ENL 420: Creative Writing Workshop: Scriptwriting
Structure, Character, Causality, and Action
© Perry Glasser
STRUCTURE –There are several ways to enter the idea of structure. No matter which
vocabulary we employ, structure describes how characters move through time and
Some vocabularies of structure are:
Act 1-Act 2-Act 3
Act 1-Act 2-Act 3-Act 4-Act 5 (Shakespeare)
Exposition – Rising Action – Climax – Denouement - Resolution
The observant student will note that “acts” always seem to require odd numbers because
we still expect stories to reduce to a Beginning-Middle-End. That’s worth discussing in
class, but suffice it to say here that the human psyche seems to respond to triplets. Ask
me about the German philosopher Hegel and the dialectic—I dare you.
Theater Majors and others will inform us that there are plays may be one-act, three acts
or five act, but will find very few two act plays, and four act plays are scarce indeed.
Teleplays, sitcoms or drama, usually have their “acts” divided by commercials.
Fairy tales present happy characters whose worlds abruptly change at the beginning, who
must act or be overwhelmed in act 2 by those changes, and who after acting properly and
solving their problems in act 3 live “happily ever after.” How many such stories can you
Each of the vocabularies of structure may be useful.
It follows that we when talk about structure in storytelling, that we will talk about two
kinds of structure:
Chronological Structure, and
Narrative Structure -- we will use “narrative” to mean any story. This concept is
closely allied with, but NOT identical to, what we mean by “narrative” in prose,
where narrative often means “summary” as opposed to a detailed “scene.”
Chronological structure.
Chronological structure refers to the events as they happened in time.
The most natural narrative structures are chronological.
The events of a story are causally connected. Event A precipitates B, which
precipitates C, which precipitates D, etc.
Do not make the mistake of believing the events of a story must be separated by
equal spans of time.
An example or three should make these abstract notions instantly comprehensible.
1. Long before the novel (or movie) begins, Ahab is chewed up by Moby Dick.
Since that occurred before the narrative begins, we can call it back-story.
BECAUSE of that event, and his character, years later he is motivated by his lust
for revenge. All the subsequent events of the story are precipitated by that initial
event until Ahab and his harpoon are on the great white whale’s back where he
can from Hell’s hot center in hate spit his last breath at his antagonist.
2. Khan of Star Trek was exiled to a planet by Captain Kirk in the TV series. In the
film, that event is back story and we learn that the planet’s climate was not benign
but harsh. Khan escapes and—like Ahab—BECAUSE of his character will seek
revenge. That he and Ahab share identical last words and identical motives is no
accident. The alert student will note that much sci-fi “space opera” shares the
vocabulary, protocols, and military strategies of naval engagement.
3. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was imagined by Mark Twain as a sequel to
Tom Sawyer: thus that book is back-story to Huck’s story. Twain dispenses with
his narrative problem with the justifiably famous opening. If you have ever tried
to summarize your favorite TV show in its third season for a friend who has never
seen it, you know how involved that can be—try explaining Lost to a nondevotee. But in Huck Finn, we know that Huck leaves Hannibal BECAUSE his
abusive, drunken father is back in town, and BECAUSE of Huck’s character, that
rascal fakes his own death and sets off down the Mississippi.
As ought to be plain—but if it is not, ASK IN CLASS—the series of events that define a
narrative are shaped by the interplay of causality and character. Some English students
will think of a few writers who defy the narrative chain of causality by substituting
Fate. Accidents happen in their work just as they do in life. Thomas Hardy, George Eliot,
and Sophocles come to mind, but for all effective writers, character is paramount, and
what their people do with the events of Fate is what matters. The gods may arrange for
you to kill your father and sleep with your mother, but how that bad luck plays out is
what matters. Knowing Fate and life’s vagaries will not prevent us from disliking a story
in which the characters are engaging, the plot taut, the writing faultless, and the story
abruptly ends when all the characters are killed by a random runaway bus. No—we still
want causality. Let Silas Marner have his fortune restored in the form of a golden-haired
child who loves him for his learned kindness, not have him bet on the right horse at the
racetrack. Let Dr. Hannibal Lecter spare Clarissa because she has allowed him to
intimately probe her psyche and has maintained faith with him, not have her luck out and
simply get away.
Narrative Structures.
Narrative structure refers to the events as the work presents them to an audience.
Since we experience life in time, chronological structures are the natural way to tell a
story, but for some stories, chronology may not be the best way to recount the tale.
Students are well-advised not to vary chronological structure without very good reasons
for doing so. Flashbacks, and flashbacks in flashbacks—whole scenes from the past
designed to allow the audience to understand the present—are generally the sign of a
writer “filling in” what the audience needs to know to comprehend the current action;
when handled amateurishly, they are an aesthetic defect.
There are alternatives to deliver necessary information to the audience, often in dialog as
a more knowledgeable character informs a less knowledgeable character (and us!) of the
needed information. Much of the Harry Potter movies is devoted to older folk telling the
growing, young Harry what he years to know about his parents, Voldemort, and the
world of wizardry.
So, while the chronology of a narrative may look like this:
1>2>3>4>5>6>7 (where > means because)
The narrative may best be presented to an audience like this:
3>4>5 – 1>2 – 6>7>8
We may see such structural variation in Hitchcocks’s Vertigo and in Tarantino’s Pulp
Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, and Kill Bill I and II.
What’s best? Well, folks—it’s an art form. There is no answer to that—if there were,
everyone would be writers.
II. STRUCTURE — a functional definition of structure enables us to talk about the parts
of a story and what each part needs to accomplish.
No matter what time structure a writer employs, a story has 5 functional parts:
 Exposition
 Rising Action (also called “Complications”)
 Climax
 Falling Action (also called “Denouement”)
 Conclusion (or (Resolution”)
Diagrammatically, the structure of a story is drawn as “Freitag’s Triangle.”
(In the diagram reproduced below, “B—Introduction of conflict,” is a label for a turning
point—I am far too lazy to draw our own version)
The symmetry of this diagram should NOT confuse the student into believing the parts
are of equal length.
Each part has its function.
Exposition—exposes the readers to time, place, initial characterization, and ends with the
introduction of conflict.
That is to say, a stable state of affairs in which characters had no motive to commence
any dramatic action is disrupted. The character now has a motive and acts. The miracle
of Hamlet is that as a student, Hamlet does NOT act—he thinks too much. As soon as
you are half as good as Shakespeare, you can give that premise a try. 
NOTE: A conflict is trivial if it does not motivate a character to action. People can argue
and discuss problems for hours and usually do in bars and in residence halls, but such a
script will bore your audience to tears. Write such a script, and expect to see a crowd of
angry people led by your mother carrying torches and pitchforks assembling at your door.
What kinds of emotions provoke action? We should discuss this in class, but as a
shorthand way to think about it, consider the Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Cardinal
Virtues of Catholic theology.
This is not a religious construction, but surely we can without contradiction say that the
Joker is motivated by Pride while Batman is motivated by Justice. When we watch Pulp
Fiction, we will surely need to discuss what Jules (Samuel Jackson) is carrying in that
Rising Action—causally connected attempts to alleviate the “voltage” or tension of the
conflict are frustrated or do not meet with the usual, expected success, and these
attempts not only reveal character because the characters are undergoing stress, but
they transform the personality of the protagonist. Scarlet O’Hara may be a frivolous
southern belle and a flirt, but once she has survived the Civil War she is tough enough to
marry Rhett Butler, and then their marriage falls apart. Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy
respectively must overcome pride and prejudice before they can find the true love the
reader all along know they must share. Jules is sure he has experienced a miracle; he will
abandon his life as a murderer and do good deeds. It takes Luke Skywalker three movies,
a mentor named Yoda, and a companion like Han Solo to go from boy to man, man
enough to confront his father, like him, a Jedi knight.
We have stumbled on a definition of “drama.” The stakes have to be high enough that a
character changes. Everyone has problems—so what? No one cares about your battle
with Athlete’s Foot, but if like Frodo you happen to come into possession of The One
Ring of Power, your struggle to cast it into the fires of Mt. Doom matter; should you fail,
all the world will fall to Evil. Thus, fellowship, fortitude courage, duty, and persistence
overcome human weakness and the seductive Lust for power. Indeed, anyone who wears
the ring, risks succumbing to that Lust. Not even Gandalf is immune; it is Frodo’s
character that allows him to succeed, though the Ring nearly kills him, too.
Remember: without a change in character, a story is by definition trivial—an
anecdote; fun to tell at Thanksgiving dinner, but NEVER engrossing enough for
anyone to buy a ticket.
Climax—At the end of the chain of causally related events, there must come a final
inevitable confrontation between the antagonistic forces that generated the voltage of the
conflict. That scene is the climax. It is “the most exciting” precisely because all the prior
scenes have made it plain that there is no avoiding the confrontation and that the
antagonists are equal to each other—as incredible as that may seem. If you are clever,
you will make underdogs triumph—not by luck, but by skill and character. If you do this
well, audiences will love you. Get puny David to slay Goliath with a mere sling and
stone. The art is to have the reader so engaged by the struggle that the illusion that
maybe, just maybe, they can suspend disbelief and for a while and believe that Santiago
can defy a hostile Universe and get that damned fish to shore, or that Rocky can go the
distance, or Odysseus can single-handedly slay all the vile men hanging around his wife,
or that the last guy in a tie-fighter can with his last bomb can close his eyes and use the
Force to destroy a massive Death Star, or that a streetwalker with a pure heart can have
her wealthy john fall in love with her and climb her fire escape with an armful of roses.
Any story without a climax leaves a reader with a vague sense of having been
abused. “All this—and for what?”
We sometimes call a climax a mandatory scene.
Falling Action — In story-telling, in modern times, this part of story structure is often
brief. The stable situation with which the story began must be reinstated, even if the
characters have transformed. If it isn’t, the story is not finished. Readers will ask, “Yeah,
but what about…?” Ishmael explains he is the only survivor because Queeg-Queeg’s
coffin was watertight and so could float. The mysterious events of the past can now be
explicated; In Close Encounter of the Third Kind, dazed, long missing survivors step off
the space ship—and maybe a tad melodramatically, mothers are reunited with their
missing children.
Resolution—Now what? Well, if you are Huck Finn, you let people know you are
headed for the territories. If you are Ishmael, you decide to write the story of the Great
White Whale. The point is to be sure readers know that “peace” is returned—which may
not be the same as a happy ending. Peace may have been gained only through terrible
sacrifice; the church bells of Moscow ring not only because Napoleon is defeated, but to
honor the dead; the surviving members of the Fellowship of the Ring sail off into myth,
perhaps to join King Arthur.
Alert students may think of a few exceptions to this Aristotelian-based analysis of
structure. Poe simply omitted Exposition and Rising Action and created stories critically
interesting—all middle and no end or beginning—but to a student writer seem
deceptively easy to emulate. Kafka put characters into situations that had no explicable
reason for existence. Causality seems not to matter in Kafka’s worlds. No matter what
road you take, you cannot get to the castle, and the bureaucracy is unaffected by any and
all effort, so while everyone is sympathetic to K’s dilemma, they are helpless to advise
him in his trial, unable to tell him even of what he is accused, until he is executed by
apologetic executioners. Kafka’s characters are motivated, their actions are sensible, but
the world does not respond. What else could Kafkaesque mean?
In class, we will talk about sci-fi, fantasy, and fabulation, forms in which causality
follows special rules. Think of Kafka’s Gregor Samsa…perfectly logical story, right?