A Brief History of Story- Structure Teaching Systems
By John Jarvis.
A few years back, Syd Field, a well-known screenwriting teacher began to wonder why some stories worked and others didn’t. Pulling out the scripts that were not only successful in the marketplace, but also critically successful, Field searched and searched, like a modern Sherlock Holmes, until he was satisfied. The result was the beginning of what we know today as “structure.” Here’s how it worked.
Field developed what he called a three-act structure which divided a 120 page screenplay into roughly 30- and 60-page sections. Act I – the first 30 pages – he called the Exposition; Act II – the 60 pages in the middle (pages 31-89) – were called Development; and Act III – the final 30 pages – were called Resolution. The turning point at roughly page 60 he called the Midpoint, to indicate a change in the direction of Development. Later he refined this system to incorporate what he called the Pinch, two more ripples in the Development coming on pages 45 and 75. All these ripples are called plot points, or plot twists.
Into his 30-page-section division Field poured his considerable knowledge, producing ground-breaking concepts on character, backstory, and the type of action that belonged to each section. Dr. Linda Seger, for example, who wrote a fascinating book on the rewriting process, pays tribute to Field.
Before long, structure became a new (and lucrative) battle cry as hundreds of books on the subject began to flood the market, each one claiming to have the “secret” to great writing. “Field did not do enough,” their writers insisted. And not satisfied with mere books, many took to the trails, like modern medicine men, hawking their wares. Yet, despite their claims, they all used the same basic Syd Field ingredients.
Then came a number of persons who made genuine contributions beyond the breakthroughs of Field. Two in particular need to be mentioned (though there are certainly others who deserve credit as well). The first is John Truby, who maintained that the 3-act system was a sham and substituted his own replacement – 22 plot points, or “blocks.” Truby also was one of the first to claim that a story was based on the need of the character, and he further refined the concept of backstory (the character’s past implied in the story) and other features of the character. Truby’s focus on character, though, overlooked the fact that some of the most critically-successful stories do not focus on the main character but rather on the surroundings (for example, ALICE IN WONDERLAND). Nonetheless Truby made a light-year leap forward, and, perhaps for that reason alone, became a kind of god to many tyros.
The second name in the “post-Field” period, Joseph Campbell, also did not use the 3-act system (although it has been used for reference by his admirers). Campbell adopted what may be called a mythological concept. This method used the events that happened to the main character (“the hero”) as he or she journeyed through internal or external changes. Perhaps the best examples of this approach include most grand stories, such as STAR WARS and WAR AND PEACE.
Actually, Campbell did not originate the basis of this system; it is a much older structure system, having been invented in the 19th century by the creators of a movement called Symbolism. (Campbell readily acknowledged this debt; see, for example, his THE MASKS OF GOD.)
In any case, the Symbolist system flourished under Campbell’s name, who became a mentor to many, just as its leaders were a guide to the playwrights and novelists in the late 19th, early 20th century. (Noted writer/teacher Christopher Vogler has also helped to popularize the mythological approach of Campbell.) It has been generally the system preferred by the more sophisticated writer.
The Campbell system, however, has the same drawback as Truby’s: it focuses almost exclusively on character and, in effect, ignores all the great stories that concentrate more on action – on plot and events – than on character, such as GULLIVER’S TRAVELS and ALICE IN WONDERLAND.
Concurrent with the above structure discoveries, luckily, John Orson Card, in his how-to book on novel writing, mentioned that a story should be divided into what he called the MICE quotient, an acronym standing for milieu, idea, character, and event. ALICE IN WONDERLAND would be an example of a milieu story; the Sherlock Holmes stories would be examples of idea stories, and so on. To Card, only two types, Character and Event, would focus on character. Yet Card elaborated no further on his “mice” observation. Thus, the man who could have solved the biggest problem in writing remained at the gate, while the rest stumbled along winning by default.
It was Card’s simple suggestion, though – that there might be four different types of stories – that ultimately inspired a fundamental principle of the JARVIS METHOD: that every story must fall under one of two categories: ACTION or THEME. It is, in fact, a principle that solves one of the biggest problems in fiction.
The JARVIS METHOD, then, blends, refines, and picks apart the foundation laid by such persons as Field, Truby, Campbell, and Card, incorporates the hands-on knowledge gained by me in years of writing and studying, and presents it in its most appropriate medium, the computer.
It builds on Card by recognizing that all stories cannot be character-oriented, and thus arrives at the Action and Theme Story Categories. It incorporates from Campbell and the Symbolists some basic assumptions about the mythological nature of all stories, applying those to my 12 Story Creation Steps. And it expands on the character need that Truby emphasized, by identifying it as the cornerstone of all Theme-Category stories. And although I was already aware of the importance of structure before Field came along, I owe Field a debt of gratitude for having helped to make the structure system generally an accepted principle of all fiction teaching methods.
To mold all my ideas into a sophisticated teaching system, I teamed up with Irwin Berent, an internationally published author of several books on words and word usage as well as self-improvement and various social issues. In 1993, we founded the StoryCraft Corporation which went on to produce the first version of the StoryCraft software computer program, now considered one of the leading programs for both teaching and writing professional-quality fiction. Mr. Berent and I designed the program so that it would automatically establish the precise Story Creation Steps for the particular Type of story being written. Borrowing from long-recognized lists of plot templates established by such persons as Rudyard Kipling, the JARVIS METHOD identifies and delineates 14 basic Story Types (subdivided according to Category), which serve as the cornerstone of the software program.