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Understanding the Structure of Your Project

By now, you’re probably well aware of the basic structure of any story to the point of nausea. Beginning, middle and end. Great, now one more time, repeat after me: beginning, middle and end. However, there are different ways to lay out these structural elements and move the story from the beginning to the end. As Jean-Luc Godard famously stated, “I agree that a film should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order.”

Photo: Public Domain | Irving Underhill

Character Driven

Character driven stories are narratives that deal with the internal conflicts of the character. Generally, the main characters are their own worst enemy, as opposed to an actual bad guy or worst enemy. The story is driven by the simple question of whether the character evolves or not. An external event or element can propel the story, forcing the characters to confront, and hopefully overcome, their main flaws. If the characters have some kind of a destiny, it’s of their own making. Because these stories tend to focus more on people than, say, the threat to humanity from robots and aliens, they’re usually a little more budget friendly. If your only resources are some basic camera equipment, a few locations and the cast, chances are you’ll want to aim for a character-driven structure. It also helps to have a genuine interest in human psychology and behavior, as those are your basic storytelling tools for a character-driven piece. In writing a character driven story, your go-to question should always be “What would my characters do in this situation?” And unless you’re working on a sequel to “The Passion of the Christ,” the answer is probably not what Jesus would do.

Further Reading:

Plot Driven

Plot driven stories deal with external conflicts that force the characters into action. This doesn’t mean the characters are unimportant. However, unlike in character-driven stories, the characters aren’t responsible for the obstacles they encounter. They just have to deal with the main conflict, generally by using their (hopefully well-defined and human) character traits in some way. And if this kind of structure generally breaks down into “good guys” and “bad guys,” it never hurts to know why they’ve chosen their sides in this age old struggle, or even if they’re a little conflicted about it one way or another. But in these stories, the characters are generally not in control of their own destiny, so they have to make the best of it. A lot of franchise and genre movies and TV shows tend to fall into this framework. For that reason, this story structure tends to require more in the way of resources than just a camera and some actors. However, there are certain genres that allow for plot driven stories without much in the way of special effects, gunshots and explosions. The thriller and horror genres in particular lend themselves to low-budget plot driven stories, so long as your villains are more or less real people or implied supernatural forces. Even science fiction can work for minimalist plot driven stories. In writing these stories, think about what the actions and events of your plot would force your characters to do. If your heroine is going to investigate that spooky noise in her basement, she better have a damn good reason why.

Non-Linear

In nonlinear narratives, the story is about more than just delivering a beginning, middle and end in that simple order. These stories deconstruct the sequence of events in order to express a character’s psychology, an abstract idea or central theme. These types of stories can employ jumps in chronology, consciousness, point of view, reality and unreality.

These stories are very hit or miss, and often prove very polarizing among the diehard fans (who are usually not the same as fans of “Die Hard”) and the rabid haters. In these films, destiny is a convenient narrative device that has no relation to actual reality or higher truth. Because these types of stories are unconventional by nature, they tend to exist mainly in independent and low-budget spheres. Of course, this unconventionality can also be an advantage to this type of structure. When done really well, a more experimental structure can set a project apart from almost everything else out there, generating a sort of mind-blowing experience – if it’s good enough.

Or it can turn into the kind of jumbled mess that only you actually understand, turning you into the internet’s scapegoat for everything that’s wrong in media culture today. When writing these types of stories, think about how a more fragmented structure might relate to your overall idea and message. Or if your character/plot-driven structure seems just a little too straightforward, is there a way you can slice and dice it into something really cool?

All the more reason to watch “Citizen Kane:”

Now You See It breaks down “La Haine,” and how it’s virtually plot-less narrative structure lends itself to more of an atmosphere.

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