Excerpts from my upcoming book about film script plot templates

I’m currently working on a book that explains the standard film script plot structure used in all those Hollywood movies that seem to have the same plot. I’ve still got a few months of work to do before it’s finished because the formula contains a surprising amount of detail and a lot of subtle variations. Plus I’m also busy creating an autistically detailed break down of the plot to Avatar.

While I’ve been working on these projects I’ve had a couple of people E-mail me through my About page asking for advice on story plotting, which reminded me there are a lot of people looking for this information right now. So I’m going to go ahead and share a few useful excerpts from the book:

THE 7 MOST COMMON ACT STRUCTURES FOUND IN HOLLYWOOD MOVIES

  • 1. The hero accepts the quest. 2. The hero trains to fulfill the final condition. 3. The hero attempts to fulfill the final condition and fails. 4. The hero fulfills the final condition. 5. Denouement.
  • 1. The hero fails to fulfill the goal that would yield the incentive, resulting in creating a new condition. 2. The hero identifies the new condition of obtaining the incentive. 3. The hero acquires a resource he needs to fulfill the final condition. 4. The hero fulfills the condition. 5. Denouement.
  • 1. The hero identifies the incentive and its three successively dependent conditions. 2. The hero completes the first condition. 3. The hero completes the second condition. 4. The hero completes the final condition. 5. Denouement.
  • 1. The hero accepts the quest. 2. The hero attempts to complete the final condition and fails, creating a new condition. 3. The hero attempts to complete the new condition and fails, creating a new condition. 4. The hero completes the final condition. 5. Denouement.
  • 1. The hero accepts the quest. 2. The hero gathers a team. 3. The team accomplishes the first condition of obtaining the incentive. 3. The team plans and prepares to fulfill the final condition. 4. The team succeeds at neutralizing the final condition. 5. Denouement.
  • 1. The hero survives an apocalypse that creates a deficiency in his need. 2. The hero creates a plan to survive. 3. The hero fulfills the first condition of survival. 4. The hero fulfills the final condition of survival. 5. Denouement.
  • 1. The hero accepts a job that will fulfill his highest need and in-processes into the new job. 2. The hero trains at his new job. 3. The hero applies his training on his assigned task and fails. 4. The hero applies what he learned from failing to the task and completes it. 5. Denouement.

DETAILED SAMPLE SCRIPT TEMPLATE

Act 1

A-story

Suggested number of beats: 7

Suggested beats: 1-3, 7-10

The A-story in Act 1 introduces the hero, his ultimate external goal, a problem that stands between him and his goal. He attempts to achieve his goal but either fails at the end of the Act or accepts an opportunity to progress towards his goal. Either way, he crosses a threshold he can’t return from.

B-story

Suggested number of beats: 3-4

Suggested beats: 4-7

The B-story in Act 1 introduces the hero’s ultimate internal-oriented goal, conditions and the stakes. You can foreshadow future conditions and complications in Act 1 or wait to introduce them in Act 2.

C-story

Suggested number of beats: 1

Suggested beats: 7-8

The C-story in Act 1 introduces the hero’s third goal, stakes and possibly foreshadow its conditions and complications. Since crossing the threshold in Beat 10 creates the problem, he won’t be able to create a plan until Act 2.

Any additional storylines should also be introduced in Act 1. The C-story can impact the hero’s quest when it’s introduced, but it doesn’t have to.

Act 2

A-story

Suggested number of beats: 7

Suggested beats: 11-13, 17-20

Act 2 reboots the hero’s problem solving steps in the A-storyline, because after crossing the threshold in Beat 10, there is a new problem standing between him and his ultimate goal. So he must have experiences that walk him through the process of defining the problem, the conditions of success and the stakes. Then he must create a plan and enact it. He will complete the plan in Beat 20, but he will learn in Beat 21 that his success has backfired, creating a new condition he will spend Act 3 attempting to fulfill.

B-story

Suggested number of beats: 3-5

Suggested beats: 14-19

When the B-story is appears in Act 2, it will collide with the A-storyline, usually because the hero uses one of his signature flaws to solve a problem. The B-story will conflict with the A-story. In Act 2, the hero can either be aware or unaware of the fact that completing the B-storyline goal is a condition of completing his A-storyline goal, but it usually creates more tension if the character is aware of the fact.

The B-storyline goal, condition/s, stakes and primary obstacle must be stated by the end of Act 2.

If the condition of the A-story and B-story goal require the hero to complete the same task, such as in “Avatar,” where Jake Sully must infiltrate the Na’vi in order to fulfill his commitment to both his military boss and his scientific/humanitarian boss, then the hero can spend Act 2 on one quest in which every beat is technically both A and B-story.

C-story

Suggested number of beats: 1

Suggested beats: 15-17

In Act 2, the C-story reveals how crossing the threshold in Beat 10 created a problem with a condition the hero must fulfill in order to complete the C-storyline. The hero can also create a plan and enact it, but he shouldn’t fulfill the goal until the latter half of Act 5.

Act 3

A-story

Suggested number of beats: 7

Suggested beats: 20-27

Act 3 begins with the hero finding out his success at the end of Act 2 didn’t fulfill the condition/s of his ultimate goal. Instead, it resulted in a worst-case setback in the A-storyline, B-storyline or both. Now the hero must create a new plan to meet the new condition of the new complication. It’s usually the most dramatic if the hero fails every step of the way, forcing him to adapt and try again until he fails completely at the end of Act 3. However, if it makes sense for the story, he can win a few rounds.

The hero’s false victory at the end of Act 2 can create a worst-case setback in the hero’s quest to accomplish his A-story goal without affecting the B-story in any other way than, it would be futile or impossible to complete the A-storyline goal without fulfilling the condition of his B-storyline goal first. If this is the case, you can devote all 7 beats in Act 3 to the A-story.

B-story

Suggested number of beats: 0-7

Suggested beats: 21-27 or 24-27

The hero’s false victory at the end of Act 2 can create a worst-case setback in the hero’s quest to accomplish his B-story goal without affecting the A-story in any other way other than the hero can’t fulfill the major condition of his A-storyline goal without fulfilling the condition of his B-storyline goal. If this is the case, you can devote all 7 beats in Act 3 to the B-story.

You can devote some of the beats in Act 3 to the A-story and the B-story, but at the end of Act 3, the hero will can fail to complete at least whichever quest takes up the most beats in Act 3. You can also have the A and B story collide in a way that causes him to fail one or both of his quests.

C-story (0-1 Beats)

Suggested number of beats: 2

Suggested beats: 2-23, 29

The hero will continue enacting his C-storyline plan in Act 3 and fail. This storyline still doesn’t have to be impacted by, or have an impact on, the A or B storylines.

Act 3 Finale

A-story

Suggested number of beats: 0-3

Suggested beats: 28-30 or 28, 30

If the hero failure at the end of Act 3, the repercussions of his failure will put him in a worst-case scenario. All of his options will be eliminated, and he is tempted to give up. However, he restates the stakes of failure and decides he must press on.

If Act 4 is the last 3 beats of Act 3, the hero will make his final attempt to meet one of his storyline’s major conditions under the most dire circumstances.

B-story (1-3 Beats)

Suggested number of beats: 0-3

Suggested beats: 28-30 or 29

The hero uses a lesson he’s learned in the B-storyline to solve the A-storyline obstacle in front of him. Since the B-storyline is an internal conflict, completing the B-story quest means he fixes an internal flaw, creating a new virtue inside him. He then applies that virtue to the problem in front of him and overcomes it.

C-story

Suggested number of beats: 0-1

Suggested beats: 29-30

The C-story doesn’t need to appear in Act 4 since there’s so little time to cram it in. However, you can have the hero apply a lesson he’s learned or resource he’s gained in the C-story quest to fulfill the condition of the A or B storyline.

Act 4

A-story

Suggested number of beats: 5-7

Suggested beats: 31-37

If the major condition of the B-storyline was resolved in Act 4, then all 7 Beats in Act 5 will be A-storyline. In the last beat of Act 5 the hero will fulfill the major condition of the A-storyline, neutralizing the antagonistic force that has a conflict of interest with him achieving his ultimate goal.

B-story

Suggested number of beats: 0-2

Suggested beats: 31, 34-36

If the major B-storyline condition hasn’t been met yet, then the hero can use a lesson or resource gained from the B storyline to fix his internal flaw and turn it into a new virtue when he is “dug in” halfway through Act 5.

C-story

Suggested number of beats: 0-2

Suggested beats: 31-32, 38

The hero will attempt to solve the C-story one last time. The audience can see the hero succeed or find out in Act 6 that his actions fulfilled the condition of completing the C-story quest. The effects of completing the C-story quest can impact the hero’s ability to complete his A-story goal or not.

Act 5

A-story

Suggested number of beats: 1

Suggested beat: 38

The hero gets the A-story prize.

B-story

Suggested number of beats: 1

Suggested beat: 39

The hero gets the B-story prize.

C-story

Suggested number of beats: 1

Suggested beat: 40

The hero gets the C-story prize.

THE 12 STEPS OF A HERO ACCOMPLISHING A GOAL:

Once you’ve defined your hero’s need, the rest of the plotting process is just stating the steps he takes to get from Point A to Point B. In order for his thoughts and actions to appear human, you must show the following 12 events in this order:

  1. State the hero’s need.

In order for a hero’s actions to be logical, they must be done in pursuit of obtaining an incentive that will satisfy an unfulfilled need. So the first step is to state or illustrate the hero’s need.

  1. State the stakes of completing/failing to fulfill the need.

If a hero has a goal but no reason to accomplish the goal, then his actions will only be half-logical. The more clearly the audience understands the hero’s motive, the more reason they have to care if he accomplishes his goal. The less they understand his motive, the more distracted they’ll be trying to figure out why the hero is doing anything. The more poignant the hero’s motive, the more poignant the story will be to the audience. The less poignant the hero’s motive, the less reason the audience will have to finish watching or reading the hero’s story.

The reason the hero wants to accomplish his goal is because there are stakes at risk. If he succeeds, something good will happen. If he fails, something bad will happen. Since there are foreseeable good and bad consequences, the hero could literally write down the cost/benefit analysis of trying to accomplish his goal and come to the logical conclusion that he must take action. It could be patronizing to the audience to have the hero spell out his motives so explicitly, but the audience does need to know the consequences of both success and failure to fully understand the hero’s behavior.

When brainstorming the stakes in your story, bear in mind that the stakes will define the hero’s character. Whether the author intends it or not, the fact that the hero cares about the stakes, says something about his internal character. If you use the most exciting stakes you can brainstorm, it will make the hero seem like an exciting person. The more you personalize the stakes to the hero, the more depth the hero’s character, and his relationship to the story, will have.

  1. State the condition of fulfilling the need.

The fact that the hero has an unfulfilled need, implies that he must do something to satisfy it. If he didn’t have to do anything, then that would imply it’s already satisfied, unimportant or absurd.

The thing the hero must do to get the incentive is the condition (aka, goal). One condition/goal can have multiple conditions. The hero can learn all the conditions at the beginning of the story or along the way. If/when the hero doesn’t know his goal’s conditions, his immediate goal can be to learn them.

  1. State the hero’s decision to fulfill the conditions.

If the audience doesn’t witness the hero consciously decide to engage in his quest, then his behavior will appear random. When the hero chooses to commit to accomplishing a goal, he takes ownership of his quest. Plus, when he states what he’s about to do and why, the audience can follow the story.

  1. State the hero’s plan to achieve his ultimate goal.

After the hero has stated his goal and the condition to complete it, but before he takes action, he must decide what action to take. He must have a plan. The more clearly the plan is stated, the easier it is to follow the story.

Children’s stories state the hero’s plan almost every step of the way so children don’t get confused, but adults find this patronizing . They can easily follow the plot if the hero’s plans are implied.

The hero should state his plan for his major goals, but the audience doesn’t always have to know what the hero intends to do before he does it, especially when he’s completing minor goals. If the plan isn’t stated, as long as his behavior is within his character, the audience will accept the hero’s unexplained behavior as natural.

  1. The hero enacts his plan to meet the condition.

Once the hero knows what he wants to do, the next step is to do it. If he does anything between the time he formulates his plan and acts on it, he’s wandering around aimlessly. He might have an interesting adventure, but the story won’t move forward until he gets back to his plan, and a tightly written story is always moving forward.

  1. The hero encounters an obstacle or complication.

Technically, it would make a logical, coherent story if the hero decides to do something, does it and succeeds. Psychologically, though, that’s not very interesting. An enthralling story needs tension, and tension comes from the fear the hero won’t succeed.

So, the hero must encounter something at odds with him achieving his goal. Since a hero is measured by the quality of his opponents, the hero should encounter poignant ones that are tailored to reflect and draw out his character.

Whatever stands between the hero and his goal must have a logical reason to be there. Surprises are great, but the less relevant they are to the story, the more absurd your story will be.

The obstacle must have a conflict of interest with the hero achieving his goal. If the problem is a person, they will have a reason why they would benefit from the hero failing and lose something they value if the hero succeeds.

If the obstacle is inanimate, then its existence is the worst-case scenario God or the universe could put in front of the hero to prevent him from achieving his goal.  It helps to imagine that “God” is the antagonist, and God has a conflict of interest with the hero achieving his goal. So God keeps putting worst-case scenario obstacles and complications in the hero’s path.

  1. The hero reacts and adapts to the obstacle or complication

The obstacle will require the hero to perform an action to neutralize it. The hero can use one of his signature moves and neutralize minor opponents directly and immediately, but his major goals will need more eloquent problems and solutions.

  1. The hero fulfills the condition of the need.

Ultimately, the hero will either succeed or fail to fulfill the condition/s of his ultimate need. The only question is how many conditional steps he has to accomplish along the way.

  1. The hero attains the incentive.

The act of the hero accomplishing his goal is the catalyst of a cause/effect reaction that manifests the incentive that will satisfy his need. In other words, he gets the prize.

  1. The repercussion

The premise of the whole story is that something good would happen if the hero satisfies his need, and something bad would happen if he didn’t. Whenever a hero accomplishes a minor goal, the repercussions of that accomplishment will determine what he does next. In the second to last scene of the movie, the audience sees the repercussions of the hero fulfilling his ultimate need.

  1. The sunset

After the hero fulfills his need and experiences the repercussions, the story still begs the question, what does the future hold for the hero? What’s the hero’s next goal? The beginning of each beat is the sunset of the previous beat, and the last scene is the final sunset of the story.

Technically, a story doesn’t have to include steps 10-12 at the end of the story, but the whole story has been a stick and carrot leading up to this point. The author practically promised it, and the audience will be insulted and let down if they don’t get what they expected. You’re really not being clever by ending a story abruptly.

THE 9 PARTS OF A BEAT

My definition of a “beat” is, everything that happens between the time the hero enacts a plan to achieve an immediate goal and fails or succeeds to accomplish it.

Beats tend to be 1-3 minutes long and last 1-5 scenes, though most beats are only 1 scene long. This way, each scene opens to a new action sequence and ends with the hero succeeding or failing to accomplish a goal.

Every beat follows the same 9 steps, which are listed below:

  1. Opening image:

Each beat begins with the hero approaching a problem he needs to solve in order to accomplish a goal that will help him achieve his ultimate goal. This establishes where the camera will start rolling. So it needs to include the location and what the protagonist is doing when the director shouts, “Action.” Describe how the hero arrives or is found at the scene. The most common opening image is the hero walking through a door into a room where needs to do something.

  1. Hero’s opening action:

Once the hero’s presence is established on the scene, he needs to do what he came there to do. He already has a goal and a plan in mind. This is the first thing he does to engage the environment in pursuit of his goal.

  1. Opponent with a conflict of interest or opportunity:

There is always something standing between the hero and his immediate goal. It’s usually a person who has a conflict of interest with the hero. However, the “opponent” can be an ally of the hero, and the opponent’s ultimate goals can align with the hero’s. There still needs to be a source of conflict standing between them. In those cases, the conflict is the hero doesn’t want to the opportunity.

  1. Hero’s response:

After the hero encounters his opponent, he must logically react to it. The hero can only act in his character. The only way the audience can know the hero’s character is by watching him demonstrate his values and skills, of which he has 5-10 he reuses in every beat.

  1. Opponent’s response:

After the hero responds to the conflict in character, the opponent will counteract the hero’s action. Their action is usually a worst-case scenario that minimizes the hero’s chance of success. If the opponent has been seen before, they will use responses that were introduced in their first one or two appearances.

  1. Hero’s escalated response:

After the hero is hit with the opponent’s response, he will counteract the opponent’s move. This move will be more dramatic than his first response.

  1. Opponent’s escalated response:

The opponent will get at least one more chance to counter the hero. If the hero is destined to lose the conflict, this will be the deciding blow that neutralizes the hero and prevents him from achieving his goal. If the hero is destined to win the conflict, he would get another chance to respond with action after the opponent’s turn is over.

The beat can go on longer by having the hero respond again, and the opponent can respond again after that. In an action movie where the hero is physically fighting an enemy, the tit-for-tat can go on for five minutes in a single beat. Most conflicts are conversations where two people parse words briefly and then reap the consequences.

  1. Final outcome:

The final outcome is whether or not the hero won or lost the conflict.

  1. Hero’s closing image:

The closing image is what the camera sees right before the director shouts, “Cut.” This shows the immediate aftermath of the encounter and either implies or states how the outcome affects the hero’s progress towards his ultimate goal. If the hero wins, he may be doing a victory dance. If the hero loses, he may be laying in a gutter bleeding.

If you would like to see the current rough draft, you can download it by clicking here. As long as you give attribution credit, I don’t care if you steal it because I’m publishing it under creative common license.

Below are links to my earlier work on story plotting:

Formula plot templates:

Choose your own adventure story templates

 


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