Structure is one of those terms that get thrown around in the screenwriting world that applies to a few different, more stringent definitions.

In its essence, it's the order of the beats you add to a story to take the audience on an emotional journey.

And there are a few different ways to accomplish this goal.

Whether you're an aspiring screenwriter, a seasoned pro, or simply a movie enthusiast curious about what goes on behind the scenes of your favorite films, understanding the structural paradigms of screenwriting is crucial.

These paradigms are not just blueprints for constructing a story; they are the backbone that supports the entire narrative body of a screenplay.

Let's take a peek at a few and how they function in storytelling.

What Are Some Structural Paradigms in Screenwriting?

What Are Some Structural Paradigms in Screenwriting?'Star Wars'CREDIT: Lucasfilm

It feels like everyone has a kind of script structure they like to use when starting out. I'm a big fan of our outline and treatment, bu there are lots of other options under the sun.

Structural paradigms in screenwriting are frameworks that guide the development and organization of a screenplay. These paradigms offer a way to structure a story to ensure it is compelling, cohesive, and resonates with an audience.

Some of the most common paradigms include:

  1. Three-Act Structure: This is perhaps the most classic and widely used structure. It divides the story into three parts:
    • Act 1 (Setup): Establishes the characters, setting, and the main conflict or problem.
    • Act 2 (Confrontation): The longest section where the protagonist faces obstacles and challenges.
    • Act 3 (Resolution): The climax and resolution, where the main conflict is resolved.
    • Example: The Godfather
      • Act 1: The Corleone family is introduced; Michael Corleone is shown as an outsider.
      • Act 2: Michael's transformation and ascent within the family business through various conflicts and challenges.
      • Act 3: Michael takes control of the family, concluding his transformation from an outsider to the mafia boss.
  2. Hero's Journey (Monomyth): Popularized by Joseph Campbell, this structure is common in mythic, adventure, and fantasy stories. It includes stages like the call to adventure, refusal of the call, meeting the mentor, crossing the threshold, trials and tribulations, the ultimate boon, and the return to the ordinary world.
    • Example: Star Wars: A New Hope
      • Luke Skywalker’s journey follows the Hero’s Journey closely: from his ordinary world on Tatooine, the call to adventure, meeting his mentor Obi-Wan, facing trials, achieving his goal, and returning changed.
  3. Save the Cat Beat Sheet: Created by Blake Snyder, this structure includes 15 key "beats" or plot points that should occur at specific moments in the script. These beats include the opening image, theme stated, set-up, catalyst, debate, break into two, B story, fun and games, midpoint, bad guys close in, all is lost, dark night of the soul, break into three, finale, and final image.
    • Example: Legally Blonde
      • This film follows the Beat Sheet precisely, from the opening image of Elle Woods' life, her catalyst of being dumped by her boyfriend, the debate about going to Harvard, to her triumph in the courtroom.
  4. Sequence Approach: This approach breaks the screenplay into several sequences, each with its own mini-narrative arc. Each sequence typically consists of 8 to 10 scenes and serves a specific role in the overall story.
    • Example: Pulp Fiction
        • Quentin Tarantino’s film is a prime example of the Sequence Approach, with its non-linear storyline. Each sequence has its own narrative arc, contributing to the overall story.
  5. Five-Act Structure: Traditionally used in Shakespearean plays, this structure can also be applied to screenwriting. It includes exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement.
    • Example: Hamlet (Film Adaptations)
      • Adaptations of Shakespeare’s play often retain the five-act structure, with clear divisions for exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution.
  6. Seven-Act Structure: This expands on the three-act model by breaking down the second act into more detailed components, each with specific challenges and developments for the characters.
    • Example: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
      • This epic’s narrative can be divided into seven acts, each detailing a specific phase of the journey and the challenges faced by the characters.
  7. The Fichtean Curve: This focuses on creating tension and drama, starting with rising action, leading to a climax, and followed by falling action and resolution.
    • Example: Jaws
      • The film follows the Fichtean Curve, starting with the tension of shark attacks, building up to the climax of confronting the shark, and resolving with its defeat.

Each of these paradigms offers a different approach to storytelling and can be adapted depending on the nature of the story, the genre, and the writer's personal style. Screenwriters often blend elements from different paradigms to create a structure that best serves their narrative.

As you step back into the world, armed with this knowledge, we encourage you to experiment, to blend, and to redefine these structures in your unique voice.

After all, the next great screenplay is just waiting to be written, perhaps by you.