Now, for both of these examples, let’s apply the two other structures to these scenarios and see how the emotional investment of the audience and reader can and will change.

If we apply the Surprise Structure, we see the events of each example unfold as such:

The Usual Suspects (Surprise Structure)

  1. The usual suspects take on a heist within a ship docked in the San Pedro Bay
  2. After that heist, most are dead
  3. Keaton lays badly wounded
  4. He is confronted by a mysterious figure whom he calls “Keyser”
  5. The mysterious figure shoots him dead and sets fire to the ship (surprise)
  6. Verbal is left to tell the story of how the usual suspects came together for the heist

This is a very simplified list detailing the structure change, but as now restructured, the surprise lies within Keaton’s death and we’d be invested in learning the reason behind his fate and who was behind its implementation.

Memento (Surprise Structure)

  1. Leonard’s wife is killed (surprise)
  2. Leonard suffers from short term memory loss as a result
  3. Leonard tries to find his wife’s killer
  4. Leonard finds and shoots his wife’s killer
  5. Leonard learns that his life no longer has any meaning as he is trapped in this endless short term memory loss cycle
  6. Leonard continues to trick himself into going through his investigation process to give his life meaning, pinpointing different victims

While Memento is difficult to break down due to it’s unique structure, these above main story points offer quite a different experience compared to the curiosity structure that the actual film has.

If we apply the suspense structure to The Usual Suspects and Memento, we get yet another different emotional response as the audience or reader:

The Usual Suspects (Suspense Structure)

  1. The usual suspects are gathered into a room under suspicion of an earlier heist
  2. They try to figure out how they are connected
  3. They decide to take on a new heist
  4. Flash forward to verbal telling the detective the story of how one or some of the usual suspects were killed
  5. Flash back to the story of how the usual suspects came together and planned the heist
  6. After that heist, most are dead
  7. Keaton lays badly wounded
  8. He is confronted by a mysterious figure whom he calls “Keyser”
  9. The mysterious figure shoots him dead and sets fire to the ship (surprise)
  10. Flash forward to Verbal’s last moment with the detective
  11. Verbal is let go and the big final reveal occurs

Memento (Suspense Structure)

Since Memento is a difficult film and screenplay to break down chronologically, we use this special chronological cut in order to offer an idea of how different this story is using the suspense structure.

Again, this is a simplified breakdown as both of these examples offer their own unique narrative structure within the three elements of the Structural-Affect Theory. Regardless, it’s easy to see how different those two films would be utilizing surprise, suspense, and curiosity story structures.

So what did we learn?

Structure Is the Key to All Scripts

Structure dictates everything from tone and atmosphere to narrative perspectives, character arcs, and story arcs.

This theory offers screenwriters three basic but cognitive choices to play with—and those choices allow the screenwriters the freedom to ignite different emotional responses from the audience.

So if one draft of your script seems to be missing something, you can try to shift the pieces of the puzzle—your scenes—to entice a different emotional response… a different read of your script.

These cognitive paradigms could be the answer you’ve been looking for. They could mean the difference between an average script and a brilliant one. All within a mere, but vital, structural change. MM

This post originally appeared on the blog ScreenCraftScreenCraft is dedicated to helping screenwriters and filmmakers succeed through educational events, screenwriting competitions and the annual ScreenCraft Screenwriting Fellowship program, connecting screenwriters with agents, managers and Hollywood producers. Follow ScreenCraft on TwitterFacebook, and YouTube.

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