Let's explore the basics of story and plot structure, and how filmmakers can use those basics to create their own narrative.
They say a film is only as good as its script. That's true, but I would argue that it goes further. A good script is only as good as the plot – or the focus on the story. Screenwriters and filmmakers agree that it is this central story that really develops, informs, and drives how you write your script, shoot, and make those final changes.
But what makes a good story? And how do you structure the perfect plot for your films and scripts? Let's dive into the basics of plot structuring and explore how you can use those basics to tell your story through filmmaking.
What are plot and story?
So what is an act? In purely literary terms, an act is simply, "The blueprint, scheme, or main story of a literary or dramatic work as a play, novel, or short story." For our cinematic purposes, it is probably best to use the functional definition: "The sequence of Events where each one affects the next. " Basically, it just means that the act is what happens and in what order.
A story, on the other hand, is “an account of imaginary or real people and events that are told for entertainment,” which is slightly different in that it takes into account the sensational elements of things that may or may not actually have happened and for which they are presented Entertainment purposes.
Both mean roughly the same thing. For the purposes of scriptwriting and filmmaking, however, the plot represents the structure, while the story represents the substance.
You can see the difference in the video above, where writer Kurt Vonnegut outlines the "shape of the stories" using a very systematic plot diagram and then explains how the story defines the emotions and how we connect with the various feelings it contains.
The basics of the plot structure
The plot structure is a smart way to plan and work with movies as the whole process is very methodical of how it is created and presented from one shot to the next. It's also important that we talk about how fundamental the structuring of the plot is to understanding the movie. Of course, while there are experiments and outliers, the majority of all film projects share some of the same basic plot structures.
The first – and perhaps the most basic – plot structure is the three-act structure. This is one of the oldest structures for any film, literature, or story, and it could be argued that it is part of the core building blocks of all other structures and stories. There is more to read about the Three Act, but the basics include:
- The first act: Presentation and introduction to the crucial elements of the story.
- The second act: A problem is defined and faced when the stake is increased.
- The third act: The problem is solved with a climax and we have reflection.
What many would call the second best-known plot structure would be Freytag's five-part pyramid, itself based on early theories of the ancient Greeks. These five parts (sometimes six) may be familiar to anyone involved in literature or the arts. The basics include:
- Exposure: An introduction to the protagonist, antagonist and the stakes.
- Rising action: A conflict is initiated and the protagonist's journey begins.
- Climax: The protagonist enters a battle against the central antagonist / conflict.
- Falling action: All actions of the character are carried out and a result is achieved.
- resolution: The conflict is over and we'll see what happens to the characters in the future.
The hero's travel circle
From there, while looking specifically at the plot structure for film and entertainment, we explore the journey of the monomyth and Joseph Campbell's hero. This structure of action and action is as old as humanity itself and includes all elements from the past. It is perhaps our most nuanced view of how stories are structured and which individual plot points you need to use (or at least understand) for your projects.
You can read the Hero's Journey in more detail in terms of filmmaking, but let's go over some of the important tenets, including the three basic parts:
- The departure
- The initiation
- The return
Sounds a lot like the three-act structure, doesn't it? However, the hero's journey contains more steps (see below). In addition, it cannot be perceived as a linear line (as in the previous examples), but rather as an encompassing circle that brings the audience back to where the story began.
- The ordinary world
- The call to adventure
- Rejection of the call
- Meeting with the mentor
- Cross the threshold to a special world
- Tests, allies and enemies
- Approaching the innermost cave
- The ordeal
- The reward
- The way back
- The resurrection
- Return with the elixir
Examples of the plot structure
Once you understand these basic plot structures and understand the legendary Hero & # 39; s Journey, this becomes a fun exercise in critical analysis as well as an interesting insight into the decision-making of writers and directors, as it is our job to do this To take building blocks and create unique and powerful stories.
As you can see in the examples below, these plot structures can actually be very noticeable when you start breaking down some of your favorite films and franchises.
Reich strikes back
Dead man's chest
Just because you can recognize the main plot structure of a film, the question still arises: How can you use the plot structure for your projects? Let's take a look at some of the different approaches.
Different approaches for filmmakers
So here the plot structure is really fun. At this point in film and art history, we have very successfully broken down the plot structure into these basic elements and can understand how and why these classic structures work. It also means that we are really only now in a position to develop our own ideas about how we want to work with the structures – or sometimes against them.
As you can see above, Dan Harmon is a perfect example of this as he was able to come up with his own (sort of) version of the hero's journey with his unique “story circle” that includes all the elements but is tailored to his own Understanding and specific needs for television writing and episodic comedy.
It's really up to you – as a screenwriter and / or filmmaker – to see these structures for what they are: the building blocks of your story. You can choose which structure or format is best for you and your narrative, and decide at what point you might want to deviate from the structured norms to create discomfort or amazement among your audience and their formulaic expectations.
For more film theories and helpful scriptwriting content, check out the following hand-picked resources:
Cover image from Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone via Warner Bros.