Welcome to the next installment of Story Tips From the Big Screen. This monthly column (to be posted the second Monday of each month) explores screen writing techniques that will help fiction writers tell a better story.
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It’s been a year! How could that be? Sheesh.
Over the last twelve months, we’ve looked at the most common story structure: Three Act Structure. We’ve looked at outlining and at the Hero’s Journey Structure. In this, I’d like to give you an overview of a few plotting variations. As you’ll see, with some, there isn’t always a clear-cut line keeping these structures within their boundaries. I present them in no particular order. Remember, we’re stealing from screenwriters, so many of the examples will be films or television shows.
Multiple Plot Stories: These are the ensemble pieces with many characters. Each character or group of characters has its own story, complete with inciting incident, turning points one and two, a beginning, middle, and end. Usually, these stories contain an overall story theme and each sub-plot is linked either by place or by time frame.
Examples of this plot variation: many one-hour TV dramas, such as CSI, West Wing, Third Watch, and movies, such as Gossford Park and American Beauty
Act Mix-up: This is a technique in which the third act is presented first, followed by how the characters got there. The TV show Columbo was known for showing the arrest first, followed by backstory, including the reasons for the crime, the crime itself, and how Columbo put all the pieces together.
Same Story, Mulitiple POV’s: This style presents a story multiple times through the eyes of different characters. In the TV show Boomtown (which I liked - certainly the kiss of death when I like it) the crime is committed, then replayed through each character’s point of view. The movies Rashomon, Z, and Lawless Heart are examples of this style. For more information on this structure, check out Teach Yourself Film Studies, by Warren Buckland.
Two Act Structure: This is the typical structure for half-hour sitcoms. The plot is equally divided, half and half, with the cliffhanger moment at the end of Act I and a moment of truth halfway through Act II, followed by resolution. This is a simple structure that likely can’t carry novel length fiction. However, it might be perfect for the short story.
Four or Five Act Structure: Longer Films like Gone with the Wind, Braveheart, Casino, and Titanic follow this structure. The turning points in this structure are the same as with three act structure, with turning point one at the quarter mark and turning point two at the three quarter mark.
Nine Act Structure: This structure can simply be a division of three acts into nine. However, that isn’t necessarily so. It features a significant change of goal in the middle. For example, in ET the first goal was to keep ET here and the second to get ET home. In Mrs. Doubtfire, the first goal was to become Mrs. Doubtfire in order to get the kids back and the second to become the husband and father the kids’ mother wanted. If you’re interested in learning more about this structure, take a look at this website: www.dsiegel.com/Film/Filmhome.
Portmanteau structure: These stories contain separate stories running back to back. They are linked by the same characters, the same location, the same theme, the same event, etc. This structure is often found in themed anthologies.
As you can see, there are many flavors of plot. Genre fiction tends toward those which are less “different.” Literary fiction is often where you find the less classic structures. If you’d like to read more on these variations, I point you to Teach Yourself Screenwriting, by Raymond Frensham.
Now that we’ve studied overall story structure, the plan for the next part of the series is to study the structure of the scene, primarily, but not exclusively, from a screenwriting perspective.
Until next month, BICHOK (Butt in Chair, Hands on Keyboard)
(This series first ran in the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers newsletter in 2004.)
About the Author: Jax Hunter is a published romance writer and freelance copywriter. She wears many hats including EMT, CPR instructor, and Grammy. She is currently working on a contemporary romance series set in ranching country Colorado and a historical romance set in 1775 Massachusetts. She lives in Colorado Springs, belongs to PPW, RMFW and is a member of the Professional Writer's Alliance.