Story structure constantly evolves and grows as the stories being told do the same. The traditional approach, “who wants what and what is getting in the way?” is still there; however, it has evolved and expanded to include so much more. I am going to describe two tools that are examples of how it has evolved.
As storytellers move to a higher place of awareness in their lives and their experiences, so does the art and craft of storytelling. When you understand the value of linking all parts of your story, the results can be astounding. Two tools that I find add value to the script writing process for writers are:
- linking your set up, meaning your trigger incident and your starting dilemma, to your resolution
- connecting the personal dilemma and the professional goal of the central character
We’ll begin with looking at how you link your set up to your resolution. When you set up your opening, you want to set up the world, the trigger incident and the dilemma your central character faces due to the trigger incident. When done correctly, a question should surface from your dilemma. The resolution is the answer to this question.
For example, in the movie The Hunger Games, the world set up at the beginning of the movie is of a dystopian future. The totalitarian nation of Panem is divided between 12 districts and the Capitol. Each year two young representatives from each district are selected by lottery to participate in The Hunger Games. Part entertainment, part brutal retribution for a past rebellion. The televised games are broadcast throughout Panem. The 24 participants are forced to eliminate their competitors while the citizens of Panem are required to watch.
The trigger incident occurs when 16-year-old Katniss’s young sister, Primrose, is selected as District 12’s female representative. This trigger incident leads Katniss into the dilemma: What does she do to save her sister? If she does nothing, it is almost certain that her sister will die. If she takes action, she will risk her own life, but will be able to save her sister from the Hunger Games. Katniss volunteers to take her sister’s place. Katniss’s goal is to win so she can return to District 12 to be with her sister. The question that arises from the dilemma is “Will Katniss be able to win the Hunger Games and save herself so she can return to her sister?” The resolution with Katniss winning the Hunger Games and returning home to her sister, answers this question.
In the movie, Crazy, Stupid, Love, the world is set up when we see a number of couples in love at a restaurant. The camera takes us, the audience, under the tables where we see the couples flirting secretly with their feet. Then, the camera pans to the table of Cal and Emily. Their feet are far apart. Cal asks Emily what she wants for dessert, expecting to hear something like “Crème Brulee,” and he is shocked when she announces that she wants a divorce. Emily’s answer is the trigger incident. The trigger incident leads Cal into the dilemma: Can he get his wife back? Or, will he fall victim to the loss? Then Cal meets Jacob, a womanizer who agrees to help Cal rediscover his manhood and thereby get his wife back. The question that stems out of the dilemma is, “Will Cal rediscover his manhood and will he then get his wife back?” Again, the resolution answers the question. The subplots in Crazy, Stupid, Love all cover the same theme and elevate the A story set up and resolution.
With the second tool, you want to connect the personal dilemma of your central character to the character’s professional goal. When done well, the audience understands the central character’s motivation to reach their goal. In The Hunger Games, the personal dilemma/wound for Katniss is her deep connection with and love for her sister. This love and connection propels her to want to win the Hunger Games. In Crazy, Stupid, Love, Cal’s personal dilemma/wound is that his wife wants a divorce and he doesn’t. His goal is to rediscover his manhood in hopes that this will get his wife back. When the personal wound connects to the professional goal, your story takes on more depth and evolves to a deeper place.
This story tool also applies to our real lives. When we connect our personal goals with our professional outcomes, we have the ammunition to get us to where we want to be. I saw an excellent example of this recently. My mom was diagnosed with Follicular Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. One of her oncology specialists is a cancer survivor himself. As a result, he sends a letter to all of his patients to let them know that he understands their pain because he’s been where they are and he was able to beat it. He tells them they can contact him anytime, day or night, 24/7, and he will make himself available. This amazed me. I saw that when we acknowledge the truth in our own lives and use our truth, it gives us purpose behind the goals we want to attain. Our wounds and personal dilemmas are linked to our professional outcomes.
By understanding how to utilize these two tools, the stories you live and the stories you tell, will evolve to a higher place.
- More Story Structure by Jen Grisanti
- Screenwriting the Dan O’Bannon Way
- Structure and Breaking In: An Interview with Syd Field
Tools to Help:
- Books and Classes by Jen Grisanti at The Writers Store
- Screenwriting books by Syd Field
- Dan O’Bannon’s Guide to Screenplay Structure: Inside Tips from the Writer of Alien, Total Recall & Return of the Living Dead
- The Essential Elements of Screenplay Structure: Get Your Story Straight On Demand Webinar by screenwriter of What Women Want, Diane Drake