[GUEST POST] Jay Sherer on Learning from Film: Story Structure, Part 1


Jay Sherer is the author of the illustrated time travel series, Timeslingers: Season 1. (Now available in print!) His short stories have appeared in various small-market online magazines and two science fiction anthologies (Infinite Space, Infinite God I and II). He’s currently working on Timeslingers: Season 2 while also penning a Depression Era superhero comic book series called The Standard (with ridiculously cool art by partner-in-crime, Nathan Scheck).

Learning from Film: Story Structure (Part 1)

Is there a formula for good storytelling?

In my senior year of college I was introduced to The Screenwriter’s Workbook, a book written by Syd Field, who has devoted his life to the study of storytelling through film. In short, his answer to the question above is a resounding “yes.”

But can that approach also be utilized for other works of art? Can short story writers, novelists, and playwrights use Mr. Field’s formula? If not, are there other formulas that writers should be using?

Let’s start with a very brief overview of Mr. Field’s screenwriting model, which he calls, “the Paradigm” (link provides a PDF visual diagram).

The Paradigm

Based on the standard three-act structure, the Paradigm relies on a triad of essential story elements: Plot Point 1, the Midpoint, and Plot Point 2. These three pivotal story mechanisms have one thing in common: they are triggers or cues that keep the story fresh and exciting for the audience. Here’s an overview of each:

Plot Point 1: Transitions the story from its setup (Act I) into its core conflict (Act II), changing the direction of the story itself. It occurs approximately 25% of way into the story. Examples:

  • Raiders of the Lost Ark: Indy meets with the CIA and learns that the Nazis are after the Ark of the Covenant.
  • The Matrix: Neo meets with Morpheus for the first time (and ends up taking the red pill).

The Midpoint: A compelling part of the story revealed, setting a new story element (which usually heights the conflict) in motion. It occurs approximately halfway into the story. Examples:

  • Raiders of the Lost Ark: Indy discovers that Belloq is digging in the wrong location (which means Indy might discover the Ark first).
  • The Matrix: Cypher is revealed as a betrayer (he sells Morpheus to Agent Smith).

Plot Point 2: The final cog falls into place, hurtling the story into its climax and resolution. It occurs approximately 75% of the way into the story. Examples:

  • Star Wars: A New Hope: Vader kills Obi-wan, allowing Luke, Han, and team rescue Leia and escape from the Death Star (setting up the climactic final battle where the Death Star is destroyed).
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Nazis kidnap Miriam (which prompts Indy to pursue them).
Why It Matters

Why use a formula? At the end of the day, the writer’s job is to compel the audience to keep engaging with the work of art she has created. Syd Field’s model gives writers a way to connect with their audience by teaching writers about the cues that audiences enjoy.

What do you think? Do you think there’s a structure to storytelling? Can you apply this screenwriting model to other storytelling formats? I’ll write about that next!

9 thoughts on “[GUEST POST] Jay Sherer on Learning from Film: Story Structure, Part 1”

  1. Before I started writing novels I read “Writing Screenplays that Sell” by Michael Hauge. I still refer to it now. I think it’s one of the most useful books on writing I’ve read.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Stuart. I’ll have to check that book out. I love using the screenplay format since it gives my stories a place to go rather than get bogged down. So, from that standpoint it’s really helpful. Plus, I think these days I think movies are one of the most common forms of entertainment, so using a screenplay structure sort of sets up the audience of a book to follow something they’re accustomed to.

  2. I’ve seen a couple of books that directly reference film structure as ways to write novels, too.

    I think there is unconscious and conscious use of structure, depending on whether the author is a pantser or a plotter. But there is always some sort of structure at the bottom. Or else it is an inchoate mess.

  3. Great point, Paul. Another methodology that I like is taking Lajos Egri’s “The Art of Dramatic Writing” (which is more about character development) and using that as a basic structure. It depends on the type of story I’m writing. With Timeslingers: Season 1, it’s all about action. Sure, there’s character development, but I rely more heavily on the plot than the characters. Ultimately, you’re absolutely right, it comes down to finding the right method for the story you’re trying to tell.

  4. I discovered Syd Feld’s work around Plot Point I of my writing career. His paradigm was a revelation to me, as I had not thought structurally about storytelling before. I work visually, so I think of a story as the Golden Gate Bridge with Godzilla sitting at the lowest point of the cables. Every part has to do its job, carry its particular weight.

    As I’ve gotten more skillful, with more published novels under my belt, I work in a less-amorphous fashion. I think of the process as a dialog between my let’s-play creative self (I joke about “taking a flying leap off the cliff of reality”) and my editorial, analytical self. I’ll use Feld’s paradigm as a structural check against my creative plan, then go play, then come back to it as a diagnostic tool. Often, when I’m in that gloriously chaotic stage, I’ll know something isn’t working but not why. More times than not, consulting Feld’s paradigm will show me where I’ve gone astray.

    1. Deborah, that’s almost exactly how I do it these days. Excellent description of how it tends to work once you’re familiar with the model. Usually I find conflicts between the Paradigm and the character’s development. So, the Paradigm tells me I’ve got to move on, but my characters are saying, “Naw, that’s not where I can go right now.” And then it takes multiple edits to get to that happy medium.

  5. Larry Brooks of storyfix.com uses the script formula of Syd Field in his book “Story Engineering”… although he breaks Act II into two parts; giving the novel format four Acts.

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