At fastcreate.com, Director Richard Linklater, recently feted for his film, Boyhood, shares his approach to coming up with the structure of his films:
"There are a lot of stories in the world, and I spend all my time thinking about how to tell them. That, to me, is the cinematic element. That's the hard part: the right narrative form on every movie is the thing I have to break. New forms have always been a part of my thinking. 'Could you ever tell a story this way?'"
"The idea for Boyhood was one of those 'aha' moments that at its core was problem-solving. The film's structure emerged out of trying to solve the problem of how to express that story over a long period of time. It's very straightforward, but in a way that hasn't been done before, because it's just completely impractical."
STRUCTURE VS. PLOT
Linklater is not saying that a film can be made without a structure, but that we don't have to stick to the most common plot shapes:
'When I write a screenplay, I've diagrammed the architecture of the story. There's really got to be a structure; art demands it. I care more about structure, less about plots. Anything plot-driven feels a little more man-made, more manufactured. I'm always going toward something that's a little more true to life."
HOW TO LET THE STORY BE THE MASTER
Linklater's approach mirrors what I often say in the screenwriting classes I teach: Let the story be the master, not the servant. For instance, don't start by trying to squeeze the story into the steps of the hero's journey. Instead, explore the story long enough to discover what it's really about and then figure out a structure that serves it.
Asking a few questions can help you do that:
1. Who is the most interesting person in this story?
2. What happened before the part of the story I intend to tell, and what happens after it?
3. Who and what changes as a result of the incidents in the story?
4. What do I want an audience to feel while watching this story?
Often we are eager to start writing right away. Doing so can be another way of finding the answers to these questions, but it's tempting to regard what you've written as THE way to tell the story, rather than an exploration. That's why I recommend exploring these aspects of the story before you start to write. As a result, you may find yourself ending up with a different protagonist, or telling a different part of the story than you had in mind, or even switching it to a different genre. And you're likely to end up with a script that doesn't seem a carbon copy of existing scripts.
WARNING: RESISTANCE AHEAD
Linklater has a lot of freedom in the stories he chooses to tell and how he tells them. As a writer without his track record, you may well meet resistance if you pitch a story that has a structure not immediately recognizable as the three act structure or the hero's journey.
However, it's also the stories that are told in a fresh way that stand out, and I believe that in the long run you will be well served by emulating Linklater.