We go together like rama-lama-lama-lama-shoo-bop-doo-boo-bee-doo
Together forever like shoo-bop-shoo-wanna-wanna-shoopity-boop-dee-boo
That’s the way it should be-eee. Wahoo-yeah!
--“We Go Together from Grease the musical by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey
Like the above song from Grease, the elements of structure and surprise “go together” and are inseparable in a successful story – there is the structure of the song: the melody and the rhythm; then there are the surprises: those funny lyrics (“rama-lama-lama-lama-shoo-bop-doo-boo-bee-doo”), the musical instruments used, the mood of the song, and the characterized voices of the singers. Because they have been married successfully, it is one of the most famous musical theatre tunes of all-time. Similarly, a great story must have both the masterful structure and the unique surprise elements that separate it from similar stories. So what exactly are structure and surprise?
Dramatic story structure is the author’s selection of which events are to be told in a story. The storyteller only includes information that is important for the audience to see or hear in order to be emotionally moved by the story. According to Lajos Egri, to be most effective, the author must choose a single premise, or theme, around which all the events are based. He or she then must choose to tell only the important events relevant to that core premise of the story (1). When properly done, the author’s selection of both premise and chain of events (or “plot”) affects the audience’s emotions and keeps them emotionally involved in the story. When there is a correct structure, audience members continue to want to know what will happen next.
Structure weakens if an author either omits important parts of the plot, or if he/she includes too many tangential, non-crucial events. For example, if I were to tell you that I witnessed a murder this morning, and I started to tell you the story, but I first told you all the boring details of my morning: I woke up, brushed my teeth, took a shower, had breakfast and other unrelated events for 15 minutes before I got to the murder, you would probably walk away long before I reached the key part. You’d think, “I thought this was a story about a murder! Why is he going on about his pancakes? “You no longer care to know what happens next, because as the storyteller, I have not chosen to tell only the important events in order to keep you engaged in the story.
Structure should be thought of as an efficiency of storytelling: nothing omitted and nothing wasted. Everything the audience sees is needed to tell the story. Just like when planning to build a building, structure must be done in advance, well before putting pen to page on the actual story.
The story structure is usually created as a list, diagram, or drawing. Nowadays, many professional writers use an “index card” system to incorporate all of the key elements of structure before they write a single word of the story (2). The structure contains all of the information needed for a synopsis, which is a simple description of the chain of story events that in and of itself, ought to be interesting to a listener. Michael Hauge says that if you can’t tell a brief synopsis of your novel or screenplay to someone while you are in line at Starbucks and have them say, “Wow! I’d like to read/see that!” you haven’t perfected the structure yet (3). Just like a beautiful house must have a sketch and blueprint before it is built, the great story must have a great structure first. Same as a house structure would consist of plans for the foundation, the edifice, the plumbing, the ventilation, etc. there are many specific elements to be planned in the structure of a story.
I like to look at surprise, on the other hand, as “short-term structure.” That is to say, if structure is meant to hold the audience’s attention over the long-term of the whole story, surprise is meant to grab the audience’s attention over the short-term. The way structure hooks us for the long haul is through an emotional investment. The way surprise grabs us in the short term is with emotional jolts. Each kind of surprise has an emotional and physical response attached to it: laughter, tears, screams, goosebumps, confusion, or ah-hahs! Even though we are seated in an audience, when we engage with a good story our reactions are involuntary. A well-constructed story will give the audience the confidence to turn themselves over to be manipulated. Each surprise is a kind of manipulation. When they are employed they elicit a physical response.
Different kinds of surprises (gags, twists, perception shifts, revelations, scares, and tear-jerkers) are tied to the structure and create physical responses. They may be looked upon as the ligature which connects the story to our physical bodies.
The effects of balancing both structure and surprise can be seen in the audience’s faces as they watch your film or read your script. You can learn so much about the story’s effectiveness by hearing their laughter or their silence. With the proper balance, the audience will be engaged, and when an audience is engaged throughout a piece, the story is working. A story that works is one that sticks to and fully explores its premise, has a protagonist who changes, has emotional movement in every scene, and is chock full of surprises. The story structure puts your audience on a familiar path, so that they think they know what’s going to happen, and they watch in order to confirm their guesses. On the other hand, the story surprises keep the audience on their toes emotionally—they never can predict exactly what will happen next. Compelling the audience’s interest for the duration of a script is a difficult balancing act but it can be done, as evidenced by some of the great dramatic works that win Oscars or make millions every year. Writing an unforgettable screenplay can be summed up like this: once you’ve laid out your story’s structure, you just have to remember to “Rama-lama-lama.” Structure and surprise, they go together.
1. Egri, Lajos. The Art of Dramatic Writing: Its Basis in the Creative Interpretation of Human Motives. Touchstone, 1972. Revised Edition.
2. McKee, Robert. Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. Harper Audio, 2006. Audible Edition.
3. Vogler, Christopher and Hauge, Michael. The Hero’s Two Journeys. Writer’s Audioshop, 2004. Audible Edition.