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Story Structure

June 11, 2020

Do you like movies?

Then you’re going to LOVE what I’m about to tell you!

Our upcoming film shooting on the island of 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 film you’ve ever loved, from Die Hard to Sleepless in Seattle.

Spoiler alert: What you’ll learn in the next few minutes will cause you to see things in films that you’ve never seen before. But when you’re able to point these items out, you’re gonna look really cool to your friends.

The structure discussed here is guided by the late Blake Synder’s Save The Cat screenwriting book. Blake took ancient conventions of story telling and placed them in contemporary vernacular. However, nothing discussed here is new under the sun.

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

Important Note: By each section I show the minutes of a movie the section typically covers. These are loose guides. For example, a 90 minute film is going to hit everything differently than a 2 hour film. Stories also flex these points in different ways. As Morpheus told Neo in The Matrix, try not to look at it as right and wrong. It’s a guide.

Opening Image

Every film has an opening image or setting. Something that tells us about the the beginning state of the story. The opening and final images of a quality film will demonstrate the change of the story.

Jaws: What happens at the beginning? A terrified woman is yanked below the surface. This tells us the safe town of Amity is no longer a summer haven.

In the first minutes of Jaws we see a woman eaten by something under the surface at night. At the end of Jaws we see two men swimming during the daylight in those same waters, safe as can be.

Make sense? Cool, moving along…

Setup (1-15 minutes)

The first 10-15 minutes of a film will set the stage for the rest of the story. This section tells us when and where the story takes place. It tells us who the hero is, and we’ll meet many of the main characters — but not all of them.

In Jaws we meet Chief Brody, his wife and kids, the Mayor and other key individuals. We know that we’re in a sea side town and dealing with a man-eating shark. The stage has been set. This is no romantic comedy — We’re about to never want to swim again!

Save the Cat – We Must Like Our Hero

The term Save the Cat refers to a story element placed in the first few minutes of a film that makes us like our hero. Something like… Well, saving a cat. Petting a dog. Helping someone in need. You get it.

The audience must side with the protagonist of a story immediately, or the film will have major issues.

Chief John Anderton asks a colleague if she’s had any contractions yet. This happens within 15 seconds of his character being introduced.

Minority Report: Within seconds of meeting Chief Anderton (Tom Cruise), we see him ask a colleague if she’s had any contractions yet. This is the Save the Cat moment. Why? Her pregnancy has nothing to do with the story, other than to show us the human side of Chief Anderton. He’s not just a smart cop — He cares about the personal things in life. When this happens, the audience is subconsciously on his side.

When done correctly, a Save the Cat moment can even make us root for a hero who isn’t a good guy at all. Think Godfather. Characters who may not be likable are given likable traits that make us empathize with them.

Theme Stated (5-10 minutes)

Somewhere in the first 5-10 minutes of a film, the theme will be addressed. The theme is what the film is really about. The spiritual journey of our hero. Typically this will be something said by someone else to our hero, but it doesn’t have to follow that exact method.

Die Hard: The plot is about a cop that dies hard against thieves. Die Hard’s theme is about a husband whose love for his wife dies hard. See how the action of the plot mimics the deeper story? This makes a film meaningful. And in Die Hard, the real story was addressed with the limo driver at the very beginning.

Jurassic Park: A disrespectful kid challenges the idea of raptors at the dig site. Dr. Graham tells him to show 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 caring and respect.

Dr. Graham tells the kid to show some respect. This is the theme of Jurassic Park.

Catalyst (12 minutes)

Are you still with me?

The Opening Image and Setup set the stage for the story, the Save the Cat moment makes us like our hero and the Theme is what our film is really about deep down. What happens next?

The Catalyst.

Every film begins with a hero living life a certain way. Then something happens that turns their world upside down. Look for it. Every good movie you’ve ever watched will have this moment.

Jaws: Chief Brody moved to a quiet town to get away from the madness of New York City. Then a shark attack throws him into more turmoil than he’s ever experienced in New York.

Star Wars: Luke is cleaning a droid and a message from a princess plays — It ends up changing his life forever.

Die Hard: A New York cop is visiting his estranged wife in Los Angeles for Christmas. Within 10 minutes of his arrival, her office building is taken over by thieves.

Jerry Maguire: A little kid tells him he’s a complete jerk. This prompts Jerry to rethink life and write a mission statement that sends him on an irreversible journey of change.

Notting Hill: Anna (Julia Roberts) steps into a small coffee shop in Notting Hill, and shortly after dumps orange juice on her shirt. For Hugh Grant it’s love at first catalyst!

So get ready when you start your next film — In no time something is gonna happen to our hero that changes everything.

Debate (12-25 minutes)

Our hero’s world is now turned upside down. What’s next?

Does Chief Brody move back to New York? Should Luke forget he saw the dumb message from the Princess? Can Jerry Maguire keep living life as a disconnected sports agent?

Sure, they could do all of those things, but we’d never buy the ticket.

John McClane realizes he’s gonna have to do this the hard way.

Movies are about a hero who chooses to change. They embrace the challenge. But here’s the thing: They don’t know that yet. In most well done films, the hero will say “no” to the journey at least once. Because hey, they’re like the rest of us – they’re human.

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 refuses to go to the island. He’s too busy. But when funding is offered for his dig site, he changes his tune.

The Matrix: Neo chooses not to follow Morpheus’s instruction at work, and then was captured by agents. Then he agrees to meet Cypher, Switch and Trinity in the car where he says “no” again and starts to bail. Trinity has to convince him to see the meeting out. Neo agrees.

Star Wars: Luke says “no” to going on the journey with Obi Wan Kenobi. But when his aunt and uncle are murdered by storm troopers, the debate officially ends.

Die Hard: John McClane calls for help. He soon realizes the LAPD can’t help him. He’s gotta do this on his own.

Make sense? And when the debate is over, Act 2 begins!

Act 2 (25 minutes)

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. Our hero makes a conscious choice to step into Act 2.

Neo is about to make a choice at the midpoint that will change the rest of his life.

The Matrix: When Neo takes the red pill, he willingly steps into Act 2. This film’s Act 2 transition is about as strong as they get. And aren’t we glad? What if Neo had just wimped out and taken the blue pill? Story over.

JawsWhen Chief Brody decides to put a reward out and actively hunt the shark, Act 2 begins in Jaws. The police chief is done debating, and ready to go after the fish.

Important Note: Our hero is still flawed at this point of the story. Their attempts at fixing their upside down world aren’t going to work yet. Did you get that? A story is about transformation, and our hero is just at the beginning of their transformation journey. So don’t expect them to do everything right at first.

So back to a flawed hero, can you guess what Chief Brody’s flaw was? What his spiritual journey was all about? I’ll tell you in just a minute. Huge kudos if you figure it out on your own!

B Story (30 minutes)

Quick recap:

The Opening Image and Setup set the stage. Save the Cat makes us love our hero. Theme tells us why we’ll really love the film. The Catalyst turns our hero’s world upside down. After they’re done Debating, the hero steps into Act 2.

So what’s next? Our hero needs a little help. Please put your hands together to welcome the B story characters! Some of your favorite actors have been B Story characters. Think Harrison Ford in Star Wars. Richard Dreyfuss in Jaws. Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive. Cuba Good Jr. in Jerry Maguire.

Han Solo and Chewbacca appear on the scene to help Luke on his journey.

B story characters typically appear about 30 minutes into a movie. How do you know who they are? They help the hero on their journey – sometimes both the physical and spiritual journey (theme). Even though our hero has decided to take the plunge into Act 2, they’re gonna need some help to figure things out.

When you watch your next film, just wait for B story characters! About 30-40 minutes in they’ll show up and take the story to the next level.

Fun and Games (30-55 minutes)

The Fun and Games section of a film is our last stop before the halfway point. And don’t let the title fool you — Depending on the genre and type of film, things may not be “fun” but they will be very on topic. The film is “having fun” with the subject matter here.

Absolutely one of my favorite parts in The Matrix. We see the first signs that Neo is “The One.”

In Jaws this means more shark attacks. In The Matrix, we see the first signs of Neo becoming “The One.” In Jurassic Park we finally see dinosaurs! Typically, the part of a movie poster or trailer that made you buy a ticket will really begin to hit home during this part of any movie.

Midpoint (55 minutes)

The midpoint can be huge! Typically this marks a distinct change in the story. And for many films, the antagonist comes in FULL FORCE at the halfway point of the film.

Jaws: Our FIRST look at the shark, and it’s a brutal attack that we witness in detail — All of the way down to a leg floating to the bottom. Chief Brody’s son is front and center, and goes into shock.

Jurassic Park: The T-Rex steps onto the screen for the first time at the midpoint of Jurassic Park. It almost eats the kids, and snacks on an attorney.

The T-Rex steps onto the screen exactly half way into Jurassic Park.

Moment of Grace

There is a key moment for our hero immediately after the midpoint. The author of the Moral Premise calls this the Moment of Grace. The hero is forced (by the antagonist) to become a better person. 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.

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.

You see, up until the midpoint, our hero has been trying to fix their upside down world on their own — Without changing themselves.

This never works.

Chief Brody takes his first step towards change right after the Midpoint of Jaws.

Frozen: Anna tells her sister they can figure the ice problem out together. Anna is braving her sister’s cold opinion on her own for the first time. She tells Hans he must wait outside.

JawsAfter the midpoint in Jaws, Chief Brody pulls the mayor into a side room and demands that he sign the paperwork to hire the fisherman. Chief Brody also tells his wife, when she asks about moving back to New York, that they’re staying there.

Did you figure out Chief Brody’s flaw? Fear. Chief Brody let the Mayor bully him into keeping the beaches open. This “sin” gave the monster power. All Chief Brody had to say was, “the beaches are closed” and Jaws is over.

At the moment of grace, the police chief takes the first of multiple steps to finally master his fears. Chief Brody grabs the Mayor, forces him into a side area, and makes him sign the paperwork to hire Quint for ten grand. Our hero has begun to change.

Bad Guys Close In (55-75 minutes)

What happens when our hero chooses the better road?

Bad things happen. Isn’t that how it seems in life?

In a romantic comedy like Notting Hill, relationships begin to fall 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 (75 minutes)

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 killed. It’s at this point that the hero often considers giving up, or they think they’re going to die.

Everything is lost.

But it takes this type of pressure to make someone really change.

John McClane doesn’t think he’s getting out. He confesses he’s been arrogant with his wife, and pushed her away.

Star WarsLuke watches Obi Wan die at the hand of Darth Vader.

Die Hard: John McClane 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.”

How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days: 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. Now it’s really over.

The Matrix: Morpheus is captured by Agent Smith. Cypher kills some of the crew. It seems like everything has failed, and it’s at this point that Neo finally believes what the Oracle told him.

The Greatest Showman: P.T. Barnum’s circus burns to the ground. His wife takes the kids and goes to her parents house. They lose their home. Everything is lost.

Act 3 (75-120 minutes)

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 their flaws during the ultimate test, and choose to win. Sometimes the B story character will give our hero and idea on how to win.

The Matrix: Neo decides to rescue Morpheus and fight Agent Smith even though everyone thinks that’s impossible.

Star Wars: Luke joins in the attack on the Death Star. He’s going to push on even after the loss of Obi-Wan.

The Greatest Showman: P.T. Barnum regains hope by remembering what’s really important. He’s going to go get his wife back. They’re going to rebuild the show.

Storming the Castle

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 in Act 3 when they “Storm the Castle to rescue the princess”, but instead of a princess, they find a waiting dragon. Such was the case for Neo in The Matrix.

Neo storms the castle only to face his ultimate enemy — Agent Smith.

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 ultimate enemy: Agent Smith. The agent sends a clip full of .50 caliber bullets point blank into Neo. Neo dies, but through the B Story character (Trinity) he comes back to life a transformed man. He always was, but now he truly is 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 a big 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 cries out as even God the Father has forsaken him. Then he yells “It is finished!” and dies. But then he rises to life on the third day.

Finale Image

The final image(s) of a good movie will show the complete change. The transformation from flawed individual to changed hero.

The Matrix: Neo went from insomniac hacker in the opening 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 vs the disconnected salesman we see at the beginning.

The Greatest Showman: P.T. Barnum hands the performance over, and goes to join his wife and kids. He finally has his priorities right, and it really living life.

The Passion of the Christ: Jesus Christ went from despair in the garden at the opening, to rising from the dead in complete, absolute victory at the end. The film literally closes with Jesus walking out towards the opening of the tomb.

That’s A Wrap

Just as musicians adhere to the rules of music theory, and a painter creates within the four walls of a canvas, writers follow rules for telling stories. These rules have existed since the beginning of time. They provide structure to help the story exist, while allowing for unlimited creativity.

Have fun discovering these points in your favorite films!

By the way: The image at the top of the page is me and my friend Alveraz. He’s schooling me on how to write a script. Alveraz had a lot of patience with me in that California Coffee Bean. I’ll always owe you man! Thank you.

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