Introduction to Longitudinal Structure

This post is part of the Background to the series
Learning from Alfred Hitchcock — for writers, movie makers, and viewers

Alfred Hitchcock with Kim Novak on the set of Vertigo
Alfred Hitchcock directing Kim Novak in Vertigo

Movies can have several different kinds of structures at once.

This may seem like a complicated idea, but it isn’t really.

Just think of your body. In one sense, your structure is provided by your skeleton. But, all by itself, that wouldn’t be enough. You’d be just a heap of bones on the floor if you didn’t have another counterbalancing structure of muscles and tendons to keep the bones together, to enable them to stand erect, and to enable them to move. You have other kinds of structure, too: the “organization” provided by your organs, and the structure of perception and action provided by your brain and your nerves.

Normally, you’re not consciously aware of any of this complexity — and you don’t need to be — unless you’re in some kind of training. We’re in training to make (or watch) movies.

When people talk about film “structure,” they usually refer just to one kind: “3-act structure,” which is a lengthwise, or “longitudinal,” division of the movie into three segments, or “acts.”

There are other kinds of longitudinal structure. Hitchcock’s movies are not conspicuous for true 3-act structure. Some show more obviously a “2-act structure” — and many show an episodic “chapter structure.” Most have some combination of the three kinds.

It’s difficult to see the mixed structures of Hitchcock’s movies without having a clear sense of the three basic kinds. So my plan for the first few posts is to talk about three films I regard as classic examples:

  • 3-act StructureStar Wars
  • 2-act StructureThe Bridge on the River Kwai
  • Chapter StructureThe African Queen

The object is to cultivate your intuitions. As we watch movies, we shouldn’t be analyzing them — or, certainly, not the first time we see them. But we want to be able to feel their structure accurately, even when we’re not conscious of it: Which one of the basic structures does this movie feel like? Do I see it as Star Wars? Do I see it as The Bridge on the River Kwai? Or do I see it as the The African Queen? — Or, more likely, do I see it as two or all three of these at once?

Structure isn’t just the narrow, formal thing we read about in the screenwriting books, another way for agents and prodcos to make writers jump through the hoops. Stories are made out of plot, character, and action. Structure is anything the writer does to put plot, character, and action across to the viewer, to make the viewer feel the strength of these elements. Providing structure is one of the writer’s primary responsibilities.

Structure isn’t as important as content — but structure is what makes content work. There are no universal recipes for structure: it’s something that’s created for each story, as the diversity and the success of Hitchcock’s movies illustrate. But it’s easier to create effective structure if you can recognize what’s worked in the past — if you know a repertory of standard patterns that you can start from.

In particular, longitudinal structure is important because it, along with concept, is the only way to interest people in looking at your project.

Your plot, character, and action may be great — but nobody writes well enough to be able to show plot, character, or action reliably in a logline or in a brief written or oral pitch — except insofar as these things are organized and shown by longitudinal structure.

Even high concept isn’t enough. It may hook a prodco, but it won’t convince them that you write well enough to make your screenplay worth reading and taking seriously, that it can be successfully produced as a movie that audiences will take seriously.

The only thing you can sell, upfront, is longitudinal structure.

In these Background postings, I’ll also briefly mention various Hitchcock movies and I’ll post on the brilliant structure of Vertigo, which combines all three types of longitudinal structure.

You might want to question this idea of dividing the movie lengthwise into acts or chapters: “That’s what divides the movie in parts: what about the things that hold it together?”

I share your concern here. What about plot, character, and action? After the Background postings on longitudinal structures, I’ll turn to specific Hitchcock movies, and to discussing what I call “thread structures.”

This post is part of the Background to the series
Learning from Alfred Hitchcock — for writers, movie makers, and viewers

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