What is Fabula & Syuzhet in Screenwriting?

by in Process

Before you embark on a journey to write your screenplay, it is somewhat necessary to finalize the raw material needed to complete your project. This includes the story (obviously), lead characters and their motivations, challenges that will be faced by your characters and in the end, the structure.

If you have heard of Three-Act Structure (often Screenwriting Gurus hold Aristotle responsible for the concept), you are already familiar with the science of storytelling. But the three-act structure isn’t an only theory of this craft. 

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Russian formalism has left us with the literary terms known as fabula and syuzhet, which may help us tell the story in a unique way. 

Etymology

Vladimir Propp and Viktor Shklovsky, the notable Russian literary theorists, utilized the idea of fabula as the chronological order of events in the story and syuzhet as the manner in which the events are told. 

In easier words, fabula is your story that tells us what happens – the raw material. On the other hand, syuzhet informs us how the events appear in your story or film – the order of events decided by you. 

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In popular culture, stories often include flashbacks and flashforwards even when the story is following the three-act structure.

Screenwriters, who choose to show the ending first, carry forward the story in flashbacks. As viewers, we are already aware of the conclusion. Rest of the film takes us through the events that unfold the mystery behind resolution. 

Examples

The most popular example of this structure is Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. The film begins with the death of our protagonist, Charles Foster Kane. In flashbacks, we are shown his life, his journey and his demise.

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As Charles Kane mutters ‘Rosebud’ on his deathbed.

Now deconstruct the screenplay in fabula and syuzhet. The fabula is the story of Kane and his journey in newspaper business. The syuzhet on the other hand is the organization of this film; ending before beginning and interspersed investigation of the journalist in present-time, who is learning about Kane being a POV character for us viewers.

Similarly in South Asian cinema, we have Rajkumar Hirani’s 3 Idiots. The opening sequence is designed in present-time showing Farhan leaving the airport and embarking on a journey to find his long lost friend, Rancho. Supported by voiceover narration, we are then taken back into the past where the journey starts unfolding in flashbacks. In parallel, the current day story keeps moving forward as the movie progresses towards the end.  

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Farhan in airplane, about to leave airport to meet Rancho.

Here, the fabula is the story of college friends and their individual sub-stories, and how they end up with their career decisions. The syuzhet is the placing of current day in the beginning, which is eventually leading us towards the end, and the entire story in flashbacks narrated to us using both dialogues and voiceover. 

This also tells us that if you have an urge to include voiceover in your screenplay, do it using the fabula/syuzhet structure. 

Is it different from Reverse Chronological Order?

It is! 

I believe we are all familiar with Christopher Nolan’s Memento. While some may confuse it with the non-linear structure, it is actually a story told in reverse chronological order. It also differs from fabula/syuzhet structure in a way that we do start with the end, but we never go back to chronological order of events. Instead, we deconstruct the story into smaller chunks and then arrange them in an order where they leads us to the beginning from end. 

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Since our topic for the day isn’t non-linear structure, I won’t go into details.  The basic idea of it sketches us the story where we keep jumping from point A to C then to F and then back to A. Perfect example of non-linear structure is Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.

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The motive of this structure is to leave us with memories of events that will collectively build a story by the end of the film.  

Storytelling is an art supported by science of structures. And we human beings love experiencing same story told in different structures or different stories told in same structures. 

It’s you who will decide what structure compliments the story you want to tell. 

Fahad Khan is a film writer, film educator and a freelance script script writer currently associated with The Crew Films. During leisure hours, he runs a YouTube channel called Carpe Diem where he discusses self-help lessons, entrepreneurship and film theory based on critically acclaimed books.

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