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There are several books that provide an excellent breakdown of the elements that make a good story or script. For example, The Writer's Journey by Christopher Volger identifies common archtypes and narrative structures, and the various stages of the hero's journey. Save The Cat by Blake Snyder breaks down the three act structure of a film into beats and even script page numbers where certain things must happen: all is lost moment, theme stated, catalyst etc.

How does one use these structures, but not become a slave to them?

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In the same way that you don't become the slave of any other rules and laws.

If you walk through your city at night and there are no traffic and no children to learn from your bad example, you cross the street although the traffic light is red. If your plot has an internal logic that contradicts three act structure, you follow your plot.

Writing instructors often use examples. They analyse a novel, find the three act structure, and then use this novel to illustrate their formula. But if you actually take up that book and read it for yourself, you will usually find deviations from and contradictions to that formula. Plot formulae are a simplifictation of real novels, just as the rules of etiquette are a simplification of real-life human interactions and don't always apply.

Beauty, as psychologists have recently found, is not perfection. Perfection is boring and unexciting. Of course symmetrical faces are generally found more attractive than unsymmetrical faces by the average person. But for a specific individual what is most attractive are specific deviations from perfection.

Formulaic fiction is utterly uninteresting. What kicks you in the balls is the deviation from the expected (as you can easily experience with my choice of words here).

You have to get the direction of the chain of cause and effect right here. Good fiction is not constructed after a formula. Formulas can be found if you simplify good fiction. Why? Because life itself is perceived in retrospect by human beings as events leading up to a culmination and turning point, after which there is an aftermath of returning life to normal. Formulas can be found in stories, because they reflect how human beings make sense of their lives. So if you write a story that makes sense, it will always contain elements of a formula. You don't have to construct your story around that formula.

The purpose of the formula is to help you get an outside view of your own writing. You know the story you want to tell, you understand what's going on etc., but will your reader? You could simply let your text rest for a year or two and then come back to it with a clear mind, but since you are in a hurry you use a formula to compare your text against. The formula is the average, "normative" reader. If your text works for him, it does make sense. But no more. It might not be good, it might not be entertaining, all you know is that it works on the most basic level. So don't trust the formula beyond what it can do.

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Don't go out of your way to do things differently either though, to add to the analogy you don't walk at night and refuse to cross the road on a green light. As previously said, it's good to let your story shape its structure like its own fingerprint –  RhysW Jan 7 at 13:58
    
@RhysW Great comment. I certainly didn't mean to go to the other extreme. If, as I claim, life contains some kind of formula, if you simplify its complexity, it would be wrong to create a story without any formulaic core. –  what Jan 7 at 15:07
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In painting, using a canvas and paint is not becoming a slave to rules.

As in any expertise field, you can find "rules" (I would call them patterns) and frameworks. The difference between them is that a pattern is proven to be beneficial in particular circumstances, while the use of a framework, as James stated in the answer above, is up to you.

Storytelling is a field that looks to raise reader's feelings, and usually a good way to assure some of them is the well known three-act structure. The overall tension should be incremental, the climax should be somewhere near the end, the set-up should be near the beginning, etc. There are some basics that is risky to play with, and there are more particular structures which you can use at your discretion.

Note that I'm not saying you can't play with them. You can do whatever you want, the hard task is to make it funny to read. I would feel cheated by a story without a climax at the end. But then, I look at Tolkien as he put the climax near the middle of the last book and kept babbling to the reader ad nauseam 'til the end, and he is getting more and more fans each year.

A last word about your Save The Cat reference: As Larry Brooks explains in his books Story Engineering and Story Physics, there are plot points in concrete milestones of the story (as concrete as a particular page, if we're talking about a short story like a script), but they are not the only plot twists and events. In fact, they don't even need to be the most shocking ones, nor the ones that are meant to be the most important to the reader. He just says they have to be fullfilling certain tasks for the main plot strand, and that's all.

Don't let structures use you. Use them instead.

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There are what many would consider formulas out there, and they have their purpose. I prefer to think of them as a framework. These common themes and trends can help make sure we dont forget anything that makes a story a full experience. My personal favorite is Joseph Campbell. His book The Hero with a Thousand Faces is a comparative mythology. He distills the similarities in the stories from around the globe into the 'Hero's Journey'.

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I find this diagram a particularly useful representation. Like the answer above mentioned it is how you differ, challenge and change the narrative that makes a story great (well ok it can make a story great...sometimes it makes a story terrible). In my writing I have used the below to formulate the overarching story and then write my way within. Though when I proofread and review I often find that this path appears in subsections of the story as well. There are steps in the life of any character, and the steps are important because these things that recur in fiction are common to humanity...they are what help pull readers in because things are familiar. How you execute and twist the expected is what makes a story great (in my opinion).

I would say don't be afraid to utilize these frameworks/formulas...they exist for good reason, just make sure along the way you make it your own.

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Everything posted here is licensed under cc-wiki. Do not post such diagrams if you are not sure it could be cc-wiki. Can it be licensed under cc-wiki? Just link to it, if not. –  John Smithers Jan 7 at 15:02
    
It's public domain as per en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Heroesjourney.svg , and I believe we avoid policing this too closely according to meta.stackoverflow.com/questions/101802/… . –  Standback Jan 7 at 15:23
    
Yes I verified it is public, thanks Standback. –  James Jan 7 at 18:53
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I prefer Robert McKee’s Story to Save the Cat and the Hero’s Journey stuff. Instead of telling aspiring writers what pattern a story must follow from beginning to end, McKee talks about elements that can be combined in various ways.

For example, he defines an “act” as a series of scenes culminating in a major reversal of a character’s condition. You need to have acts. You don’t need to have three acts.

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