Netflix’s “Black Mirror,” which delivers thought-provoking commentary through independent episodes exploring technology in relation to humanity.

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The Hero’s Journey Story Structure

The Hero’s Journey is a popular story structure that includes key elements like the Call to Adventure and Resurrection and can be seen in films such as Star Wars, The Matrix, and The Lion King.

Key Elements Of The Hero’s Journey:

Call To Adventure, Meeting The Mentor, Crossing The Threshold, Tests, Allies, Enemies, Approach To The Inmost Cave, Ordeal, Reward, The Road Back, Resurrection, Return With The Elixir

The Hero’s Journey is a popular story structure used in many films that follow a protagonist’s journey toward self-discovery and growth. It typically consists of 12 key elements:

  1. Call to Adventure: The protagonist receives a call to adventure, which sets them on their journey.
  2. Meeting the Mentor: The protagonist meets a mentor or guide who helps them prepare for their quest.
  3. Crossing the Threshold: The protagonist leaves their familiar world and enters a new, unfamiliar one.
  4. Tests: The protagonist faces various challenges and tests along their journey.
  5. Allies: The protagonist makes allies who help them on their quest.
  6. Enemies: The protagonist encounters enemies who hinder their progress.
  7. Approach to the Inmost Cave: The protagonist approaches the main challenge of their journey.
  8. Ordeal: The protagonist faces their greatest challenge yet, often involving life or death situations.
  9. Reward: After overcoming the ordeal, the protagonist receives a reward or gains important knowledge.
  10. The Road Back: The protagonist begins their journey back to their familiar world.
  11. Resurrection: The protagonist faces one final challenge that tests everything they have learned so far and symbolizes rebirth or transformation.
  12. Return with the Elixir: The protagonist returns to their familiar world with newfound knowledge or treasure that benefits themselves and others.

The Hero’s Journey is a common story structure in film that takes the hero on a transformative journey. Here are some examples of movies that use this structure:

  • Star Wars: A New Hope: follows Luke Skywalker as he receives the call to adventure, meets his mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi, crosses the threshold into space, faces tests and battles with allies like Han Solo and Chewbacca, confronts Darth Vader, receives a reward by saving Princess Leia, makes his way back home, and returns with the elixir (the plans for destroying the Death Star).
  • The Matrix: Thomas Anderson (aka Neo) is called to adventure when he receives a message about “the matrix” from Morpheus. He meets his mentor and guide, who trains him in new skills and helps him cross the threshold into the world of hackers and agents. Neo faces tests as he learns more about himself and his powers, fights enemies like Agent Smith, enters the inmost cave (the matrix itself), and undergoes an ordeal where he dies but is resurrected thanks to Trinity’s love and faith in him. He returns with knowledge of how to defeat the matrix.
  • The Lion King: Simba receives his call to adventure when he talks to Mufasa about becoming king. When Mufasa dies at Scar’s hands, Simba runs away from home and meets his mentor, Rafiki. He faces tests along the way with allies Timon and Pumbaa until Nala convinces him to return home – crossing the threshold – where he confronts Scar at Pride Rock during a climactic battle scene. Afterward, Simba ascends Pride Rock as a reward before returning home with newfound wisdom.

These films all use elements of Campbell’s structures where events lead up to powerful beat changes affecting characters’ choices and taking them on heroic journeys towards their ultimate goals or rewards.

Wrapping Up

As you can see, there are many types of story structures in film that a screenwriter can utilize to engage their audience. Each structure has its own unique elements and techniques that help create a captivating narrative arc.

Ultimately, understanding various story structures is important for creating engaging content that resonates with viewers.

So, whether you’re new to screenwriting or simply want to improve your skills, consider experimenting with different types of plots and narratives.

FAQs

What are the different types of story structures commonly used in films?

There are several common types of story structures used in films, including the three-act structure, five-act structure, and nonlinear structure. Each type has its own unique approach to presenting a narrative.

How does the three-act structure work in film storytelling?

The three-act structure is a popular format for film storytelling that divides the plot into three parts: setup, conflict, and resolution. The first act introduces characters and sets up the conflict or problem that needs to be resolved by the end of the third act.

What is a nonlinear story structure in film?

A nonlinear story structure presents events out of chronological order or from multiple perspectives. This type of storytelling can add complexity and depth to a narrative by revealing new layers of information as the plot progresses.

Can filmmakers mix different story structures together in one movie?

Yes, most films use elements from multiple types of story structures to create their own unique style or approach to storytelling on screen. Mixing different structures can help keep audiences engaged and provide fresh perspectives on traditional narratives.

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