What do 8 screenplay gurus say about Screenplay Structure?

As part of my empirical doctoral research study on screenplay and film story, I was required to undertake a comparison of the 8 major `Story and Screenplay syntagms’ (often mistakenly referred to as screenplay story “paradigms”, and, see my previous post, here, for more on that):

Although there are now over 2500 texts on `screenwriting’ listed on Amazon.com – various noted (and frequently academically cited) feature film screenplay story structural templates appear in:

Screenplay, (Field 1979: passim)

Making A Good Script Great, (Seger 1987: passim)

Writing Screenplays That Sell, (Hauge 1988: passim)

The Anatomy Of Story, (Truby 2007: passim)

The Writer’s Journey, (Vogler 1992: passim)

Dramatica, (Phillips and Huntley 1994: passim)

Story (McKee 1997: passim),


Save The Cat!, (Snyder 2005: passim).

If we view the feature film screenwriting domain as a system, we can also examine which books are most influential in shaping the Domain of feature film screenwriting (i.e which books the members of the Screenwriting Field regard as: `the screenwriting convention’) – and we can take a Citation Count (how many times these texts were cited in other scholarly works, as recorded by the Google Scholar citations database.)

Popular `Screenwriting Manuals' listed by Citation Count (Velikovsky 2013)

Popular `Screenwriting Manuals’ listed by Citation Count (Velikovsky 2013)

This table above is not simply `the top 8 screenwriting manuals by citation counts’ – it also factors in, the popularity of the manuals. The table includes the following columns: # of scholarly publications that cite the text; # of libraries in Australia (including both public, secondary school and university/tertiary education libraries – noting that there are approximately 2000 total libraries in Australia) the book is held in (according to Trove/NLA); the number of Editions of the text; and the year of first publication of the text.

For example (reading across the top row of data) – McKee’s Story is the most academically cited, with 630 citations worldwide (according to Google Scholar, as at February 2013); copies of the text (across various editions) are held in 115 libraries in Australia; there have been 4 editions of the text; and the first year of publication was 1997. (It also makes sense that 0 copies of Dramatica are held in Australian libraries, since it is licensed software.)

So – I firstly recommend any screenwriter buy – and absorb – all the information in these books.

(And in fact probably also look at all the 100+ texts in this summary of the screenwriting convention.)


Because the current `screenwriting convention’ demands it; these are the most popular and academically cited screenwriting texts.

i.e. – Gotta know the rules, before you can break any of them.

(But – are these texts based on empirical and scientific studies of successful films? Please check this, for yourself. The answer is: No.)

Notably also – Aristotle never said “3 Acts” in Poetics (Aristotle et al. 1997), but instead prescribed 2 “parts” – or alternately, 12 parts – for the “correct” structure of a 5-episode ancient Greek play. (See this post for more on that.)

These prescribed film (or in Aristotle’s case, ancient Greek tragedy play) structures can be compared and contrasted, as below:

Screenplay Syntagms Comparison

Screenplay Syntagms Comparison – Analysis: JT Velikovsky 

Figure 1 – Comparison of 8 major screenplay “paradigms” and `2-part structure’ from Aristotle’s `Poetics’ 

Analysis: JT Velikovsky

It can be seen from the above ancient Greek play – and suggested film screenplay structures – that there is major disparity between these prescribed film structural story syntagms.

So – Which (if any of the above) is “correct”?

Confused Crowd

Which one is the most likely to result in a story/screenplay/film that reaches the widest film audience?

This is very difficult to empirically verify and test comparatively, as it would actually require the `same’/similar feature film story to be made 8 times, with the same actors and creative team, (i.e. “all things being equal”) and yet – using the 8 different recommended story structures, in each case.

Notably, the monomyth (aka `The Hero’s Journey’ story structure) is the closest to an `empirical’ analysis of mythical story structure (Vogler, derived from Campbell’s study of popular international myths) however Campbell’s study sample data-set was also not empirically verifiable with regard to feature film success. (By this I mean, has anyone done a study of all the films that used the monomyth, and shown that they always make money?)

These story templates are therefore problematic for the filmmaker/writer/storyteller who wishes to reach the widest audience – for the least film production budget.

Instead – it is a recommended methodology that: an empirical and scientific study of the Top 20 ROI Films be undertaken, and the common unifying story structure in all of them be identified.

This `Top 20 ROI story pattern’ should also be compared and contrasted with the Bottom 20 ROI films.

This will indicate what the most `viral’ film story structure in fact has empirically been, for the past 70 years of cinema.

The Film ROI (return on investment) bell curve

The Film ROI (return on investment) Gaussian bell curve

…Thoughts, Comments, always welcome.


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/



Aristotle, Baxter, J, Atherton, P, Whalley, G & ebrary Inc. 1997, Aristotle’s Poetics, McGill-Queen’s University Press, <http://ezproxy.uws.edu.au/login?url=http://site.ebrary.com/lib/sydney/Doc?id=10141479 Ebrary Academic Complete>.

Field, Syd (1979), Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting (A Delta book; New York: Dell Pub. Co.) 212 p.

Hauge, Michael (1988), Writing Screenplays That Sell (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co.) xxii, 314 p.

McKee, Robert (1997), Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting (1st edn.; New York: Regan Books) 466 p.

Phillips, Melanie Anne and Huntley, Chris (1994), ‘Dramatica’, (Burbank: Screenplay Systems Incorporated).

Seger, Linda (1987), Making A Good Script Great (1st edn.; New York: Dodd, Mead) xvi, 204 p.

Snyder, Blake (2005), Save The Cat!: The Last Book On Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need (Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions) xvi, 195 p.

Truby, John (2007), The Anatomy of Story : 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller (1st edn.; New York: Faber and Faber) 445 p.

Vogler, Christopher (1992), The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structures for Storytellers and Screenwriters (Studio City, CA: M. Wiese Productions) viii, 289 p.


17 thoughts on “StoryAlity #35 – What do 8 screenplay gurus say about Screenplay Structure?

  1. Pingback: StoryAlity #50 – The StoryAlity Screenplay Syntagm | StoryAlity

    • Hey Chris!

      Great to hear from you, and congrats on the great reviews!
      Sorry – I’m so booked up with work right now, I couldn’t even consider looking at taking on any additional projects, but thanks so much for the kind offer. I will check it out ASAP. Hope it’s going great guns,



  2. This is utterly fascinating! The “Screenplay Syntagms Comparison” alone is worth it’s weight in silver nitrate.

    However, as someone who teaches screenwriting, I don’t find the 8 screenwriting “syntagms” all that different; just looking at the layout of them in this diagram we can see that the major emphasis is breaking down the the 3 acts into smaller units a writer can utilize to traverse them, especially the long desert of the 2nd Act. Essentially they are saying mostly the same thing, just with different, individual spins on the ball of structure. I present many components of them to my students to familiarize them with the authors’ notions, since the industry does toss them about a lot, then attempt to synthesize them into an approach new writers can utilize in creating a well-formed screenplay story.

    I would love to see an empirical study of the Top 20 ROI Films… but very much doubt the results would create a new tool that can guarantee success. There are too many variables that go into a film & its success: actors, zeitgeist, fluctuating generational interests, acting, and, oh — talent to bring all the elements of story, acting & cinematic storytelling to premium fruition. And even when you have all of those AND a “guaranteed” paradigm/syntagm” the film can fail with the audience. Movie success is not a science or math that some perfect algorithm can capture and encapsulate. And that’s what makes the Hollywood “game” so fascinating and compelling: “Nobody knows anything,” even when they think they do.

    Which in no way lessens the great work you’ve done here, nor means an empirical and scientific study of the Top 20 ROI Films shouldn’t be undertaken. By all means, someone please do so — the results will be fascinating to pore over.

    Thanks again.

    • Thanks for these thoughts Bill. Very much appreciated. I have heard of your teaching and work and everyone speaks very highly of you – so it is a pleasure to have your thoughts and feedback, thank you for all this.

      And – Yes – totally agree with you here: ” I don’t find the 8 screenwriting “syntagms” all that different; just looking at the layout of them in this diagram we can see that the major emphasis is breaking down the the 3 acts into smaller units a writer can utilize to traverse them, especially the long desert of the 2nd Act. Essentially they are saying mostly the same thing, just with different, individual spins on the ball of structure.

      In fact – I said, almost-exactly that, in my recent delivery of my ongoing doctoral research, at this conference:
      StoryAlity #69

      Re – this point: “I would love to see an empirical study of the Top 20 ROI Films… “
      If so, then please, read my book: (it contains the results of that study, and costs a whopping: $1.99)
      StoryAlity Screenwriting Manual – out now on Kindle
      I would very much look forward to your thoughts/comments/feedback, especially as a well-known and respected screenwriting teacher.

      And Bill – I am convinced you are right again, about all this:
      “- but very much doubt the results would create a new tool that can guarantee success. There are too many variables that go into a film & its success: actors, zeitgeist, fluctuating generational interests, acting, and, oh — talent to bring all the elements of story, acting & cinematic storytelling to premium fruition. And even when you have all of those AND a “guaranteed” paradigm/syntagm” the film can fail with the audience. Movie success is not a science or math that some perfect algorithm can capture and encapsulate. ”

      i.e. I agree, no tool can *guarantee* success.
      The book, this screenplay-and-film-system (ie StoryAlity Theory), and, the empirical results of the Top 20 RoI films – certainly does not guarantee anyone success.
      For example, one problem (chosen at random): What if the screenwriter simply *has no talent*? LOL
      (Sorry if that sounds harsh. It is entirely possible, however.)
      Also, as you say, (for example) what if, the film is Cast all wrong?
      (Although – also, notably, none of the top 20 RoI films had stars in them, and De Vany (2004) also shows how: Stars actually make a movie lose money. Totally counterintuitive, but – there it is.)

      Also – and this is an interesting one – Re: Zeitgeist –
      Bill – I am sure that you (like, almost everyone) will find this point, very hard to swallow (ie – to believe) – but having spent years studying this data set now (ie the Top 20 RoI films), I currently don’t believe, that zeitgeist – has anything to do with it. (LOL.) – Incredible, right?

      But – consider this: Even films that fail miserably (eg the Bottom 20 RoI films, say) are filled with the zeitgeist. Yet – they failed. Zeitgeist is one of those things that everyone looks at successful films – in retrospect – and says “Aha, well, that succeeded so well, as it captured the zeitgeist.” (But how can any film not have a zeitgeist – to a large or even small degree, in it? ie `a Spirit of the Times’.)
      And also – if you look closely at the Top 20 RoI films (just for example), zeitgeist is actually irrelevant.
      ie Star Wars? (Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, and WW2 motifs, and the heros journey, etc – never go out of style.) Rocky? Muhammad Ali was famous, yes, and in the zeitgeist (the film was inspired by the Wepner-Ali fight) but, without Ali, it would have been based on: whoever the current heavyweight champ was. (This is a tricky concept to accept – but the top 20 RoI films all have about 30 things in common, and none of them relates to the zeitgeist. I have written on this elsewhere, at length – see my `extended sparring’ with JPoe on StoryAlity #3 comments… if you have that much time, LOL…)

      Also, who empirically can say, what the zeitgeist actually is? – We are now flooded with so much data/news, *everything* is in the zeitgeist. Someone might argue `Avatar’ is very zeitgeisty, as it’s about environmental conservation, etc. But – the 1970’s were `all about that’ too, and even Pocahontas (way back, in its day) was even about that… At any rate, Bill – you (or someone) may be able to provide some empirical evidence – but I am currently, totally unconvinced that zeitgeist matters (in terms of: your film, going viral).
      ie – I feel, if you watch the news, and talk to people, you are immersed in the zeitgeist, so if you make a film you can’t help but put some (or, even a lot) of it in there.
      – I also believe `Fight Club’ was totally about `the zeitgeist’ in 1999 (ie that: advertising creates false values about which we feel frustrated, for example), and – yet, it bombed at the box office. (Though it later became a cult film on DVD, etc. I think it is a masterpiece of cinema.)

      So anyway – to return to the previous point: You are right. No formula can *guarantee* success.
      There are too many variables.
      BUT – With regards to the Top 20 RoI (most-viral) films: I ask –
      Can we learn anything by looking at (1) The creative person (2) their creative process, and (3) the creative product?
      That is what my research is about.
      ie – If there are any common elements there, surely they MAY help other screenwriters and filmmakers?
      (And there certainly are lots of common patterns…)

      Also, fascinatingly, about 10 things, in that data-set (the top 20 RoI Films) totally contradict the current screenwriting convention. (ie The major screenplay gurus, the popular screenwriting books – etc)

      In 1995 (and, updated 4 times since) I published a summary of the 100 most popular screenwriting texts.
      It’s a free PDF, and is used as a teaching aid in many universities and film schools: see http://uws.academia.edu/JTVelikovsky/

      But here’s the thing: this StoryAlity system is just a probability calculus.
      You can use all 30 guidelines, or you can ignore one of them and use: 29 of the 30 guidelines.
      it just slightly lowers the probability. But it is still just: a probability.

      See also, all the probabilities in my prediction for the next TOp 20 RoI film, which I predict will happen in Jan 2014:
      StoryAlity #69
      (ie A 50% probability it will be a Horror genre film, etc etc…)
      It’s all just probabilities.
      eg: If you tell me someone has (a) never studied screenwriting before, and (b) had never made a film previously, and their first film is about to be released – I would suggest the probability of that film going super-viral is about 1%. And I am saying 1% as – I could well be wrong! Maybe, there is a (to be generous) 1 in 100 chance their film DOES go viral…
      But – to be rational, and reasonable about it – I would still give about 1% odds on it `working’.
      Then again what if their dad or mum is a famous and hugely successful filmmaker? (Suddenly – the probability goes up a bit. ie They may well have been studying all their parents’ `moves’ for 10 years, on set. – Who knows? If I could study that person I’d probable get a better chance of giving a probability.)

      The biggest point is, 7 in 10 films fail to make money. There is a 70% chance you will fail before you begin. How to shorten those odds somehow?

      ie, So – given Probability Theory:

      If – like the Top 20 RoI `writer-hyphenates’ (ie all are either a writer-director, writer-producer or writer-actor) you do all of these things:

      (1) Make it a Villain Triumphant story

      (2) Make it in 2 parts, `before’ and `after’ the tragedy (like Aristotle actually said in `Poetics’ ie he never said `3 Acts’… and anyway as Truby has noted, even films that fail have 3 Acts so how does that help any screenwriter/filmmaker?)

      (3) Forget Character Arcs. (They’re not necessary. Seriously.)

      (4) Include themes of: Survival, Reproduction and Revenge. (See: Literary Darwinism, for more. eg: http://neuronarrative.wordpress.com/2009/02/27/what-is-literary-darwinism-an-interview-with-joseph-carroll/)

      (5) Make it for an average of $2m or less (and there are 3 films in the top 20 that are $7k budgets. Make it for $7k if you can! ie Primer and El Mariachi are amazing.)

      (6 7 8 etc) etc (See: the 30 StoryAlity Guidelines.)

      Then – it all simply *increases the probability* that: your film *may* go viral.
      You are right – nothing is ever: guaranteed.
      So – I have been careful to never say “guarantee” in anything I’ve ever written about this research.

      ie – How could I possibly guarantee that, anyway – if, I don’t even know the filmmaker?

      ie If you (a) have not enough talent or experience, or (b) mess up the casting, or even (c) even if you cast it right but the acting is bad (eg maybe the actors are doing too much partying, etc), or (d) the filmmaking is terrible, or even say (e) maybe the dialog is lousy — yes, all those things will lower the probability of it going viral (and reaching the intended audience).

      Another thing is: the 10-year rule.
      All the top 20 RoI filmmakers practised their craft, and practised some more, for around 10 years, before cracking it with a super-viral film.
      So, the probability of someone making a highly-viral film with only (say) 1 year’s experience (in both writing, and filmmaking) – is close to zero. And – all the other evidence reflects that.
      It is not: IM-possible – it may well happen (or – may have already happened).
      It is just: a very very low probability.

      ie Screenwriting and filmmaking are super-complex domains. (As you know Bill.)
      It takes around 10 years for a person to internalize any creative domain.
      (See all this research here: https://storyality.wordpress.com/an-index-to-this-blog/)

      But Bill – importantly – the evidence of the Top 20 RoI films shows: All that *really* matters is – the Story (ergo the Screenplay).
      Not Stars, not Marketing, and not Timing… none of that stuff.
      In fact, some of the top 20 RoI films actually have some pretty lousy acting and filmmaking…
      (eg – Clerks? – Some of the acting in Star Wars, 1977? Some of the amateur actors in El Mariachi?)
      But – if the story is amazing – the film can go viral. Despite all the `8 million ways to die’!
      ie All the `ways there are to fail’, with a film 🙂

      Anyway, thanks so much — and if you do get to read my book (or even both books), I’d love to hear your further thoughts…

      Thanks again Bill,



      PS – thanks for using the word syntagm 🙂

      PPS – `Worth its weight in silver nitrate’ cracked me up 🙂 You are obviously a very talented writer yourself. I’m hereby stealing that phrase from you 🙂

  3. WOW! What a response. You should get a Ph.d. on that alone!

    Thanks for all the comments — I will read through them in detail later.

    I have to laugh at myself; this was the first article on your site that I read — after posting to it, I explored more and also found your book (which I am definitely getting) where I realized I threw out the Goldman quote only to discover you have a whole chapter devoted to it! And glancing at it, I believe you are right in saying, “We _do_ know something.”

    But I still think there are some elements that… well, let my say this: “Much can be learned, but not all things can be known” when it comes to writing a successful script/movie. You can build the perfect bottle, fill it with the right environment and elements, but you still can’t guarantee lightning. As you say, maybe the writer lacks talent. (Trust me, I’ve seen that plenty of times!) That’ll teach me to post without reading more first.

    Two quick final things — one, I have a personal bugaboo about EL MARIACHI: yes, supposedly it was made for only $7,000, but that doesn’t count all the money Columbia put into it to clean up audio and add music (same thing with CLERKS, but Rodriguez has relentlessly touted his $7000 budget so much without really acknowledging the fuller price tag and it irks me), not to mention the marketing budgets for many of these films were _much_ more than the cost of production.

    Two, I don’t fully agree with the idea that zeitgeist didn’t play any role at all in the success of some of these films. But maybe zeitgeist is the wrong word for me to use… take STAR WARS for instance. Was there a global sweeping notion of, “Hey, let’s all get into Buck Roger-esque sci-fi/fantasy!”? No. However, there was a general feeling of growing weary of all the dark, intense, often depressing, sometimes “arty” films that reflected the aftermath of the Watergate era. The public was primed for a feel-good film that returned Hollywood to what it used to do best in it’s Golden Age: deliver a clear-cut hero & villain, action and romance. So maybe it wasn’t fully zeitgeist, but I think it’s accurate to say that the field was very well plowed & fertilized and awaiting the right seed to be planted.

    Thanks again for such great research, writing and in-depth site.

  4. PS — “Just read a bit more of your reply.
    Forget Character Arcs. (They’re not necessary. Seriously.)”

    I’m with you on that 110%! I’ve been saying that in my classes for some time now. Too many “experts” say your protagonist _has_ to have one. Phooey, I say! Possibly discounting the last couple of Bond films, 007 has done quite well without one for 50 years. Indiana Jones? Hah! Man With No Name? He needs no stinking character arc! To impose one just because you’re “supposed” to is inane. If one is warranted, great. If not, don’t worry about it.

    • All great stuff, thanks Bill…!

      Thanks for saying this!
      I note JJ Murphy in `Me and You and Memento and Fargo’ also finds character arcs unnecessary.

      – I of course have nothing against character arcs (and of course, I personally enjoy a great many movies that have them, and have had screenplays optioned and made that have them)…

      But – of course, not all movies have to follow a formula (ie – any formula)… (which, is sort of ironic – as I am suggesting, there is a `formula’ to the top 20 RoI films… )
      But again, I am not saying that everyone should follow this top 20 films/`high-RoI’ formula, either…

      ie – As it happens I am also a huge Stanley Kubrick fan, and – as I understand it – he said (on several occasions) “Forget all ideas of story structure, all you really need are 8 great sequences” (and then, find a way to connect those 8 sequences).
      So, all very fascinating…

      Thanks again Bill, all great feedback and excellent food for thought.


    • LOL

      I can just see a Sergio Leone/Clint Eastwood quip:
      “We don’ neeed no steeenkin Character Arcs!!”

      All great points you make – about Bond, Indiana Jones, the Man With No Name etc. – Thanks! Will use those (and, remember to thank you) when I next talk about this stuff to my students…


  5. In thinking of non-genre protagonists who don’t experience a character arc, R.P. McMurphy in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST comes to mind. He may change his attitude toward the crazy inmates he finds himself locked in with, but he doesn’t have an arc that changes who he is or how he views the world. He is “changed” against his will with the lobotomy, but he himself doesn’t undergo an arc. In fact, he receives the lobotomy precisely because he didn’t change his ways during the movie and is deemed a threat.

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