Why Traditional Story Structures Don’t Always Work

While traditional the traditional three-act story structure is buried deeply in humanity’s subconscious, Corey Mandell, seeks to find alternative structural vehicles to tell our stories.

Start by introducing the characters, world and tone, followed by the inciting incident—also known as the catalyst or call to action the protagonist must answer. This is the event which turns the protagonist’s world upside-down and introduces the crisis they will spend the rest of the movie trying to solve. It is what launches the main story and keeps the audience watching (or reading).

Story structure is hard. Anyone who has ever tried to write a screenplay knows this. Most aspiring writers tend to take one of two approaches.

Some become students of structure. They read books, take seminars and classes, learning as much as they can. They want to understand and utilize the universal paradigms and structural beats needed to tell a compelling story. Unfortunately, more often then not, this path does not lead to success.

Others take a more intuitive approach. They eschew the popular paradigms on the grounds that, no matter what claims are made, they are all basically cookie-cutter formulas that deprive adherents from creating original material. These writers strive to produce unique, character-driven scripts that will succeed based on the freshness of the stories and characters. Unfortunately, more often then not, this path does not lead to success.

This is the problem writers tend to encounter when they write from an intuitive, character-driven perspective.

They might create great “wine,” but it’s not being properly contained in a “glass.” These writers often have unique, well-drawn characters wandering about in search of a compelling story vehicle that they never quite seem to find.

It’s no surprise that these writers tend to have a drawer full of aborted half-scripts that started out strong enough but couldn’t go the distance.  The scripts they do complete aren’t usually successful.   These writers receive praise for their original characters, dialogue and overall voice, but are told it doesn’t add up to anything.  The story lacks the narrative momentum required to sustain a reader’s interest.

Having a well-executed structure helps one hell of a lot.  But if you can’t bring your characters to life, and you don’t have compelling dialogue, and your individual scenes are boring and flat, forget it.

Because we need both:  great characters and great structure. Forcing our characters and stories to serve some pre-ordained, one-size-fits-all structure means corrupting our wine in order to make it fit into a highly predictable, formulaic glass. Conversely, fine wine cannot be drunk without a glass.


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