While you may have never heard of this type of story structure, it’s actually more common in movies than you may think. Fight Club, Casino, American Beauty, Goodfellas, Forrest Gump, Interview with the Vampire, and Citizen Kane are prime examples.
This structure comes to us from Russia, using terms that originated from Russian formalism and employed in narratology that describe narrative construction.
Fabula is the meat of the story while the syuzhet is the narration and how the story is organized.
This specific screenplay structure employed by American cinema often utilizes original organization by showing the end first, and having the audience view how they got there. The story is about the journey and focuses on the how as opposed to the what.
Citizen Kane begins with the death of the title character as he mutters “Rosebud” on his deathbed. His life is then presented through flashbacks interspersed with a journalist’s present-time investigation of Kane’s life.
The fabula of the film is the actual story of Kane’s life the way it happened in chronological order, while the syuzhet is the way the story is told throughout the film.
Forrest Gump opens with the near-ending of the story as Forrest waits for a bus. We learn the fabula of the story through his flashbacks as he tells various bus stop companions certain chronological stories from his life. The syuzhet of the story is present in the scenes at the bus stop being intertwined with those stories of his life. Had the film been presented in the three-act structure, we would have opened with Forrest Gump as a boy and progressed through to the point of him waiting at the bus stop. The moments of Forrest talking to others at the stop would have been unnecessary and the overall voiceover narration may not have been used at all.
Interview with the Vampire opens with vampire Louis being interviewed by Malloy. Louis recounts his days as a vampire hundreds of years prior, with his maker Lestat. That is the fabula of the story while the interview scenes represent the syuzhet. The events of the stories (fabula) themselves exist independently from the telling of it (syuzhet).
It’s a unique screenplay structure often used in true stories, but can just as easily be creatively applied to fictional ones as well. The structure gives us an added sense of narrative and excuses the otherwise looked down upon usage of voiceover narration. So if you’re feeling the need to have a voiceover in your script, one of the best ways to do that is to write within a Fabula/Syuzhet structure.