This month I had the amazing opportunity to chat about Story Structure (one of my favorite topics!) with Pat Verducci whom I first met at Cinestory's Writers Retreat in the mountains of Idyllwild. In addition to being generous and radiant in spirit, Pat is a screenwriter and story consultant who has taught at Cal State Fullerton, UCLA Extension Writers' Program and most recently at The Daily Love's Writer's Mastermind in Bali, where she helped writers complete their manuscripts in one month.
Scroll down for the full interview, and be sure to look out for the few books Pat mentions if you want to explore Story Structure more deeply.
PAT VERDUCCI is a screenwriter, film director and story consultant. She has written scripts for Touchstone Pictures, Witt Thomas Productions, and Disney's animation division. She has also worked as a story consultant for Disney/Pixar, brainstorming with writers and directors as part of their story trust. She teaches in UCLA Extension's creative writing program and has guided memoir and novel writers through writing their first drafts in one month at The Daily Love's Writer's Mastermind in Bali.
You can sign up for her free weekly blog posts about craft and inspiration, and find out more about her consulting services by visiting her website.
How do you approach teaching Story Structure with your students?
I like to give my students three different models to work with. The first one is “The Hero's Journey,” which is the classic, most deep story structure model, because it originates in our unconscious.
Then I talk about the “Three-Act Structure,” because if the students want to actually make a career out of screenwriting, they need to know how to speak the language of Hollywood. And most people in Hollywood talk in Three-Act Structure. As I do that, I'm showing them how the Three-Act Structure lines up perfectly with The Hero's Journey.
Then I talk about Jule Selbo's 11-Step model. I really like it, because it focuses on the character's goal.
Then I say, “Now pick the one that you like best.”
Then we just start brainstorming action for each of those models, until we get a story that's working, where we can clearly see how the main character has transformed - because for me, it's always about the character and how they change in the story.
What Story Structure model do you personally use?
I like The Hero's Journey. I think that it's the deepest psychological model; and to me, even though it's called the “Hero's” journey, I feel like it's a really female model. Clearly, I'm female, but I have a very strong masculine side. I feel like this model embodies both sides of my brain, and I like that. It gives me the structure that I need, which is the masculine, but it also has that female side, which is all that emotional, psychological stuff built in to the model, which I love. It encompasses both the animus and anima.
There's a reason why it's been around since the beginning of time. It really allows us to tell a story in a way that creates a moment of catharsis for the audience, where all the emotion that has built up throughout the story is purged in the resurrection. It's a very clear structural model. And the great thing about it, too, is that it's a form not a formula. Some of the phases can float around, so there's play and fluidity in it.
What's your take on the Three-Act Structure, compared to the other models?
I love Three-Act Structure. This is what I learned at UCLA Film School. Here's the thing about Three-Act Structure: It clearly establishes Turning Points in a story. In a movie, those are probably the most important landmarks, like the “Inciting Incident,” the “Act One Turning Point,” the “Midpoint,” the “Act Two Turning Point,” and the “Climax.” These are the major beats in any movie. Unless you're making an experimental film, I think that holds true for every movie; that structure is there. So I think that's the strength of Three-Act Structure; it allows you to know that in a movie that has a prescribed length of time, you have these Turning Points that need to happen. And each one propels the Hero's Journey forward in some way.
What I think the Three-Act Structure lacks, which Jule Selbo's 11 Steps and The Hero's Journey supply, is using the character's desire as an engine to drive the Hero through those Turning Points.
The best book I've ever read on Three-Act Structure is Linda Seger's book Making A Good Script Great. She talks about what a Turning Point is and all the things it needs to do to actually work as a Turning Point. That helped me so much. She has six functions that the Turning Point has to fulfill, and if that moment in the script doesn't fulfill those functions, it's not strong enough. So it gives you a reference and you can say, “Hey, are my Turning Points working properly? And if not, how can I add that one thing that's missing and make it really strong?” She also has a really great chapter on how to create “stakes” for your main character-how to set up that if your main character doesn't get what he or she wants, something important will be lost. So we feel suspense whether it's a comedy or drama.
Do you think the Three-Act Structure will evolve and change with new mediums for telling stories?
I personally do not and here's why. I think that Three-Act Structure - beginning, middle and end - exists because it's the way we need to have stories told so we get satisfaction from them. Now I'm not talking about non-linear filmmaking, which is a completely different discussion. In Robert McKee's book Story, he has a whole chapter on alternative forms, and most of those forms are a reaction to Three-Act Structure. They're literally taking Three-Act Structure elements and tweaking them. So I actually think that we need stories to be told in a certain way so that we can relate to the character; we get pulled into the question, “Will they get what they want?” And we want to see if they get it or not in a big climax.
I don't know about you, but when I see a movie where the Three-Act Structure is off, and there's no catharsis, I get mad. That's not true if I go to see a movie that's non-linear or if I go to see a Beckett play, I don't expect that. I expect a different experience. But for myself, I think the Three-Act Structure is around and hasn't changed because it works. And it always will. And yeah, people are going to come up with different responses to it, but it's all really just a response to this model.
When you're working with writers, what are some really common mistakes or pitfalls that pop up for you?
The main thing that took me a long time to learn in film school, is that everything comes from what your main character wants. That was my big epiphany - like, “Hey, you know what... I need to know what my main character wants because this is what actually compels them through the narrative, and allows them to hit obstacles.” And because this goal is so difficult to achieve, they have to change to get it. So I always try to tell the people I'm working with, “Hey, this is the secret!” Some people get it right away, and some people it takes a while. I was one of the people it took a while, like I almost didn't believe it - like, “No, I need to have a fancy plot! Lots of cool things that happen.” But really, what I needed was someone who wanted something really badly; and if they had that, and they were determined and went after it, all these fancy plot things happened in response to that.
Do you think all characters know what they want at the beginning?
In some stories they do. If you watch Bridget Jones' Diary, we start at her parents' house, and she's wearing this ugly outfit and she's single and she's pissed. She wants to be with somebody. She's trying to put a brave face on it, but she wants love. So she knows what she wants.
But there are other movies where the main character is just going along in [his or her] ordinary world - like Frodo in the Lord of the Rings - he's in the shire, he's kind of happy, he's just living his life, and then - BOOM - he has to do this thing. He doesn't want to do it, but he's the only one who can. And in undertaking this task, he discovers who he is and what he's made of. He has to destroy the ring. That's the quest, the specific mission.
But here's the thing: underneath that is the emotional want. So I believe, even if you have a main character in the beginning of your movie who doesn't know what they want, you 'the writer' have to know exactly what they want. You have to know exactly what they want emotionally and how the specific goal in the story fulfills that emotional need.
Isn't that going back to the idea that in the beginning the protagonist wants something, typically a more external goal, and then by the end discovers what he or she actually needs, on a deeper, emotional level?
Take Wreck it Ralph: in the beginning he wants to get the medal, because he thinks it'll make him belong. Then by the end, he realizes that what he really needs is to accept himself as he is.
Yes, and like you said, it's the external goal that brings him to that understanding. That's exactly what I'm talking about. You, the writer, know who your character is and what they actually need, but you have this external goal that they go for in the story, and as they pursue this and face obstacles and find their strength, they discover, usually in the climax, what it is that they really value. And lots of times it's about embracing who they are, and accepting who they are.
In The Hero's Journey, in the climax, it's all about the Hero facing the bad guy, called “The Shadow.” Usually The Shadow is the darkness inside the Hero that he or she can't face, so really it's about embracing the darkness inside you and accepting it.
In The Hero's Journey, all the characters in the journey are sort of fractured pieces of the Hero, and by traveling on this journey through the narrative, he or she is pulling all the pieces of him or herself together so at the end of the story they're whole. The Hero's Journey dovetails a lot with Jungian psychology.
The weird thing about storytelling is that there are so many different structural models and terminology, but it's all the same. We're all talking about the same stuff. Each of the models is just describing the same structure in different ways.