[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).
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).
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 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!
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