We’re going to talk more about the structure of film story today. But as has been mentioned, the stuff we’re talking about will ultimately be just as relevant to long-form prose fiction as it is to screenwriting. Talking about film is simply convenient, because film provides a fairly standard length of narrative (your classic 90 to 120 minutes) as compared to the completely open-ended (and thus largely incomparable) lengths of the standard novel.
Here’s a confession. For a long time, I wanted to be a novelist but I had absolutely no idea how to write a novel. I tried more than a few times, and I took the advice of many, many people who attempted to distill the process of long-form fiction down into advice and guidelines, and none of it made any difference. However, while I was failing to successfully write anything resembling a novel, I was as surprised as anyone to find myself working somewhat successfully as a screenwriter. And in the course of getting progressively better as a screenwriter, I discovered an understanding of structure that showed me how to be a novelist.
This is where I talk about that understanding of structure. Hang onto something.
Aristotle was right and wrong. Narrative story is locked to act structure. Always has been. Always will be. However, narrative story isn’t necessarily locked to a three-act structure — Aristotle’s beginning, middle, and end. Rather, every story consists of the exact number of acts necessary to the telling of that story.
Now, that statement isn’t all that new or innovative. Plenty of other people say the same sort of thing, including and probably most popularly the screenwriting guru Robert McKee. McKee’s how-to book Story (which is excellent and you should read it) talks about how a feature film script can have three acts, or it can have ten, or it can have thirty-three and who really cares anyway? And if that’s true for film, then it must be even more true for novels, which I guess can have thirty-three acts or a hundred-and-thirty-three, and how the hell does that even work?
Like Aristotle, McKee is right and wrong in equal measure when it comes to talking story structure. But by looking again at Aristotle, we can understand why he’s wrong. Because when it comes down to it, Aristotle can still tell us everything we need to know and understand about story structure in any form, any genre, any medium. He just needs a little bit of an update. A neo-Aristotelian view, if you will.
(I know that a lot of other “neo-Aristotelian views” already exist in art, philosophy, and communications theory. Call this Aristotle Max, if that bothers you. Poetics 2.0. Whatever.)
Because its formal requirements are more rigid than most other dramatic forms, screenwriting would seem a perfect medium for an Aristotelian approach to structure. But what generally gets overlooked in the many interpretations using Aristotle as a starting point for strapping on mechanical processes guaranteed to Produce a Hollywood Hit Every Time™ is that Aristotelian structure is about process, not parameter. Aristotle is a means to structure, not an end. And so by taking Aristotle one step further than was the philosopher’s own nominal intent, we can create a new model which lends itself particularly well first to the screenplay form, then even more effectively to long-form prose.
What does “process, not parameter” actually mean? It means that the structural approach to writing we’re exploring here differs in one very important way from any of the standard approaches that I’ve read, studied, absorbed, used, and stolen from/discarded in equal measure. This approach to structure has no overriding principles or mechanics to which a writer’s vision has to conform. We’re not talking about inciting incidents or controlling ideas. No counting reversals or action points here; no A-story and B-story mechanics, no Plot Point 1 on page 27 spinning the story off in new directions. However, the structural paradigm we’re exploring works perfectly well with any of those notions if those notions work for you. If you want to use those more specific approaches, use them. If any other how-to-write-a-screenplay/novel/Edwardian-comedy-of-manners shortcuts prove effective for you, great.
Because in the end, this structural view of story is universal to the point where all the other more specific theories are subsumed within it. This is a universal way of viewing story in its purest structural form — a way of viewing that allows the essential form of story to be precisely and expertly shaped.
As I’m sure you all know, Aristotle rejected the atomic view of the world put forth by fellow Athenian thinking guy Democritus. That’s the idea that all matter can be divided into smaller parts, which can in turn be divided into smaller parts, which can in turn be divided, down to the smallest unit — the atom. (I’m sure it’s obvious that Democritus’s understanding of “atom” was very different than ours. Among other things, we know that atoms subdivide into even smaller bits, but for the sake of this discussion, you’ll be encouraged to get your Greek on.)
Aristotle’s rejection of the atomic view of the world is important, because it means that Aristotle never had any reason to consider what lies beneath the dramatic divisions he set forth in Poetics.
Thankfully, he’s got us to do it for him.
Aristotle talked about drama having a beginning, a middle, and an end. Three discrete parts that could be separated out from each other by virtue of their unique features. Aristotle was wrong about the number of parts, but ignore that for now. Imagine a story; any story. Imagine that story broken up into beginning, middle, and end.
Now imagine just looking at the beginning by itself. Toss away the middle and the end. Summon up all your powers of focus as you remind yourself that the beginning of the story can stand alone as a discrete unit.
Then remind yourself that if the beginning of the story is a discrete unit of drama, then the beginning of the story must have its own beginning, middle, and end. There’s a beginning of the beginning of the story. There’s a middle of the beginning. There’s an end of the beginning.
Now set the beginning of the story aside and look at the middle. Focus on it. Ignore everything else. And understand that the middle of the story has its own beginning, middle and end. The beginning of the middle. The middle of the middle. The end of the middle.
I’m sure you know where this is going. The end of the story, looked at in focused isolation. The beginning of the end. The middle of the end. The end of the end.
Aristotle said that a story consisted of three parts. But each of Aristotle’s three parts can in turn be fed back into the dramatic-analysis machinery to yield up three smaller parts each. In applying Aristotle to Aristotle’s own analysis, we can see that that same story can be just as easily broken down into nine parts. Beginning, middle, and end, each subdivided into beginnings, middles, and ends.
Easy, right? And really, who cares? Three parts, nine parts; is this idiot saying my story needs nine acts now? What?
No. What this idiot is saying is: Look at each of the smaller bits of story we’ve created — the beginning of the beginning and all the rest. Aristotle tells us that each of those is a discrete bit of story. And that means that each of those bits can be fed back into the Aristotelian story machine, because the Aristotelian story machine is one hungry mother.
The beginning of the beginning of our story has its own beginning, middle, and end. The middle of the beginning of our story has its own beginning, middle, and end. And on and on down the line. Nine parts to our story? Hah! Try twenty-seven parts, because that’s how neo-Aristotle rolls.
If you were to feed those twenty-seven parts back in (which I’m not going to show because you wouldn’t be able to see anything on the image at this scale), you’d have eighty-one parts, from the beginning of the beginning of the beginning of the beginning all the way down.
In mathematical terms, what we’ve done is take Aristotle’s three-act paradigm and made it recursive. We feed its own results back to it, creating smaller and smaller units of story until we get to a kind of dramatic atom — a unit of story that can’t get any smaller. And here’s where the temporary focus on screenwriting comes in handy, because screenwriters have a word for that smallest unit of story — the story beat. And that’s where the recursion stops.
(Aside: The word “beat” has a ton of varying and occasionally contradictory usages in film and stage play writing. I’m going to help continue that trend by using “beat” in a more general sense in subsequent posts, which is why I’m going to consistently use “story beat” here. This is the sense of a single, indivisible unit of drama — a single pulse of something happening in a story that can stand by itself. A story beat isn’t a specific unit of dramatic time — there’s no consistent “X story beats = Y minutes or Z pages.” Rather, you can most easily think of it as a unit of independent action or decision.)
So how do we make sense of this structural monstrosity we’ve created? Well, let’s start by numbering each section and coming up with different names to our various recursive layers so it’s easier to keep them straight.
If you’ve done any screenwriting or stage play writing, that might look a little more familiar.
Using a neo-Aristotelian view of story structure — breaking the story down into its Aristotelian parts, then breaking each of those parts down in turn — we create an upside-down mathematical tree with story at its apex and successive layers of subdivision falling beneath it. We add to Aristotle’s definition of each part of the story as an act, defining each part of an act as a sequence — a shorter, though still reasonably lengthy, unit of dramatic action. We define each part of a sequence as a scene — a smaller unified section of story. Though we don’t see it broken out on the illustration, we define each part of a scene as a story beat — the smallest individual unit of narrative. Beginnings, middles, endings all the way down.
But then comes the hue and cry of, “Hey genius — the division of story into acts, sequences, and scenes is hardly innovative.” True enough. But bear with me.
Exercise — My God, It’s Full of Sequences…
Go back to the first exercise in the previous post and think about how you defined a favorite or recently-seen-and-remembered film in three, four, or five sentences. As you probably figured out about halfway through this post, those sentences were intended to be rough summary breakdown of the act structure of your film.
(“But wait!” you cry. “Syd Field says that film always has three acts! What’s with this four and five stuff?” Syd Field is lying to you, but don’t worry — we’ll deal with him next time.)
Look at those sentences for a while — or go back and do the exercise for a different film. (If the previous exercise didn’t work for you and you felt better with a summary of six or seven sentences, that’s totally fine. As long as you’ve got a collection of sentences that feel like a solid summary of the film, you’re good to go.) When you’ve looked at those sentences for a while, focus in on the first sentence — the beginning of the film. Act 1, as it were. Then turn away from everything else. Write or type that first sentence out again on its own page if you need to, but however you manage it, put yourself in the frame of mind that your first sentence is its own self-contained unit of story.
Then dig down into that unit of story a little bit deeper, and tell that part of the story in three to five properly formed sentences, same rules as last time.
When you’re done, set that aside. Put it out of your head. Then go back to your original three to five sentences — the summary of your story in acts — and pull out the second sentence. Act 2. Focus on that second sentence. Put every other part of the story out of your mind. Then tell that part of the story in three to five properly formed sentences.
Look at the remaining sentences you used to tell the story. Rinse and repeat. Just as you broke down the story into three to five parts, you can break down each of those parts into three to five smaller parts.
(Even if you’re feeling particularly keen, please DON’T dig down deeper and break your new smaller parts into even smaller parts, creating sentences for each of the scene in each sequence. There’s a good reason to hold off on that for now, which we’ll get into when we do dig down into scenes later on.)
Here’s the neo-Aristotelian paradigm writ small:
Each part of any story — each act, each sequence, each scene — has its own dramatic structure, which perfectly mirrors the structure of the larger parts that contain it. A story has acts that define its beginning, middle, and end. Each act of the story is composed of sequences that define the act’s beginning, middle, and end. And so on.
In this way, drama can effectively be broken down from the highest level (the story itself) to the lowest level — each of the individual story beats from which the narrative is ultimately built. But more than simply noting the existence of these smaller bits from which story is strung together, the neo-Aristotelian paradigm identifies that any and all of these smaller bits must serve two very different functions.
First, each bit is a unit of drama — a story beat, a scene, or a sequence with its attendant emotional or dramatic weight.
And second, each bit is a part of the overall structure, existing in a specific place and in specific relationship to all the other parts. Remember the following philosophical classic?
“The beginning is that which does not itself follow anything by causal necessity, but after which something naturally is or comes to be. An end, on the contrary, is that which itself naturally follows some other thing, either by necessity, or as a rule, but has nothing following it. A middle is that which follows something as some other thing follows it.”
Every part of a story has a function. Every part of a story has a place. And the one thing that most cookie-cutter approaches to writing fail to identify in a casual disassembling of story into acts and sequences and scenes is that the dramatic positioning of scenes and sequences is ultimately as critical to whether a story works or fails as is their dramatic content.
The dramatic content of a scene is a product of the language of words.
We’re going to build on the mechanics of the exercise above a lot more in coming installments. And as we do so, we’re going to see and understand that the dramatic positioning of scenes building sequences, sequences building acts is the language of story.
NEXT: There’s Something About Syd