Story structure

In recent months, I have done far more reading than writing, much to the detriment of progress on my latest novel. Nevertheless, I have enjoyed catching up on the works of other Sci-Fi writers from whom I can learn a lot, and I have enjoyed re-reading  some of the technical screenwriting material on the subject of story structure.

Story structure has always fascinated me. I have a small library on the subject. Movies and novels have a lot in common — they are both about story telling although they use different media. Much of the science behind story structure is provided by the screenwriting movie gurus, who have sought to capture the DNA of what makes a good story. They all have their own particular methodologies and terminology, but in practice they are looking at the same story model from different viewpoints, and they have more in common than they would care to admit. Whether it is a three-act structure, a four-act structure, a six-act structure, a 15-step beat sheet, or a sequence method (such as the Mini-Movie Method), they all are trying to capture the same thing — breaking down the narrative structure of a story into its essential logical elements.

Let’s start with the simplest version — the Three Act Structure, which can be traced back to Aristotle, but became firmly established in the early days of the movie industry. The approach was popularised by Syd Field in his books on screenplay. The paradigm is as follows:

Syd field paradigm

According to Syd Field the narrative of a story can be broken down into three elements:  the Setup, where the characters are introduced, the setting explained and the story premise is established; the Confrontation where the hero battles to reach his goal; and the Resolution of the story. Each act is separated by a plot point that precedes the Act change. Syd Field defines a Plot Point as a story progression point being — “any incident, episode, or event that hooks into the action and spins it around into another direction”.

Eric Edson takes a narrower view describing Plot Point I as a “Stunning Surprise 1” that requires the following elements:

  1. It must happen to no one but the hero and create a life changing emotional impact.
  2. It must take place in an instant.
  3. It must truly shock and surprise the hero.
  4. It must fundamentally change the hero’s circumstances.
  5. It changes the hero’s destiny.
  6. It tells the audience what the movie action will be about.

I like Eric Edson approach, which focuses on the plot point as an event that hits the hero like a punch. Other gurus have focused on the decision or action taken by the hero as a result of the event. For example, some gurus label this moment “the Decision”, “the Commitment”, “the Door”, “Crossing the threshold” or “the Break into 2”.  However, the timing difference between the event, and subsequent decision/action taken by the hero is usually quite minimal.

In Star Wars New Hope, Luke hears the message from Princess Leia conveyed by R2D2, “Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope.” This is the Catalyst of the story, which is also known as the “Call to adventure”, “the Inciting Incident”, “the Disturbance”, or “the Opportunity”. It is the point where the the hero becomes involved in the central story problem. Later in Star Wars, Obi-Wan tries to convince Luke to go with him to Alderaan. But Luke refuses the call. And later Luke stumbles on a Jawa massacre and realises the Imperial Stormtroopers are searching for the droids. He races home to warn his aunt and uncle, but finds them dead and the farm torched. This is Plot Point I where Luke is so shaken to the core by what he sees.  He says “there’s nothing for me here now” and sets out with Obi Wan to go to Mos Eisley Spacepor to find passage to Alderaan.

Eric Edson describes Plot Point II as “Stunning Surprise 2” which serves a similar purpose to Stunning Surprise 1, but with a twist. It comes out of the blue at the end of Act 2 and changes everything, destroying the hero’s plan for victory. It is also called the “all is lost moment” and can lead to soulful moment called the hero’s “darkest hour”.

In Star Wars New Hope, Plot Point II is when Luke is about to escape in the Millennium Falcon from the Deathstar he witnesses Darth Vader striking down Obi-Wan. Luke subsequently succeeds in getting the plans to the rebels’ base, but the story is not over. Act 3 sees a new phase of the story with the attack on the Deathstar and resolution of the story.

Syd Field noted that the Mid Point of a movie normally has a ‘centrepiece’, which is often a culmination of an action sequence, a major new revelation, or a reversal and an important moment of character change.

The Mid Point is not necessarily just one scene, but is a gathering of scenes with several important functions. It is a structural crossroads: the possible culmination of a false victory or false defeat from a major action sequence that precedes it, a new revelation that raise the stakes, and the moment of truth for the hero. It is the time the Hero understands for the first time what he is really up against. He has reached the point of no return and must become fully committed to the quest.

The Mid Point also neatly divides Act 2 into two different “Dramatic contexts”. For example, the first half of Act 2 of Star Wars is all about Luke and Obi-Wan going to Mos Eisley spaceport in order to find passage to Alderaan. At the Mid Point they find that Alderaan has been destroyed and they are caught in a tractor beam of the the Deathstar. The second half of Act 2 is about rescuing Princess Leia, who they find is scheduled for execution, and escaping the Deathstar.

Now let’s put some more plot points on the diagram: the Catalyst and the Climax. As already explained, the Catalyst in Star Wars New Hope is when Luke gets Leia’s message from R2D2 “Help me Obi-wan…” The Climax is when Luke uses the force to target the Deathstar and destroy it.

We now have five plot points, which break down the story into six stages as follows:

Hauge

This is broadly the six stage approach advocated by Michael Hauge. The six stages are:

  1. Setup – the story setting and the every day life of the hero. It ends with Turning Point 1, which Hauge calls the “Opportunity” (a.k.a the Catalyst).
  2. New Situation –  the hero reacts to the new situation by trying to figure out what’s going on. It ends with Turning Point 2 which Hague calls the “Change of Plans” (a.k.a Plot Point I)
  3. Progress – the hero makes some progress towards his goal. It ends with turning point 3  which Hauge calls the “Point of No Return” (a.k.a. Mid Point).
  4. Complications and Higher Stakes – the hero’s obstacles become more difficult until he hits turning point 4 , which Hauge calls the “Major Setback” (a.k.a Plot Point II).
  5. The Final Push – beaten and battered the hero risk everything in a final push. It ends with the Turning Point 5 – – the Climax to the story.
  6. Aftermath — we see the hero now have complete his journey and transformed by the process.

As you can see, this approach breaks down the story into more manageable chunks of narrative. Hauge also uses the same stages to identify the character arc of the hero. So there is both an outer journey and inner journey for the hero.

The Second Act of a movie is approximately an hour long and in the case of a novel, possibly 200 pages of narrative — a large chunk of narrative. An approach that breaks down the narrative even further is the Sequence Approach.

Script reader Pro describes a sequence as “… a collection of scenes roughly tied together by a singular goal and that results in a specfic outcome that changes the protagonist’s chances of achieving the overall movie goal either for the better or worse.”

Chris Soth describes his mini-movie in a similar way as “a series of scenes defined by its own mini-tension on which the main tension of the story rides.” In this respect “tension” is the effect the story has on the audience’s hopes and fears that the hero will or will not achieve their story goal. Both definitions are therefore about a hero pursuing a goal related to the overall story goal.

A sequence has its own beginning, middle and end, where the hero pursues a goal until he either achieves it, fails, or gives it up and follows a new one.

The Mini-movie or 8 Sequence Method can be illustrated as follows:

Sequences

To arrive at an 8 sequence model we need only include the sequence climaxes — S1 and S2 — to break up the narrative into 8 components.

Sequences A, B, G and H are broadly the same as Hauge’s Stages I, II, V, and VI.

In the Star Wars New Hope movie, sequence C takes place at Mos Eisley Spaceport and culminates with the shoot out as the Luke and friends escape in the Millennium Falcon.

The next sequence D ends at the Mid Point with the Millennium Flacon caught in a tractor beam from the Deathstar.

Sequence E starts with Luke and friends hiding of the Millennium Falcon and finishes when R2D2 finding out that Princess Leia is onboard and scheduled for execution.

Sequence F begins with Luke convincing Han Solo and Wookie to rescue Princess Leia and finishes at the same times as Act 2 with the Obi-Wan being struck down by Darth Vader.

Does there have to be 8 sequences? No. It just seems to happen that most 2 hour movies fall into eight sequences of approximately 15 minutes, but some are longer and some shorter. The first Act normally has have 2-3 sequences: the second act 3-5 sequences and the third act 2-3 sequences. As no one sees how the writer has constructed the story it is up to the writer to determine how many sequences they want to use to group their scenes under for planning purposes.

A sequence has it’s own mini-story structure with it’s own rising tension, crisis and climax. Different schools use different terminology to describe the sequences. One of the best examples I have seen of this approach adopted by Paul Tomlinson , who describes the nature of each sequence as follows:

  1. Set-up, Foreshadowing & Challenge
  2. Responding to the Challenge
  3. Responding to the strange new world
  4. First attempt, First Failure & Consequences
  5. Reacting to the MidPoint & Raising Stakes
  6. The Second attempt, The Fall & the Crisis
  7. The Climax
  8. Resolution and Denouement

All the approaches above are built on the foundations of a Three-Act Structure. But what about the four, five or six act structures? That depends, of course, on how you define an Act. For example, in the first diagram above of the Three-Act Structure we divide the narrative into four different components. Would it be simpler to call this  a “Four Act Structure” as some advocate? Possibly yes. But three-act terminology is well known in the movie industry and is part of the vernacular.

An interesting variation of the methodology is that of Marsall Dotson who advocates a Six Act structure. Each Act has it’s own Catalyst, Turning point and goal. Based on Dotson’s own analysis of Star Wars New Hope and timings would match as follows:

  1. Act 1 – Dealing with an imperfect situation (Same as existing Act 1 – 43 mins)
  2. Act 2 – Learning the rules of an unfamiliar situation (Same as Sequence C – 16 mins)
  3. Act 3 – Stumbling into the central conflict (Same as Sequence D & E – 13 mins)
  4. Act 4 – Implementing a doomed plan (Same as Sequence F- 24 mins)
  5. Act 5 – Trying a longshot (Same as sequence G -21 mins)
  6. Act 6 – Living in a new situation (Same as sequence H – 3 mins)

One aspect of Marshall Dotson’s approach I admire is the evolving nature of the goals and the nature of the opposition identified in each Act as the story intensifies:

  1. Act 1 Initial goal/ oppressive opposition
  2. Act 2 Transitional goal/incidental opposition
  3. Act 3 False Goal/ intentional opposition
  4. Act 4 Penultimate goal/self-inflicted opposition
  5. Act 5 Ultimate goal/ ultimate opposition
  6. Act 6 New situation.

For example, in Die Hard John McClane’s initial goal is to travel to LA and reconcile with his estranged wife, Holly. But when the terrorists invade the building he takes a new goal not to defeat the terrorists, but to call the police. When this fails he has to alter his goal. So gradually his goal evolves into the ultimate story goal of defeating the terrorists.

However, I still find it difficult to treat Dotson’s analysis as six acts. Particularly as the sixth Act is only a few minutes long. I don’t wish to get into semantics but in my view it is simpler to think of this method as a five-act model or five-sequence method. The effect is to split the narrative into five main components.

Other approaches

The two methods that haven’t yet been discussed are Blake Synder’s 15-Step save the Cat approach and Chris Vogler’s 12 Step Hero’s Journey. Both frameworks can easily be overlayed on the Three-Act Structure:

Save the Cat

  • Act 1: Beats 1-5
  • Act 2: Beats 6-12
  • Act 3: Beats 13-15
  1. Opening image
  2. Theme stated
  3. Set-up
  4. Catalyst
  5. Debate
  6. Break into two (a.k.a Plot Point I)
  7. B Story
  8. Fun & Games (multi scenes)
  9. Mid Point
  10. Bad Guys close in (multi scenes)
  11. All is lost (a.k.a. Plot Point II)
  12. Dark Night of the Soul
  13. Break into three
  14. Finale (a.k.a Climax)
  15. Final Image

The “Fun & Games” covers most of the first part of the second act. It’s Fun & Games for the the audience but not the hero. It is where a lot of interesting action takes place. Similarly, “Bad Guys close in” is a multiple scene section that shows the hero going down hill until he hits the “All is lost moment.” The B story is usually love interest element, buddy relationship or mentor relationship. The Save the Cat model is a transformational story where the hero changes, the most reflective moments being at the Mid Point and Dark Night of the Soul. The difference between the Opening Image and Final Image should reflect the transformation the hero has gone through.

Chris Vogler’s The Hero’s Journey

  • Act 1: Steps 1-5
  • Act 2: steps 6-10
  • Act 3: steps 11-12
  1. Ordinary World
  2. Call to adventure
  3. Refusal
  4. Meeting the mentor
  5. Crossing the threshold (Plot Point I)
  6. Tests, Allies and Enemies
  7. Approach to Inner cave
  8. Ordeal (a.k.a. Mid Point)
  9. Reward
  10. The Road back (aka Plot point II)
  11. Resurrection (a.k.a Climax)
  12. Return with the elixir

Vogler notes that not all the steps may apply and those that do may appear in a different order. The approach is meant to be flexible. Also the terms are mythical metaphors. For example, ‘Resurrection’ is the re-emergence of the Hero’s changed character in the story climax. Not some strange metaphysical occurrence.

Like Hauge, Vogler also looks at both the Hero’s inner journey and outer journey. And he explains how the character develops at each of the 12 steps.

Are there simpler solutions that don’t use the three-act model? Yes there are. Both Nigel Watts and Eva Deverall use very simple eight-stage structure without the need for plot points. But if you look closely enough the same underlying structure that appears under the three-act model but without the same technical detail.

Nigel Watts’s 8 point story arc is as follows

  1. Stasis – the every day life of the hero.
  2. Trigger – something outside of the hero’s control sparks off the story.
  3. Quest – the trigger results in a quest.
  4. Surprise – at the mid point of the he/she encounter surprises.
  5. Critical choice – the hero has to make a crucial decision.
  6. Climax – the crucial decision leads to a climax.
  7. Reversal – as a result of the climax the hero’s character has changed for the better.
  8. Resolution – the changed hero returns to the stasis world, wiser and enlightened.

Eva Deverall’s One page formula uses 8 stages as follows:

  1. Stasis – the character is not living to their full potential.
  2. Trigger – and internal or external impulse or both forces the character to the first step forward.
  3. Quest – the character enters the new world, meets mentors or allies and makes a bad plan to solve the problem created by the trigger.
  4. Bolt – something unexpected — the plan inevitably goes wrong.
  5. Shift – the character makes a paradigm shift of character.
  6. Defeat – the character makes the ultimate sacrifice.
  7. Power – the character finds a hidden power within themselves to win the prize.
  8. Resolution – the character is living up to their full potential.

Conclusion

As already mentioned, most of these variations of story structure are based on the foundations of a Three-Act Structure.  Although the use of different terminology can be confusing they all attempt to break down narrative into it’s main components.

From a writer’s point of view, no one will see your plans before you write, and no one that reads your book or sees your movie will have much idea of the methodology you used to get there. Of course some writers won’t want to use any framework to plan their writing and may still be successful because the underlying story patterns are hard coded into their DNA. For all the other writers the frameworks are there to help. So use whatever works for you.