Story struc­ture

Standard Dramatic Struc­ture: Once upon a time …  Then one day …  And just when everything was going so well … When just at the last minute . .  They lived happily ever after.”

David Mamet, Bambi vs Gorilla

The most basic template for the commonest type of story is a three-stage devel­op­ment:

A situ­ation.

A complic­a­tion of the situ­ation (ideally involving a confront­a­tion of some kind)

A resol­u­tion of the complication.

From this basic model has grown up a complex set of conven­tions and rules. So ingrained are many of these conven­tions that we often apply them unthink­ingly. Ninety-nine percent of the films made as public enter­tain­ment employ them.

The Classic Story

The Classic Story reflects the conser­vative traits in human nature. It has certain struc­tural char­ac­ter­istics which rein­force an audience’s belief in their intrinsic self-worth and effect­ive­ness and the idea that the world is a mean­ingful place governed by the laws of cause and effect:

It is told more or less in continuous time; following a logical sequence
It employs a consistent reality and emphas­ises external conflict.
It invites audi­ence involve­ment and anti­cip­a­tion with a predom­in­ating and consistent point of view.
It has a closed ending; restoring a sense of “order” and leaving no “remainder” to puzzle the audi­ence.
It makes no use (or very sparing use) of coin­cid­ence (Comedy is obvi­ously an exception)

The Minim­alist Perspective

Natur­ally, there are those who delib­er­ately flout the ‘rules’ obeyed by The Classic Story; pointing out that the world is not ordered or inher­ently meaningful.

This perspective is often found in European drama and cinema. Some of its char­ac­ter­istics are:

Open endings, broken time frames,

The use of coin­cid­ence and portraiture as dramatic devices

An emphasis or reli­ance on internal conflict

Fore­ground and Background

The Fore­ground Story is a term used to describe the literal action that takes place within a narrative (usually action involving the prot­ag­onist). It might be described as “motion orientated”.

Most films feature some kind of action but they may not neces­sarily have a Back­ground Story (i.e. typical action/adventure stories)

The Back­ground Story is a term used to describe those aspects of narrative which are “emotion orient­ated”. Decisions or dilemmas; conflicts derived from the interior life of the char­ac­ters (i.e. romance stories).

Die Hard is about a man trying to recon­cile with the wife he loves … Lethal Weapon is about a man who’s died inside, who comes back to life.  Mel Gibson’s char­acter is intro­duced with a gun barrel in his mouth as he contem­plates suicide because of his loss of his wife … The most painful scripts I read are action scripts that are just an on-going series of mayhem. Char­ac­ters die by the dozens and no one in the story cares. Unfor­tu­nately, if no one in a script cares about a character’s death, why should I? Or any reader”

Bill Johnson, Scriptwriter & author


High Concept vs Low Concept

High Concept and Low Concept are Holly­woodese. Broadly speaking these are marketing terms relating to the premise upon which a film is built.

A High Concept film is one in which the premise describes the unique selling point of the film (i.e. A mermaid arrives in modern day New York). High Concept films are easier to pitch and promote because it’s easy to get the ‘concept’ at their heart.

This makes them popular with movie execs but not neces­sarily great quality films. A lot of cheaply made cult films have terrific high concepts. Films of this kind tend to focus more on the Fore­ground Story.

A Low Concept film is one that relies on other attrib­utes to be successful such as char­ac­ter­isa­tion, dialogue, theme or setting. For example, a film about a woman spending a vaca­tion with her elderly father (On Golden Pond) may not sound scin­til­lating but it won Oscars. Films of this kind tend to focus more on the Back­ground Story.

© David Clough 1995

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