Learn how Craig Mazin, one of the most popular screenwriters working today, structures his stories through theme.
Scriptnotes is the most popular screenwriting podcast. For nearly ten years, John August and Craig Mazin have been mulling over the craft and business of screenwriting every week to tens of thousands of listeners. A couple of years ago Mazin helmed a solo episode called “How to Write a Movie” that became an instant classic due to his clear-headed approach to story structure, easy-to-grasp central thesis, and simplicity that compelled both amateur and expert screenwriters alike.
Today, I’m going to go over the main points of the episode. If you have the time I highly recommend listening to the episode for yourself to get more detail:
Story Structure Through Theme 🛠️
Craig’s central idea is that the most effective way to structure a story is around its central theme. Instead of blindly putting in narrative events like the inciting incident, midpoint, or downfall, ask why those events exist in the first place. For Craig, these events are the result of a simple statement: “Structure is a symptom of a character’s relationship with a central dramatic argument.”
A dramatic argument is a more active way of talking about a theme. Essentially, the dramatic argument is a position in life that you want to argue for in your story. So, for example, “brotherhood” in isolation is not a dramatic argument, but “humanity stands stronger together” is a position in an argument that can be explored dramatically.
A dramatic argument makes a story feel bigger than just the plot because the lessons learned through a good story can fundamentally change the way we live if the dramatic argument is presented convincingly enough. We feel so strongly about the dramatic argument because it isn’t told to us as a lecture, but through a character we empathize with.
Throughout the structure of a story, the protagonist will develop in such a way that they will come to embody the dramatic argument. Scene to scene, this is done by using the Hegelian Dialectic which is a fancy term for having your character (a thesis) come against an obstacle (anthesis) and being changed through the conflict (synthesis). Eventually, with enough new synthesizes, the protagonist will fundamentally change.
Craig states, “The purpose of a story is to take a character from ignorance of the truth of the theme to the embodiment of the theme through action.” Remember, theme is essentially a synonym for the dramatic argument. As we go through the structure we all know from movies we can start to see why the well-worn narrative beats actually exist, and what their role is in relation to the theme.
The opening minutes of a film are all about establishing the protagonist in a world of stasis and comfort. It’s far from a perfect world, but theoretically, the protagonist could exist in it forever. Their entire life exemplifies ignorance of the theme. In fact, even though they’re often a good person, they believe the opposite of the truth of the theme.
For example, think about Joy in Inside Out. If we consider the dramatic argument of Inside Out to be “negative emotions have value too” then Joy’s origin completely contradicts this state of mind. Anything negative is automatically bad in Joy’s mind. The genius of this position is that it’s likely something a lot of the audience instinctively agrees with.
Inciting Incident 😲
However, the stasis does not last for long. The comfort of the protagonist’s world is upset by an act of God (so to speak). While good narrative structure generally encourages the twists and turns of a plot to originate from the protagonist’s choices, the inciting incident is a freebie. Here, the audience is ready and waiting for an act of god to spur the protagonist into action.
Craig advocates for an inciting incident that is deeply ironic to evoke the greatest effect. The inciting incident should ideally be tailor-made for the protagonist in question. In Finding Nemo, for example, Marlon has lost all of his children in an early tragedy, so the inciting incident involves his final surviving child going missing. Of course, that type of occurrence is bad no matter who it is, but it’s especially cruel for Marlon.
Refusal and Turn to Act Two 👎
Refusal isn’t a simple refutation of the call to adventure as some screenwriting books would have it. Instead, as Craig argues, the refusal is about the protagonist desperately seeking a return to the stasis that they enjoyed at the beginning. The last thing they want to do is engage in a dangerous adventure when stasis is just out of reach. They don’t know that there is a dramatic argument to be fought.
On some level, the protagonist should be a coward, at least in regards to launching the adventure you have designed for them. After all, we all know what it feels like to be afraid. Even if we don’t fully understand the protagonist’s emotional position post-inciting incident, as an audience we can easily empathize with fear. When the protagonist realizes that there is no way they can return to the stasis they desire without embarking on the adventure, the second act begins.
The 2nd Act ✌️
For most beginning screenwriters, the 2nd act can be a scary place where it’s easy to run out of road. Craig argues that focusing on plot instead of character is the reason this happens.
First, reinforce the anti-theme that the protagonist already believes. For example, in Finding Nemo when Marlon goes out into the deep ocean to find his son, the first thing he stumbles into is a gang of sharks. Barely escaping with his life, Marlon feels rightfully vindicated. The ocean is dangerous, the shallows were much safer and Nemo should never be allowed near it.
These kinds of conflicts are important as it forces the protagonist’s relationship with the dramatic argument to change. Usually, the protagonist encounters another character who embodies the theme/dramatic argument that plants a seed of doubt in their head. With the seed of doubt planted, overcoming the obstacles provokes change within the protagonist. It is the fear of leaving stasis that separates the rational hero from their potential. At some point, the protagonist will experience a moment of acting in harmony with the theme and learn an important lesson from it. Maybe they should change.
This is why the midpoint occurs. At this point, the protagonist has a small question in their head wondering if their side of the argument doesn’t actually truly represent the world. They’re forced to ask one of the hardest questions they’ll have to: “Have I been living a lie?”
Reversal of Theme 🔄
However, we as writers should be cruel. The very moment the protagonist takes the bait of the theme, they need to be bit in the ass by the change in perspective. This will cause them to regress to an earlier infantile refusal of the theme, entrenching themselves further in the anti-theme due to their “foolishness” in believing the theme.
This is cruel, but it’s important because the more sadistic the predicament of the protagonist, the greater the emotional catharsis will be later.
The Darkness 🌑
This is the darkest moment for the character. Ideally, they should realize that their limitations aren’t physical, but thematic. They won’t be able to reach the finale without finally fundamentally changing their position to the dramatic argument. Their original goal of re-achieving stasis is in shambles, whatever they clung to at the start of the story is exposed as a sham, and the enormity of the goal they now face is overwhelming.
In other words, the protagonist is stuck. They no longer can return to where they were at the beginning of the story, but they’re not yet able to face the finale. They’re in a purgatorial state where a choice needs to be made regarding the dramatic argument.
In the dark and lost is where the protagonist finally grasps a nugget of the dramatic argument. A revelation, sometimes prompted by a tragedy such as the death of another character, finally opens up the path for the protagonist to seize the dramatic argument. However, they’re not done yet.
Third Act Catharsis 🤗
The protagonist needs to face their true defining moment, their worst fear, their greatest challenge. It will resolve not only the story but also the entire life of the character. It will bring them to a new stasis and balance.
However, before they can receive a reward their faith in the theme must be tested. They need to go through something that proves they believe in the new theme through action. They need to embody the truth with everything they have, going all-in on a new perspective on life.
That being said, there’s still room to be cruel. Just as the protagonist is on the verge of victory, try tempting them with an easy path back to the stasis they craved the entire story, a kind of relapse. It’s a safety blanket that they can take if they chose the anti-theme over the theme. By refusing this easy path home we can easily see how much they have grown over the course of the movie. This shows acceptance through character action.
Afterward, why not be even more cruel? Punish the protagonist for believing in the theme, but have them accept the cost. For example, in Finding Nemo Marlon finds himself at peace with Nemo possibly dying because he has embodied the theme. Here there is no room for pretense, so we can truly see whether the protagonist has changed. However, if they still persist, the protagonist can finally be rewarded.
The conclusion of the story shows a new stasis born of the synthesis of theme and anti-theme that we’ve had the joy of watching.
Wrapping Up 🎁
Mazin’s story structure idea is based upon prioritizing a character and their relationship to the dramatic argument over basic plot. Theoretically, this should provoke the narrative to turn in a more organic and cathartic manner.
I should say that this structure doesn’t apply to every movement and there are exceptions to every single stage. However, consider this method of structure as a guideline to aspire to. Whenever you’re watching one of your favorite movies, try and think about it through this structure. You may just come to a new understanding of how the movie works.
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