Engaging Text Structure: Reflections on a Cognitive Approach

Text Structure: Movie Scripts 
by Nelly Tincheva
No. 5 2012

This paper presents a cognitive-based analysis of the structure of movie scripts. Tincheva’s work is grounded in Lakoff’s theory of metaphor and embodied cognition. She identifies three types of structure: Textual World Structure, Superstructure, and the Overall Structure. Textual World structure organizes the mental models of people and objects in the fictional world. Superstructure models the text created in the mind as the text is read (or written) and is indicated by elements of the text such as sentences and clauses. Superstructure translates the Textual World into textual subdivisions: the Overall Structure that organizes the text into paragraphs or scenes.

Tincheva uses movie scripts in her analysis because the movie industry is notoriously proscriptive about structure. Movie scripts must follow a strict format that requires specific plot developments happen on specific pages. Each page in a script correlates to about one minute of movie time. Ten minutes into a movie will occur the MINI CRISIS . Within twenty minutes the DILEMMA  should be identified and the main team of the movie  established. Novels are not as explicit about formatting per page as movie scripts, but they follow a similar pattern.

Several years ago, I studied the structural patterns found in novels by reading the first twenty pages of thirty or so novels from a variety of genres. I found that by the second chapter of each book I knew the main characters and the central problem faced by the protagonist. I also researched work by Vladimir Propp, who identified common patterns in the narrative structure of fairy tales and Joseph Campbell, who described a universal story type: monomyth or Hero’s Journey. Tincheva’s conclusion about Textural World Structure is that it is directly grounded in bodily experience, namely the SOURCE-PATH-GOAL image schema.

Currently, I am working on a story called Hardknocks  centered around a particularly traumatic event. The story I have in my mind is the Textual World Structure–I know all the characters and the chronological order of events. This is a story I’ve been working on for many years, and I have written several drafts. I don’t always tell the story the same way: supporting characters have been added, other characters melded together, and the telling of events has not followed chronological order. The Superstructure changes, and so the Overall Structure of each draft that seeks to explicate the Superstructure also changes. The Textual World Structure, though, has remained unchanged.

As a creative writer I am constantly pushing against norms and expectations, especially my own expectations. I have found that following any pattern too closely and too often is stifling. I have no interest in finding a magic formula that I can repeat in all of my writing. Understanding that a text has different types of structure allows me to experiment at different levels of form.

For example, in the latest draft of Hardknocks  I have altered the Overall Structure significantly from previous versions. Borrowing from a story in Tim O’brien’s The Things They Carried, I reorganized the piece. O’brien’s Textual World is especially traumatic and disturbing. The Superstructure adds a layer of complexity to the events by framing them as memories and retellings. According to Tincheva, maximum divergence between Textual World Structure and Superstructure increases cognitive load and, subsequently, generates greater interest in the text.

O’brien further complicates the narrative by using an Overall Structure with an essay format having thesis statements, supporting evidence, and conclusions. As with Mark Twain’s essay How to Tell a Story  the supporting evidence consists of short stories and anecdotes. In O’brien’s How to Tell a True War Story , the supporting evidence mostly concerns a soldier stepping on a landmine in Vietnam, and the accumulation of anecdotes (Superstructure) convey the Textual World of the story. Deviation between three levels of structure generates interest in the story that extends beyond the traumatic, without foregoing an authentic account of the horrors of war.

I found this inspiration from O’brien and Twain before reading Tincheva’s paper, but her analysis is helpful in understanding what and how I was reading and writing. Now that I have names for these different levels of structure, I can play around with them in other narratives. Tincheva’s conclusion that maximum divergence  increases interest is also encouraging.

Tincheva frames her analysis in contradiction to classical Rhetoric and seeks to address a gap in the (cognitive) linguistic endeavor . Among the various linguistic topics cognitive poetics and other cognitive approaches have addressed, text structure has been absent. As an initial foray, this paper is grist for the mill of future investigations . She is not adamant about the truth of her analysis, but her conclusions are provocative. Text structure is not a monolithic phenomenon. 

For a creative writer, any method that facilitates engagement with texts (mine and others) is helpful. I appreciate Tincheva’s efforts to try a new approach toward a traditional topic. I find the cognitive-based analysis satisfying because it is grounded in evidence rather than tradition. Evidence does not necessarily make a theory more legitimate than traditional philosophy, but it is easier to change evidence than it is to change tradition.

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