April 13, 2019 by Ann Marie Williams
In the writing world, you often hear terms like theme, concept, plot, structure, and formatting. Each is important, and each affects the other.
But there is little consistency in how they are defined. Even David Trottier (author of The Screenwriter’s Bible) states that plot, structure, and story are often used interchangeably.
In screenwriting contests, these terms are often used as part of competitions’ judging criteria. Some competitions will include their definitions of the terms (for an example, check out the PAGE International Screenwriting Awards website), but others do not.
Without terms clearly defined, it can be challenging to determine which competitions are the best fit for your script. It can be equally challenging if you receive a written critique of your script that doesn’t explain the terminology used therein (e.g. the critic states that your concept is great but your plot needs work, or that your formatting is excellent but the structure is weak). And while sometimes you can analyze the rest of the critique to determine the critic’s meaning, some critiques aren’t detailed enough to allow for that analysis.
So, what can you do? Quite simply, the best approach is to be sure your script checks all the boxes — regardless of the terms assigned to those boxes.
With that in mind, I’m going to discuss these five terms using my definitions. My definitions will likely vary slightly from others’ definitions, but I’ve defined them as follows because they cover five separate (but very related) aspects of story and it’s conveyance.
To help illustrate the definitions, I’ll reference two films: It’s a Wonderful Life and The Martian. (Beware there will be spoilers!)
Concept (aka Premise)
The concept or premise is the one idea that the story is built around. Concept is usually the focus of the logline. It’s like a “what if” question that the story (plot) addresses and answers. Without the concept, the plot wouldn’t be able to exist — or at least not the entire plot.
It’s a Wonderful Life: Seeing what the world would be like if you’d never been born.
The Martian: A person is stranded on Mars. Alone.
Without the idea that you could see what the world would be like if you’d never been born into it, the entire resolution of It’s a Wonderful Life would have to be achieved in a very different way.
Without the question “what if someone got stranded on Mars?” the story of The Martian wouldn’t exist at all.
As you can see, both of these concepts are very straightforward, very to the point, and very succinct. They are one specific thing. One specific idea.
Also note that you could come up with a whole host of stories to convey these concepts. But part of the writer’s job is to find the plot that best conveys the concept.
Concept = Idea
Plot (aka Story)
The plot is about the story itself; the events that unfold throughout the script. The plot is what happens in the story, what happens to the characters, how the characters react, and what happens because of those reactions. A + B = C. Chicken gets to the road, chicken crosses the road, chicken is on the other side.
Of course, plots can be very complex. And often a good story will have multiple plot threads throughout. But there is usually one main thread, and it’s usually the one that will best embody the concept and lead to the theme (but more on theme later).
It’s a Wonderful Life: George Bailey loses money. George contemplates suicide so his family can receive his life insurance money. Clarence, an angel, shows George that he is worth more to the world, alive, than any benefit from insurance. George learns the value of life and his life.
The Martian: Mark Watney works on Mars. Mark gets left on Mars. Mark must survive Mars. Mark must escape Mars. Mark escapes Mars.
I know, I know! There is so much more to these stories than what I’ve written above. As there should be. But, these are the backbones, these are the A + B = C. How these events happen, how the characters move from A to B, how they react to C… that’s all part of the story. But it all revolves around one basic thread. And that main thread embodies the story’s corresponding concept.
What if the plot of It’s a Wonderful Life focused on Clarence trying to earn his wings, instead of focusing on George? While the concept promised would be addressed (we could still see Clarence show George what life would have been like if George had never been born), it wouldn’t be the focus of the story.
Could Clarence’s pursuit of wings be its own story, with its own concept and plot? Sure! And it’s definitely a great subplot of It’s a Wonderful Life. But the plot of Clarence trying to earn his wings shouldn’t be the main plot if the concept is about seeing what the world would be like if George had never been born.
What if The Martian focused more on the goings on at NASA instead of how Mark tries to survive on Mars? Again, the NASA subplot is in the story, it adds to the story, but the main focus of the story is Mark: the man who is stranded on Mars. Alone.
Plot = Story
If plot is about the story, then structure deals with how you tell the story. Structure is the framework used to convey the plot.
Said differently, plot pertains to what the moments in a story are, structure pertains to when those moments happen. For example, what the inciting incident is falls under plot. When that inciting incident occurs falls under structure (this could pertain to both how the story unfolds for the characters and how the story unfolds for the audience).
Overall, stories typically unfold for the characters and the audience at the same time and in the same, linear, order. But not always. Two basic examples are flashbacks/reflections (when something happened to a character before the audience finds out about it), and scenes in which audiences learn the motives of the antagonist before the protagonist determines what’s happening.
Structure also heavily affects pacing — how you set up the scenes, how plot points lead into each other, where you start a scene and where you end it… You’re building the story, you’re framing the plot to have the most impact possible.
It’s a Wonderful Life is told primarily in a linear fashion. Yes, we see George’s youth through a series of “flashbacks” as shown to Clarence — but it’s all told in a fairly linear way for us, the audience. This structure allows for the alternate realities that Clarence reveals to George to occur without the film dealing with a double-flashback scenario back-to-back. It also allows the audience to see what George’s life was like before his financial devastation so that we have a better idea of who he is and why he’s contemplating suicide — so we realize his desperate choices are derived from love for his family.
Could the story have implemented a different structure? Sure! But maybe it would have changed the story’s impact, changed our empathy for George, changed the story’s focus, or led audiences to infer a slightly different theme.
The Martian is also pretty linear (the movie more so than the book). To me, what makes the structure unique is how it changes as more and more people get pulled into helping Mark. When Mark wakes up, alone, on Mars, the story is told primarily from his perspective. No one knows he’s still alive except him, so the story focuses on Mark and only Mark. But as NASA learns that Mark’s alive, as they start helping Mark, as Mark’s fellow crew members decide to help him, the story starts spending more time with those characters… but it all still revolves around the main concept (Mark being stranded on Mars).
Could the story have been told solely from Mark’s perspective the entire time (e.g. only finding out how NASA was helping based on the correspondence Mark receives from them)? Sure! Could it have worked? Possibly. But the structure in the book and film was the structure deemed most effective for conveying the plot and the concept (and leading to the theme).
Remember, it’s about getting to that most effective and engaging version of your story. What sequence of events will build to the most climactic ending and the most satisfying resolution? How can the story be structured to lead the audience to the conclusions (the themes) you want them to walk away with?
The idea is to find the most logical, structurally appropriate way to tell your story. The one that leads to the greatest impact and resonance. (You can tell a story backwards if you want, provided it leads the audience in the right direction.)
Structure = Conveyance/Framework
Formatting (aka Presentation)
If structure deals with the framework of your script, then formatting deals with the tools you use to build that framework.
This goes beyond proper spelling, grammar, indentations, etc. (all of which are important), to the formatting tools available to you. For screenwriters, its scene headings, description, dialogue, transitions, etc. For novelists you get chapter breaks, paragraph breaks, internal reflection, etc.
Of course, there’s some definite crossover here between formatting and structure. Where you place a chapter break, for example, or how you use transitions, relates to both formatting and the structure of the story.
I won’t go into formatting too much because it really requires it’s own post (or, more likely, posts). The point here is that formatting is the use of whatever tools are available to you to ensure your story is conveyed the way you intend — the same focus, the same pacing, the same impact.
You can have a great concept and an amazing plot that’s structured brilliantly, but if you don’t convey that correctly then the audience won’t know just how great the concept, plot, and structure are.
Formatting = Tools
Theme (aka Message or Meaning)
Usually theme is considered the point of the story. What is the message you want the audience to walk away with?
Most stories will have multiple themes, but usually there are one or two overarching themes that the concept and plot have been building toward.
Theme is probably one of the hardest of these topics to pinpoint. Sometimes, we walk away from a story with slightly different interpretations because we’re all individuals and we all have different experiences and models that stories get filtered through. But a story should lead most of us to one or two themes we all agree on.
With that in mind:
It’s a Wonderful Life: Life is precious, we don’t always know how our lives touch others, and the amount of money one has is not the measure of an individual’s worth to society.
The Martian: Never give up. Work the problem.
The theme doesn’t have to be directly related to the concept, but the concept should be a an excellent setup to convey the theme. And the plot is a way to link the two.
Showing George how much worse off the lives of his friends and family would be were he never born is a pretty effective way to show that there’s more than one way to measure someone’s worth. And sticking Mark on Mars, alone, knowing that if he gives up he’ll die is a pretty effective way to demonstrate the importance of perseverance.
Concept generates plot. Plot embodies concept. Plot leads to theme.
Theme can be fairly general and universal (e.g. love conquers all, good prevails, never give up, life is precious). Or it can be more specific (e.g. we don’t always know how our lives touch others, work the problem). Moreover, a single theme can be conveyed via many different stories and in many different ways (and it usually is). Will you get points if your message is more refined? Possibly. But you must be sure that the theme and the plot and the concept all support each other: that the concept is best conveyed by the plot you’ve chosen to use, and that the plot you’ve chosen to use is the best way to lead to the theme.
Theme = The Point
Putting it all together: Concept should inspire the plot. The plot should embody the concept and lead to the theme. The structure should convey the plot. And the formatting should convey all of that the way the writer envisions it.
That’s how I see it. It’s how I analyze my own stories to figure out what’s working, where, and why (or, ahem, why not).
But what do you think? What about your favorite stories? What about the story you’re working on? Can you identify the concept, plot, structure and theme? Do they work well together? Do they support each other in the most effective and impactful way possible? Can you think of another plot to convey the story’s concept and theme? Would it work better? Why or why not?
Ann Marie Williams is the author of Screenplay Competitions: Tools and Insights to Help You Choose the Best Screenwriting Contests for You and Your Script, published February 2019 by Bluestocking Press.
Screenplay Competitions has received endorsements from Dave Trottier (Author, The Screenwriter’s Bible, http://www.keepwriting.com), Richard Walter (former Screenwriting Area Head, Associate and Interim Dean UCLA School of Theater, Film, and Television), Matt Dy (former Director of Script Competitions at Austin Film Festival), and Harry M. Cheney (Chapman University Dodge College of Film and Media Arts).