Explore the many narrative structures used to tell stories on the screen.
What is narrative structure?
Narrative structure is the framework by which a story is organized. Through this framework, screenwriters and directors create satisfying chains of events that captivate viewers.
In this blog post, we’ll take a look at different types of narrative structures and explore how understanding them can improve your screenwriting skills, helping you create engaging stories for audiences.
But first, a small disclaimer from Robert Mckee, author of the acclaimed book, Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting.
“Story is about principles, not rules. A rule says, ‘You must do it this way.’ A principal says, ‘This works.’ The difference is crucial.”
The dominant paradigm of storytelling – and the most common in Hollywood productions and streaming services – is three-act structure. This paradigm has ancient origins but came to prominence in the industry with the publication of Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting by Syd Field.
At face value, this narrative structure is simple:
Act I: Setup
Act II: Confrontation
Act III: Resolution
However, things get more complicated when we take a closer look at what takes place in each act. Worse still is the fact that, since the publication of Field’s guide, many other screenwriting guides have gained popularity, each with their own ideas of what the three-act structure contains. This includes:
- Robert McKee’s “Story.”
- K.M. Weiland’s, “Creating Character Arcs.”
- John Truby’s “The Anatomy of Story.”
In the 21st century, the most popular among these guides is Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, published in 2018.
Save the Cat utilizes a version of the Hero’s Journey, a theory of universal story propagated by literature professor, Joseph Campbell, and employed most famously to write the screenplay of Star Wars. In the 21st century, Save the Cat has become, arguably, the most common story structure employed in popular media.
Next time you watch a movie, look up the beat sheet for Save the Cat, and you might be surprised by how closely the film follows Snyder’s pattern.
Which Guide to Three-Act Structures Should I Use?
If you’re looking to hone your screenwriting skills, there’s no reason not to read all of the above guides. As you do so, you may start to notice some similarities. The below table shows how three different theories of story overlap:
|Save the Cat
|The Anatomy of Story
|Ghost and Story World
|Call to Adventure
|Moment of Doubt
|Advice from a Mentor
|Meeting an ally
|Cross First Threshold
|Break into Act 2
|First Revelation and Decision
As you can see, each theory has its own set of proposed beats that a story needs to be successful in Act I. Sometimes, the beats are similar with different names. Call to Adventure, Catalyst, and Inciting Event are essentially the same thing.
However, sometimes, one theory has additional beats. For example, in The Anatomy of Story, great emphasis is placed on having a “fake ally opponent” in the first act.
Exploring different views of three-act structure can help you uncover your own unique approach to screenwriting.
At the 77th Golden Globe Awards, a film using a rather different structure was nominated for best director, best screenplay, and won best foreign language film. The film in question, of course, was Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite.
Parasite used a narrative structure that felt new and fresh to Western audiences, despite being commonplace in East Asian cinema. In Korean, the structure is called, “Gi Seung Jeon Gyeol,” and in Japanese, “Kishotenketsu.”
This structure includes four acts instead of three.
|Introduce Main Elements of a Story
|Development of Main Elements
|Twist (Add new Element to the Story)
|The Conclusion (All Elements come into harmony)
Here is how this structure plays out in Parasite (spoilers!):
|The Story of Parasite
|The Kim family struggles to make ends meet in Seoul, South Korea.
|Using an ingenious scheme, the Kim family cons the wealthy Park family out of some of their money.
|The Kim family discovers that an even poorer man is living in the basement of the rich Kim family
|All three families confront each other.
Here’s another example from the popular Japanese animated film, Your Name (Spoilers!):
|The Story of Your Name
|Mitsuha lives in Itomori, a rural part of Japan but dreams of living in Tokyo.
|Mitsuha inexplicably switches bodies with a boy named Taki who lives in Tokyo.
|When the magical body switching stops, Taki longs to meet Mitsuha. He travels to Itomori to find her, only to discover that her town has been destroyed by a meteorite.
|Many years later, the two are reunited.
If you have yet to see either of these films, go watch them! They are great examples of the power of four-act structure.
Indigenous Story Structure
Indigenous storytelling traditions also differ from the three-act structure common in Hollywood. According to the Indigenous People’s Atlas of Canada: “All traditional Indigenous stories, including Métis ones, generally have non-linear narratives.”
These kinds of stories, like many in oral traditions, are ongoing.
On her website, Q’um Q’um Xiiem, Dr. Jo-ann Archibald, an Indigenous story scholar from British Columbia, explains, “In our stories, there is not a tidy beginning, middle, and end.”
She notes that in Indigenous storytelling, audiences are less concerned with “what happens” because it is their job, not the job of the storyteller, to think about “what could happen.” When a story concludes, there is often no resolution. Instead, listeners must consider what the resolution could be, and this very act of consideration can yield powerful lessons.
How Do I Choose?
The narrative structure that you choose for your own screenplays might come intuitively during the writing process, or it might be imposed while outlining.
When you’re writing to break into the industry, you will most likely start with a three-act structure. However, that doesn’t mean that you should ignore four-act structure, Indigenous storytelling, and other story forms. Each structure has something to teach you.
“Good writers use a combo of many different approaches,” said Kalman Szegvary, Department Head of the Film and TV Production program at Trebas Institute Toronto. “I refer to it as your screenwriting toolbox.”
At Trebas, we encourage you to explore all aspects of filmmaking and storytelling to hone your own unique talent. If you’re interested in learning more about story structure and filmmaking, our program Film & Television Production and Post-Production might be a good fit for you.
To learn more, visit the program page: https://www.trebas.com/programs/film-television-programs/film-television-production-and-post-production-toronto
Ready to apply? Visit start.trebas.com.