A strong structure is the foundation of a great story
Resisting “the formula” might be hurting your story. When I began screenwriting, I hated the three-act structure, believing it was a formula that would stifle my creativity. It turned out structure was one of the most basic requirements of creativity.
It gives ideas room so they can bloom! And without it, I couldn’t even finish my stories.
The theories on story structure go back to Aristotle’s Poetics, but the knowledge has been more accessible after the 1970s.
Today we have hundreds of books, courses, blogs, podcasts, and videos that teach you anything about storytelling, fiction writing, and screenwriting. I kept my list short on purpose.
These four books were the ones that gave me the most “a-ha moments” when I first read them and helped me understand why stories work the way they do.
1. Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting (1997) by Robert McKee
McKee has been teaching screenwriting for decades. His three day long “Story” seminars are famous all around the world. The filmmakers who have taken these seminars have won over 60 Oscars and 200 Emmys. I suppose there aren’t many people in Holywood who don’t belong to his alumni.
His 1997 book Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting is based on the material he covers at his seminars.
Full of interesting ideas and observations, the book has both expansive theoretical knowledge and practical advice. It’s quite a dense read; the summaries of the book won’t cut it. You have to read the book itself!
McKee uses a lot of examples from movies such as Chinatown and Casablanca. He explains concepts such as “beats” by breaking down famous scenes.
McKee is all for planning your story extensively before you put a word on the page. For instance, he says you should know your ending before you start your screenplay. Everything you write should lead the story to the ending. Even then, the finale should come as a surprise.
About structure he says:
The function of STRUCTURE is to provide progressively building pressures that force characters into more and more difficult dilemmas where they must make more and more difficult risk-taking choices and actions, gradually revealing their true natures, even down to the unconscious self.
2. The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers & Screenwriters (1992), by Christopher Vogler
In Writer’s Journey (the link is for the latest version), Vogler refers to Joseph Campbell’s concept of Hero’s Journey which he introduced in his collected works called The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
Joseph Campbell was a mythologist who studied thousands of years old tales and myths from all around the world and combined them with insights of modern psychology. His work became popular among filmmakers and storytellers after George Lucas discovered his ideas and used his techniques and ideas to create Star Wars.
Christopher Vogler used this information to create a simple and practical model to help understand and build stories that resonate with audiences the same way these old tales do.
Writer’s Journey suggests all stories are about a journey that changes and transforms a central character. This can be a literal journey like Odyssey or modern road movies, such as Finding Nemo. Or it can be a metaphorical journey of a character who goes through trials and tribulations to reach a goal.
The book also uses Carl Jung’s concept of archetypes to analyse characters’ psychology and the energy they represent in stories. When you learn about these archetypes such as Mentor, Trickster, Shapeshifter etc., and the purpose they serve in each story, you realize nothing is random in storytelling.
3. Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need (2005), by Blake Snyder
Blake Snyder has a bold claim in Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need. I can’t promise that you won’t need another book, but it certainly makes you feel that way when you first finish reading it!
It covers important topics like logline, the main character, the genre. It also presents a “beat sheet” which is a tool that helps you build solid structures.
When you finish the book, you feel that you have a good understanding of why movies work the way they do. Unlike McKee’s Story, Save The Cat! is so easy to read and grasp that you can finish it in a day and start telling people about it.
The book is criticised for promoting formula with the beat sheet and making screenwriting look easy! However, I will repeat here what Syd Field wrote about form and formula in his book Screenplay:
“What’s the distinction between form and formula? The form of a coat or jacket, for example, is two arms, a front, and a back. And within that form of arms, front, and back you can have any variation of style, fabric, color, and size — but the form remains intact.”
In the same way, when you watch a lot of movies after reading Save The Cat!, you realize stories naturally fit the beat sheet most of the time. You also notice that if you have some experience with building stories, your own stories fit the model, too.
For example, you expect to be introduced to a character and their ordinary world in the first few scenes of a movie. Then you expect something to happen, cause a problem, and change the direction of events. You know things can’t go on in the same way forever, then there is no story.
Then you expect the character to start dealing with the problem in a new setting. You expect them to win but you’ll know that it won’t be an ultimate win if they do, or to lose but that won’t be an ultimate loss either.
Because you instinctively know (even without checking the time) that there is more room to go, that things should hit the rock bottom at some point. There will be a crisis. If that doesn’t happen, the story will feel strange and empty. Thus, it all makes sense.
Another amazing tool this book offers is the collection of plot types, or “genres” as Blake Snyder calls it. According to Snyder, all stories fit one of his ten genres, and these genres are not “thriller” “horror” “romantic comedy” but instead “Monster in the house,” “Buddy love” etc.
The genres classify stories regardless of whether they are horror or comedy. Each genre has its own elements and all movies belong to a genre if they have these elements. For example, “Monster in the house” contains movies like Jaws, Jurassic Park and Fatal Attraction. Each of these movies have a “house,” “a monster” and “a sin.”
4. Nutshell Technique: Crack the Secret of Successful Screenwriting (2016), by Jill Chamberlain
Jill Chamberlain has worked as a script consultant and a screenwriting coach for many years, and she has developed her novel approach to story structure. Later, she wrote The Nutshell Technique which became one of the essential texts on story structure.
One important insight in the book is that a story is not merely a series of events. Each event connects to the next via cause and effect.
Otherwise, according to Chamberlain, when events follow each other independently, the narrative is a situation, not a story. Causality is something most storytellers already know but easily forget!
In terms of structure, Chamberlain doesn’t use the beat sheets to define important moments of a story. But she still uses the three act structure as a form.
The Nutshell Technique involves eight non-negotiable elements that Chamberlain calls a “nutshell.” On a sheet of paper, you can “nutshell” your story and see if it works before you write.
One of these elements is “the setup want”. According to Chamberlain, a character wants something and expresses it first thing in a movie. This can be an unimportant thing; it’s not necessarily the major goal of the story.
In the “point of no return,” which is another name for “break into the second act”, the character gets what he wants, but with a “catch.” “Point of no return” and “catch” are two other elements.
Another element is “the flaw.” A character has to have a specific flaw that makes him the right protagonist of a story.
This flaw causes the character to make mistakes and cause problems. If all the problems are external and the character is innocent, they are not a real protagonist who drives the plot, they are a victim.
In order to win in the story, the character has to get over their flaw and turn it into a strength. Jill Chamberlain quotes Aristotle and says that when a movie is a comedy, the character gets a happy ending by getting over their flaw.
And when it is a tragedy, the character loses because they cannot get over the flaw. They refuse to change and lose, thus they get a sad ending. That’s the definition of tragedy.
There are so many more books that teach story structure. For instance, I didn’t count Syd Field’s Screenplay (1979) here, even though it was the first book I read on screenwriting and I refer to it a lot.
It was written in 1979 and his material, the three-act structure was mostly covered in most other books.
I also didn’t mention John Truby’s The Anatomy of Screenwriting because I am skeptical of it since Truby is famously against the three-act structure. However, the book was an industry-standard before Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat came along. You might choose to add it to your list.
The four books I mentioned above are the bare minimum you have to read if you want to master story structure for writing novels and movies.