Screenplay `paradigms’ or screenplay `syntagms’?

There is some confusion / disparity between The Academy’s (i.e. academia’s) use of the term `paradigm’ – and the use of the term in the “screenwriting convention” (or, popular and/or canonical screenwriting manuals).

We perhaps need to address (fix?) this problem, so that the Academy and the industry are talking the same language, or at least using similar terms.

(It is possible that the Domain of Screenwriting is currently in somewhat of a mess, due to various Problems in the Screenwriting Domain.)

But… Can we fix it?

Confused Crowd

Yes we can-!

Screenplay/story `templates’ are not “paradigms” but may be referred to more correctly as syntagms, as described by de Saussure (de Saussure et al. 1916: 123) where “paradigms” are in fact the opposite axis of syntagms.

The Syntagmatic and Paradigmatic axes (Analysis: JT Velikovsky, after de Saussure)

The Syntagmatic and Paradigmatic axes                                                                 (Analysis: JT Velikovsky, after de Saussure)

Figure 1: Saussure’s linguistic Paradigmatic and Syntagmatic axes in Story

Example: the author (JT Velikovsky), after de Saussure (…although, I generally have massive issues with de Saussure, and see these great books for why.)

– It is for this reason the narrative pattern underpinning the Top 20 RoI Films (the subject of this empirical doctoral research study) is called a story syntagm, and not a `paradigm’.

Notably, Syd Field’s screenplay structural “paradigm” (Screenplay, 1979, p. 18) can also more correctly be called a “syntagm”.

Syd Field's screenplay `paradigm' (Field 1979, p.18)

Syd Field’s screenplay `paradigm’ (Field 1979, p. 18)

(i.e. Syd Field’s syntagm = First `Act’ ends at p 30, a Midpoint at p 60, Third `Act’ starts at p 90, the last page is page 120 of the screenplay – etc!)

Adding more confusion to this scenario – is the fact that scientific paradigms – to date – have very little do with the screenwriting convention. That is to suggest that: the existing canonical screenwriting manuals do not use a scientific – nor even an empirical method.

It would appear that the only text so far to do this comprehensively – with regard to Film Story – is the excellent text: `Great Flicks: Scientific Studies of Cinematic Creativity and Aesthetics’ by DK Simonton (2011):

Great Flicks: Scientific Studies of Cinematic Creativity and Aesthetics (Simonton 2011)

So – to be clear – What is a scientific paradigm?

For this, we need Thomas Kuhn, and `The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ (2012):

`Turn now to paradigms and ask what can they possibly be. My original text leaves no more obscure or important question. One sympathetic reader, who shares my conviction that `paradigm’ names the central philosophical elements of the book, prepared a partial analytic index and concluded that the term is used in at least twenty-two different ways.’

(Kuhn & Hacking 2012, p. 181)

One of the best descriptions of a scientific paradigm actually comes from Chalmers in `What Is This Thing Called Science?’ (2000)

`Kuhn’s picture of the way a science progresses can be summarized by the following open-ended scheme:

pre-science – normal science – crisis – revolution – new normal science – new crisis

The disorganized and diverse activity that precedes the formation of a science eventually becomes structured and directed when a single paradigm becomes adhered to by a scientific community.

A paradigm is made up of the general theoretical assumptions and laws and the techniques for their application that the members of a particular scientific community adopt. Workers within a paradigm, whether it be Newtonian mechanics, wave optics, analytical chemistry or whatever, practice what Kuhn calls normal science.

Normal scientists will articulate and develop the paradigm in their attempt to account for and accommodate the behavior of some relevant aspects of the real world as revealed through the results of experimentation. In doing so they will inevitably experience difficulties and encounter apparent falsifications. If difficulties of that kind get out of hand, a crisis state develops.

A crisis is resolved when an entirely new paradigm emerges and attracts the allegiance of more and more scientists until eventually, the original problem-ridden paradigm is abandoned. The discontinuous change constitutes a scientific revolution.

The new paradigm, full of promise and not beset by apparently insuperable difficulties, now guides new normal scientific activity until it too runs into serious trouble and a new crisis followed  by a new revolution results…

A mature science is governed by a single paradigm. The paradigm sets the standards for legitimate work within the science it governs.’

(Chalmers 2000: 108)

Note that – there are now an estimated 2500+ books on Screenwriting (see for e.g.: Amazon.com), and none of the screenwriting gurus agree entirely on Method – nor on Theory – for what makes a `successful film’ / `good story’ / `great drama’. So which of them are right? And – `right’ about, which specific screenwriting guidelines, exactly?

More on all this later, but firstly, for clarity, a brief explanation of what I specifically mean by `Theory’, and by `Method’ in the above sentence.

In The Foundations of Research (Grix 2004, p. 104), Grix notes, following Popper, that if it is a theory (or, a hypothesis), then it must be – at least, in principle – falsifiable.

Grix notes:

As we saw in chapter 3, a hypothesis itself is a proposition, set of propositions or an assumption put forward for empirical testing; a testable proposition about the relationship between two or more events or concepts.

Hypotheses consist of (at the very least) an independent and dependent variable and usually contain a causal proposition. They are made up of concepts – the building blocks of theories – which have been turned into variables (this process is usually called `operationalising’).’

(Grix 2004, p. 105)

So, if the extant screenwriting manuals contained `theories’ this would require they (those theories) be: falsifiable.

As an example, various of the screenwriting manuals suggest `three-act structure’ (Field 1979/2005; McKee 1997; Snyder 2005). Notably however in Anatomy of Story, Truby 2007 (p. 4) argues against `three-act’ structure (see also Truby’s article: Why Three Act Will Kill Your Writing). However the key point here is, if `good’ and/or `successful’ movies (which the canonical manuals aim to offer prescriptions for) have `three-act’ structure, then `bad’ (and/or, unsuccessful) movies should not have it… Yet, almost all narrative movies (i.e., `non-narrative’ movies aside) appear to also have what could be called three `acts’. Thus `three-act structure’ is not a theory of what makes a good movie, but rather: a way to view any narrative movie – either `good’ or `bad’, and either `successful’ or `unsuccessful’. So for example, the concept of `three-act structure’ is, in these terms, not: a theory. It is most likely a `necessary’ – but not `sufficient’ condition, for movie success.

Likewise with regard to Method; I suggest that none of the guru agree on a Method for what makes a successful film / good story / great drama. A Method would entail selecting a group of successful (i.e. “good”) movies, and then selecting a group of unsuccessful (i.e. “bad”) movies, and demonstrating that the qualities or traits or characteristics of the good movies are not shared among the two groups (`good’ and `bad’ movies / screenplays / stories). Various such groups may be: movies that had the highest audience-reach, versus movies that had the lowest audience-reach; or, say, movies that won Oscars versus movies that won Razzies; or say the highest RoI (Return on Investment) movies versus the lowest RoI (biggest money-losers) movies. However in these terms, a Method is absent from the canonical screenwriting manuals. While there may appear to be agreement on the `method’ used in many of the manuals, that `method’ is the `proof-by-example’ method, which unfortunately ignores counterexamples. I don’t consider the proof-by-illustrative-example `method’ to be: a method. Methodological approaches are in evidence for example, in articles in Empirical Studies of the Arts, or Scientific Studies of Literature journals.

On scientific paradigms, Chalmers (2000) states:

`…it is possible to describe some of the typical components that go to make up a paradigm.

Among the components will be explicitly stated fundamental laws and theoretical assumptions. Thus Newton’s laws of motion form part of the Newtonian paradigm and Maxwell’s equations form part of the paradigm that constitutes classical electromagnetic theory.

Paradigms will also include standard ways of applying the fundamental laws to a variety of types of situation. For instance, the Newtonian paradigm will include methods of applying Newton’s laws to planetary motion, pendulums, billiard-ball collisions and so on.

Instrumentation and instrumental techniques necessary for bringing the laws of the paradigm to bear on the real world will also be included in the paradigm…

A further component of paradigms consists of some very general, metaphysical principles that guide work within a paradigm.’ (Chalmers 2000: 109)

At any rate, my original point is the most important one:

There is confusion/disparity between The Academy’s (i.e. academia’s) use of the term paradigm – and the use of the term in the “screenwriting convention” (or, in popular and/or canonical screenwriting manuals).

The Syntagmatic and Paradigmatic axes (Analysis: JT Velikovsky, after de Saussure)

The Syntagmatic and Paradigmatic axes                         (Analysis: JT Velikovsky, after de Saussure)

So: therefore I suggest – in Screenwriting, they should be called story syntagms, and they are not story paradigms.

Actually since writing this post, I also see that, in the excellent The Screenplay: Authorship, Theory and Criticism (Price 2010), Steven Price makes essentially the same point, on story `syntagms’ versus `paradigms’:

`Hollywood also shows parallels with structuralist thinking in its approach to story development. Michael Hauge’s popular screenwriting manual argues that a `story idea… can be expressed in a single sentence: It is a story about a ________ [character] who _________ [action]’.

One reason for this is crisply explained by one of the Hollywood producers in Mamet’s stage satire Speed-the-Plow: `You can’t tell it to me in one sentence, they can’t put it in the TV Guide’. Yet the idea that a text, or body of texts, is structured like a language is classically structuralist.

Hauge’s sentence has both a linear (in structuralist terms, syntagmatic) axis, and a vertical (paradigmatic) axis. The linear axis provides the story development; the vertical axis allows for the substitution of different characters and actions. Such a model can very rapidly generate enormous numbers of `different’ stories.’

(Price, 2010, p. 133)

However this raises my problems with de Saussure and `structuralists’ in general; I don’t (personally) think that a text, or body of texts, or, movies, even `reality’ for that matter, are `structured like a language’. Also I think Metz was mistaken in looking for isomorphisms between text (word, phrase, sentence, paragraph) and movie structures (frames, shots, scenes, sequences, etc). But to his credit, he also later admitted that was a problematic venture.

Or if anything in bioculture is indeed structured `like a language’, it’s not because of language. Rather, Systems Theory explains how reality (and, biology, and culture, and bioculture) is structured in holarchies, as holon/partons.

But, probably since `language’ was very easy (and, perhaps, obvious?) to `pattern-match’ with, structuralists maybe jumped to the conclusion that `language’ was responsible.

Rather, it would appear that the laws of physics are responsible for predominantly `structuring’ things, such as biocultural artifacts that emerge (e.g. phrases, novels, movies, videogames, songs, and so on) in that way. (i.e. See Systems Theory, for more on that.)

On Systems Theory and Evolution:

  1. StoryAlity #70 – Key Concepts in Systems Theory, Cybernetics & Evolution
  2. StoryAlity #70B – The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision (Capra & Luisi 2014)
  3. StoryAlity #70C – Systems Philosophy (Laszlo 1972)
  4. StoryAlity #70C2 – General Systems Theory: Problems, Perspectives, Practice (Skyttner 2005)
  5. StoryAlity #70DThe Evolving Self (Csikszentmihalyi 1993)

So, at any rate, I expect Syd Field (in Screenplay, 1979) wasn’t thinking of scientific paradigms, when he used the term `paradigm’ to apply to `three-act’ structure in (all, narrative ?) movie stories.

But – this probably says more about the problem of `The Two Cultures’ (C P Snow, 1959, 1969), or, the segregation  of `Science’ versus `The Arts/Humanities’. And, which E O Wilson’s Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998) aims to solve. Interestingly, the scientific study of creativity suggests a consilient bridge between these so-called `two’ cultures. Communication Theory, of course, is also one such bridge between the so-called `two’ cultures.

…Thoughts? Feedback? Comments – ?

Note (and a slight Spoiler-alert): The 4 examples of story syntagms provided in the diagram above are `compressed versions’ of the stories in the top 20 RoI movies: Paranormal Activity, Mad Max, The Blair Witch Project, and Night of the Living Dead.

P.S. – And in fact, since this original post, Matthias Brütsch has written an excellent article on `three-act’ structure in canonical screenwriting manuals, and I commend it to you:

Brütsch, M. (2015). `The three-act structure: Myth or magical formula?Journal of Screenwriting, 6(3), 301-326.


JT Velikovsky

High-RoI Story/Screenplay/Movie and Transmedia Researcher

The above is (mostly) an adapted excerpt, from my doctoral thesis: “Communication, Creativity and Consilience in Cinema”. It is presented here for the benefit of fellow screenwriting, filmmaking and creativity researchers. For more, see https://aftrs.academia.edu/JTVelikovsky

JT Velikovsky is also a produced feature film screenwriter and million-selling transmedia writer-director-producer. He has been a professional story analyst for major film studios, film funding organizations, and for the national writer’s guild. For more see: http://on-writering.blogspot.com/



Brütsch, M. (2015). `The three-act structure: Myth or magical formula?’ Journal of Screenwriting, 6(3), 301-326.

Chalmers, A. F. (2000), What Is This Thing Called Science? (3rd ed. edn.; Buckingham: Open University Press).

de Saussure, Ferdinand, et al. (1916), Cours de linguistique générale/Course In General Linguistics (Paris: Lausanne).

Field, S. (1979). Screenplay: The Basics of Film Writing. New York: Delacorte Press.

Grix, J. (2004). The Foundations of Research. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Kuhn, TS & Hacking, I (2012), The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 4th edn, University of Chicago Press, Chicago ; London.

Price, S. (2010). The Screenplay: Authorship, Theory and Criticism. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Simonton, D K (2011), Great Flicks: Scientific Studies of Cinematic Creativity and Aesthetics, Oxford University Press, New York; Oxford.

Snow, C. P. (1959). The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. Cambridge: University Press.

Snow, C. P. (1969). The Two Cultures; and, A Second Look: an expanded version of ‘The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution’. London: Cambridge U.P.

Wilson, E. O. (1998). Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1st ed.). New York: Knopf: Distributed by Random House.


8 thoughts on “StoryAlity #34 – Screen-play `paradigms’ or screen-play `syntagms’?

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  6. So how do choose, and how do you know if something is good.
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    as well. 82 in the spearplay kung fu martial arts competition.

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