Battle of the Paradigms: Screenplay Structure – Whose to Choose

~ based on new material in the 6th edition of The Screenwriter’s Bible ~

Almost every guru and teacher has his or her specific model or paradigm for structuring and outlining a screenplay.  Here is a list of the most famous. I call these the “Great Eight,” and they are not listed in any particular order.

screenplay structure 3•   Michael Hauge’s “Six Stage Plot Structure”
•   Robert McKee’s “The Quest”
•   Linda Seger’s “Story Spine”
•   John Truby’s “Twenty-two Building Blocks”
•   Syd Field’s “Paradigm”
•   Blake Snyder’s “Beat Sheet”
•   Christopher Vogler’s “The Hero’s Journey”
•   Dave Trottier’s “Magnificent 7 Plot Points”

What’s a screenwriter to do?

It’s easy to get lost in this jungle. Fortunately, with the machete of common sense, we can hack our way to a sensible approach. I did an overlay of these paradigms—all created by master teachers—and discovered that they are loosely compatible. But which one should you use?

Personally, I think they are all worthwhile…as informed guidelines…and not as jack-hammered-into-granite rules. Precisely imitating someone’s surefire model without a strong application of creativity may result in a formulaic screenplay. And you can name a few classic and successful movies that do not exactly follow any of the “Great Eight.”

Furthermore, movies such as Being John Malkovich, The Sixth Sense, Gravity, Pulp Fiction, Psycho, Sleepless in Seattle, and O Brother, Where Art Thou? are fun to watch partly because they are so fresh and original. They use classic dramatic structure in inventive ways, and in some cases bend the framework.

Kill the hero

In the case of Joseph Stefano’s Psycho (directed by Alfred Hitchcock), the framework is broken when the protagonist is killed before we are halfway into the movie. The tactic shocks the audience so forcefully that a tremendous amount of suspense is created, enough to carry us through the second act and to the end. Speaking of Hitchcock, does The Birds resolve definitively?

Double your plots, double your fun

Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction tells two stories. One is about how Jules (Samuel Jackson) comes to believe that God has a mission for him. At the Showdown, he doesn’t shoot the robber because he’s going through a “transitional period.” In the other story, Butch (Bruce Willis) refuses to throw a prizefight and comes to terms with his boss while escaping with his life.

Each of the two stories has a beginning, a middle, and an end, but the events are not presented in exact chronological order. I wouldn’t try something as tricky as this for my first script, but it illustrates an unorthodox and effective use of dramatic principles.

The most rigid paradigm of all

Perhaps the most traditional and rigid of “structures” is the love story or romantic comedy basic structural model.

The two lovers generally meet at the Catalyst and are thrown together by the Big Event. But the Back Story gives rise to a flaw which interferes with love.  Even so, they fall in love anyway at the Midpoint (or at least one does), and are separated at the Crisis. In the Showdown, one or both overcomes the flaw and they come together.  In the end, we and they realize (the Realization) that they will live happily ever after.

Please note the creative use of the “Magnificent 7 Plot Points” in Sleepless in Seattle, where Annie (Meg Ryan) “meets” Sam (Tom Hanks) via a radio program, and by the Midpoint the two are interested in each other—all without either saying more than a few words to the other. The classic Crisis separation is manifested by the great gulf between the Empire State Building and the Rainbow Room where Annie dines with her fiancé. Whom will Annie choose, a guy she has not spoken two words to or her sweet-as-sugar fiancé?

Annie makes the Crisis decision by racing to the Empire State Building where she finally connects with Sam. This can be seen as the Showdown or Climax, and it’s without an opposition character or antagonist.  In fact, much of the interpersonal conflict in Sleepless is provided by Sam’s son Jonah, plus there is a lot of inner conflict, some of it motivated by Sam’s backstory—his wife’s death. Thank you, Nora Ephron, David Ward, and Jeff Arch for your inventive approach.

You determine the fate of the Great Eight

What I like about the “Great Eight” is they present different ways to look at the same thing—basic story structure.  So there is no Battle of the Paradigms. They are all useful, helpful, and instructive.  One may be more helpful than another, depending on your current project.

Just remember they are useful guidelines, not rigid rules. So don’t adore and glorify any of them…except mine of course.

Editor’s Note: Dave is going to be the guest on Twitter’s #Scriptchat this Sunday at 5pm PST (March 16th). Jump into this screenwriting community and get direct access to ask Dave questions and meet other screenwriters! Instructions for chatting are here.

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