Screenwriting Blog
Posted on by Scott McConnell

The Two Basic Narrative Structures: Which is Best for Your Story?

In Aspects of the Novel, novelist E.M. Forster wrote, “The king died and then the queen died. The king died and then the queen died of grief.” The first sentence describes two events of a story, while the second sentence describes two events of a plot.

As many writers and critics have noted, the essential difference between a story and a plot is that the first is a series of chronologically ordered events while the second is a series of causally related events. Think of dominos being placed one by one flat next to each other in a line versus a standing domino flicked against another standing domino, knocking it down against the next domino and against the next, and so on and so on down a long line of dominos.

The Two Basic Narrative Structures

Which is Best for Your Story?

Here is longer example of a famous story, from the life of Jesus Christ. Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist. He enters Jerusalem to preach. He is betrayed by Judas. He is crucified. The basic structure of this chronology is: This happened, then this happened, then this happened, and so on, like a news or history report. Because of its high stakes, intrigues, and brutal tragedy, this story is dramatic.

Often, however, many stories fail because they are too much of a chronicle of events, just a series of loosely connected episodes. Stories often lack direct and long-term back and forth conflict between two lead characters. A news article, for example, is a story, not a plot. And nor is a history or a biography.

Let’s look briefly at some of the excellent plot of the film Saving Mr. Banks.

Walt Disney wants to keep his promise to his daughters to produce a film about Mary Poppins, but he needs its writer P L Travers to sign over to him the screen rights to her Poppins story. Solely out of a need for money, Travers accepts Disney’s offer to come to Los Angeles to discuss the project, but she is determinedly negative about giving him any rights. Travers’ conflicts with Disney and his creative team escalate, as they try to show her their good intentions re adapting her story. Travers remains unconvinced and rejecting. To help her understand his vision and to learn more about the deeper meaning of her refusal, Disney takes Travers to Disneyland.

And so they go at it, two motivated characters conflicting toe-to-toe, back and forth. Disney vs. Travers. In the climax, Disney finally understands the motivation of his antagonist and goes to London to confront her in one last effort to achieve his goal. Thus ensues a powerful climax of where their plot conflict reaches its peak and is finally resolved.

Chronicle stories can be dramatic and sometimes they are the only way a specific story, because of its genre and nature, can be told. See for example The OdysseyHigh Noon, and The Searchers. I believe, however, that plots are generally more dramatic than episodic chronicles. There are many reasons for this but in this post I’ll discuss only one story development related writing issue. (Write to me if you want to know more.)

Story Development & Plot

When starting to develop your new script, one of the most fundamental choices you will face is:

Will I structure my events as a story or as a plot?

If you choose to construct a plot, a key guide to do this, as noted, is to structure your central conflict as a clash between character A and character B.

After doing this, you can then organize these character’s choices and actions as a back and forth escalating main line of conflict.

Here is a simple (imaginary) example of that:

In a western, character A, a Saloon Owner, wants to take over the town. To achieve that main goal, he orders his thugs to drive character B, the Marshal, out of town. The thugs threaten the Marshal and his allies. The Marshal reacts by confronting the thugs and arresting them. The Saloon Owner now reacts to that obstacle to his main goal by hiring a famous gunfighter to kill the Marshal, who he challenges to a showdown. The Marshal responds and kills the gunfighter. Needing evidence that the Saloon Owner is behind these threats to his life and town, the Marshal has a sidekick work for the Saloon Owner to uncover the truth. The Saloon Owner exposes this spy and in reaction he…. And so on back and forth, action-reaction, between these two highly motivated antagonists.

You get the picture: A plotline, on a simple level, is an escalating, back and forth conflict between a protagonist and an antagonist over a long series of logically related choices and actions that is climaxed.

A plot-based structure such as this imagined western story creates drama because two distinct, personal, and motivated forces are actively battling each other. This allows great suspense, strong character conflict, and forces your characters to make harder and more perilous choices as their conflict escalates. The plot is climaxed in a direct, personal, and final confrontation where one character defeats the other.

To watch a few good examples of the character A vs. character B nature of a plot, watch Die HardShaneNotorious, and Les Miserables.

To read the full article and its Actionable Writing Tip click here.

Scott McConnell, the story guy, is a former Los Angeles producer/showrunner who is now a script consultant and story developer. He is also the editor of The Story Guy Newsletter, a bi-weekly publication of practical writing advice for scriptwriters. Subscribe here.