The Importance of Story Structure

Two movies that got mediocre reviews on Rotten Tomatoes include “Ride Along” (18%) and “Home” (54%). While neither movie is great, neither is completely awful either. The secret of a great movie lies in having a great story and telling it well. The secret to a bad movie lies in having an awful story and telling it poorly.

That means a mediocre movie often has two flaws. One, it tells a great story poorly or two, it tells a poor story well. “Ride Along” and “Home” are two examples of great stories told poorly.

For example, “Ride Along” is a decently structured story that focuses on two goals. A cop wants to take down a mob boss while the cop’s future brother-in-law wants to prove he’s tough enough to protect the cop’s sister. Those two overriding concerns drive the whole story and every scene in “Ride Along” reinforces those two stories.

Where “Ride Along” falters is in the actual details of each scene. No scene is particularly exciting or memorable, but each scene does help further one or both main stories. As a result, “Ride Along” has a definite structure that keeps the mediocre scenes on track so the final result is an emotionally satisfying story.

“Home” is another example of a well-structured story told poorly. The basic theme of “Home” is simply finding a home. That theme gets echoed in three ways. First, the hero is an alien who’s always rejected by others. Second, his alien race is always fleeing another alien race that’s trying to hunt them down. As a result, the hero’s race must always keep searching for a new home by colonizing other planets such as Earth. Third, the evil alien chasing the hero’s race is later revealed to be searching for his family too. So every major story in “Home” centers around someone trying to find a place they can fit in and call home.

Like “Ride Along,” “Home” falters in the actual telling of the story. The story is too loose with the plot details to feel inevitable. Instead, the plot moves along more through necessity than inevitability.

For example, in a great movie like “Die Hard,” the hero being barefoot is set up early in the movie when a fellow passenger tells the hero to relieve stress by scrunching his toes in a carpet. The hero tries this and it works, just as the terrorists take over the Christmas party. The fact that the hero is now handicapped by being bare foot feels logical and inevitable.

In “Home,” the hero pretends he’s friends with a traffic cop even though the traffic cop doesn’t like him. Later this traffic cop gets put in charge of hunting the hero down. Yet this feels contrived because there’s no logical reason why the traffic cop should be the one to hunt down the hero. Later the traffic cop turns around and helps the hero, which again isn’t set up earlier so it doesn’t seem logical and inevitable. The story in “Home” is driven by the necessity of the plot rather than from the actual story circumstances themselves, which makes the plot feel forced and contrived.

What saves both “Ride Along” and “Home” is their overall structure that keeps everything together. In bad movies scenes make no sense with other scenes so the overall story is flawed. In both “Ride Along” and “Home,” every scene makes logical sense with the other scenes, but they’re just not memorable or set up properly.

Both “Ride Along” and “Home” highlight the importance of story structure. Get your story structure right and your story is halfway there. Now all you need to do is make sure every scene foreshadows and sets up future scenes, and future scenes pay off earlier setups in a logical way. The more logical your scenes interlock and work together, the tighter your story will feel. Combine this with a great structure that holds it all together and your memorable scenes with foreshadowing and pay offs work together within a definite structure. That’s the formula for a good movie, not more special effects and computer-generated explosions for no reason.

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