The raw ingredients of a story ☛

“Not rules, principles. McKee writes that a rule says you must do it this way. A principle says, this works and has through all remembered time.” – from ‘Adaptation’, Charlie Kaufmann

I recently attended a talk given by John Yorke at the BBC Drama Writers’ Festival where he claimed that all stories have essentially the same shape. He showed a table, which eloquently demonstrated that pretty much every act structure ever proposed hits the same five points. It was an elegant argument, but as he spoke I felt the buckles of a straight-jacket being pulled a notch tighter.

I’ve always been sceptical about the usefulness of act structure to screenwriters. It is a reliable tool for creating a pleasing shape… but so is a cookie-cutter. If, as Syd Field proposes, the first plot point must happen on page/minute 25, we might as well take a stopwatch to the cinema.

Screenplay structure can be this simple...

Screenplay structure can be this simple…

The problem with Yorke’s theory, that suggested in the quote about McKee and indeed the theories of all story tzars is they emerge from a process of reverse engineering. The guru has looked at existing stories that have worked “through all remembered time”, taken them apart and found what makes them tick. This strategy has produced great insights, but it is innately conservative. All stories designed this way will inevitably stay within the parameters of the existing stories that the guru considers to be great.  The shock of the new does not this way lie.

Many of us are keen to find other ways to tell stories.

But throw these structures aside and don’t we cast ourselves adrift in the ocean of our imagination, with no compass but our instincts? Many screenwriters would be happy to do this, and it does sound very pioneering. However, for every Eraserhead, 2001: a Space Odyssey and Mirror there are a dozen scripts that aspire to maverick unconventionality but are wandering, incoherent and dull.  Few of these ever make it to the big screen. It’s not the case that anything goes.

3-Acts, 5-acts, 22 steps, and any other theory of structure you care to name, work because they meet desires and expectations that every audience shares. But either they define those desires and expectations in a narrow way, or provide too predictable a method for addressing them.  Why don’t we look deeper and identify the source code: the basic needs the audience has of a story? Let’s engineer forwards.

I propose the following criteria: the starting point for a theory, rather than the finished thing. They are only meant to apply to feature-length big-screen stories. Many of them will hold true for continuing TV drama, novels and plays – but the different circumstances in which we encounter a story do affect what we ask of it. So here goes…


1. Trajectory

A story must feel like it’s going somewhere. Where that is doesn’t need to remain the same throughout the tale: the objective can alter, more than once if necessary. If, however, we take too long setting up an objective, lose sight of it, or even reach it and continue the story without providing a new objective, the audience will get restless. The medium of cinema requires the continuous and undivided attention of an audience for an hour and a half; without a sense of trajectory they soon wonder “where is this going?” Then they start taking sneaky looks at their iPhones.

There can be a period at the start of the tale during which there’s no forward movement; characters and situations need to be set up. However, once the ball has been set rolling – the inciting incident, if you must – it needs to continue to roll. This may sound relentless, but there are ways of allowing the audience a breather. Maybe the characters have to wait: their objective can’t be achieved until sunrise or sunset. Or perhaps the characters are on a train heading toward their objective and have time to flirt or shoot the breeze until they reach their destination. As long as the objective is alive in the character/s, all is well.

But an objective is not the only way of creating a trajectory. Some filmmakers have found alternative structural devices to do the job. Francois Girard used the title of his film Thirty-two Short Films About Glenn Gould to suggest that there would be no overall objective to the movie, merely a given number of units – we know that at the end of the 32nd film the movie will be over. In his early short films, Peter Greenaway played around with similar basic ‘narratives’ – like the numbers one to ten or the alphabet – both to give a sense of forward movement and to give us a sense of how far through the piece we are.


2. Climax

Without a clear shape any story becomes dull, samey. We need moments of heightened dramatic intensity in some places; in others we need lulls in the action. While most gurus demand a complex web of acts, steps, plot points, turning points and mid-points, I offer just one compulsory dramatic moment: the climax.

The climax is where the drama is at its most intense (you knew that). It will inevitably have to come pretty near the end, otherwise the story will feel like it gradually peters out in an unsatisfying manner. It is at the climax that the dramatic problems of the story are resolved.

Most stories benefit from multiple dramatic peaks and troughs, turns and surprises on the way to the climax. However I don’t believe that there is any universal rule as to where these should come; their frequency, intensity and placement will depend on style, subject matter and personal judgement. All I can say is, aside from a beginning and an end, the climax is the one dramatic point that all stories share in common.


3. Engagement

No amount of intricate plotting, pacy action or relentlessly ticking time-bombs will mean anything if we don’t care about the outcome (as anyone who’s ever seen a Transformers movie will testify). The storyteller needs to find some way of making the audience want to know what happens next.

In most good stories this is achieved by drawing the audience in emotionally, and the best way to achieve that is usually to get us to love at least one of the characters.

Yes, love.

Let me clarify: I don’t think it’s necessary for us to ‘like’ the character, although it doesn’t hurt. We need to be drawn involuntarily to the character, sometimes against our own better judgement. What matters to them matters to us, even if they want to drag a ship up a mountain.  Where they go, we will follow, regardless of the danger. Persuading an audience to ‘love’ a fictional character who only exists for 90 minutes is a big ask, but those are the breaks.

Engagement through mystery… ‘The Usual Suspects’

However, emotion is not the only way to keep the audience hooked. Audiences can also be engaged intellectually. I’m not just talking about art house goatee-scratchers like Last Year in Marienbad: any form of mystery, if it’s strong enough, can keep us glued to the screen. It could be a murder mystery plot or any enigmatic genre-piece where we don’t know quite who to trust or what to believe: The Usual SuspectsMemento and Exam are all good examples of this. They keep us engaged until the end as we try to resolve the Rubik’s cube of a plot they handed us.


These three requirements all help to keep the audience’s attention and stave off boredom. There is a fourth, however, which speaks to the impression the viewer takes with them when they leave the cinema:


4. Theme

This is possibly the most enigmatic and difficult element of storytelling. It is like the key signature in music: it makes the piece feel like one coherent whole. Without it, we come away asking “what was that all about?” or just “so what?”

In my experience, this is the element of storytelling of which screenwriters are the most wary. Independent screenwriters will tell you that they have no desire to preach; they want the audience to decide what the story means to them. While commercially-minded writers will say “I’m writing a zombie movie, not ‘War and Peace’; why does it have to mean something?”

My answer to both is that without a theme the script will either feel fuzzy or hollow and pointless. This is not to say that the story needs a finger–wagging message, about which the independent filmmaker is anxious; it’s okay to discuss a theme without coming to a set conclusion. Conversely the theme doesn’t have to be high-minded and complex, as the commercial filmmaker fears; it can be as simple as “we need to be prepared to fight to defend our values / country / family”.


Rules are made to be broken, and these are no exception. There are many other things a story needs that don’t fall under these grand headings. However, if we are to reinvent cinematic storytelling or even just to refresh it, I think it pays to work out what we really need to makes a story sing. Otherwise we just continue mimicking the way it’s always been done through all remembered time.

Hopefully this perspective may provoke you to question your preconceptions about storytelling. I’d like to spark an open debate about what really makes a great story. I look forward to hearing from you…


Copyright © Guy Ducker 2013

Edited by Dr Sara Lodge

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17 Responses to “Breaking the Mould”
  1. It is true, if the history is good.

  2. gavinboyter says:

    A very well-argued piece. I generally agree although there’s an argument for adding Genre Identification to the mix. In other words a film has to clearly identify which genre its operating within and (generally) abide by those rules, even if that genre is “Antiplot” (to borrow a term from McKee). You could argue this is a feature of trajectory but I think if you worked up your premise to a book treatment you’d want Genre as its own chapter.

  3. Joe says:

    I also went to what sounds like the same talk given by John Yorke but given at The London Breakfast Club where the push was on promoting his latest book around this subject. I similarly felt the talk started by attacking many other script theorists in pursuit of a holy grail but ended up giving Yorke’s version based on all his years in TV drama and film and by reference especially to Shakespeare’s plays.

    I agree with all you say but would question that 90 minutes is the time frame to aim for which is a historic and commercial producer driven time frame – I think we will see a move to shorter films getting popular (maybe the old days of A & B movies or even with a C movie in more independent minded cinemas). And we are clearly seeing a move to longer and more intricate plotted TV series drama “The Wire”; “Mad Men”; “The Killing” etc.. extending over many months and years?

    The best bit of advice I have heard on scriptwriting is to always ask “does the scene move the story forward? (afraid I forgot who said it!) – if that simple test was applied to any new structures being attempted the failings and pitfalls you mention might be more easily avoided.

    It is early days but I must admit some of the Arab films seen in recent years (especially now post the “Arab Spring”) are showing signs that keeping it simple and close to reality does work best!

    • guyducker says:

      Thanks for the thoughts. Just to clarify, I’m not specifically advocating 90 mins as the ideal length for a movie, simply citing it as a rough average length of a film. I didn’t intend any comment on duration.

      • Joe says:

        Understood – I actually think when you deal with longer (TV drama series) and shorter time frames, you actually can play a lot more with structure in scripts and storytelling.

  4. Ron Suppa says:

    But it all still comes down to a beginning, middle and end, though as someone said “not necessarily in that order.” Good blog though — it’s the ones that challenge the paradigm that seem to be most memorable.

  5. Three Act Structure has become a bit of a punching bag. But to beat up on it is like trying to kill the delivery system. The poignancy of the old phrase “Don’t kill the messenger!” is in the fact that the message could have been delivered by this person, or it could have been delivered by any one of a number of other people. It’s not three-act structure’s fault that the stories it delivers are dull and unimaginative.

    Call it Engagement, Trajectory, Climax. Call it Beginning, Middle, End. Call it Act 1, Act 2, Act 3. Each of these ways of framing story structure are equal attempts at offering the wandering writer a starting point from which to organize the amorphous ideas bubbling up from his or her unconscious.

    To be sure, Three Act Structure has also been exploited by many to support more proscriptive framings of what needs to happen at exactly what page, what “stages on the journey” the character must meet, etc., etc. These paint-by-number approaches are simply irritating to a genuinely imaginative writer for whom the most reliable authority is artistic instinct. The “principles” McKee refers to are the consciously applied tools the writer holds in reserve for when instinct isn’t solving the problem. But even for the most instinct driven artist, the fundamental notion that a story needs a beginning, middle and end is hard to dispute, as is the notion that everything in the story needs to help move it forward in some way.

  6. hoyecomovas says:

    Is it wise for a first time screenwriter to brake the rules.

    • guyducker says:

      I’m not sure whether your question is rhetorical or not; I’ll treat it as if it is not. I guess the answer is, it depends on the writer. If a screenwriter’s aspiration is to write commercial genre fare, maybe not. For anyone else, absolutely.

      They say that you have to know the rules in order to break them. Certainly knowing the rules is wise, whether or not you obey them. However breaking the rules can sometimes be a very good way of learning those rules. By making mistakes we learn why the ‘rules’ are there, what functions they perform. And the object lesson is always more powerful than one read from a book.

      But not all rookie experiments end up in failures from which they can learn. Sometimes the newbie will come up with something, well… new. Just because they didn’t know you’re not supposed to do that.

      Thinking about it, even established genres could be enlivened by new structural ideas and approaches. Think what ‘the Usual Suspects’ and Tarantinos screenplays did for the so even commercial screenwriters should question the established formats.

  7. Hi people. I have written two books on this stuff that are in widespread international use and that spend a lot of time on how, precisely, to construct a whole range of film structures that don’t fit the three act one hero model. I wrote them because, as a crusty old writer, nobody seemed to be addressing these structures that we all wanted to use. The books are entitled Screenwriting Updated and The 21st Century Screenplay and I lecture all over the world on the material because, like you, writers all over the world are frustrated at the limitations of the one hero Three Act Model., And there is good news. These films – even pieces like 21 Grams, Pulp Fiction Usual Suspects, Memento, etc work to clear patterns that people can use as templates. You can view me banging on about this kind of stuff in an extract from a video filmed at the London Screenwriters’ Festival at (and Chris and I will be releasing the whole two hour lecture soon). I have heard John Yorke’s material and I would say that it’s okay as far as it goes (although the Freudian stuff has, if I’m right, been somewhat discredited over the years) but as we’re all saying, storytelling has never just stuck to this model. If we’re talking Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet doesn’t have just one hero, for example. The whole point of that story is that we see the love story from two points of view – that we have two protagonists. This means, technically, that we have to have three plot lines. One for each protagonists in their own story when they are apart, and a third for their time together. I have named this Double Journey Structure, and films like Brokeback MOuntain, VIcky Cristina Barcelona, The Queen, and The Departed follow the model, which we can describe as ‘two characters journeying towards each other, away form each other of in parallel’. And if writing in that form you must – in order to tell your story – tell these three stories. Yes, newcomers can tackle these complex forms – that’s why I wrote the books, although the pros also find them very useful, indeed are the biggest fans, because we have all been grumpy about this for years – but be warned, if you are using, for example, any of the more complex double narrative flashback forms, you need a different mindset. You need to plot stories in which a character is a protagonist in one time frame and an antagonist in another time frame – and then can turn from being an antagonist to being a protagonist in the same time frame (this happens in SLumdog Millionaire) . This is not theoretical goobledegook. It’s about the practical mechanics of maintaining suspense and drama brought to you by a grouchy old writer. You need to keep the audience on the outide of the character to maintain mystery.
    What we need to do now as writers is look at the nuts and bolts of this stuff. Cheers

    • Hi all. I’m a screenwriter and script consultant and I’d just like to second what Linda says here. Her book The 21st Century Screenplay is probably the best overall reference on screenwriting you can buy. It should be on your shelf. (For the record I have no connection to Linda – we’ve never even met). Guy’s article is thoughtful and useful reminder of some underlying principles of storytelling. But it does not address the subject it sets out to critique – structure. The implication seems to be that if we just keep these basic principles in mind, we needn’t think about structure at all. A tempting thought. But dangerously misleading.

      We must be very careful not to assume that because some thinking about structure is reductive and uncreative, therefore all thinking about structure is reductive and uncreative. This is equivalent to arguing that because *paint by numbers* books exist, this is proof that there are no techniques, tools and principles that can be learnt and consistently applied to creating great art. There are unquestionably some truths in what the three act structure manual writers say. If you’ll permit the analogy, you can play half the pop songs ever written using just three chords. These songs are a valid form of expression. They are capable of expressing ideas and emotions. And they are a commercially viable product. But they are not the only valid, expressive or commercially viable structure available to us in the medium of music. Some three act movies, like some three chord pop songs, are formulaic and forgettable. Some three act movies and three chord pop songs are exquisite gems of their form. Likewise, some music in less familiar formats is painful, boring and pretentious. As are many movies that adopt alternative forms. Shallow, artless pap is shallow, artless pap regardless of what structure it is delivered in. Saying “I’m going to use a different structure!” or “Screw structure altogether!” is not, in itself, going to make your film any deeper, more artful, or original.

      The painful truth is that screen story telling is hard. It is an art and a craft and you have to learn and develop both. And, like learning music, you have to start with the basics and work your way up. You have to master the basic structures – scales, chords, patterns – before you have the technical ability to tackle the more challenging forms. No one sits down at the piano for the first time and belts out Shostakovich. If you think your’e going to be the one exception in the history of humankind… it’s time for a reality check. Not going to happen.

      • Joe C. says:

        My only observation is that while a lot of people may claim to be scriptwriters given they have in reality not done a lot of it (or done it very well, where they have done some), what started this debate (and to which I contributed earlier) was whether the rules put forward by many screenwriting gurus and being laid down as gospel were always valid? I agree 100% that “to break the rules you have to know and understand the rules” – yet until you try and push the boundaries you will never know what works and what does not.

        I also harbour a very initial belief which only time will confirm is that filming and filmmaking is like music a medium that is born to experiment with given how different it is to most other art forms. The opening up of filmmaking through technical advances to more people to try their hand at, will I think create the desire to experiment more.

      • guyducker says:

        Hi Steve, I’d never suggest that we don’t need to think about structure, I just think that there are advantages to thinking about it differently. I deliberately didn’t suggest basic requirements of structure, save for trajectory, because I think there are a number of ways to skin that particular cat. My objective was to provide a checklist from which writers could think up new structures.

        I agree with your points regarding three act structure: there have indeed been many great movies written to that paradigm. However, all too often the fact that it works has lead risk-averse Hollywood to believe that its ther only thing that works.

        I also agree that its necessary to learn your craft. Once in a blue moon you come across a natural unschooled talent, who comes up with something fresh and new because they know no better. These are very rare.

        Is my theory for beginners: probably not. That said, if it encourages people to experiement, even if they make mistakes, all the better. Breaking the rules is a good way of learning why they are there.

  8. george.g says:

    I agree that using basic narrative principles rather than cookie cutter templates will give you more freedom to build a story which works but also remains unique to you. Many of the prescriptions from gurus like Snyder, McKee, Vogler et al fall too much in the cookie cutter camp. Some of the best advice I have read is the most basic, e.g. McKendrick’s principle of ‘anticipation mixed with uncertainty’ as being vital to narrative tension. Another simple approach I like is the focus on causality in ‘Backwards and Forwards’ by David Ball, which is really a book for analysing plays aimed at directors, but also useful for writers.
    On the subject of John Yorke vs Linda Aronson, I’ve read both books and I find John Yorke makes a much greater effort to find some basic principles behind the structure he prescribes, while Linda Aronson relies more on cookie cutter analysis of existent, albeit alternative film structures. Her recipes in the end feel quite restrictive.

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  1. […] wrote a piece a little time back about the essential elements of any cinematic story, where I claimed that one of the basic building blocks is ‘theme’. At the time discussion of […]

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