SCRIPT STRUCTURES: Basic elements to take into account
Introduction to Script Structures
Basic Elements to Take Into Account When Structuring a Script
1. The Emotional Journey of the Characters
2. Character Goals and Conflict
3. The Rhythm of the Story
4. The Cohesion Between Dramatic Action and Theme
5. Balancing Plots and Subplots
Conclusions to Develop a Narrative Structure
When it comes to writing a script, whether for film or TV, there are many manuals that can provide us with helpful theoretical tools. However, there is quite a difference between theory and practice, and many times what might seem obvious or a basic rule can end up disappearing while we write our project.
It is important to remember that each story is different and has its own internal narrative needs. Although the structure helps us to establish the points necessary for the dramatic action, it cannot be seen as a rigid model, as often this leads to the script being developed inorganically.
The structure is built from within the story. That is why, above all, when thinking about how to work on the structure, it is important to first refer to the heart of the story — that is, to do it from the inside out.
There are many ways to approach the structure of a film or series, according to the type of story we are going to tell and what the ideal way is to do it. We should also ask what the distinctive way is to tell this story — that is, the way that only we as individuals can tell. This will depend a lot on what our story is asking of us.
It should be noted that there are many different structures. Simply talking about the three acts of a script, or on which specific page to establish the turning points can serve to save the cat. That said, if a classic structure is executed well the result is usually optimal.
However, the truth is that both cinema and television in recent years have found a way to evolve narratively, exploiting all the potential that the format allows them. They have managed to build an increasingly sophisticated and complex grammar, paradoxically without losing an iota of the basic foundations of the dramatic structure.
Films like Pulp Fiction (written by Quentin Tarantino), Amores Perros (written by Guillermo Arriaga), or series like La Veneno (Javier Calvo and Javier Ambrosi) are concrete examples of structures that disobey the classic canons of their formats, and yet still manage to build a proposal that maintains a narrative coherence. In addition, they stand out for their ingenuity.
If the rules are there to be broken, and there are different approaches to the structure of a script, then the question arises: What are the basic structural elements for a story to be sustained and strengthened? Or put differently: What are the fundamentals that cannot be missing from any type of structure?
The Emotional Journey of the Characters
Probably the most important of all. The characters are the heart of the story, and it is their emotional journey that should build the pages of the script. In the case of the main characters, most of the time their arc is closely linked with the highest points of the dramatic action. The things that happen to them both externally and internally are what determines the journeys they take, and where the story goes.
It is recommended that when working on the structure of the film — whether fragmented like the examples cited above, a classic three-act structure, or even cyclical — the entire advancement of the dramatic progression is conditioned by the emotional journey of the characters.
It is always they who must guide us, through the circumstances they face, to the next point in the story. If this were to happen the other way around, many times the characters would feel poorly drawn, underworked, archetypal, or inorganic.
Character Goals and Conflict
One of the main elements of building the structure is the adequate delay of the conflict, and the development of character goals. This is fundamental to the structure and the direction of the story. If character A begins the film with a goal, the central question should be: Will he achieve it?
On the other hand, the objective can also change. Sometimes the story begins with an initial approach: Character A wants X thing, and then in the middle of the narrative path he completely changes his objective. This could either be because he has fulfilled it, or not. All of this will determine what type of structure is more favourable for our project, depending once again on the needs of the story and the characters.
The Rhythm of the Story
Something that should never be neglected is the pulse of the narrative tempo, since it refers to how we order the sequences and how we polish them in their internal framework.
An endless first act due to excess information, or a character arc that dissipates in explanatory dialogues does not allow the plot to advance. It does not say anything, and can quickly make the audience lose interest in the story.
We must be very aware of the temporality of our project — slow, agitated, subtle or expressive. This will depend a lot on the genre codes we are working on, since an action movie will not have the same hectic pace as an intimate drama.
The good management of rhythm in the cinematographic story is one of the main characteristics of a successful and gripping structure.
The Cohesion Between Dramatic Action and Theme
As we pointed out in the section on the character’s emotional journey, character is often closely linked to the thesis of the project. The characters are the ones who, with their decisions, actions and consequences, will drive the story forward.
This is where the importance of cohesion appears. When we want to talk about something, we have to try to do it as clearly and cleanly as possible. For this to happen, the dramatic action must always be linked to expressing the theme in some way. Movies that falter in this aspect generally leave a bland impression, as the viewer does not know what the series or movie wanted to talk about. In the worst case scenario, this can lead to the audience abandoning the story in the opening scenes.
Dramatic action should always be progressive. Causality is key, with one sequence leading on to another until the end. When this is executed well, it also facilitates the viewer’s empathy with the characters, which again brings us closer to the heart of the story.
Balancing Plots and Subplots
Everything that we have mentioned, finally, falls on the construction of the plot and the subplots. They are the fabric of the story, and are made up of all the previous elements.
The secondary characters are key here. These are the satellites that will accompany the protagonists in their journey, either as allies or hindering them. They will provide depth to the story, new points of view on the subject, and even bring new conflicts that will allow the advancement of the dramatic action.
The subplots are one of the main tools when it comes to working on the rhythm of the story. It is the subplots that allow the ordering of the sequences — not only nuancing the characters’ emotional journeys, but also regulating the story, providing breathing room or exerting pressure when required.
A perfect balance between plot and subplots is seen when the relationship between the two is clear. Both must be communicating vessels, drinking from each other. There is a good way to know when a subplot is not conducive: when we notice that, without it, the main plot remains unchanged.
Conclusions to Develop a Narrative Structure
Whatever our format and audiovisual grammar, when writing fiction all the above elements are essential for the proper construction of a script. Most importantly, we must remember that our story has its own needs, and that the structuring process is based on knowing how to respect them. The structure is not a dogma; it is a tool for narrative order that can help us improve our projects and turn them into solid and innovative stories.