How Important Is Structure?

March 16, 2010 in On Writing, Study by pacejmiller

I really enjoyed last night’s screenwriting class.  We watched some intro scenes and short films and discussed the readings, which covered the importance of “structure” in a movie.

While there are no hard and fast rules, it did surprise me that most conventional films do have a three-act structure.  It’s just that we’re often too engrossed (or turned off) to notice it.  And there’s the more granular aspects, such as starting off with a set-up, a “hook”, so to speak, to capture the interest of the audience, then having a “catalyst” to get the story moving, then increasing the conflict through a couple of major turning points before the climax or final resolution.

Initially I was thinking that this was all too technical, too structured, too inhibiting.  But when I stepped back and looked at the examples, for some reason it seemed to ring true.  Then I looked at my own writings, and realised that my WIP fantasy novel actually had the exact same structure (broadly speaking).  It’s almost as though the structure came instinctively, or at least subconsciously from my years of movie watching.

So just how important is structure to a film?  With novels, it’s probably easier to manipulate structure, but with a film, it’s a lot trickier to get it right.  It’s much more difficult than I originally thought, and there is a real skill and art in telling the story in a way that makes the film intriguing.  It’s potentially even harder to nail the pace and rhythm and keep the screenplay tight.  Apparently, the problem with most films lies in the second half of the second act, when the action or pace of the film tends to lag because the writer is merely filling in time before the big climatic ending.

I also found it interesting how there are different ways to structure point of view.  There can be the “divergent” style where the audience is introduced to all the central characters at the very beginning, and then the story follows each of them separately (like say in The Godfather, which starts off with the wedding).  Or there can be the “convergent” style, where the characters are introduced separately but flow together inevitably all come together in the end (like say The English Patient).

Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter how a film is structured, as long as it works.  There’s no magic formula.  Take Tarantino’s films, for example, (most of) which I love.  Pulp Fiction‘s structure is all over the place, but I didn’t care.  I just wanted to go for the ride, wherever Tarantino was taking me.  From Dusk Till Dawn is another good example, where the first half of the movie is a hold-up/hostage scenario, and then suddenly it becomes an all-out crazy vampire movie halfway through.  But it works too.

And there’s no need for the introductory set-up to let the audience know what kind of film it is going to be.  In some cases, I actually preferred films that kept me in the dark, kept me wondering “what the heck is this movie about?” (like Michael Clayton) because nothing seems to make sense, but then eventually all the pieces are put back together like a jigsaw, and you marvel at the brilliance of it because all the clues were foreshadowed right from the beginning.  It’s that type of inventive, experimental, structure-breaking creativity that makes certain films truly memorable.

That said, for my first piece (which will be assessed), I’m going to stick with the traditional structure to see how it pans out, and then maybe try something a little different to spice it up a little.

[PS: it seems I should also check out the Harrison Ford movie “Witness”, which is apparently an excellent example of the traditional three-act structure.]