Michael Hague's Screenplay Structure and Why It Works

Knowing why structure functions clues one in on the importance of structure.

Hollywood movies are simple.

Because most of them are based on the same simple formula. Or so many would have you believe.

In this Michael Hague article on screenplay structure, the usual three (really four) act structure is laid out with examples from Erin Brockovich and Gladiator. Each act is divided into two “stages”, each leading the hero to the point where their inner motivation collides with their outer problem. The concepts are clear and easy to understand.

The only problem with it is that it is not really helpful when it comes to actually writing something.

Sure, it gives a broad overview of the sort of direction things will go in a story, but it really doesn’t give you any ideas about the issues or problems your characters will face. There is no meaning to it beyond an approximation of when act turns should happen. Why do major plot events happen at the 25% marks? Isn’t it just coincidence that all these movies are the same?

Unless Mr. Hague gives some reason as to why this is happening, many will discount this structure as a simple “formula” that leads to inferior forms of narrative fiction.

That is why I like the Dramatica theory of story. It explains why stories are structured this way. When you really get into the theory, you come to understand that every throughline must be explored in four different areas before true meaning can be found. For example, dramatic situations can be described as happening in the past, in the present, and in the future. The fourth is Progress in the situation. Those are all the four you need to fully explore a single dramatic situation. Once you move through all of them, the story will be finished. Less than four and the story will feel like something is missing. More than four and it’ll feel like it is repeating itself.

That’s why movies are divided into four parts. They have major act turns every quarter because the story is headed into a new area of exploration.

Hague’s structure is sound, but it helps to know why.

Originally published 03-26-2010

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