The Tyranny of Structure

Part 4 of “The Language of Story”

For any dramatic medium, from film to prose fiction to stage play to choliambic-hexameter epic verse, structure is the root of the process of storytelling. If you’ve done any dabbling in screenwriting, you’ve probably been hit with the mantra “Structure is story.” And this mantra is actually both wrong and stupid, but like most hymns of the great religions (Hollywood being one of those), it kind of touches on the truth in a way that lets you actually see the truth if you know how to look for it.

Structure is not story. Structure is a part of story. Words are the other part of story. Syntax and execution is how we qualify and analyze our use of the language of words. Structure is how we qualify and analyze our use of the language of story.

Touching back to the introduction to this series of posts, anyone who’s studied writing and storytelling knows that for a long while now, one particular set of structural paradigms have provided the cornerstone on which our sense of the structure of narrative drama is built. In the fourth century BCE, a Greek Thinker of Great Renown™ named Aristotle penned a little volume on dramatic theory called Poetics.

In the course of the sections of that book that have survived and come down to us through history, Aristotle analyzed the Greek theater of his day in an attempt to understand its creative foundations. (The first half of the book is what we know, dealing with drama; the second half explaining comedy was lost, which is why I’ll never be able to understand why people find Adam Sandler funny.) Aristotle identified specific components and elements of great drama, including the reversal and the tragic flaw of the protagonist, the distinction and relationship between plot and character, the way that speech works differently on stage than it does in real life, and so on.

Now, Poetics is a cool book and you should read it; or you should at least read other people’s analyses of it, because if you’re serious about writing, it’s important to understand other people’s views on writing as a means to being able to sharpen your own views about writing. But in one very important way, you already know and understand the most essential part of what Aristotle was talking about — because as a consumer of fiction in the modern age, you’ve had this paradigm relentlessly drilled into you whether you were aware of it or not. Because Aristotle was the first to articulate the concept of act structure.

(This is an aside. You can tell because of the parentheses. We’re going to talk about film here and in later installments, but the underlying importance of what we’re talking about translates to prose fiction — novel, novella, short story, what have you — just as much as it does to film story. Film is simply convenient to talk about because most people have a good sense of film story by virtue of the amount of film we consume as a culture, and because feature film story tends to be relatively consistent in its length. Star Wars and Citizen Kane don’t share much in common storywise, but we can compare both films structurally in a way that it’s hard to compare the original novel versions of Catch 22 and Moby Dick.)

(This is another aside. I’m not going to be comparing the structural paradigms of Star Wars and Citizen Kane, though you should totally feel free.)

Aristotle’s observations on structure seem pretty obvious in hindsight, but they were groundbreaking in their historical context. Drama succeeds, he said, because of its cohesive structure as a series of parts — a beginning, a middle, and an end. But the problem is that the Aristotelian approach is hamstrung by its overly sublime simplicity, because Aristotle defines the beginning as:

“…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.”


And so the Aristotelian paradigm works okay for providing an obvious sense of structure after the fact, letting you look at a story and say, “Well, that was the beginning, and that looks like the middle, and that was definitely the end.” But its use as a tool for creating drama is limited, because it does nothing at all to help you figure out what the beginning, the middle, and the end of the story you want to write is supposed to look like.

Because its effectiveness as a front-end creative tool is lacking, Aristotelian structure generally becomes a part of some other paradigm when applied to writing. In film, where Aristotle gets a whole lot of traction, there’s a guy named Syd Field. (We’ll talk more later about Syd Field.) Syd Field loves Aristotle, so much so that he wrote a book explaining that all feature films have exactly three acts, and that this is what the acts look like, and this is how to write your movie so it follows that three-act structure right down to having your named plot points appear on the correct freaking page.

A lot of people have knocked out screenwriting books since Syd Field. But unfortunately, most of them started out by reading Syd Field, whose teaching thus spreads as if he was some sort of Patient Zero of hack structuralism. And so the vast majority of screenwriters believe (at least initially) that a feature film and the screenplay on which that film is based has exactly three acts that are each a specific number of pages long, and each of which has a certain number of specific mechanical characteristics. This is a paradigm that I like to see referred to as “cookie-cutter storytelling,” because it teaches that story is a series of molds into which you cram the raw material of character and conflict, and out of which a properly structured narrative work will emerge, all toasty and delicious from the oven. And in my opinion, that attitude is stupidly, dangerously wrong.

Exercise — Well, It’s About This Guy…

Think about a roughly two-hour narrative film you really love and have seen more than once. Or think about a roughly two-hour narrative film you enjoyed recently. Anything where you remember the story well enough to easily recall the broad strokes of the plot to mind.

(As said above, we’re talking about film right now because there’s a certain kind of consistency to the length of film story that makes it easy to talk about. However, everything we’re talking about here is completely applicable to prose fiction, as we’ll explore in upcoming installments.)

Now imagine you’re hanging out with a friend and this film comes up in the conversation. “Never heard of it,” the friend says. “What’s it about?”

Tell the friend what the film is about — in exactly two properly formed, easy-to-read sentences. If the film you’re describing is a strongly multiprotagonist piece, you have permission to add a maximum of one (1) semicolon to each sentence, in a “Character A does such-and-such; meanwhile Character B…” kind of setup. Otherwise, no funny punctuation, no footnotes, no dicking around. Two sentences.

When you’re done, tell the friend once more what the film is about — in exactly three properly formed, easy-to-read sentences.

Then tell the story in exactly four sentences.

Then tell the story in exactly five sentences.

Then tell the story in exactly six sentences.

Then tell the story in exactly seven sentences.

Do the exercise in the above order, and don’t skip any steps. Likewise, don’t simply break up and repunctuate sentences in order to increase their number. Come up with at least slightly different sentences each time. It’s important to feel how having to constrain, then expand the story focuses your perception of it.

I have two secrets to share with you.

Secret number one is that you already know how story works. You already know more about story than Syd Field and any of his minions. Each of us knows how story works, because each of us has spent a lifetime consuming story. Picture books. Grade-school readers. Kids’ novels, adult novels, genre fiction, classics. Film and television to the absolute soul-saturated bursting point.

No matter what our preferred media, each of us who has spent a lifetime consuming narrative has an extraordinarily well-developed storyteller’s mind. But the problem is that despite how well we all understand story on the most innate, instinctual level, being able to reverse-engineer that understanding while in the middle of writing a story is almost impossible. (We’ll come back to that point a lot, but just keep it in mind for now.)

If you’re anything like the vast majority of the writers who have done the above exercise with me, you probably found it relatively difficult to tell the story of a film you know well in just two sentences. If you’re anything like those writers, you probably had an easier time telling the story in three, four, or five sentences. Likewise, even if they find it easier still to tell the story in six or seven sentences, most writers also find that those extra sentences feel somehow unnecessary. Even with more space in which to summarize the story, something clicks in your mind in a strange way, and you become conscious that your description doesn’t feel right.

(If you don’t have this reaction to the exercise, don’t worry too much about it. We’ll be repeating it in subsequent entries in this series, at which point the rhyme and reason behind it will make more sense — and where we’ll see that there’s a difference between summarizing a story in the easiest way and summarizing it in the best way.)

That sense of “doesn’t feel right” is your subconscious sense of knowing how story works. You know how story fits together on a purely mechanical level, because you’ve been working with story your whole life.

If you’ve got a story you want to write, you already have the unparalleled understanding of story that can tell you how that story needs to work. You just need to figure out how to let the subconscious understanding of story that you’ve gleaned over a lifetime transform itself into a conscious understanding of the language of story.

Exercise — The Play’s the Thing

Grab your copy of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare. (What do you mean you don’t have a copy of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare? Shame on you. And get thee to the Internet; I hear you can find them there.)

Have a look at the act breakdowns of Shakespeare’s plays. Keep track of how many of the greatest works of narrative drama in the English language were written in exactly three acts.

Secret number two is this. As he was across much of his career, Aristotle on story structure was both brilliantly right and catastrophically wrong at the same time. Story is indeed relentlessly tied to an act-based structure. It always has been; it always will be. But story in any form only rarely fits into exactly three acts. Novels, stage plays, novellas, epic poems, and — most importantly — feature films have a more complex structure. And understanding that fact is what fuels our understanding of how story truly works — and how to let that understanding shape the stories we want to tell.

NEXT: The Neo-Aristotelian View