It’s been about eight years since Story Structure Architect: A Writer’s Guide to Building Dramatic Situations and Compelling Characters by Victoria Lynn Schmidt was published. In the time I’ve spent on writer boards, I’ve been surprised at how often the venerable Syd Field’s Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting is still referenced, and … I don’t remember seeing this one mentioned by anyone except myself.
In the course of developing as a screenwriter, I’ve become a fan of lists, so it’s no surprise that I like the “architecture” of this book. In “Part One: Drafting a Plan,” the book lays out “The 5 Dramatic Throughlines;” “The 6 Conflicts;” and “The 21 Genres.” This is putting first things first, and putting the writer’s brain on track to gaining the all-important definition of story and approach that is the only thing that will save one from plunging down a black hole of wasted time.
And there is no creative constriction implied by these numbers. For instance, the 21 Genres, on closer look, break out to 66 types of story you can choose to tell, and I think if Ms Schmidt were, perhaps, more of a fan of Westerns, there might have been even more broken out here. If you followed what she has to say “slavishly,” you would have plenty here to keep you busy for years and years.
Prof. Schmidt (she holds a Ph.D. degree in psychology) goes on, in Part Two, to explain how to use the 11 Master Structures, laying out in the preliminaries the stocks in trade of dramatic writing with which the good, commercial writer will employ his or her imagination to populate the plot structures. After an explanation of how each structure works, she lays out a set of questions for the writer to ask oneself, lists elements specific to the structure, and provides movie examples where each structure was employed in a production.
I first encountered “the 36 Dramatic Situations” posited by French writer Georges Polti (1867 – 1946), years ago while reading one of Terry Rossio’s Wordplayer columns. Nowadays, they’re listed on Wikipedia, as well. Schmidt has applied her mind to those, and in Part Three has parsed them out into 55 situations by her own definition, presented mainly here in matched, opposing pairs. When you seek to understand the parameters of a dramatic scenario you’re setting up for a script, a sequence, or a single scene, these are great food for thought. As I said, I like lists, and that’s because they save you from having to start from scratch with every scene and re-invent the wheel to try to find the best way to deal with your current story problem. The Situations present the necessary elements to set up your scenario, and the book then lays out basic questions that dramatic premise implies for your story’s beginning, middle, and end.
“Part 4: Finishing Touches” directs the writer in ways to do the research on the topics that will lend the greatest possible authenticity and resonance to your story.
There are many excellent screenwriting books on the market, thousands of them by now, it seems. This book has a place among my select essentials I keep literally in reach from my desktop PC. As its title implies, it is going to be most useful for structuring your plot and placing characters in well-defined situations. Some other books are more useful in providing inspiration, cautionary tales, or guidance in characterization and dialogue. But, for its intended purpose, this is one of the best.