On Agency and Structure in Screenwriting

With regards to Screenwriting:

Screenwriting is all about agency and structure.

Screenwriting is: Agency and Structure.

Screenwriting involves: Agency and Structure.

There is also a screenplay story structure that is known to be more successful (e.g. more viral, like a sort of `narrative Trojan horse’) with regard to film storytelling (i.e. the Top 20 ROI Films StoryAlity story syntagm), and yet – within those structures – You, the screenwriter/storyteller/filmmaker – have agency (make choices) using your own Free Will.

i.e. You can choose the characters, settings, theme, plot and events, but – the overall film story structure is pre-determined. (That is, if you want to increase the probability of your film story going viral.)

Compare with: the paradigmatic and syntagmatic axes, in story:

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

The Syntagmatic and Paradigmatic axes (Analysis: JT Velikovsky)

In short: Structure gives you the freedom to be more creative. (You also don’t have to make as many decisions, which makes your job as a storyteller easier: the structures themselves are `enabling constraints’.)

Another example – Stories can be seen to follow this structure:

1) A Character 

2) Has a Problem

3) and must make a Sacrifice

4) To achieve their Goal.

You fill in the details!

The 4 `steps’ above are the structure, and – as a Writer – using your agency, you fill in the details.

In How To Get Ideas (1996) Jack Foster raises some interesting points about agency and stucture in writing:

`In The Courage To Create, Rollo May… explains “that creativity itself requires limits, for the creative act arises out of the struggle of human beings with and against that which limits them.”

Let me give you an example: When giving a team an assignment to create, say, a television commercial, I found that if I gave then complete freedom they floundered. Too much freedom is chaos. But when they were forced to work within the guidelines of the creative strategy… and a budget and a 30-second length and an established theme line and of course a deadline, they always came up with solutions.

Joseph Heller found the same thing. “The ideas come to me, I don’t produce them at will. They come to me in the course of a sort of controlled daydream, a directed reverie. It may have something to do with the disciplines of writing advertising copy (which I did for a number of years) where the limitations involved provide a considerable spur to the imagination.

“Small rooms discipline the mind; large rooms distract it” said Leonardo da Vinci.

“There’s an essay of T S Eliot’s” continued Heller “in which he praises the disciplines of writing, claiming that if one is forced to write within a certain framework the imagination is taxed to its utmost and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom however, the chances are good that the work will sprawl.”

Duke Ellington composed music within the limits of the instruments he was writing for and the players who would play those instruments. “It’s good to have limits,” he said.

Walter Hunt was being dunned for money. He decided to invent something that was sorely needed, something so simple he could make a sketch of it in a few hours. (Talk about limits.) He invented the safety pin.

The Caesar salad was invented because the chef was forced to make something out of the ingredients he had. So was chicken marengo. So was bread pudding. And so, probably, was boiled lobster.

Dryden said he preferred to write verse that is rhymed because “I often had a very happy thought as a result of looking for a rhyme.”

Rollo May agreed. “When you write a poem, you discover that the very necessity of fitting your meaning into such and such a form requires you to search in your imagination for new meanings. You reject certain ways of saying it, you select others, always trying to form the poem again. In your forming, you arrive at new and more profound meanings than you had ever dreamed of.”’

(Foster 1996, pp. 107-10)


In sociological and psychological terms, the `Agency-Structure’ Question – also applies to:

Whether agents (i.e. individuals in the field, like screenwriters/filmmakers, who can make: choices) can be considered independently of the social structures (constraints/ `rules’/ guidelines) within which they operate.

Agency and Structure

Agency and Structure: People (agents), and The Universe (structures)

(Note: Nope, they can’t. They are intrinsically connected, and interdependent.)

Agency and Structure

Agency and Structure

Nonetheless, Bourdieu, Giddens, and Archer have published interesting discussions on this agency-structure question, each offering slightly differing positions (Postill 2010: 1). Sociologist Anthony Giddens refers to the process of the interaction between agency and structure as ‘structuration’ (Giddens, 1979, 1984).

Agency and Structure. Like Yin and Yang, really.

Agency and Structure. Like Yin and Yang, really.

But – for an illustration and demonstration of all this (i.e. agency and structure – in action!): see the agent-based model that I created online, for you to play with, and to help you understand, exactly how the feature film system works.

Note: In the computer model, the `agents’ are making choices as they navigate through the field over time to try and make their movies.

(Also: in case this isn’t clear, by `agents’ in the Creative Practice Theory Agent-Based-Model  – I actually mean “filmmakers”, and “screenwriters”, and not actual `literary agents’ – though they are there, in the computer model as well. Doing `literary agent’ stuff.)

To see this CPTN (Creative Practice Theory Narratology) agent-based-model model in action:

Figure 1: Practice Theory Narratology: the agent-based model online computer simulationAnalysis: the author (Velikovsky 2012f)

Creative Practice Theory Narratology: the agent-based model online computer simulation
Analysis: the author (Velikovsky 2012)



1)    Press RESET, and

2)    Press GO.

(And then, read all the text, underneath the online agent-based model. It explains exactly what you are looking at/playing with.)

Then, please come back here and make Comments below, about the Agent-Based-Model. (I would really appreciate it.)

i.e. Stuff like:

1)    Is it helpful?

2)    Do you understand better, what Creative Practice Theory Narratology is, and how it works, having played with the model?

3)    – Any suggestions for improvements on the model?

(I am actually going to publish an article on the model in an Agent-Based Modelling journal soon.  The better we understand how “the real world” – (whatever that means) –  works, the better the actual films will be, that come out of the feature film system, itself.)

i.e. It could be one of your films!

So, when you run the model (in your web-browser), try and imagine yourself as one of the little filmmaker guys/gals in the model. i.e. Creative Visualisation: it’s fun, and it’s cheap!

(And apparently, is also very good for achieving your goals. So they tell me 🙂

CPT General Model Diagram (Velikovsky 2012)

Creative Practice Theory – General Model (Velikovsky 2012)

Many thanks in advance,

JT Velikovsky


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/



Foster, J (1996), How To Get Ideas, 1st edn, Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco.

Giddens, A. (1979), Central Problems in Social Theory: Action, Structure and Contradiction in Social Analysis, London: MacMillan Press.

Giddens, A. (1984), The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of StructurationCambridge: Polity Press.

Postill, J. (2010), ‘Introduction: Theorising media and practice. ‘, in B. Bräuchler and J. Postill (eds.), Theorising Media and Practice (Oxford and New York Berghahn).

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