Story Structure

Written by
on July 27, 2017

Do you like movies? Then you’re going to enjoy what I’m about to tell you. Spoiler alert: What you will learn over the next few minutes will cause you to see things in films you’ve never seen before.

Our 2017 film shooting in Kauai will be JUST LIKE EVERY OTHER MOVIE. Does that mean it’s going to be boring without twists and turns or surprises? No. But it follows a structure, as does every other action, comedy and drama film you’ve ever loved.

The structure we’re discussing here will be guided by the Save The Cat Beat Sheet. It was developed by the late Blake Snyder. Blake was a genius. His beat sheet though contemporary, is engrained in the ancient conventions of story telling. What’s the “save the cat” part? Keep reading.

Every film you love follows story structure. Comedy, drama, thriller — they have structure elements that are all the same.

Opening Image

Every film has opening imagery. Something that tells us about the the beginning state of the story. The opening and final images should show the change of the story.

Jaws: What happens at the beginning? A girl is yanked out of site by something huge under the surface. The safe town of Amity is no longer safe.

Setup

In the first 10 pages of the script (10 minutes of a movie), you’re going to learn a lot, including an introduction to most or all of the A story characters. What’s an A story character? People involved in the primary plot points of the film. In Jaws this is Chief Brody, his wife and kids, deputy, etc. So then who’s B story in Jaws? I’ll tell you in a second. But you can probably figure it out.

Save the Cat

The term refers to things placed in a film to make us like a character, such as saving a cat. If done correctly, it can make us even root for someone who isn’t a good guy. Think Godfather. Characters who may not be likable are given traits, or do certain things that make us empathize with them.

Theme Stated

Somewhere in the first 10 minutes of a film, the theme might be addressed. The theme is what the film is really about. The spiritual journey.

Jurassic Park: Theme Stated

Jurassic Park: The disrespectful kid challenges the idea of raptors at the dig site. Dr. Graham tells him to have a little respect. We also see that Graham has issues with kids. These themes persist in huge ways for the rest of the film. Graham learns to love kids, and everyone on the island learns what happens when you disrespect nature and play God. Everything about Jurassic Park hangs on the main theme of respect.

Catalyst or Inciting Incident

Every film begins with a hero living life a certain way. Then something happens that turns their world upside down.

Jaws: Chief Brody moved to a quiet town to get away from the madness of the city. Then an unprecedented shark attack.

Star Wars: Luke is cleaning a droid and a message from a princess plays.

Jerry Maguire: A little kid tells him he’s a complete jerk, and he writes a mission statement that gets him fired.

Debate

Once the hero’s world has turned upside down, they have a choice to make. What to do? Should Chief Brody ignore the shark attack?Should Luke Skywalker forget about the message R2D2 carries and continue with his chores?

Die Hard : Olympus Has Fallen

In Die Hard should John McClain ignore the criminals in the building and catch the next plane back to New York? Of course not! Our hero doesn’t run, but here’s the thing: They don’t know that yet. In every well done movie, the hero will say “no” to the journey at least one time.

The hero will always say “no” to the journey at least one time. Sometimes, they’ll say it more than once.

Jurassic Park: Dr. Grant refused to go to the island. He was too busy. But when funding was offered for his dig site, he changed his tune.

The Matrix: Neo chose not to follow Morpheus’s instruction at work, and then was captured by the agents. Then when he agreed to meet Cypher, Switch and Trinity in the car where he said “no” again and started to bail. Trinity had to convince him.

Star Wars: Luke said “no” to going on the journey with Obi Wan Kenobi. But when his parents were murdered by storm troopers, the debating officially ended.

And when the debating is over, Act 2 begins…. Keep reading!

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Act 2

Films are typically written in a three act structure. Act 2 happens after the hero is done debating, and they’re ready to do something.

JawsWhen Chief Brody decided to put a reward out and actively hunt the shark, Act 2 began in Jaws. He was done debating, and was ready to go after the fish. However, the hero is still flawed at this point, as was Chief Brody. The hero’s attempts aren’t going to work yet. A story is about transformation, and the hero is just at the beginning of the transformation journey.

B Story

This point is a lot of fun. It’s the point in every film that NEW characters are introduced to our hero. Did you figure out who it was in Jaws?

Story - B Story Characters

Jaws: It’s Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), the marine biologist who helps Brody kill the shark.

Star WarsIn Star Wars, the B story characters are Han Solo and Chewbacca. They show up about 30 minutes in, and help our hero destroy the death star. *Note: in subsequent films such as The Empire Strikes Back, Han and Chewie are now A story characters. Who was B story then? Come on… you can do it.

Jerry Maguire: Cuba Gooding Junior’s charismatic character pushes Jerry Maguire along his spiritual journey, or the theme of the film.

When you watch your next film, just wait for B story characters! They’re always fun. Many times they’re the love interest.

Fun and Games

The Fun and Games section of a film happens in the 20-30 minute section before the halfway point of every film. And don’t let the title fool you. Depending on the genre and film, things may not be “fun” but they will be very on topic. The film is “having fun” with the subject matter in the this place.

The MatrixNeo has Kung Fu downloaded into his head. He then fights Morpheus with super powers.

Jaws: Everyone goes after the shark. Some guy is almost eaten while using his wife’s roast.

Jurassic Park: We see live dinosaurs!

Midpoint

Half way through every film is the midpoint, and it’s characterized by a FALSE victory or a FALSE defeat. In films that involve a monster, at the halfway point, this monster typically shows up in full force like we haven’t seen before. The T-Rex steps on the screen at the midpoint of Jurassic Park. In Jaws, there’s a brutal attack that we witness in detail. We also get a really good look at the shark for the first time. Watch for the half way point in your favorite films — something big will happen!

Jaws: Our FIRST look at the shark, and it’s a brutal attack that we witness in detail, down to a leg floating to the bottom. Chief Brody’s son is front and center, and goes into shock. This is a FALSE DEFEAT because later Brody is going to kill that shark.

Jurassic Park: The T-Rex steps onto the screen at the midpoint of Jurassic Park. Almost eats the kids, and snacks on the attorney. False Defeat. Our hero, and the kids (B Story characters!) are going to make it out alive.

Story: The Mid Point

The Moment of Grace is a HUGE part of every film you’ll ever watch. It’s when the hero finally faces his flaws, and makes a decision to start going in a different direction.

Moment of Grace

This is a term used in The Moral Premise. It isn’t a structure point from the Save the Cat Beat Sheet, but it’s part of every movie. At or near the halfway point of a film, the hero is forced (by the antagonist) to face his flaws. It doesn’t mean the hero completely changes, as that doesn’t happen until Act 3. But our hero is going to take steps towards his final destination.

Moment of Grace

JawsAt the midpoint in Jaws, not only is there another attack that everyone witnesses in detail, but Chief Brody’s son is right there. This *snaps* Chief Brody into shape. What was his flaw? A fear of man. The Chief let the Mayor and other town officials bully him into keeping the beaches open. This “sin” gave the monster power. Remember the scene in the hospital right after the Midpoint? Chief Brody grabs the Mayor, forces him into a side area, and makes him sign the paperwork to hire Quint for ten grand. Chief Brody was done fearing the town officials. Our hero has begun to change.

Bad Guys Close In

Right after the midpoint, things begin to go in a very bad direction for our hero. In a romantic comedy, relationships start falling apart. In an action film like The Matrix, the agents gain the upper hand. In Jurassic Park, things continue to spiral out of control on an island infested with unrestrained dinosaurs. This part of the film will last for around 30 minutes.

All Is Lost / Dark Night of the Soul

75 minutes into a film, after the “bad guys” have been chipping away at our hero, things really go dark. It’s our hero’s lowest point. Many times, the hero’s mentor is either stripped of power, or dies.

Star WarsLuke watches Obi Wan die at the hand of Darth Vader. All hope is lost.

Die Hard: John McClain pulls glass from his feet and tells the cop outside: “Tell my wife I’m sorry. She’s heard me say I love you, but she’s never heard me say I’m sorry.” Our hero is broken.

(And remember, these rules don’t just apply to action flicks. Look at your favorite romantic comedy.)

How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days: At this point of the film, they’re at the “Frost Yourselves” event when they each realize their relationship started as a game… A bet. They sing, You’re So Vain to each other on stage. It’s really over now.

Act 3

Once our hero emerges from total despair, they hold on to what they learned at the Moment of Grace, and they make their final transformation. They face faults and choose to beat the bad guys.

The Matrix: Neo decides to fight Agent Smith.

Star Wars: Luke joins in the attack on the Death Star.

Jerry Maguire: Jerry runs to try and get his wife back.

But here’s the cool thing about Act 3: Even though our hero has decided to do the right thing, it’s no walk in the park. The bad guys are going to test that resolve unlike any other point in the film.

The final transformation of our hero happens in Act 3.

The final transformation of our hero happens when they “Storm the Castle” to rescue the princess, and instead of a princess, they find a waiting dragon.

The MatrixNeo believes he is The One. He experiences temporary victory over Agent Smith, but the real victory doesn’t happen until he runs for the phone, and opens the door only to be face to face with his enemy. Agent Smith sends a clip full of bullets point blank into Neo. Neo dies, but through the B Story character (Trinity) he comes back to life a transformed man. The One.

Star Wars: Luke makes a courageous decision. He just lost Obi Wan, and could have cried and went home, but Luke is changing. He joins the Rebel attack on the Death Star. But when their fleet is decimated, and Darth Vader is hot on his tail, Obi Wan tells Luke to make the final decision: Don’t trust the ship’s equipment to make the shot. Trust his new understanding of The Force. Luke does, and his transformation from doubting farm kid to budding Jedi is complete.

The Passion of the ChristJesus makes the final decision of obedience, and endures horrible Roman torture. He’s whipped and beaten to shreds, and then literally nailed to a wooden cross. At the very last moment while hanging on the cross, Jesus continues his obedience and cries “It is finished!” He then dies and rises again, a victorious hero with more power than ever before.

Finale Image

The final images will show the complete change. The hero’s transformation.

The Matrix: Neo went from insomniac hacker to “The One.” He hangs up the pay phone, and flies in his black trench coat like Super Man.

Jerry Maguire: Jerry has his priorities right. He’s hand in hand with his wife as they step into their new life, together.

The Passion of the Christ: Jesus Christ went from fear in the garden to rising from the dead in complete, absolute victory.

That’s A Wrap

Just as musicians adhere to the rules of music theory, writers follow rules for telling stories. These rules have existed since the beginning of time. Does it mean that all stories have to follow a formula? Yes, but not like you think.

Jazz Music: It might be COMPLETELY different than classical music. But the true musicians in each of these disciplines are grounded in music theory. From this foundation they move in their creative journey to entertain and touch their audience.

Insider tip: Don’t tell a Hollywood writer there is a formula. Sometimes that makes them cranky.

Have fun discovering these points in your favorite films! And remember to sign up for the latest about our upcoming feature that we’re shooting on the island of Kauai!

Get the latest on our 2017 Film!

Enter your information below to be included in behind the scenes updates as we begin preproduction!

One thought on “Story Structure

  1. This was absolutely wonderful. Too bad I never saw any of the movies you mentioned in order to relate better. BUT, I am going to watch YOUR movie!

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