Unconventional Story Structures for Screenwriters
There comes a time in every writer’s career when they start to feel a bit claustrophobic when it comes to structuring their scripts. Three-Act Structure, Save the Cat!, Robert McKee Story Seminars, The Hero’s Journey, the old five-step plot diagram we learned in elementary school. Although these are great tools of the trade and fundamental learning blocks for all screenwriters, it can all become so…boring. We are constantly advised to strictly adhere to these rigid structures or else!
That can really dampen a writer’s creative spark.
Our hapless hero begins to feel anxious within the confines of their outlines. They yearn to break free. Sometimes, a writer just wants to be daring, experimental, and create something the likes of which has never been seen.
It can be done — but it can’t be sloppy. A martial arts expert can only create their own school of style after they have mastered the forms that have come before them.
So, how can you structure your scripts outside the lines of conventional wisdom without making a mess?
The definition via Wikipedia: “Biomimetics or biomimicry is the imitation of the models, systems, and elements of nature for the purpose of solving complex human problems.”
Engineers have been examining natural processes in order to revolutionize the way we interact with the world. By mimicking natural characteristics that have evolved over thousands of years, scientists have been able to make incredible strides in technological advancement.
For example, bullet trains in Japan would create shock waves when entering tunnels at high speeds, causing structural damage in their wake. So engineers researched the beak of the Kingfisher bird for their next model of trains. The beak of the Kingfisher allows the bird to dive through waters at high speeds with minimal splash. This new design allowed the 500 series train to be 10% faster, use 15% less electricity, and eliminated the issue of the shock wave.
Olympic swimmers use suits designed to mimic shark skin and are now on pace to break the sound barrier, wind turbines are shaped after the fins of whales, and the design of spider webs helped reinforce Tesla’s ‘unbreakable’ glass.
So why can’t we use these same principles when designing the plots of our scripts?
“Nobody puts Baby in a corner.”
Let’s look at a wave for an example. The trajectory of this plot progression touches on the same five main elements of plot we already know, but it differs in that these plot points elicit the sensations a reader would feel if they were riding a wave.
Take a look at the diagram below:
- Fig. 1 - Exposition. The reader sees the wave coming and feels the current pull them in.
- Fig. 2 - Rising Action. The reader is hauled upwards by the powerful force of the wave and lifted with an unnerving ease to the climax point. The reader feels a total loss of control.
- Fig. 3 - Climax. That feeling you get in the pit of your chest when you reach the top of a roller coaster’s initial drop. When a wave takes you over the edge, there’s a moment of weightlessness before you come crashing down. Everything comes into view for a brief moment of clarity.
- Fig. 4 - Falling Action. That weightless feeling gets caught in your throat and your chest tightens up. Your muscles brace for impact. A desperate and wild descent.
- Fig. 5 - Resolution (Impact). What goes up, must hit the ground. The wave will either roll you under water, smash you into the sand, or spit you ashore grasping for breath.
You aren’t limited to waves. Look around and take notes on the world around you.
You can structure a romantic comedy about two characters orbiting each other before finally bonding after a strand of DNA. You can use the golden ratio; evaporation, condensation, and precipitation; the formation of an atom; the four seasons. Hey, it worked for Vivaldi.
Mimicking the structures that make up the world can definitely help our stories advance more naturally.
Rhythm & Flow
Considering that we’re discussing unconventional storytelling techniques, it’s obligatory to bring up Christopher & Jonathan Nolan. In The Dark Knight, the Nolan Brothers weave multiple storylines together to converge at a single bottleneck climax point.
In order to get there, they organized the scenes much like a song writer would order a rhyme scheme for their lyrics:
A - Lucius and Batman discuss breaking privacy laws in order to find Joker.
B - Joker’s threat is heard across Gotham, steering the action to the ferries.
A - Lucius doesn’t like Batman’s technique, but agrees to help.
B - People of Gotham splinter into two ferries - B1: Prisoner ferry B2: Civilian ferry.
C - Harvey Dent visits Maroni.
B1 - Ferries are off. The crew finds Joker’s surprise.
A - Batman hears a disturbance on the ferries.
B1 & B2 - Joker lays out his rules to the people on both ferries.
A - Batman rushes toward the ferries. Lucius closes in on Joker’s location.
C - Harvey Dent kidnaps Gordon’s wife and son.
Each scene helps progress multiple storylines of action towards that singular climax point. The scenes progress smoothly not only because of this inherent rhythm, but also because each scene reveals a bread crumb of information that leads into the next. If you take out any one scene the song would miss a beat.
The trail of breadcrumbs lead us one step closer to the end that always seems to elude us much like Joker and Batman’s eternal feud.
To continue our discussion on unique storytelling techniques let’s turn again to, you guessed it, Christopher Nolan. Specifically, we’ll be looking at Inception.
Here we see that he bases his structure on the levels of subconsciousness that his characters must traverse in order to pull off their heist. One of the major themes of the film is Cobb’s desire to return to his family, and how he keeps digging himself deeper in an attempt to return to them.
Nolan structured his plot to mirror his character’s journey out of the rabbit hole. The overarching theme of the story informs the structure of it. The form fits the function and vice versa.
If your series is about overcoming depression, then you can structure a story on the manic range of emotions that goes into both episodes — mental and teleplay.
A film about the sacrifices of motherhood? I’ve never seen a script structured on the intimate happenings of a woman’s mind and body before, during, and after giving birth — but I sure would like to. Map out the journey.
You can very well structure a sequence of events or even an entire script on the very feelings you wish to elicit.
Recreate Other Art Forms
Who says you can’t use the movements and tempos of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony to structure your screenplay?
If you’re writing a biopic about Beethoven, why not use the structure of his magnum opus to outline your screenplay? There are many forms of entertainment that move our spirits. Find out why a particular piece of art or artist moves you and utilize those feelings.
The one true sacred rule for all creators is to create something that you’d like to witness in the world. Write the movie you want to see, sing the song you want to hear on the radio. Find out why certain classics define your tastes by deconstructing them.
Like board games? Play one and recreate the journey for your character as she winds through landscapes of delicious gumdrops with menacing obstacles along the way.
Love the thrill of roller coasters? Ride your favorite one. Get the design layouts. Study them. Try to recreate that suspenseful rise and sudden drop. The twists and turns and flips and sudden stops.
If you can feel the exhilaration as you write, so will the reader. If your words have the ability to move you to tears, or make you laugh aloud -- then they’ll have that same power on other people.
Want to convey the sensation of your favorite drawing or song? Disassemble it piece by piece, see how all the elements work together, take notes, and recreate it as an exercise. It’ll only help.
Just go. Allow your story to unfold until it’s told. Unless you’re able to pump out critically acclaimed first drafts like Taylor Sheridan, you’ll probably need to do a lot of rewriting, but that’s not what’s important right now. You just gotta let your characters breathe and react to the situations that arise on their journey.
George R.R. Martin said it best:
“I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners.”
I’ve been talking an awful lot about the architects, writers who map out complete blueprints before laying any bricks. Then there are writers like Martin who like to plant seeds and watch them grow. Sometimes there are growth spurts in the form of a flash flood of creative output and other times it’s like watching the grass grow — slow going.
Even if you meticulously plan out your entire script, at some point you still need to let the work develop organically -- especially if you’re using a natural model. It’s all about finding balance in what works best for your writing rituals.
Strictly sticking to the gardener mode of delivery isn’t always the best approach when it comes to writing for hire. Free-form writing is a great exercise for passion projects, but when you work for hire the last thing you want to do is get stuck in the second act and not know how to reach FADE TO BLACK.
The majority of a screenwriter’s work is based on commissions and deadlines. You’re being paid to deliver. On time. In these cases, it’s best to have a plan and procedure for execution.
A writer’s process is their own, and their greatest freedom is finding new ways to express the same timeless stories. With that said, professionalism is paramount to raw talent and it’s important to deliver to the best of your ability. Solid structuring helps writers do that efficiently.
Everything has a structure. The place you call home, the hardware running your computer, the watch keeping time on your wrist. The flora, fauna, moon, and stars. You. At the very same moment, everything is in motion. Your story can be as complex as a clock or as simple as an arc, but no matter what, it should have a destination - some sense of where it’s going.
Have you ever used unconventional story structures to develop your screenplays? We’d love to hear all about your unique approaches in the comments below.