So, have screenwriters actually ruined recent movies by relying too heavily on a prescribed story structure like Snyder’s Save the Cat?
I argue no. Screenplays by their very nature require a very specific structure to tell a story that will unfold over 90-120 minutes on screen. Maybe the problem is audiences feel like the stories told within these structures have become unoriginal.
With this in mind, how can aspiring screenwriters use structure but still tell original stories? Here are my thoughts:
- Create original characters: A well-structured story is important, but don’t forget to make your characters original and unique. Maybe your story seems familiar to an audience at first glance, but if your characters are truly original, their experiences and reactions to obstacles along the journey of your particular story should feel unique.
- Be unexpected: You may be hitting your story beats right on schedule, but the world you create and how your protagonist navigates through those beats should be wholly original. Seen it before? Then find another way. In fact, find a dozen more ways. Surprise yourself, surprise your protagonist, and then maybe you’ll surprise your audience.
- Rearrange the structure: Christopher Nolan, with the help of Jonathan Nolan’s short story, drew audiences in with his rearranged story structure in Memento. Charlie Kaufman subverts story structure in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to create something completely original. Or, Kaufman simply turns to his imaginary twin brother in Adaptation to give the audience what they would typically expect in a wholly unexpected manner. In these examples, all of the story elements are there in these films, but they hit the audience at unexpected times and in unexpected ways (see “Be unexpected” above). You also may be surprised how you end up using a traditional story structure to make sure your rearranged structure still works as a movie.