It’s very simple: watch films (edit: of course you can also read the screenplay – a wonderful experience!)
If you are, like me, a firm believer in the three-act-structure of storytelling, watching films seems to me to be an excellent way to explore and observe the way in which narratives take shape.
Allow me make a side note. While I do defend and assert that the three-act-structure is the most efficient and most lucid way to construct a narrative, I do not claim that it is the only way. Please note the difference. Also, I do think that this structure in itself is flexible and allows for artistic freedom to a large extent. That being said, let’s continue.
Screenplays often follow Aristotle’s early ideas of story structure and you will find that even convoluted films and abstract stories and what not have, underneath, this concept as foundation. Like I said, there is flexibility. Why is that? Well, I think the explanation is dual: for one it is a logical formation of events, is it now? If art is a representation of reality, that would make sense. And secondly, seeing as this structure has been used in drama since Aristotle’s time (more or less) it has built up an innate expectation in viewers. We anticipate the inciting incident, the high point, the low point and the final battle, whether we call them by that name or not. That which we call a rose…
As for fiction writing, I think the most rewarding stories will comply to this structure too. And by watching films where we visually receive such ideas we can learn to identify how to construct it in the best way. Personally, I prefer animated films. Cartoons, if you like. Recently I posted my views on Disney’s Brave and how its story structure fails – precisely because it breaks (and not in a good way) the three-act-structure by befuddling focus and so on. As a perfect opposite example to Brave, I’d like to suggest How to Train Your Dragon (2010). Look at it from a high vantage point: it is a similar story to Brave. WARNING: Spoilers! The child who does not comply with expectations from the family finds a way to understand something the others don’t and through a final battle with a monster achieves enlightenment and an improved relationship with his/her parent. While Brave strays and goes into areas not relevant to the central problem, the story of Dragon is tighter, more focused and more convincing. Ultimately, the structure is better.
Act 1: Hiccup is the son of a strong Viking but is a disappointment to his father with his feeble physique; all he desires is to kill a dragon so he can prove his worth.
Inciting incident: he manages to catch the noblest dragon of all which nobody has even seen – if he kills it he would become a hero! But he can’t.
Act 2: While being sent to Dragon Training to learn how to kill a dragon, Hiccup befriends the dragon he caught – called Toothless – and learns to fly on his back. High point: Toothless becomes his friend, the pretty girl likes him, and he is top of the rank in Dragon Training.The final exam comes up where he is supposed to kill a dragon but he attempts to show his people that they are not as bad as they think. Low point: his father kidnaps Toothless and uses him to find the dragons’ nest, leaving Hiccup behind.
Act 3: The Vikings fight the leader of the dragons and are about to lose when Hiccup shows up to save the day.
With this kind of structure the catharsis at the end becomes so much stronger and I will admit there were tears at the end of How to Train Your Dragon. I have now made it a habit to watch films regularly (animated and live action) and for each one of them note down the above points, so that I can then implement it into my own writing. It has had me reconsider my own story and model it a little more towards this structure.
Always remember though that art is a living thing – it is organic and alive and should be unpredictable. Not all stories end happily; not all stories end at all! It is not a template, or even a model, but a rough guideline which your readers will subconsciously hold on to as well. Challenge it, subvert it and use it to your advantage in whatever way you please! I think it’s worth being aware of, however, and personally I believe in its power to move. But that’s just me and my creative mentality.