Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Nontraditional Story Structure

We are all too familiar with the traditional story structure, the three acts, the main character, along with a cast of supporting, taking his or her journey to self discovery and along the way finding the errors of their ways and by the end of the story are better for the experience.

This type of story structure is usually called the Hero's journey. The Hero's journey usually begins the story by introducing to the audience the main character or protagonist and due to whatever plot device or background the writer feels is most beneficial to the story the protagonist sets off on his or her journey to right the wrongs, save those who are in danger, or to simply over come some hang up that the protagonist has acquired due to the original plot device. Along the way the protagonist meets up with the cast of supporting characters, either one by one or in a group setting, each bringing something important to the story.

During the second act, usually towards the end, some other, even bigger, plot device occurs that either out shadows the original plot device or shows the dis logic in it and so the protagonist can now live their life a changed and better person because of the journey that they just took.

This is basic story structure for modern and pre-modern cinema. Now there are some motion pictures that tweak bits and pieces of this basic story structure either by adding flashbacks, flash forwards, or just by moving the events in the story around. But what we usually do not see is the use of a different or nontraditional story structure in main stream modern cinema.

One of these types of Nontraditional story structure could be that the protagonist does not change during the course of the motion picture either by never experiencing the second plot device or just not wanting to change after experiencing the second plot device. There is no growth, no change, and in some cases really no point. Why would a story writer chose this type of story structure to write with?

Well the use of the nontraditional story structure, when used the right way adds a very important element to the story that nothing else really can. When used correctly, the purpose of the nontraditional story structure is to show the audience that, like in life, people do not change just like that. That in life people start off their stories as dicks and then die as dicks and there is no huge 180 degree change during their short boarding life. When used incorrectly, the audience is left with a sense of unfulfillment. That the story did not follow the correct structure and it was a waste of time and more importantly money.

The majority of the stories in the modern cinema use the traditional story structure because it is easy and most audiences are used to it and can not take pleasure out of any other story that does not use it.
My question is, should the use of the nontraditional story structure be used only to make a point in a film or should we be able to overlook the use of the nontraditional story structure if it is just simply used as the film's story structure?


  1. Your question is a postmodern one. To say that things don't work out as they do in the "traditional story," is only to accept the reality of what actually is. Life isn't like the traditional story. We may want to escape in a story with a happy ending or self-discovery(which is fine), but if an artist is attempting to show the way the world is, a static protagonist is more "realistic."

    Have you contemplated the Byronic Hero in this? Here is an interesting article about the Byronic Hero. The links at the bottom go to even further delineation of the types: neutral good, chaotic good (Jack Sparrow), and so forth.

    (Just as a side-note: your use of the word "should" is troubling a bit. It's art. I don't believe their are moral issues involved. Just a thought.)

  2. In many ways, it's surprising that audiences are even embracing of films and how they are cut together and told. In the 1910s, "movies" were usually single shot, realistic reels of trains or people walking. When story structure is introduced with parallel continuous editing in the 20s, many early filmmakers expected it to just be a fad. We're use to our visual imagery being a single shot from waking up to falling asleep, so one would think that the way films work would be obtuse and weird to us. Instead, we not only embrace it but come to love it. The same phenomenon seen with editing could be applied to story structure, I think. It's something completely different from the way the "real world" works, but instead of turning our heads we only want more and more of it. Nontraditional structure, I think, only works when it's being different, something against the grain. If a mass number of films were to try to start working that way, I don't think people would like it as much.