There’s been a lot of talk recently about whether Jon Snow really got killed off at the end of Game of Thrones last season. The producers say he’s actually dead! The actor’s been spotted in Belfast, where the Wall scenes are filmed! His hair…what about his hair?
The answer to the question of whether Jon will be back is actually completely obvious, and I don’t need to have secret access to George RR Martin’s unpublished drafts of Book whatever-book-it-is (haven’t read any), Kit Harington’s contract, or what the line producer is up to on set in Belfast.
All I have to know is story structure.
Story, plot, and story structure have tripped up thousands of writers and inspired thousands more to create weekend seminars where they will explain what story and plot are to other writers.
There are a ton of resources out there you can use to learn story structure. Here, here are a few books:
- Screenplay by Syd Field
- Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder
- Story by Robert McKee
- The Anatomy of Story by John Truby
You’ll notice most of these are geared toward screenwriting. Films and TV are very heavily structured, for the most part, although good, satisfying books are too.
And then there are the helpful bon mots, such as
In the first act you get your hero up a tree. The second act, you throw rocks at him. For the third act you let him down.
which has been attributed to several different writers, among them George Abbott, Moss Hart, and George M. Cohan.
The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died, and then queen died of grief is a plot.
E. M. Forster
The first through the forty-sixth times I read the EM Forster quote my exact response was, “…wut?” How does that help me?
Don’t even get me started on the bit about the trees.
One of the reasons I don’t like either of these aphorisms is that they’re glib and don’t contribute a lot to understanding the concepts. And one of the problems with the tree one is that it leads to “one damn thing after another” writing, instead of “coherent plot in which complications are based in character and theme.”
Here’s The First Secret about story structure that will help you out with just about any story project you’re working on, be it film, TV, novels, or what have you: it’s all pretty basic.
You have Act One: there’s a problem. I guess you could say we’re back to the hero and his tree. He meets his tree, and he must deal with this tree. If he chooses not to deal with it, somebody or something else forces him to deal with it. Either way, he’s dealing with the tree. (The murder. This girl he just met. Darth Vader and the Empire. The White Walkers and the survival of Westeros. Whatever.)
Act Two: he tries various approaches of dealing with it. He attacks it. He runs away. He tries to get other trees to help. Nothing works.
At the end of Act Two, the hero FAILS (or, if it’s a tragedy, he SUCCEEDS). Act Two is how a story with an upbeat ending would end if things went wrong. In a tragedy, it’s how it ends if things were to end well.
In Act Three, we are locked in to dealing with the problem, head on. There are no subplots, nothing new is introduced. The hero is going to take the knowledge gained during Act Two and he’s going to confront the dragon/girl/White Walkers/whatever. No more pretense. No more evasions. Straightforward solutions.
Here’s The Second Secret: every version of story structure you’ve ever heard of is exactly the same.
Three Act structure? The First Act is about a quarter, the Second Act is about half, and the Third Act is about a quarter.
Four Act structure? Each Act is about a quarter. It’s as if…you sliced the Second Act into two, at “the midpoint.”
TV drama structure? Usually four acts, with a teaser (the bit before the credits) and a tag (the bit at the very end). The act break occur where commercials are needed.
At USC I learned the “eight sequence” approach, which basically divides up the screenplay into eight sections…two in Act 1, four in Act 2, two in Act 3. There were specific functions of each sequence that were borne out time and again, with every movie we watched.
You can read about the eight sequences in Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach by Paul Joseph Gulino.
Oh, and Shakespeare’s Five Acts? I have no idea what the guiding spirit was behind where Act Breaks happen in Shakespeare plays, but let’s check out where the so-called “end of Act One” or “the hero commits to the story” happen:
Macbeth, Act II, scene ii: Macbeth kills Duncan
Hamlet, Act I, scene v: Hamlet agrees to seek vengeance against his uncle
Page-wise…both of these things happen just about a third of the way in.
And let’s check out “the end of Act Two, where everything ends badly, unless this is a tragedy in which case everything’s going to end well”, because both of these are tragedies:
Macbeth, Act IV, scene i: Macbeth is told only one not born of woman can harm him, which seems pretty good. This plot point seems to come early, but it’s all battles from here on out — that last third is pretty snappy.
Hamlet, Act IV, scene vi: Hamlet is back from England and ready to party, by which we mean “Kill Claudius.”
All you need to know about story structure is this: who is the main character, what is their specific problem, how can they deal with this problem, how will they fail (which must be directly related to who they are), and how will they eventually succeed?
“The end of Act One” is when the hero is committed to deal with the problem.
“The end of Act Two” is when everything else has been tried, and the hero has to deal with the real problem.
You can find this in every story.
This bit about “the end of Act One” and “the end of Act Two” is important for understanding general structure. There are a million ways of adding in these plot points to a story — skill with that comes from practicing over, and over, and over again. And analyzing every single thing you see.
For example, when I went to see the Leonardo di Caprio version of The Man in the Iron Mask, I really had to go to the bathroom. But I hate walking out when something important is going to happen, so I thought about what was going on and how clunkily the movie had hit all of its plot points. We weren’t even at the end of Act Two yet! I could go to the bathroom without missing anything (and I did not, in fact, miss anything). No watch-checking required!
Likewise, No Country For Old Men — which is a brilliant adaptation of a nihilistic novel, so it’s not my cup of tea no matter how great it is — doesn’t let on what story it’s telling. You may think it’s the story of some cops trying to find some drug dealers and some missing drug money, but boy howdy does the end of Act Two whup you upside the head on that one. The plot of No Country For Old Men is one thing, but the story is quite something else. (I’d say the story was “Death is coming for you and there is not a damn thing you can do about it,” but I would respect different opinions on that.)
Most stories are not like No Country For Old Men, though: mostly they are straightforward. Girl meets Guy, Girl and Guy can’t make it work out, can they make it work? Detective finds dead body, Detective tries to find out what happened, Detective finds out the secret story underlying everything.
Because each storyline in Game of Thrones is structured like this. Some going up, some going down. But there’s an overall structure to the entire thing, though, and we see what that’s going to be in the very first scene: Winter Is Coming. (And Westeros had better get its act together.)
Which brings us back to Jon Snow.