I am a big fan of story structure, especially the structure of stories intended for a commercial audience, and nobody does commercial better (or worse – when it misfires) than Hollywood.
As I have noted before, when thinking about a commercial story, I sometimes lay out the skeleton of a tale before commencing the writing itself. At other times I have the structure tucked away in my mind, so that I am only subliminally aware of it. Yet, its presence, in some magical way, guides my hand.
But what is story structure anyway? And how should one go about learning its secrets?
There are many books and articles written on the subject, including many on this site, drawn from a wide range of respected sources. One can hone in on the details, and study the workings of the inciting incident, the first and second pinch, the first and second turning point, the midpoint, the climax, and the resolution, and certainly, one would be more enlightened for it.
But sometimes, I prefer to talk about structure, especially to those who are just embarking on their writing journey, in a more accessible, common sense way.
The Hollywood Story Structure in a Nutshell
I have come across many descriptions that capture the essence of a good conventional tale, (I sometimes refer to such stories as Hollywood stories), but here, for its brevity and simplicity, is one of my favorites. I quote from Scott Meredith’s book, Writing to Sell:
“A sympathetic lead character finds himself in trouble of some kind and makes active efforts to get himself out of it. Each effort, however, merely gets him deeper into his trouble, and each new obstacle in his path is larger than the last. Finally, when things look blackest and it seems certain the lead character is finished, he manages to get out of his trouble through his own efforts, intelligence, or ingenuity.”
Much can be learnt by thinking carefully about several key words in this passage – sympathetic lead, trouble, active efforts, deeper into his troubles, larger than the last, blackest, finished, out of trouble though his own efforts, intelligence, or ingenuity. Each contains important kernels of insight that helps make for a successful story.
For us to care for the protagonist, for example, he must be sympathetic. We wouldn’t give much of a damn for Hitler, now would we?
For us to be drawn into the story itself, the character must also be in serious trouble.
Further, this trouble can not remain static. That would render it boring. For us to stay interested, the tension needs to increase and the problem needs to worsen.
You get the idea.
Commercial structure, then, orders an interconnected set of events about a sympathetic character facing an almost insurmountable problem in a way that conspires to keep the audience engrossed in the story.
So there you have it. Three sentences, taken from Mr. Meredith, that sum up the structure of a commercially viable story to get you started on that next Hollywood screenplay.
Hollywood story structure refers to an arrangement of interconnected events about a sympathetic character facing a difficult problem in a way that conspires to keep the audience engrossed in the story.