Category Archives: Screenwriting

Plot Break Down Of “Perry Mason: The Case Of The Sulky Girl”

A Wise Sloth fan E-mailed me recently and asked me to break down the plot of Perry Mason, Season 1-Episode 5, The Case of the Sulky Girl. So I did.

 

Erle Stanley Gardner's "The Case of the Sulky Girl: A Perry Mason Mystery"

 

Perry Mason” is a detective mystery/court drama book series written by Erle Stanley Gardner in the 1930’s-1940’s. In two decades, he wrote 82 books, which were so popular, they were adapted into a black and white television sitcom in the 1950s that lasted 271 episodes. He was able to write so quickly and eloquently by inventing and using handwritten plot wheels. You can find pictures pictures of his original handwritten wheels here. The words are hard to read, but you can find transcriptions here.

Gardner undoubtedly had more wheels and laddered-outlines, which you may be able to learn more about in the book, “Secrets of the World’s Best-Selling Writer: The Storytelling Techniques of Erle Stanley Gardner.” I haven’t read it. The reviews say it’s more biography than how-to, but it seems to be the only book that talks about Gardner’s writing method at all, and his life seems pretty interesting anyway.

You can write your own Perry Mason fan fiction by copying the contents of my spreadsheet into an Excel document and then using the “find and replace” function (Ctrl-F) to replace the variables. Once you’re familiar with how the pieces fit together, then you can move and change them to create more original stories. Over the next few months I’m going to break down a few more episodes and write an analysis that will help both of us understand Gardner’s formula better.

Click here to view the break down on Google Spreadsheets.

Click here to view a jpg image of the break down on Imgur.

Perry Mason: Season 1 Episode 5: The Case of the Sulky Girl
BEAT 1
Introduce CLIENT
Introduce VICTIM
Introduce conflicting goals between CLIENT and VICTIM
Setup to MASON taking CLIENT’S CASE
Introduce primary characters
Setup the murder
LOCATION INT. VICTIM’S HOUSE – STUDY
ACTION CLIENT tells VICTIM she wants to be treated like an adult.
REACTION VICTIM tells CLIENT to act like one.
OUTCOME CLIENT leaves angry.
 
BEAT 2

Introduce WITNESS #4 (MURDERER).

Introduce WITNESS #5 (MURDERER’S ACCOMPLICE).

Setup introducing WITNESS #1.

Setup the time and place of murder.

LOCATION INT. VICTIM’S HOUSE – FOYER
ACTION WITNESS #4 (MURDERER) arrives at VICTIM’S HOUSE to see VICTIM
REACTION WITNESS #5 (MURDERER’S ACCOMPLICE) tells WITNESS #4 (MURDERER) that VICTIM is busy and to come back later, but WITNESS #4 (MURDERER) says he will be with WITNESS #1 until 10pm. WITNESS #5 (MURDERER’S ACCOMPLICE) says to come back at 11pm.
OUTCOME WITNESS #4 (MURDERER) reluctantly agrees to return at 11pm and leaves.
 
BEAT 3

Introduce WITNESS #6 ( RED HERRING).

State CLIENT’S goal and stakes.

LOCATION INT. VICTIM’S HOUSE – CLIENT’S ROOM
ACTION CLIENT tells WITNESS #6 ( RED HERRING) that she wants her money now, and she’ll get it now.
REACTION WITNESS #6 ( RED HERRING) advises CLIENT not to do anything, but CLIENT says she’s out of patience.
OUTCOME CLIENT is resolved to take action, and she leaves to go see Perry MASON.
 
BEAT 4

Introduce RED HERRING #2.

Show CLIENT enacting plan to accomplish goal.

(This is an unecessary beat and can be cut.)

LOCATION EXT. VICTIM’S HOUSE – FRONT YARD
ACTION CLIENT gets in her car and leaves in a hurry.
REACTION CLIENT almost runs over RANDOM GUY (RED HERRING), but he moves out of the way.
OUTCOME RANDOM GUY (RED HERRING) angrily watches CLIENT drive away.
 
BEAT 5

Introduce MASON.

State CASE GOAL #1.

MASON accepts the case.

Introduce MYSTERY #1

LOCATION INT. PERRY MASON’S OFFICE
ACTION CLIENT enter’s MASON’S office and tells him she wants him to represent her.
REACTION MASON asks CLIENT to state her goal. So she tells him that she wants him to break VICTIM’s control of her trust fund.
OUTCOME MASON agrees to take her case, and she leaves.
 
BEAT 6
MASON sends INVESTIGATOR to find CLUE #1 on CLIENT.
MASON follows clues to find more clues.
LOCATION INT. PERRY MASON’S OFFICE
ACTION MASON calls INVESTIGATOR and asks him to find information on CLIENT.
REACTION INVESTIGATOR says he’s busy, but MASON tells him to reprioritize CLIENT’s case.
OUTCOME INVESTIGATOR agrees to investigate CLIENT, and they hang up.
 
BEAT 7

Setup conflicting goals between WITNESS #6 ( RED HERRING) and VICTIM.

Show motive for WITNESS #6 ( RED HERRING) to kill VICTIM.

LOCATION INT. VICTIM’S HOUSE – STUDY
ACTION VICTIM tells WITNESS #6 ( RED HERRING) not to comfort and encourage CLIENT anymore.
REACTION WITNESS #6 ( RED HERRING) says she loves CLIENT, but VICTIM says if she continues to help CLIENT, he’ll fire her.
OUTCOME WITNESS #6 ( RED HERRING) sadly agrees not to help CLIENT and leaves.
 
BEAT 8
MASON recieves CLUE #1 on CLIENT from INVESTIGATOR
LOCATION INT. RESTAURANT
ACTION INVESTIGATOR tells MASON he found information on CLIENT.
REACTION INVESTIGATOR tells MASON that CLIENT ran away to Miami recently, where she fell in love with DEFENDANT (RED HERRING), who is a starving artist.
OUTCOME MASON thanks INVESTIGATOR and leaves to go see DEFENDANT (RED HERRING).
 
BEAT 9

MASON follows CLUE #1, which leads to a dead end.

MASON interviews DEFENDANT (RED HERRING) for a motive but finds no cause for suspicion.

LOCATION INT. DEFENDANT (RED HERRING)’S LOFT
ACTION MASON asks DEFENDANT (RED HERRING) to explain his relationship with CLIENT.
REACTION DEFENDANT (RED HERRING) deflects, but MASON deduces DEFENDANT (RED HERRING) and CLIENT are married and expecting a baby.
OUTCOME MASON is convinced DEFENDANT (RED HERRING)’s intentions are virtuous and leaves.
 
BEAT 10

MASON interviews VICTIM

State CLIENT and VICTIM’S conflicting goals.

MASON finds CLUE #2.

LOCATION INT. VICTIM’S HOUSE – STUDY
ACTION MASON asks VICTIM to explain why he won’t give CLIENT her money.
REACTION VICTIM states CLIENT is too immature to have money until she’s 25.
OUTCOME MASONs presses VICTIM, but VICTIM gets angry and kicks MASON out. MASON leaves convinced VICTIM’s intentions are not virtuous.
 
BEAT 11

MASON recieves CLUE #3 from INVESTIGATOR

CLUE #3: VICTIM invests money through WITNESS #4 (MURDERER)’S bank.

MASON sends INVESTIGATOR to investigate WITNESS #4 (MURDERER)’S bank.

Setup MASON receiving CLUE #10

LOCATION INT. RESTAURANT
ACTION INVESTIGATOR tells MASON he has information on VICTIM.
REACTION INVESTIGATORs tells MASON that VICTIM banks at WITNESS #4 (MURDERER)’s bank and is involved in real estate.
OUTCOME MASON tells INVESTIGATOR to investigate VICTIM’s associates at WITNESS #4 (MURDERER)’s bank.
 
BEAT 12

Setup the murder.

Place DEFENDANT (RED HERRING) at the scene of the murder.

Place WITNESS #4 (MURDERER) at the scene of the murder.

Place WITNESS #1 at the scene of the murder.

Setup the murder
Commit the murder
Show the ruse
Investigate the crime scene
Take statements from witnesses
LOCATION EXT. VICTIM’S HOUSE – FRONT LAWN
ACTION DEFENDANT (RED HERRING) approaches the house to see VICTIM.
REACTION WITNESS #4 (MURDERER) and WITNESS #1 drive up to see VICTIM. So DEFENDANT (RED HERRING) hides behind the house.
OUTCOME WITNESS #4 (MURDERER)’s path to see VICTIM is clear, and DEFENDANT (RED HERRING)’s opportunity is closed.
 
BEAT 13

VICTIM is murdered.

Show WITNESS #2’S TESTIMONY

Introduce MYSTERY #2.

Introduce WITNESS #2

Introduce CLUE #4

LOCATION INT. POLICE STATION
ACTION WITNESS #2 is trying to have a relaxing night.
REACTION VICTIM calls and says CLIENT is threatening his life, but he hangs up suddenly before he can finish.
OUTCOME WITNESS #2 sends a patrol car to VICTIM’S HOUSE to investigate.
 
BEAT 14

Show RUSE.

Introduce CLUE #5

Introduce CLUE #6

LOCATION EXT. VICTIM’S HOUSE – FRONT LAWN
ACTION WITNESS #4 (MURDERER) leaves his meeting with VICTIM, and VICTIM yells out the window saying WITNESS #5 (MURDERER’S ACCOMPLICE) goes with him to get some business papers from the bank.
REACTION While driving away, WITNESS #4 (MURDERER) sees someone attack VICTIM in his study through the window.
OUTCOME WITNESS #4 (MURDERER), WITNESS #5 (MURDERER’S ACCOMPLICE), and WITNESS #1 return to the house to investigate.
 
BEAT 15 – MIDPOINT TWIST

Midpoint twist

Introduce CASE GOAL #2

LOCATION INT. PERRY MASON’S OFFICE
ACTION MASON plans and practices the argument he’ll use in court against VICTIM.
REACTION CLIENT enters and interrupts him and says VICTIM has been murdered.
OUTCOME MASON’s plans are dashed, the stakes are raised, and he has to set a new goal, which is to beat the PROSECUTOR in court.
     
BEAT 16

Investigate the crime scene.

INTRODUCE CLUE #7

Setup PROSECUTOR’S ARGUMENT

LOCATION INT. VICTIM’S HOUSE – STUDY
ACTION Police investigate the crime scene.
REACTION Police find evidence of a large ash tray used to kill VICTIM.
OUTCOME Police plan to do an autopsy report and leave.
 
BEAT 17

CLUE #7 corroborates CLUE #6.

Setup PROSECUTOR’S GOAL #1

LOCATION INT. VICTIM’S HOUSE – STUDY
ACTION Police asks WITNESS #5 (MURDERER’S ACCOMPLICE) what he saw as MASON stands by and listens.
REACTION WITNESS #5 (MURDERER’S ACCOMPLICE) says he saw a man through the window kill VICTIM with a large object, but he couldn’t see him clearly.
OUTCOME The police aren’t sure if WITNESS #5 (MURDERER’S ACCOMPLICE) is reliable, and MASON is worried CLIENT knows DEFENDANT (RED HERRING) killed VICTIM.
 
BEAT 18
MASON interviews CLIENT and finds CLUE #8
Pretrial
Setback after Setback
Build the PROSECUTOR’s case
LOCATION INT. VICTIM’S HOUSE – LIVING ROOM
ACTION MASON asks CLIENT what she knows about the night of the murder.
REACTION CLIENT says DEFENDANT (RED HERRING) went to see VICTIM, and that’s all she knows.
OUTCOME MASON leaves frustrated.
 
BEAT 19

MASON follows CLUE #8 and interviews DEFENDANT (RED HERRING).

MASON finds CLUE #9 (SETBACK #1).

Introduce SETBACK #1

LOCATION INT. WITNESS #6 ( RED HERRING) CHARACTER #1’S LOFT
ACTION MASON asks DEFENDANT (RED HERRING) where he was and what he was doing the night of the murder.
REACTION DEFENDANT (RED HERRING) tells MASON he went to see VICTIM to beg, but saw WITNESS #4 (MURDERER) and ran and waited. Later, he heard WITNESS #5 (MURDERER’S ACCOMPLICE) shouting and entered the house, finding VICTIM dead. Then he ran when WITNESS #5 (MURDERER’S ACCOMPLICE) entered the room.
OUTCOME MASON leaves frustrated.
 
BEAT 20

Enact PROSECUTOR’S GOAL #1

Introduce SETBACK #2

LOCATION EXT. VICTIM’S HOUSE – FRONT YARD
ACTION PROSECUTOR tells WITNESS #5 (MURDERER’S ACCOMPLICE) they’re going to reenact the events to determine if he is a reliable WITNESS #1.
REACTION They reenact WITNESS #5 (MURDERER’S ACCOMPLICE)’s experiences and prove he can tell the difference between different people ‘s profiles through a window.
OUTCOME PROSECUTOR is happy that WITNESS #5 (MURDERER’S ACCOMPLICE) is reliable.
 
BEAT 21
Setup SETBACK #3
LOCATION EXT. VICTIM’S HOUSE – FRONT YARD
ACTION PROSECUTOR and WITNESS #5 (MURDERER’S ACCOMPLICE) leave VICTIM’S HOUSE.
REACTION INVESTIGATOR watches PROSECUTOR and WITNESS #5 (MURDERER’S ACCOMPLICE) leave.
OUTCOME INVESTIGATOR leaves.
 
BEAT 22
MASON states PROSECUTOR’S CASE and the stakes.
LOCATION INT. PERRY MASON’S OFFICE
ACTION INVESTIGATOR tells MASON about WITNESS #5 (MURDERER’S ACCOMPLICE)’s success identifying shadowy profiles through a window.
REACTION MASON states that he can’t challenge WITNESS #5 (MURDERER’S ACCOMPLICE)’s testimony because WITNESS #1 and WITNESS #4 (MURDERER) will corroborate his testimony.
OUTCOME MASON says he’s got a lot of work to do.
 
BEAT 23
Introduce SETBACK #3.
LOCATION INT. DISTRICT ATTORNEY’S OFFICE
ACTION District Attorney tells INVESTIGATOR he was seen watching WITNESS #5 (MURDERER’S ACCOMPLICE) reenact the crime scene.
REACTION District Attorney tells INVESTIGATOR he will be called as a witness to verify WITNESS #5 (MURDERER’S ACCOMPLICE)’s reliability.
OUTCOME INVESTIGATOR reluctantly agrees to testify against his own case.
 
BEAT 24

State CASE GOAL #2

Foreshadow MASON receiving CLUE #10

Preliminary hearing
LOCATION INT. COURT HOUSE – FOYER
ACTION INVESTIGATOR and MASON leave the preliminary hearing.
REACTION INVESTIGATOR says MASON lost to PROSECUTOR. So DEFENDANT (RED HERRING) will be tried for murder.
OUTCOME INVESTIGATOR is pessimistic, but MASON is optimistic that he can find a clue in VICTIM’s financial records, which INVESTIGATOR says he will have soon.
 
BEAT 25

Begin the trial.

PROSECUTOR states his argument.

Opening statements
LOCATION INT. COURT HOUSE – COURT ROOM
ACTION PROSECUTOR makes his opening statement to the jury, saying DEFENDANT (RED HERRING) killed VICTIM and was seen by three witnesses.
REACTION MASON declines to make an opening statement.
OUTCOME JUDGE allows PROSECUTOR to call his first witness.
 
BEAT 26
WITNESS #1 gives his testimony.
MASON is on the defensive and is visibly losing while gaining clues.
LOCATION INT. COURT HOUSE – COURT ROOM
ACTION PROSECUTOR calls WITNESS #1 to the stand.
REACTION WITNESS #1 tells the court his account of the events.
OUTCOME PROSECUTOR ends his turn.
 
BEAT 27
MASON questions WITNESS #1 and finds CLUE #11
LOCATION INT. COURT HOUSE – COURT ROOM
ACTION MASON cross-examines WITNESS #1’s testimony.
REACTION MASON tries to get WITNESS #1 to prove he saw the murder from an unreliable vantage. He gets WITNESS #1 to say he never met VICTIM.
OUTCOME MASON ends his turn.
 
BEAT 28
WITNESS #2 gives his testimony.
LOCATION INT. COURT HOUSE – COURT ROOM
ACTION PROSECUTOR calls WITNESS #2 to the stand.
REACTION WITNESS #2 tells the court the details of VICTIM’s phone call.
OUTCOME PROSECUTOR ends his turn.
 
BEAT 29
MASON questions WITNESS #2 and finds CLUE #12
LOCATION INT. COURT HOUSE – COURT ROOM
ACTION MASON cross examins WITNESS #2.
REACTION MASON gets WITNESS #2 to admit he didn’t mention WITNESS #3 answered VICTIM’s call, making him an unreliable witness.
OUTCOME MASON moves for WITNESS #2’s testimony to be thrown out.
 
BEAT 30
Fill time and raise tension.
LOCATION INT. COURT HOUSE – COURT ROOM
ACTION JUDGE asks PROSECUTOR if he objects to the motion to throw out WITNESS #2’s testimony.
REACTION PROSECUTOR asks to delay deciding whether to throw out WITNESS #2’s testimony until they’ve heard WITNESS #3’s testimony.
OUTCOME JUDGE agrees to PROSECUTOR’s request and orders WITNESS #3 be put on the stand after PROSECUTOR’s next witness.
 
BEAT 31
WITNESS #4 (MURDERER) gives his testimony.
LOCATION INT. COURT HOUSE – COURT ROOM
ACTION PROSECUTOR calls WITNESS #4 (MURDERER) to the stand.
REACTION WITNESS #4 (MURDERER) tells the court the details of the events he witnessed.
OUTCOME PROSECUTOR ends his turn.
 
BEAT 32

MASON questions WITNESS #4 (MURDERER)

MASON finds CLUE #13

LOCATION INT. COURT HOUSE – COURT ROOM
ACTION MASON cross examines WITNESS #4 (MURDERER).
REACTION MASONs asks WITNESS #4 (MURDERER) about the nature of his meeting with VICTIM and gets him to admit it was about buying/selling securities.
OUTCOME MASON ends his turn and says he may call WITNESS #4 (MURDERER) back to the stand later.
 
BEAT 33 (TURNING POINT)
INVESTIGATOR gives CLUE #10 to MASON.
MASON is on the offensive but is visibly losing while gaining clues.
Dead ends and red herrings.
LOCATION INT. COURT HOUSE – COURT ROOM
ACTION MASON sits down.
REACTION MASON recieves the banking information he requested from INVESTIGATOR.
OUTCOME MASON begins reading the information.
 
BEAT 34
WITNESS #5 (MURDERER’S ACCOMPLICE) gives his testimony.
LOCATION INT. COURT HOUSE – COURT ROOM
ACTION PROSECUTOR calls WITNESS #5 (MURDERER’S ACCOMPLICE) to the stand.
REACTION WITNESS #5 (MURDERER’S ACCOMPLICE) tells the court the details of the events he witnessed.
OUTCOME PROSECUTOR ends his turn.
 
BEAT 35
MASON dodges/deflects PROSECUTOR’S strongest argument.
LOCATION INT. COURT HOUSE – COURT ROOM
ACTION PROSECUTOR asks MASON to cross examine his WITNESS #5.
REACTION MASON declines to question the WITNESS #5, and PROSECUTOR learns that WITNESS #3 has arrived.
OUTCOME PROSECUTOR informs JUDGE that WITNESS #3 has arrived.
 
BEAT 36
WITNESS #3 gives his testimony.
LOCATION INT. COURT HOUSE – COURT ROOM
ACTION PROSECUTOR calls WITNESS #3 to the stand.
REACTION WITNESS #3 tells the court the details of the events he witnessed.
OUTCOME PROSECUTOR ends his turn.
 
BEAT 37
MASON questions WITNESS #3 and finds CLUE #
LOCATION INT. COURT HOUSE – COURT ROOM
ACTION MASONs cross examines WITNESS #3.
REACTION MASONs argues WITNESS #3 didn’t know the identity of the caller, but PROSECUTOR says the argument is unfounded.
OUTCOME JUDGE rules MASON’s argument is unfounded.
 
BEAT 38
WITNESS #6 ( RED HERRING) gives her testimony.
LOCATION INT. COURT HOUSE – COURT ROOM
ACTION PROSECUTOR calls WITNESS #6 ( RED HERRING) to the stand.
REACTION WITNESS #6 ( RED HERRING) tells the court the details of the events he witnessed and says she saw DEFENDANT (RED HERRING) at the scene of the crime.
OUTCOME PROSECUTOR ends his turn.
 
BEAT 39
MASON questions WITNESS #6 (RED HERRING) and finds she has a motive and opportunity to kill VICTIM.
LOCATION INT. COURT HOUSE – COURT ROOM
ACTION MASON cross examines WITNESS #6 ( RED HERRING).
REACTION MASON gets WITNESS #6 ( RED HERRING) to admit she is leaving out details that raise suspicioun she had motive to kill VICTIM.
OUTCOME MASON ends his turn.
 
BEAT 40 (Turning point)
MASON sets up his finishing move.
Mason is on the offensive and wins.
LOCATION INT. COURT HOUSE – COURT ROOM
ACTION MASON sits down and tells INVESTIGATOR to get WITNESS #1 to talk to him oustside by the window.
REACTION INVESTIGATOR asks why, but MASON insists he do it without explanation.
OUTCOME INVESTIGATOR agrees and leaves.
 
BEAT 41
MASON questions WITNESS #4 (MURDERER) and uses CLUE #10 to prove he had a motive to kill VICTIM.
LOCATION INT. COURT HOUSE – COURT ROOM
ACTION MASON calls WITNESS #4 (MURDERER) back to the stand.
REACTION MASON calls WITNESS #4 (MURDERER) back to the stand and uses the banking information INVESTIGATOR gave him to prove WITNESS #4 (MURDERER) had a financial motive to kill VICTIM and states that he killed VICTIM as he was trying to call the police and then pretended to be VICTIM.
OUTCOME MASON ends his turn.
 
BEAT 42
MASON questions WITNESS #5 (MURDERER’S ACCOMPLICE) and uses CLUE #11 to prove he had an opportunity to commit THE RUSE.
LOCATION INT. COURT HOUSE – COURT ROOM
ACTION MASON calls WITNESS #5 (MURDERER’S ACCOMPLICE) back to the stand.
REACTION MASON asks WITNESS #5 (MURDERER’S ACCOMPLICE) to read a stack of cards very loudly while WITNESS #1 listens outside.
OUTCOME MASON ends his turn.
 
BEAT 43
MASON questions WITNESS #1 and uses CLUE #11 to prove WITNESS committed THE RUSE.
LOCATION INT. COURT HOUSE – COURT ROOM
ACTION MASON calls WITNESS #1 back to the stand.
REACTION MASON gets WITNESS #1 to admit he might have heard WITNESS #5 (MURDERER’S ACCOMPLICE) tell WITNESS #4 (MURDERER) to bring WITNESS #5 (MURDERER’S ACCOMPLICE) with him to get papers on the night of the murder.
OUTCOME WITNESS #1 confirms WITNESS #5 (MURDERER’S ACCOMPLICE)’s voice came from the window, and WITNESS #5 (MURDERER’S ACCOMPLICE) admits WITNESS #4 (MURDERER) killed VICTIM.
 
BEAT 44

WITNESS #4 (MURDERER) confesses to murdering VICTIM.

MASON wins and rests his case.

LOCATION INT. COURT HOUSE – COURT ROOM
ACTION PROSECUTOR looks to WITNESS #4 (MURDERER) to deny the accusation.
REACTION WITNESS #4 (MURDERER) doesn’t deny the accusation.
OUTCOME MASON rests his case.
 

CASE GOAL #1: Find a way to give CLIENT control of her inheritance from VICTIM.

CASE GOAL #2: Prove DEFENDANT (RED HERRING) didn’t kill VICTIM.

MYSTERY #1: What is CLIENT hiding?

MYSTERY #2: Who killed VICTIM?

RUSE: MURDERER faked an alibi by yelling at WITNESS #1 from a window.

PROSECUTOR’S ARGUMENT: All witnesses’ testimonies are reliable.

CLUE #1 (MYSTERY #1): Client is having a secret affair with DEFENDANT (RED HERRING)

CLUE #2 (MYSTERY #1): VICTIM is involved with large banking investments.

CLUE #3: VICTIM invests money through WITNESS #4 (MURDERER)’S bank.

CLUE #4: WITNESS #2 didn’t hear the caller’s voice change.

CLUE #5: WITNESS #1 heard WITNESS #3’S voice during the RUSE.

CLUE #6: WITNESS #5 saw VICTIM murdered with a large object

CLUE #7: VICTIM was killed with a large object.

CLUE #8: DEFENDANT (RED HERRING) was at the scene of the crime when VICTIM was killed.

CLUE #9: DEFENDANT (RED HERRING) was seen at the scene of the crime when VICTIM was killed.

CLUE #10: MURDERER owed money he couldn’t pay.

CLUE #11: WITNESS #1 has never med VICTIM and thus didn’t know the sound of his voice.

CLUE #12: WITNESS #2 didn’t answer the phone. So he didn’t know the caller’s voice changed.

CLUE #13: WITNESS #4 (MURDERER) buys and sells securities for VICTIM with a “power of attorney”

CLUE #14: WITNESS #3 didn’t know the caller’s voice changed after he handed the phone to WITNESS #2.

CLUE #15:

SETBACK #1: DEFENDANT (RED HERRING) was seen at the scene of the crime when VICTIM was killed.

SETBACK #2: WITNESS #5’s testimony is reliable.

SETBACK #3: INVESTIGATOR’s makes a mistake that helps the PROSECUTOR’s case and weakens MASON’s case.

 

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Comparison Of Film Script Plot Structure Outlines

This chart is an amalgamation of dozens of film script plot outlines I found on the internet, mostly on Pinterest. By putting these charts next to each other, you can see patterns, but it also becomes obvious there’s no single correct plot structure. Each outline focuses on different aspects of different kinds of stories with varying levels of detail. Many of the outlines and plot points I found were modified versions of other people’s, which is all the more reason not to put your full faith in any one source’s method.

 

Click here to view the spreadsheet in Google Docs

 

 

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How To Combine Beats Into Beat Chains When Writing A Screenplay

In my post, “12 steps fictional characters must follow to accomplish a goal,” I explain how movie plots revolve around a hero fulfilling a plan to accomplish a goal that fills a need. In order to make his quest believable, his actions must follow the same 12 steps humans follow when accomplishing real life goals:

 

The hero doesn’t accomplish all of these steps in a single scene. To fill 90-120 minutes of screen time, you must spread them across self-contained actions sequences called “beats,” which I explain in more depth my post, “What is a beat in screenwriting.”

Beats are usually 1-3 minutes long scenes. However, training montages, fight scenes, travel scenes and chase scenes can span 2-4 scenes before resolving the central conflict of the beat. Every beat tends to follow the same 7-9 steps, which you can read more about in the post about beats I just mentioned.

Acts in movies tend to last 8-20 beats, with the average being 10. This means it’s usually mathematically impossible to devote a full beat to every step of the 12 step goal accomplishment cycle. It’s even more impossible to fit 3 story lines into a 10-beat Act. The solution to this problem is to insert multiple steps into a single beat.

The more steps you combine in a single beat, the faster the story will move, which is good for action sequences and action movies in general. The fewer steps you combine in a single beat, the slower the plot progresses, which is good for dramatic sequences and dramatic movies in general. It’s best to only combine 2-4 steps in a single beat. Any more than that, and your story will start getting jumbled and start to narrate itself.

THE 12 STEPS DIVIDED INTO FOUR TYPES OF BEATS

Quest introduction beats:

Steps 1-5 revolve around the hero’s internal thought process. It begins with him identifying a need and ends when he enacts a plan to get it.

Step 1: State the hero’s need.

Step 2: State the stakes of completing/failing to fulfill the need.

Step 3: State the condition of fulfilling the need.

Step 4: State the hero’s decision to fulfill the conditions.

Step 5: State the hero’s plan to achieve his ultimate goal.

Action beats:

Steps 6-9 revolve around the hero’s external actions. It begins with him taking action and ends with him succeeding or failing to achieve a major goal.

Step 6: The hero enacts his plan to meet the condition.

Step 7: The hero encounters an obstacle or complication.

Step 8: The hero reacts and adapts to the obstacle or complication

Step 9: The hero fulfills the condition of the need.

Outcome beats

Steps 10-12 revolve around the hero getting the incentive that fulfills his need. They begin after he has neutralized all obstacles between him and the incentive.

Step 10: The hero attains the incentive.

Step 11: The repercussion

Step 12: The sunset

Listed below are some common combinations of steps you can pool into a single beat:

  • You can combine any combination of the first 7 steps into a single beat
  • 6, 7, 8
  • 7, 8, 9
  • 8, 9, 10
  • 9, 10, 11
  • 10, 11, 12
  • 6, 9
  • 6, 9, 10
  • 10, 11,
  • 11, 12

Step combinations have to be logical. It wouldn’t make sense to put steps 3, 8 and 12 into one beat, because the result would be a scene in which the hero states a condition of filling his goal, reacts to to an obstacle that doesn’t exist and then walks off into the sunset without accomplishing his goal or fulfilling his need.

 

 

CONDENSING THE FIRST FOUR STEPS

The purpose of the first 4 “quest introduction” steps are to introduce information that sets up the hero’s quest. It would be tedious and unnecessary for the hero to spend an entire beat on each of those steps in every Act, especially if/when the information has already been stated, or is implied or obvious. So they are often condensed into 1-3 beats to free up more.

EXAMPLE 1:

Beat 1: The hero states his goal, the stakes, conditions and his plan.

EXAMPLE 2:

Beat 1: The hero states his ultimate goal and the stakes of completing the goal.

Beat 2: The hero states the conditions of completing his goal and his plan to meet the conditions.

EXAMPLE 3:

Beat 1: The hero states his goal, stakes, and conditions.

Beat 2: The hero enacts his unspoken plan to meet the conditions.

In the clip below, the second beat begins at minute 1:30.

EXAMPLE 4:

Beat 1: The hero states his goal and the conditions.

Beat 2: The hero states the stakes and his plan to meet the conditions.

Option 5:

Beat 1: The hero states his goal.

Beat 2: The hero states the stakes.

The hero states the conditions and his plan to meet the conditions.

Option 6:

Beat 1: The hero states his goal and stakes.

Beat 2: The hero states the conditions, reiterates the stakes and decides to commit to the quest.

In the clip below, the second beat begins at 33 seconds and ends at 2:30 .

Note: At any point, in any beat, you can reiterate and escalate the stakes, like in the scene from “Snatch” when Micky suddenly tells Turkish all the amenities he wants his mother’s caravan to have, if Turkish loses their bet.

HOW TO EXTEND BEAT CHAINS

If you condense the first 4 introductory steps down to one or two beats, you can use the beats you freed up to expand on your introduction with more forward-moving action and tension, or the hero can proceed to enact his plan to fulfill the condition/s of his goal.

Listed below are ways to increase the number of beats it takes the hero to accomplish a goal:

  • Assign multiple conditions to completing a goal
  • Assign multiple steps to fulfilling a condition at the beginning of a quest
  • The hero doesn’t know the condition to achieving a goal and must discover it
  • New conditions are created or revealed along the way
  • The hero encounters multiple unexpected obstacles and opponents
  • The hero wins a mid-beat conflict, but it’s a false victory.
  • The hero fails a mid-beat conflict.

The last option on the list needs to be elaborated on. In every beat, the hero has an immediate goal he’s trying to accomplish, which he must encounter/overcome an opponent to complete. At any step of the way, the hero can fail to achieve his goal, and since he still needs to accomplish his goal, he’ll have to spend another beat trying something different.

Alternately, he could step away from the quest/story line and spend the next beat working towards a different story line goal and return to his failed quest under different circumstances.

Listed below are common reasons why the hero may fail a mid-beat conflict:

  • The hero runs out of time.
  • The hero is weakened from a previous event.
  • There’s an unexpected, catastrophic complication while executing the plan.
  • The hero has insufficient/missing skills, resources or allies
  • The hero uses a flawed/cursed skill, resource, character trait, ally or plan
  • The opponent’s skills, strategies, resources or allies trump the hero’s
  • The opponent is an impassable force
  • The hero doesn’t/can’t know the condition to win until he tries and fails

Listed below are common ways the consequence of failure extends the hero’s quest:

  • Changes the condition of passing the opponent
  • Changes the condition of achieving the ultimate goal
  • Changes the conditions of achieving another storyline’s goal
  • Adds a new condition of passing the opponent
  • Adds a new condition of achieving the ultimate goal
  • Eliminates/nullifies the hero’s skills, resources or plan
  • Increases or improves the antagonist’s skills, resources, strategy or allies
  • Nothing changes. The hero must simply have a rematch with the opponent and do better next time

Sometimes you only need to extend a beat chain by one beat. Listed below are multiple ways the hero can accomplish a failed goal in the next beat:

  • The hero immediately returns to the opponent and uses a different skill, resource, strategy or ally
  • The hero immediately returns to the opponent prepared to fulfill the condition of passing the opponent.
  • The hero immediately circumvents the opponent

If you want to extend the hero’s quest further, you can plan to have the hero spend multiple beats on a side-quest before he attempts to fulfill the condition of his goal again.

Listed below are common activities the hero can spend one or more full beats doing before attempting the original goal again.

  • The hero tries to abandon the quest but is reminded of the stakes and returns willingly, he’s forced to return, or the problem follows him
  • The hero creates a new plan to overcome or circumvent the opponent using information learned from the conflict
  • The hero trains/learns a new skill
  • The hero fixes a psychological flaw
  • The hero fixes a physical flaw/weakness/injury.
  • The hero fixes a flawed/cursed resource
  • The hero retrieves the resource required to fulfill the condition of passing the opponent
  • The hero performs the task required to fulfill the condition of passing the opponent
  • The hero seeks out and learns the condition of passing or circumventing the opponent
  • The hero journeys somewhere else where he will need to accomplish a goal
  • The hero seeks/gathers new or old allies
  • The hero reconciles with an estranged ally or allies
  • The hero builds, assembles, stages, sets up or prepares a resource or situation

You can further extend any beat chain by having the hero fail steps or by adding more expected or unexpected steps, conditions, obstacles, opponents, setbacks and complications to his quests. Listed below are some common beat chains:

EXAMPLES OF COMMON BEAT CHAINS

TWO-BEAT CHAIN

1 condition

Beat 1: Introduce the goal, stakes, 1 condition and plan.

Beat 2: The hero enacts the plan and fulfills the condition.

THREE-BEAT CHAINS

1 condition with 1 failure

Beat 1: Introduce the goal, stakes, 1 condition and plan.

Beat 2: Step 1: The hero enacts Plan-A and fails.

Beat 3: Step 2: The hero enacts Plan-B and fulfills the condition.

1 condition with 1 planning beat

Beat 1: Introduce the goal, stakes, and 1 condition.

Beat 2: Introduce the plan.

Beat 3: The hero enacts the plan and fulfills the condition.

1 condition with 1 debate beat

Beat 1: Introduce the goal, stakes, plan and 1 condition.

Beat 2: The hero debates whether he can/should enact his plan.

Beat 3: The hero enacts the plan and fulfills the condition.

1 condition with 1 traveling beat

Beat 1: Introduce the goal, stakes, 1 condition.

Beat 2: Step 1: Travel to the location of the condition.

Beat 3:Step 2: The hero fulfills the condition

1 condition with 1 expected conditional quest

Beat 1: Introduce the goal, stakes, plan and 1 condition.

Beat 2: Step 1: The hero fulfills the conditional quest.

Beat 3: Step 2: The hero fulfills the condition.

1 condition with 1 unexpected condition

Beat 1: Introduce the goal, stakes, plan and 1 condition

Beat 2: Step 1: The hero enacts the plan and fulfills the condition but learns there’s another condition.

Beat 3: Step 2: The hero fulfills the second condition.

1 condition with 1 missing skill and 1 training beat

Beat 1: Introduce the goal, stakes, plan and 1 condition that requires a skill the hero doesn’t have.

Beat 2: Step 1: The hero trains to fulfill the condition.

Beat 3: Step 2: The hero fulfills the condition.

1 condition with 1 missing resource and 1 resource gathering beat

Beat 1: Introduce the goal, stakes, plan and 1 condition that requires a resource the hero doesn’t have.

Beat 2: Step 1: The hero attains the missing resource.

Beat 3: Step 2: The hero fulfills the condition.

1 condition with 1 resource building beat

Beat 1: Introduce the goal, stakes, plan and 1 condition that requires a resource to be built.

Beat 2: Step 1: The hero builds the missing resource.

Beat 3: Step 2: The hero fulfills the condition.

1 condition with 1 resource preparation beat

Beat 1: Introduce the goal, stakes, plan and 1 condition that requires the hero to deploy resources before he can enact the plan.

Beat 2: Step 1: The hero deploys his resources.

Beat 3: Step 2: The hero fulfills the condition.

1 condition with 1 resource fixing beat

Beat 1: Introduce the goal, stakes, plan and 1 condition that requires the hero to fix a resource before he can enact the plan.

Beat 2: Step 1: The hero fixes his resources.

Step 2: The hero fulfills the condition.

1 condition with 1 missing ally and 1 recruitment beat

Beat 1: Introduce the goal, stakes, plan and 1 condition that requires an ally the hero doesn’t have.

Beat 2: Step 1: The hero recruits the missing ally.

Beat 3: Step 2: The hero fulfills the condition.

1 condition with 1 estranged ally and 1 unification beat

Beat 1: Introduce the goal, stakes, plan and 1 condition that requires an ally the hero is estranged with.

Beat 2: Step 1: The hero unifies the estranged ally.

Beat 3: Step 2: The hero fulfills the condition.

1 unknown condition

Beat 1: Introduce the goal and stakes. State that the condition is unknown and the plan to learn the unknown condition

Beat 2: Step 1: The hero enacts his plan and learns the condition of the goal

Beat 3: Step 2: The hero fulfills the condition of the goal.

2 conditions

Beat 1: Introduce the goal, stakes, 2 conditions and a 2-step plan.

Beat 2: Step 1: The hero fulfills condition 1.

Beat 3: Step 2: The hero fulfills condition 2.

1 condition with 1 escalation beat

Beat 1: Introduce the goal, stakes, conditions and plan.

Beat 2: Step 1: The problem gets worse, and the stakes escalate.

Beat 3: Step 2: The hero fulfills the condition.

1 condition with 1 refusal beat

Beat 1: Introduce the goal, stakes, and condition.

Beat 2: Step 1: The hero refuses to enact the plan and learns he must accomplish his goal.

Beat 3: Step 2: The hero fulfills the condition.

1 condition with 1 conflicting internal flaw

Beat 1: Introduce the goal, stakes, condition that conflicts with the hero’s internal flaw.

Beat 2: Step 1: The hero fixes his internal flaw.

Beat 3: Step 2: The hero fulfills the condition.

1 condition with 1 conflicting physical flaw

Beat 1: Introduce the goal, stakes, condition that conflicts with the hero’s physical flaw.

Beat 2: Step 1: The hero fixes his physical flaw.

Beat 3: Step 2: The hero fulfills the condition.

1 condition with 1 defense beat

Beat 1: Introduce the goal, stakes, condition and plan.

Beat 2: Step 1: The hero is attacked and defends himself.

Beat 3: Step 2: The hero fulfills the condition.

1 condition with 1 chase beat

Beat 1: Introduce the goal, stakes, condition and plan.

Beat 2: Step 1: The condition or opponent flees, and the hero gives chase.

Beat 3: Step 2: The hero fulfills the condition.

1 condition with 1 escape beat

Beat 1: Introduce the goal, stakes, condition and plan.

Beat 2: Step 1: The hero is attacked and flees.

Beat 3: Step 2: The hero fulfills the condition.

 

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A Basic Hollywood Movie Plot Outline Template

There’s no single, right way to structure a movie plot. However, Hollywood executives have gotten addicted to a certain format. So if you want to impress them, youR best strategy is to give them what they want. Many successful scriptwriters have reverse engineered the formula by breaking down existing movies, and a few of them have been gracious enough to share their findings. I’ve studied them all and have been frustrated by each of them. They all leave key bits of information out, which makes them feel like pieces of a treasure map. So I laid them all out, side by side and compared them. Then I studied popular movies to fill in the gaps. The outline below is the most standardized, generic outline that uses the most popular plot points. It isn’t meant to be followed 100%. This is just a baseline. As you fill in the key points, you can flesh out the spaces between them and even push the plot forward or backward a little bit.

The A-story is the hero’s external quest to achieve the goal that’s most important to him, such as: saving the world, saving his home, getting rich, paying off a debt, escaping a dangerous place, getting back home, etc. The B-story is the love story or the hero’s secondary quest to overcome an internal character flaw.

A beat is a series of events that usually fit in one scene, is one minute long, and equals one page of a screenplay. For every beat that’s longer than one minute, another beat must be equally shorter. The sequence of a beat goes like this:

Set up a situation with a goal. Put a conflict between the hero and their goal. The hero reacts to the conflict and tries to overcome it. This produces an outcome. Typically, the hero meets a person. They have tense conversation or a fight, which the hero either succeeds or fails to overcome. If the hero succeeds, something good happens to him in the next beat. If he fails, something bad happens to him. If he wins in one of the major conflict beats, his success tends to be a false victory. He wins the battle, but it backfires and sets him back worse than he was before, which raises the stakes and lowers his hope of succeeding at his ultimate goal.

The beat chains on the right are suggestions for how you can fill in the blank beats between major conflicts and points of no return. You don’t have to follow them exactly, but a hero’s actions will only be believable and relatable if you show or state the hero’s goal, the conditions of achieving the goal, and his plan to fulfill the conditions. You also need to show or state his motivation. This means the stakes. If he succeeds, something good him will happen that’s important to him. If he fails, something bad will happen. In other words, either his wildest dream or worst nightmare will come true.

As the hero works towards fulfilling the conditions of his quest, he will constantly run into setbacks that will change the conditions of completing his goal. Then he’ll have to identify the new conditions, debate going forward and make a new plan. Each time he encounters a setback, the stakes get raised and his chances of success get lower until all hope is lost. The hero’s successes are rarely luck. They happen when the hero uses his signature strength. His failures are rarely luck as well. They happen when the hero uses his signature flaw. So the plot is driven more by the hero’s flaws than his strengths. If he was perfect, there would be no story to tell. The hero resolves his signature flaw through the course of the B-story. It’s only by accomplishing that goal, which he probably didn’t even know he had, can he accomplish his ultimate goal in the A-story.

CLICK HERE TO VIEW A GOOGLE SPREADSHEET WITH PLOT BREAK DOWNS OF 14 ICONIC MOVIES

Spreadsheet showing a generic movie script arragned by acts and beats with standard conflicts

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What Is A Beat In Screenwriting?

A 90-120 minute movie breaks down like a 5-episode season of a sitcom, which you can see examples of in my movie break downs and my basic Hollywood movie plot outline template. Each Act is an episode that revolves around the hero accomplishing a goal that’s a condition of his final goal. Each episode/Act can be further broken down into smaller self-contained, goal-accomplishing cycles. These mini action cycles are called beats.

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. The only time a beat lasts 4-5 scenes is during a montage, chase or fight scene. The longer the movie, the longer the beats tend to be. In Avatar, an unusually long movie, each beat is about 2 minutes long. In Inception, an equally long movie, each beat lasts a minute or less, making it much more fast paced.

Regardless of the length of movie, the first Act tends to always have 8-12 beats, with the average being 10. The final act almost always has 3 beats. The exception is when you have multiple characters who all need a dedicated denouement for their story line. Every other Act tends to be 10-20 beats long, usually closer to 10 than 20. Movies that are 90 minutes long tend to have 40-100 beats. 120+ minute long movies tend to have upwards of 180 beats. You can find examples of beat break downs in famous movies in the list of links at the bottom of this page. They show there’s not an exact number of beats a movie should have.

STEPS OF A BEAT

Beats tend to follow the same 9 steps, which are listed below, though for short, fast beats, you can eliminate steps 6 and/or 7.

  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.

EXAMPLES FROM “AVATAR”

The clip includes the first two beats from “Avatar.” The first beat ends, and the second begins, at minute 1:30. The conflict in the first beat is general malaise. The conflict in the second is a basic physical fight. Both are a metaphor for the hero’s life:

Here are another two beats from Avatar. The first ends, and the second begins at minute 1:42. The conflict in the first beat is Jake wanting to use his Avatar body before he’s ready. The conflict in the second is the challenge of using his Avatar body in the training grounds.

This an example of a fight scene beat with multiple escalations within a single conflict:

This is an example of a beat from Avatar with multiple scenes. The central conflict is to climb a mountain, but it takes several steps. Technically, you could consider each step its own short beat. Sometimes beats can be subjective and open to interpretation.

Click here to see a complete break down of all the beats in Avatar.

 

 

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How To Add Multiple Story Lines When Writing A Movie

"Subplots & Storylines"

A 90-120 minute movie about a hero who only accomplishes one goal, would require him to complete at least a dozen steps to fill all the screen time. This would be painfully slow and lack depth. The solution is to give the hero multiple needs to fill, each with their own goal, conditions and complications. There’s no right answer for how many story lines you should have, but the industry standard is three: An “A-story,” “B-story,” and “C-story.” This gives you just enough content to fill 90-120 pages without things getting too complicated, choppy or fast.

If all three story lines contain the same amount of screen time, each one would feel equally important, and it would be unclear what the driving force of the movie is. Therefore, the standard is for the A-story to take up 60-70% of the screen time. The B-story takes up 20-30%, and the C-story takes up 5-10%. This gives the hero enough time to complete the twelve-steps to accomplishing a goal, 3-4 times in the A-story, 1-3 times in the B-story and once in the C-story.

The A, B and C-storylines serve a specific purpose, which defines the need/s the hero is attempting to satisfy in each storyline:

 

The A-story

 

 

The A-story is the longest storyline. So it carries the story, which means the hero’s ultimate goal in the A-story is the driving force of the story. Since the story needs the hero to be active, it makes sense that the hero’s A-story goal is to achieve an external, tangible goal. It’s what he wants to do most in life. It’s the impact/change he wants to have on the external universe.

Below are some of the most common A-storyline goals:

  • Save his world, home, business or a loved one’s home or business.
  • Win a contest.
  • Stop a killer, monster, oppressor or kidnapper.
  • Find or return home.
  • Fulfill a job contract.
  • Get rich, powerful or otherwise successful.
  • Get revenge.

The B-story

 

 

The B-story could be another tangible goal, but the standard is for the B-story goal to be what the hero’s heart wants most in life. It’s what he wants to become. It’s his quest for intangible, interpersonal, metaphysical, and/or internal accomplishment. It’s the impact/change he needs/wants in his internal universe. The hero may have to do something tangible to fulfill the condition of the B-story goal, but the topic/theme of the quest is psychological, inter-personal or spiritual.

It creates the most tension when the B-storyline goal is a condition of the A-story goal. This means the hero has to achieve his B-story goal before he can achieve his external goal. This is psychologically satisfying for the audience, because the hero’s external progress depends on his internal growth, which brings the quest full circle.

Below are some of the most common B-storylines:

  • The hero wants someone to fall in love with him. This is the most common B-story.
  • The hero wants to save, protect or help a loved one (if that’s not already the A-story goal).
  • The hero wants to prove his worth/virtue and be respected or accepted by himself, his lover, boss, children, parents, teacher or social group.
  • The hero wants or needs to overcome an internal flaw. For a list of character flaws, do an internet search for lists of personality disorders, emotional disorders, behavioral disorders or character flaw tropes.

If you want to write a story that is more emotion-based and focused on interpersonal relationships, you can swap the A-story and B-story so that the longer A-story revolves around the hero’s internal goal, and the shorter B-story revolves around the hero’s external goal. The shorter action-oriented storyline can still drive the story if you want.

In “Back to the Future,” Marty spends most of his screen time unifying his parents to fulfill his dream of having a functional family, which is a condition he must fulfill before he can use his time machine to go back to the future, which he only spends about 20 minutes doing.

In “Along Came Polly,” the hero spends most of his time falling in love with a woman named Polly. He only spends about 20 minutes completing a job for his boss, in which he learns the life lesson he needs to know in order to keep Polly.

 

The C-story

 

 

The C-story is an optional miniature side-story. If you have a C-story, it will appear in the last beat of the movie, which hints at what the future holds for the hero. So the C-story arc would logically involve solving a problem that sets the hero up for his next adventure.

 

You have three options when adding your third (or more) storyline/s.

 

1: Each storyline represents another quest for the hero. It’s the hero’s quest to accomplish whatever the third most important goal in life is for him, based on his beliefs. It can be used tactically to provide the hero with a resource he’ll need to solve the A-story line, or it can be a fun time-filler that could be cut without affecting the main storylines. In “Back to the Future,” the hero tries to prevent his mentor from dying in the future.

 

2: Each storyline follows a character’s quest to fulfill their need other than the hero, such as the antagonist, love interest or sidekick. The storyline should be relevant to the hero’s ultimate goal or it will feel irrelevant and distracting. The C-story will have the most impact if it’s the character’s B-story and conflicts with the hero’s A or B-story goals.

 

3: Each storyline represents a quest for one of the minor characters. This option has less impact on the story and the viewer, which can be a good vehicle for comic relief or fleshing out the tone of a genre-centric story… unless you’re doing a story like “Snatch” or “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” where there are multiple characters with conflicting goals that keep crossing paths. Either way, the minor character/s’ goals should somehow align or conflict with another main character’s ultimate goal/s, preferably the hero. Otherwise, the storyline is an unnecessary distraction. However, that can work to your advantage if you’re writing a mystery story where you want to misdirect the audience’s attention.

 

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12 Steps Fiction Characters Must Follow To Accomplish A Goal

In my post, “How writers can use the psychology of motivation to create believable characters,” I explain the 18 steps every real-life human being follows when choosing and accomplishing a goal. Here, I boil those down to 12 simple steps for you to use in your stories to make sure your character’s actions are logical and believable.

The process of motivation: Unsatisfied need -> Tension -> Drives -> Search Behavior -> Need Fulfilled -> Reduced Tension

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.

2: 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.

3: 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.

4: 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.

5: 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.

6: 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.

7: 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.

8: 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.

9: 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.

10: 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.

11: 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.

12: 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.

 

If you enjoyed this post, you’ll also like these:

 

Formula Plot Templates
Screenwriting for Movies
Screenwriting for TV
Short Stories
Erotica
Choose Your Own Adventure
Movie plot break downs
TV plot break downs
Free story prompts
Writing tips
Blogging
Art

How To Tie The Purpose Of A Story To The Hero’s Goal

In my post, “How writers can use the psychology of motivation to create believable characters” I explain how every story is about a hero attempting to accomplish a goal that yields the incentive that will satisfy his need. If your hero were a hungry lab rat in a maze built by psychologists, his need would be hunger. His goal would be to press the lever that gives him a food pellet, and the pellet would be the incentive.

Drawing of a scientist with a clip board studying a rat, who is in a long box with a piece of cheese at the other end. There are no obstacles between the rat and the cheese. The rat is thinking, "Should I be insulted?"

Deducing the incentive from the need can be straightforward, because the very nature of the need practically dictates the answer. If the hero is thirsty, the incentive is water. If the hero is love-starved, the incentive is a lover. If the hero is in danger, the incentive is safety.

You should brainstorm as many incentives as you can to make sure you find the best one your mind has to offer. When you’re brainstorm, you need to keep in mind that every detail in your story will extrapolate from these. So it’s of the utmost importance that the need and incentive cater to the purpose of the story.

Ultimately, all stories serve one of two purposes:

  1. Elicit emotion
  2. Convey information

Below is a list of purposes your story can serve, including examples of popular movies and the needs and incentives they used to achieve their respective purposes:

ELICIT EMOTIONS

The purpose of your story doesn’t have to be profound. Movie studios know the films they’re making are consumer products, and their target audience is bored, overworked suburbanites who don’t have the time, money or freedom to experience life to its fullest; so they live vicariously through their television sets. Sure, some viewers are looking for answers to life’s deepest questions, but most people are just trying to feel alive in between the relentless chores and stresses of modern life.

Any entrepreneur will tell you, in order to be successful in business, you have to find a need and fill it. People need to feel emotions. So the purpose of your script can be to elicit an emotion from your audience. If you decide that’s your story’s purpose, you need pick a goal that caters to the desired emotion.

  • Elicit excitement

Most of the movies that have grossed more than $1 billion didn’t have much to say about life. The one that did, “Avatar,” did so in the most exciting way possible. The one love story, “Titanic,” had more action sequences than love scenes.

If you want to write an exciting story, then you need to know what causes humans to feel excited. The sensation of excitement is caused by the release of adrenaline in the human brain. Adrenaline is released when something triggers the fight or flight response in the sympathetic nervous system. The fight or flight response is, “a physiological reaction that occurs in response to a perceived harmful event, attack, or threat to survival.”

So if you want your story to trigger the release of adrenaline, your hero’s goal should revolve around a threat to survival. This is why the most common goal in summer blockbusters is to save the world.

Your hero doesn’t have to save anyone but himself. The threat just has to be interesting. So, to pick your hero’s goal, ask yourself, “What the most exciting goal a hero can have?”

In “The Dark Knight” the hero’s need is to protect people, and his goal is to stop an anarchist serial killer. The incentive is the antagonist’s absence, and the stakes are peace vs. death.

In “Lord of the Rings” the hero’s need is survival, and his goal is to stop an evil wizard from overrunning the world with orcs. The incentive is the antagonist’s absence, and the stakes are peace vs. death.

In “Star Wars” the hero’s need is security, and his goal is to stop an evil galactic empire from oppressing the galaxy. The incentive is a rebel-controlled government, and the stakes are peace vs. death.

In “Indiana Jones” the hero’s need is “fortune and glory,” and his goal is to find a priceless treasure. The incentive is the Ark of the Covenant, and the stakes are fortune/glory vs. Nazi domination.

  • Elicit fear

Fear is also a product of the fight or flight response. It’s also triggered by a threat to survival, and it can be divided into two types: terror and horror.

“Terror is usually described as the feeling of dread and anticipation that precedes the horrifying experience. By contrast, horror is the feeling of revulsion that usually occurs after something frightening is seen, heard, or otherwise experienced. It is the feeling one gets after coming to an awful realization or experiencing a deeply unpleasant occurrence. In other words, horror is more related to being shocked or scared, while terror is more related to being anxious or fearful. Horror has also been defined as a combination of terror and revulsion, but it can be triggered by the anticipation of a threat in the future.”

Depending on which type of fear you want to elicit, ask yourself, “What’s the most terrifying threat you could be hunted by?” or “What’s the most shocking threat you could be harassed by?”

In “It” the hero’s need is survival, and the goal is to stop the magical killer clown that is eating children. The incentive is the antagonist’s absence, and the stakes are survival vs. death.

In “The Blair Witch Project,” the hero’s need is truth, and the goal is to find evidence. The incentive is documenting the truth, and the stakes are life vs death.

In “Hostel” the hero’s need is survival, and the goal is to survive being killed by murderous tourists. The incentive is freedom, and the stakes are life vs death.

  • Elicit laughter

Many people have said that humor can’t be explained, but like anything else in the physical universe, if it happens, it happens because of a real cause/effect chain of events that can be reverse engineered. Laughter is a survival mechanism, just like the fight or flight response. It exists because the human mind is designed to think logically.

The human brain is wired to find patterns in the world so it can anticipate them and react appropriately. When it is shown a pattern and then is shown an unexpected variable, it will try to figure out how the new variable relates into the old pattern. If the new variable is threatening, the brain will trigger the fight or flight response. If the unexpected variable doesn’t fit the pattern but is nonthreatening, the brain will reject it for being illogical. The physical manifestation of the mental rejection is laughter.

Every joke has three parts: A subject, a predicate and a conclusion. Together they form a logical cause/effect pattern. The simplest formula for a joke is 1+2=-3.

Subject

The number 1 is the subject of the joke. You can call it the introduction or setup. Either way, it begins establishing a pattern. This is why jokes often begin, “A guy walks into a bar…” “Two rabbis were eating at a deli…” “I was eating dinner with my mother in law last night…”

You introduce a situation that the audience has preconceived expectations about in preparation to deviate from the expectations. You can even begin a joke by breaking the expected pattern immediately by saying, “A horse walks into a bar…” “Two rabbis were eating in a church…” “I was having sex with my mother in law last night…”

Predicate

The number 2 in the formula above is the predicate. In a sentence, the predicate says something about the subject. When you combine the subject and the predicate, you can deduce the logical outcome. So you could make a joke by saying, “A man walks into a bar (subject) and orders a beer (predicate)…” The logical expectation is that the bartender will serve him a beer (conclusion). Finishing the joke is simply a matter of finding a surprisingly ridiculous conclusion for the situation.

Again, you can also create humor by using an unexpected predicate such as, “A man walks into a bar and orders a horse…” or “Two rabbis were eating at a deli, when my mother in law rides in on a horse…”

Conclusion

When you hear the subject and predicate of a joke, your subconscious brain is thinking, “When the first variable is added to the second, I can predict what the outcome will be.” Why the joke is funny depends on why the conclusion doesn’t follow the premise. The unexpected ridiculousness of the conclusion is the punch in the punch line. The conclusion can be absurd, exaggerated, under/overstated, reframed, misinterpreted or opposite of what you expected.

You can also make a successful joke by having a conclusion that does follow the premise logically, but it’s unexpected because nobody has ever pointed it out to you, or you’re surprised to hear someone say it because it’s taboo, poignantly accurate, or has unexpected implications.

Ideally, your whole story could be summarized as a joke, where Act 1 introduces a subject, Act 2-4 builds on the pattern in a way that leads the audience to expect a certain conclusion, and Act 5 deviates from it in an unexpected, ridiculous way.

However, a lot of comedies are written with a basic adventure or love story that drives the plot, and  jokes have been crammed into every scene. If that’s the route you want to take, then plot the movie like it’s an action or love story, and worry about the funny details later. If you want the story itself to be a joke, ask yourself what expectation of the audience’s you want to pull the rug out from under.

In “Airplane,” the hero’s need is survival, and his goal is to land an airplane after the crew dies of food poisoning. The incentive is being on the ground, and the stakes are life vs death.

In “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” the hero’s need is to fulfill the will of God, and his goal is to find the Holy Grail. The incentive is the Holy Grail, and the stakes are God’s approval vs God’s disapproval.

In “The Big Lebowski,” the hero’s need is tranquility, and his goal is to get back a rug that was stolen from him. The incentive is his rug, and the stakes are order vs chaos.

  • Elicit love

The instinctual need to feel loved is as strong as the instinctual need to have sex. The less we feel loved, the more of a relief it is to live vicariously through fictional characters’ love lives. A love story is just that, a reenactment of two people falling in love. This means the hero’s goal is to fall in love. The rest of the story is just details that will fall into place as you reverse engineer the circumstances. Similarly, if the purpose of your story is to elicit lust, the hero’s end goal will be to have sex, and the rest of the story explains how the hero got laid.

  • Elicit sadness

Fear is triggered when you’re afraid you’re about to lose something. The more important the thing is, the more powerful your fear is. A sad story is like a bad joke, where, instead of the conclusion being ridiculous. The conclusion involves losing something important. That’s why the following joke is sad, instead of funny: “A man walks into a bar and orders a beer… because his infant daughter just died, and there was nothing he could do to prevent it.”

Sadness is triggered by losing the thing you value most. You can be sad by knowing you’ll lose something in the future, by losing it right now, or thinking about something you lost in the past. Someone just has to lose something profoundly important, but with one caveat. The loss has to be hopeless. If there’s a chance of saving the thing you lost, the correct emotional response is anger, because your brain will release adrenaline to get you off your butt and trying to save the world.

The movie, “Taken” wasn’t a sad story, even though it started with the hero losing everything he valued most. It was exciting, because the hero had hope that fueled his anger. However, the movie would have been sad if he had lost his family at the end despite his best efforts. The point is, every minute in your story that you want to elicit sadness, the chances of the hero attaining the thing he wants most should be hopeless.

If you want to write a sad story, ask yourself, “What’s the most poignant thing a person can lose, and what’s the most poignant way to lose it?”

In “Schindler’s List,” the hero’s need is to honor life, and his goal is to save as many Jews as he can from concentration camps. The incentive is the people he saves, and the stakes are being good vs. being evil.

In “Brokeback Mountain” the hero’s need is love, and his goal is to be with the man he loves. The incentive is his lover, and the stakes are happiness vs. sadness.

In “Dancer in the Dark” the hero’s need is to take care of her family, and her goal is to pay for her son’s eye surgery. The incentive is her son’s sight, and the stakes are her son’s security vs. insecurity.

In “Requiem for a Dream,” the hero’s need is to be successful, and his goal is to sell enough drugs to make his dreams come true. His incentive is money, and the stakes are prosperity vs. degeneracy.

  • Elicit anger

Sadness is a watered down version of the flight response, and is triggered by loss. Anger is a watered down version of the fight response, and is also triggered by the threat or experience of loss. Most people don’t go to the movies because they want to feel angry, but there are markets and uses for anger-inducing content, aka, propaganda.

Tabloids, reality TV shows, religious programming, social justice films, eco-conscious cartoons, and extreme right wing entertainment news segments sell their consumers content that makes them angry at celebrities, politicians and outsiders.

The most poignant example is Disney’s WWII propaganda films such as “The Ducktators” and “Education for Death.” Those films inform the viewer there’s a threat to something they value, and they should be angry and take action to prevent the impending loss. The same thing happens in “Avatar,” “Fern Gully,” “Garbage Warrior” “Medicine Man,” “Hotel Rwanda,” “Crash,” “Network,” “God’s Not Dead,” “Reefer Madness,”  “Fahrenheit 9/11,” and “2016: Obama’s America.”

The formula for a story is perfectly suited for propaganda. A story is a dramatized enactment of a person who identifies what’s most important to him in life, loses it and tries to get it back. It walks through the steps of how he lost it and what can be done to get it back. To write your own propaganda film, you just need to pick something in the real world that’s important to you and is under threat. Have the hero walk through the steps of losing it or trying to prevent its loss, trying to neutralize the threat and experiencing the consequences of success/failure.

The story can be a metaphor for what’s happening in the world, or a blue-print for what could happen. As long as your call to action isn’t absurd or immoral, there’s nothing sinister about making a story that points out a valid threat and explores how it got here and how to fix it. The question you need to ask yourself to write a propaganda film is, “What’s the biggest threat to the most important thing that there’s still a chance to fix?”

  • Elicit inspiration/motivation

Inspirational and motivational movies hinge on the threat of loss as well. What makes them feel good is that the hero overcomes the seemingly hopeless threat in a spectacular manner. Sad stories tell how someone lost something. Angry stories tell how someone could lose something. Inspirational stories tell how someone got something.

That’s why the following joke makes you feel good, “A man walked into a bar and ordered a beer only to find out it was more expensive than he thought, and he couldn’t afford it. The bartender smiled at the man and said, ‘You look like you’ve had a rough day. I can tell you’ve been working hard and deserve a beer. So I’ll tell you what, it’s on the house. I appreciate you choosing my bar over all the others, and I’m glad to have you here.’”

To make an inspirational story, pick a poignant and seemingly hopeless goal for the hero to achieve.

In “Forest Gump,” the hero’s need is social acceptance, and his goal is to have a normal life despite his mental and physical handicaps. The incentive is Jenny’s love, and the stakes are companionship vs. loneliness.

In “The Shawshank Redemption” the hero’s needs are survival and autonomy, and his goal is to escape prison. The incentive is freedom, and the stakes are life vs. death.

In “Rocky,” the hero’s need is to prove himself, and his goal is to last 12 rounds in a boxing match with the world champion. The incentive is Adrian’s love, and the stakes are purposefulness vs. purposelessness.

In “The Pursuit of Happyness,” the hero’s needs are survival and taking care of his family. His goal is to become a stock broker. The incentive is a good paying job, and the stakes are being a good father vs. being a bad father.

  • Elicit curiosity

It’s human nature to want to understand the unknown because it makes us feel safe. Understanding the world around us makes us feel like we’re in control of our environment, instead of it controlling us. We’re especially curious to identify sources of danger, because we evolved for thousands of years listening to strange noises in the night, hoping a monster wouldn’t come out of the shadows and eat us.

To make a mystery story, ask yourself, what’s is the most interesting and dangerous “unknown” a person would want to know?

In “The Maltese Falcon,” the hero’s need is for truth, and his goal is to find out who killed his partner. The incentive is the culprit, and the stakes are justice vs. injustice.

In “The Usual Suspects,” the hero’s need is to do his job, and his goal is to learn the identity of Keyzer Soze. The incentive is knowledge, and the stakes are justice vs. injustice.

In “The Game,” the hero’s need is truth, and his goal is to find out why he’s being accosted by strangers in ways that reflect his inner flaws. The incentive is survival, and the stakes are life vs. death.

  • Elicit awe/wonder

Awe and wonder are pleasant emotions that can be triggered in humans by showing them a reason to hope that they don’t fully understand. It’s the rational response to a positive mystery. To write an awe-inspiring movie, ask yourself what the most interesting and wonderful unknown a person would want to know?

In “The Never Ending Story,” the hero’s need is to honor his culture, and his goal is to find the reason his world is dying. The incentive is his home world, and the stakes are survival vs. death.

In “The Matrix,” the hero’s need is for truth, and his goal is to find his place in the Matrix. The incentive is fulfilling his destiny, and the stakes are life vs. death.

In “Inception,” the hero’s need is to be with his family, and his goal is to fulfill a job contract. The incentive is having his criminal record erased, and the stakes are family vs. separation.

CONVEY INFORMATION

Propaganda merges anger entertainment with conveying information, but sometimes the purpose of a story is to convey information about important topics that aren’t under threat. Listed below are some examples.

  • Teach a functional lesson

Stories are perfectly suited for being used as instructional guides, since they revolve around a hero setting a goal and going through the steps of accomplishing it while avoiding the occupational hazards. You could write a story about a man who wants to build a house. So he does it, demonstrating how to accomplish every step in the process and overcoming each tasks risks.

The goal and process don’t have to be so literal. You may just want to give the viewer an idea of how people climb Mount Everest, survive a plane crash in the Andes, survive on a deserted island, build a media empire, run for political office, or teach a classroom. In that case, you would write a story that revolves around the hero accomplishing the goal you want to educate the audience about.

These don’t have to be concrete, external tasks. Most non-fiction how-to books are self-help. They walk you through the steps of overcoming common hazards of the human condition. You could go down the list of Amazon’s best-selling self-help books and write stories based on each of them, wherein the hero’s goal is to overcome his character flaw, and to do that, he has to go through the steps listed in the table of contents of the whatever-help book you’re looking at.

Alternately, you can demonstrate the wrong way to do something for comedic effect, like in “Bad Golf My Way” or “Caddyshack,” or as a cautionary tale like in “Deep Water Horizon.”

  • Teach responsibility

The reason some behavior is considered responsible is because it has a positive long-term effect on the most important goal in life, survival. Responsible behavior is relative to the environment one is trying to survive in. The most useful skills and goals a child raised in a remote African tribe will be different than those of an African American raised in the ghettos of Detroit or the penthouses of Manhattan.

Wherever you live, there are rules and best-practices for surviving and thriving in your local environment. These will change as technology, politics, business and social movements change, but some life lessons are universal, like the importance of drinking water and giving/receiving compassionate touch. Everyone needs to learn how to solve problems, manage conflict, cope with not getting everything they want, come to terms with death, etc., etc.

Half the fables ever written are basically metaphors for ways people get ahead or fail at life. If you want to write a fable, you need to ask yourself, what’s the most poignant lesson people should know to succeed in life, and what is the most common way people fail, and what are the consequences of success and failure? With that information, you can write a story about a hero who goes through the steps real humans go through to succeed and/or fail at the chores of life.

  • Teach morality

All the rules in life don’t revolve around your own personal survival and well-being. There are other people in the world, who are equally important. From a cosmic perspective, it’s equally important that they be able to survive and flourish.

The determining factor in the morality of an action is whether it helps or hinders someone from fulfilling their potential. There are best-practices for helping and not hurting people. There are flawed goals, flawed rules and flawed processes for interacting with people respectfully and productively that can be illustrated by having a hero walk through the steps of making the same mistakes and suffering the same consequences. These types of stories constitute the second half of the fables ever written. If you want to write a morality-based fable, ask yourself, what are the best/worst and most common ways people interact with each other that helps or hurts one or both of them? And what are the steps and consequences?

  • Teach about a topic

You might have a burning passion for astronomy, WWII, the food service industry, maps, zoos, weight lifting, computers, video games, or anything else with a page on Wikipedia. You might not want to teach people how to WWII, but you want people to know about WWII. To do that, ask yourself what goal a person would have to have to lead him on a journey through the facts you want to relate. Then create the hero who would be most logically and entertainingly positioned to walk the path to the goal you’ve set.

In “Rabbit Proof Fence,” the hero’s need is to be with family, and her goal is to travel across Australia to get home. The incentive is family, and the stakes are belonging vs. separation. The story allows the author to explore the culture and geography of Australia.

In “Hugo,” the hero’s need is to fulfill curiosity, and his goal is to find out how/why an automaton works. The incentive is understanding, and the stakes are awe vs. impoverishment. The story allows the author to explore the life and filmography of Georges Méliès.

In “Moulin Rouge,” the hero’s need is love, and the goal is to win the love of a woman. The incentive is his lover, and the stakes are love vs. loneliness. The story allows the author to explore life in the Moulin Rouge.

 

If you enjoyed this post, you’ll also like these:

 

Formula Plot Templates
Screenwriting for Movies
Screenwriting for TV
Short Stories
Erotica
Choose Your Own Adventure
Movie plot break downs
TV plot break downs
Free story prompts
Writing tips
Blogging
Art

 


How Writers Can Use The Psychology Of Motivation To Create Believable Characters

When sitting down to write a story, it’s tempting to begin by completely fleshing out your hero first, and then figuring out what kind of situation to put him in, but that’s putting the cart before the horse. It’s more efficient to start by asking yourself what need the hero is trying to fulfill, and then reverse engineer everything else, including your hero, to cater to the goal he’s trying to accomplish. The hero may be the star of the movie to the audience, but to the author, during the writing process, the need the hero is trying to fulfill is the star, and the hero is just another dependent variable.

Until you’re ready to define your hero, visualize him as a blank-faced man named, Homo Economicus, “Homo economicus, (aka economic man), is the concept in many economic theories portraying humans as consistently rational and narrowly self-interested agents who usually pursue their subjectively-defined ends optimally.”

Drawing of a faceless man. Below him are the words, "HOMO ECONOMICUS: A consistently rational and narrowly self-interested agent who usually pursues their subjectively-defined ends optimally."

A psychologist could tell you why all the 250 highest ranking movies on IMBD are about a consistently rational and narrowly self-interested hero who accomplishes a goal to attain an incentive that satisfies a need. It’s because every member of the paying audience is a rational, sentient human being whose understanding of reality is based on the human experience.

When a story revolves around a hero who thinks and acts like a rational, sentient being, and whose actions follow the same cause/effect pattern that happens in reality, then the audience will instinctively understand the narrative structure. The more similar the hero’s thoughts and actions are to the audience’s, the more they can relate to him as if he were a real person, see themselves in him or live vicariously through him.

You don’t need a degree in psychology to write a realistic hero, because human behavior follows a predictable pattern that revolves around attempting to satisfy unfilled needs:hen your mind or body is lacking something it needs, it triggers a response in your nervous system that makes you conscious of the need you’re lacking.

  1. Your brain recalls/deduces the consequences/results of satisfying the need vs. not satisfying it.
  2. The desirability of fulfilling the need, and the undesirability of not fulfilling the need, triggers the desire/hunger/want/frustration/anxiety/internal tension to fill it.
  3. The want triggers your brain to identify a source where you can get the thing that satisfies your need.
  4. Finding the source triggers your brain to search its memory for behaviors that have worked in the past to get the desired outcome and calculate each option’s chances of success.
  5. If your brain doesn’t find a pattern of behavior that has achieved the desired outcome before, it will analyze the problem logically and deduce the behavior it expects to be the most productive towards achieving the goal, according to its unique understanding of reality.
  6. Your brain will calculate how much it expects the behavior to cost, how much need the behavior will satisfy, how likely the behavior is to achieve the desired outcome and whether or not the cost/benefit analysis adds up.
  7. If the cost/benefit analysis of performing the behavior adds up, that will trigger a state of internal tension that pushes or pulls you towards the goal.
  8. If the cost/benefit analysis of performing the behavior doesn’t add up, that will trigger a state of internal tension that pushes or pulls you away from the goal.
  9. If your brain is pushing/pulling you towards the goal, the physiological tension will drive you conscious mind to make a decision to enact the behavior.
  10. As your body executes the behavior, and after the fact, your brain will measure how productive your behavior is at achieving the desired outcome, and it will compare that to how productive it expected your behavior to be.
  11. The more the productivity level meets and exceeds your brain’s expectations, the more you experience a state of physiological and psychological arousal, which pushes/pulls you to your goal.
  12. On a conscious level, this drive is experienced as hope/belief/confidence that you can achieve your goal.
  13. As long as your actions are productive and meet the cost/benefit analysis, you will continue to enact behaviors your brain calculates to be the most productive at achieving the goal.
  14. If less your behavior’s productivity level meets the expected level of productivity, the more it will create a state of physiological and psychological tension.
  15. On a conscious level, this tension is experienced as fear, frustration, anxiety, hopelessness and anger.
  16. The more your actions are unproductive and don’t meet the cost/benefit analysis, your brain will rationalize losing hope to the point of giving up.
  17. You either give up or keep seeking the need until you satisfy it.

These are the fundamental steps of the hero’s journey, because they’re the fundamental steps of the human journey. I’ve shortened this list to 12 easier-to-understand steps in my post, “12 steps fictional characters must follow to accomplish a goal.”

If you want your hero to be truly realistic, you should give him one of the needs that real people, specifically, your target audience, has. Psychologists have many theories on how to define and organize motivational needs. For the sake of fictional character creation, you can divide them into 3 categories: Biological, Social and Personal.

BIOLOGICAL NEEDS

Your body has physical needs it must fill to survive. They may seem normal to the point of being blasé, but these needs are universal, and many profitable movies have been made about heroes who accomplish a goal because they’re trying to fill their biological needs, such as:

  • Food

In “The Donner Party,” “Ravenous,” and “Alive” the heroes eat humans to survive a brutally desolate wilderness. In “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle,” the heroes go on a crazy adventure in pursuit of hamburgers.

  • Water

In “The Ballad of Cable Hogue,” the hero finds a water well in the Arizona desert that saves his life and then opens a watering hole business and tries to manage it. In “The Water Boy,” the hero devotes his life to dispensing water because he believes his father died of dehydration.

  • Oxygen

In “Air,” the hero must survive in an underground complex that protects him from toxic air on the earth’s surface. In “Bubble Boy,” the hero lives in a plastic bubble because he believes he has a weak immune system and unfiltered air will kill him.

  • Shelter

In “The Money Trap,” the hero wants to repair the house he sunk his life savings into. In “Poltergeist” and “House,” the hero puts up with ghosts because he put all his money into a haunted house. In “Warrior,” the hero enters a mixed martial arts contest because he can’t afford his mortgage on a teacher’s salary.

  • Elimination of waste

I don’t know of any movie where the hero’s end goal is to use the bathroom, but the need can be used to motivate or characters on minor quests or complicate their quests.

  • Regulation of body temperature

In “The Day After Tomorrow,” and every snow-themed movie, the hero tries to survive the cold. In “The Core,” “Sunshine,” and every asteroid movie, the hero attempts to save himself and others from melting.

  • Immediate survival

Every apocalypse and horror movie is based on the need to survive. So are most action and crime movies. In “Alive,” “The Revenant,” “Life of Pi” and “Castaway,” the heroes must fulfill all their biological needs to survive.

  • Long term safety

In “The Shawshank Redemption” the hero wants to get out of prison because he knows he won’t survive there forever. In “Interstellar” the hero travels to other planets in an attempt to not starve on planet Earth. In “An Officer and a Gentleman,” the hero joins the military because he has nowhere else to go and no way to make a living.

  • Sex

Every love story is basically about sex. “American Pie,” and “Fifty Shades of Grey” revolve around fulfilling the need for sex.

  • Recovery

In “Dallas Buyers Club,” “Philadelphia,” “Escape From New York,” the hero attempts to recover from something poisoning his body.

  • Money

In a modern, capitalist society, everything you need to survive and thrive is obtained with money. So the pursuit of money directly equates to being able to fulfill all your biological needs. In a movie where the hero’s goal is to make money, you almost don’t even need to explain why, but it helps if you do.

  • Emotional gratification

Human beings need to feel alive. This drives us to seek out incentives that make us feel each of our emotions. In “Beetlejuice,” Delia Deetz is motivated to seek out sadness triggers. In “Point Break,” all the characters are motivated to seek out excitement triggers. In “The Notebook,” the hero is motivated to seek out romance triggers. In “Nightcrawler,” the antihero is motivated to seek out horror triggers. In “God Bless America,” the hero is motivated to seek out anger triggers. In “Hector and the Search for Happiness” and “Office Space,” the hero is motivated to seek out tranquility triggers. In “Man on the Moon,” the hero is motivated to seek out humor triggers.

  • Relieve the fight or flight reaction

If your life is threatened, or you’re placed in an extremely stressful situation, your body will motivate you to get to safety. Almost every horror and action movie revolves around a hero trying to survive.

  • Relieve stress

The hero’s goal in “Network,” “Brazil,” and “Falling Down” is motivated by the instinctual need to relieve/escape anxiety/stress.

  • The human spirit

There is an innate drive within the human psyche to achieve, grow, overcome, master, conquer, improve ourselves regardless of whether or life is in danger. This is a common theme in sci-fi movies, particularly Star Trek.

SOCIAL NEEDS (THAT ARE A PRODUCT OF NATURE)

Thousands of years of humans evolving in tribes has ingrained instinctual social goals into our DNA that drive us to interact with society in ways that worked for our ancestors. Through generations of classical conditioning, we’ve evolved the “need” to:

  • Be accepted by our community/tribe/neighbors

Being popular in high school seems so important to us that we feel like we’d die if nobody liked us, because for most of human history, that’s exactly what would happen. This motivates us to give into peer pressure, try to impress people we don’t like and proactively manage our social status.

Most teen movies revolve around the need to acquire and maintain social status, notably “Mean Girls,”  and “Easy A.”

  • Be accepted by our friends/coworkers/acquaintances

You’re hardwired to want be accepted by humans in general, but you develop a special bond with the people you interact with most. You develop a shared history, which makes them part of your life, which makes them a part of your memory, which makes them a part of your perception of reality. Losing them would be losing a facet of your reality. Plus, you also establish social contracts with each other, where they become conditional allies in the fight for survival and growth. The more useful of a friend they are, the more you’ll value them.

Buddy movies like “The Night Before,” “The Wood,” and even “The Goonies” revolve around the hero’s need to preserve his close friendships.

  • Be accepted by our family

We have a special need to be accepted by our family. We will push ourselves beyond our limits to win our parents’ approval, and if we don’t get it, we’ll be motivated to act out dysfunctional behavior in an attempt to cope with the loss of our family’s approval.

Every family movie revolves around the need to bond with blood, notably, “Finding Nemo,” “Elf,” and “We Need to Talk About Kevin.”

  • Be accepted by our lover

There’s are entire branches of psychology dedicated to the study of romantic relationships. We pick our lovers for a lot of reasons, but ultimately it boils down to the fact that they fulfill our needs better than the competition. That’s why humans, and the heroes in every love story, are driven to love.

  • Be accepted by our alpha

For all of human history, everyone has looked up to their parents and the alpha member of their tribe. Whatever personal goals we chose, we looked up to the people who mastered that goal. We practically worship authority, because our chances of success are the best if we mimic the masters. So our brains reward us with intoxicating hormones when we get their approval. This conditions and drives us to emulate them.

This is profoundly important. Everyone has a hero who we pick because they’re the most alpha version of the person we want to be. So if you can state exactly who your hero’s hero is, then you can explain all his behavior.

Winning his master’s approval is the hero’s driving need in “Blood Sport,” and “October Sky.”

  • Dominate

Climbing the social ladder is a general need, but throughout most of human history, there was one behavior that helped move you up the pecking order more than any other: the behavior of dominating your competition through tests of strength, skill and wisdom. This instinct is ingrained in some people so strongly they refuse to play sports just for fun.

Movies with heroes who are driven by their need to dominate include, “Alexander” and “Scarface.”

  • Submit

There can only be one alpha at a time in a tribe. Everyone tries to dominate others, and everybody wins some, but eventually 99% of the population will ensure their survival by bowing down to, bending the knee to, and serving whoever is more alpha than them. There’s safety and opportunity in serving the alphas. So our brains have been conditioned to reward us with feelings of security and pride when we submit to a higher authority.

The need to submit drives the heroes in “Fifty Shades of Grey,” “The Passion of the Christ” and “Jarhead” to endure Hell to submit to a higher power and feast on its benefits.

  • Achieve autonomy

Most of human history, most humans have been slaves. Despite any benefits that may come with being a slave, it limits your potential, it conflicts with the human spirit, and it usually sucks more than it doesn’t. Humanity has been struggling to achieve its independence so long, the struggle has been bred into us. As we’re worshiping and trying to emulate our parents, we’re disobeying them and rebelling against things they stand for. In all walks of life, we need a certain amount of autonomy.

The need for autonomy drives the heroes in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Orange County,” and “PCU.”

  • Satisfy social curiosity

Centuries of growing up in the wilderness has taught us to fear what’s in the shadows. At the same time we have to find out, and we have to know what’s over the horizon because we hope it fulfills out needs more. Growing up in tribes, we needed to know everyone and their business because every person was a potential threat and opportunity. So we evolved the need to metaphorically sniff everyone’s butt.

The need to satisfy social curiosity drives the hero in “The Burbs” and “Rear Window.”

  • Protect your paesano

“Paesano” is an Italian term. It basically means you value your family the most, your friends second, city-mates third, countrymen fourth, and everyone else last. Everyone can understand the concept, because it’s baked into us. We tend to perceive the human race as telescopic series of teams that divides people into insiders and outsiders whose importance is relative to their proximity to us. This is the motive for every war that has ever been fought and every movie that has been made about them.

SOCIAL NEEDS (THAT ARE PRODUCTS OF CULTURE)

A goal can be a need even if it’s not vital. As long as you’ve been formally or informally taught something is important, you’ll experience a psychological need to fulfill it, such as the need to:

  • Be successful by society’s standards/win civilization

Toddlers learn everything they know about life by mimicking adults. We grow up assuming what adults are thinking/doing is how life works. The more people you see striving for the same goal, the more it confirms the goal is important. If enough people believe in the same definition of success, it will become mainstream. You will likely grow up with a life-goal to fulfill the conditions of success as defined by the culture you were raised in.

The need to be successful drives the hero in “Things Fall Apart,” and “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

  • Honor your culture’s rules

Your culture has written and unwritten rules for behavior. Most of them are either written down in your culture’s holy texts and law books. If you never leave your culture, and spend your whole life surrounded by the same rules, they can become so familiar you accept them on par with the law of gravity. If you believe in your culture’s rules, then following/believing/serving/enforcing them is a need.

Even if you hate the rules, you still have to follow them, because the rules are enforced by the members of your culture who drank the Kool-Aid. If you’re forced to follow a rule, then following the rule becomes a need that you’ll go to backbreaking lengths to satisfy.

The need to follow culturally relative rules drive the heroes in “The 47 Ronin” and “Memoirs of a Geisha.”

Culture contains beliefs, traditions, customs, idiosyncrasies and arts that have nothing to do with rules. They’re just local ways of doing things. If your hero is raised to behave/react a certain way because it’s his culture, then reenacting his cultural ticks is a legitimate psychological need.

The need to follow cultural norms drives the heroes in “The God’s Must be Crazy,” and “Fiddler on the Roof.”

  • Fulfill civil obligations/social contracts

There are responsibilities you have to fulfill to live in society. Go to work. Mow the lawn. Pay your taxes. Obey your boss. Cooperate with the police. Fulfill the terms of contracts. Pay your debts. Honor your word. Be polite. Reciprocate favors. Pay it forward.

None of these behaviors apply to a castaway stranded alone on a desert island. These aren’t needs in nature, but if you live in civilization, you have to follow the best practices of interacting with people and learn/master the ropes of the local socioeconomic system. If you don’t pay the cost of living in civilization and honor your social contracts, the system will turn on you. So fulfilling civil obligations can be a motivating need to those who have them.

The need to fulfill a civic duty drives the heroes in “12 Angry Men” and any movie where someone owes money to the mob.

  • Achieve social justice

Our DNA compels us to value and love other people. It’s just a matter of how many you do. The human spirit compels us to overcome and conquer. The need for autonomy and self-expression compel us to change whatever restricts us. When a character has all of these needs, he’s motivated to rectify society’s flaws. To an empathetic enough person, the need to eliminate injustice is a strong as the need to eliminate a hungry bear charging at your family.

The need for social justice drives the heroes in “Milk” and “All the King’s Men.”

Personal (Product of nature)

Personal needs are one that stem from the innate drives unique to you. Some of these needs are rooted in biology, but I include them here because some biological urges have a unique application to each individual:

  • Physiology-based mental and behavioral disorders

If you have Down syndrome, autism, epilepsy, psychopathy, or any other condition in your brain that causes you to think/behave a certain way, then you have an often inescapable need to behave that way.

  • Temperament/Personality type

As professional psychologists have tried to change patients’ thoughts and behavior over the past 150+ years, their studies have shown that some aspects of our character are more changeable than others. Some are basically set and impossible to change. Furthermore, those immutable characteristics often come in sets, and everyone in society falls into some combination of these character traits. If your personality type is introverted, sensitive and logical, you have a motivating need to think and act that way.

Humanity hasn’t perfected its understanding of temperaments and personality types, but almost any personality type chart will suffice for creating a fictional character. If you endow your characters with The Big 5 personality traits or the Meyers Briggs test’s 16 personality types, people will identify with them.

  • The need to grow/improve/overcome/achieve self-actualization

The human spirit compels us to overcome life’s adversities and improve the world. We each have our own personal flame that compels us to become who we are, to flesh out our identity and discover our passions. It’s in our nature to become/express ourselves to fullest extent possible. It’s so ingrained that cults have to resort to severe psychological trauma and constant upkeep conditioning to break recruits’ will to own their individuality. The need to be/improve yourself is as real as the need for love.

PERSONAL NEEDS

  • The search for meaning

If you want to write a story that cuts to the heart of the human condition, then write a story about man’s need to find meaning/purpose in life. When the movie based on Viktor Frankl’s book, “Man’s Search For Meaning,” is released in 2017, it will win an Oscar even if the film is poorly executed.

Viktor Frankl was a psychiatrist and a prisoner at Auschwitz. He observed that humans could survive the most brutal circumstances, or they could have everything they need to survive, but the more they truly believe their life is meaningless, they’ll waste away and die. We’re compelled to assign meaning to life. People have devoted their lives to religions they didn’t believe in because it satisfied their need for meaning. Every person has the same need. The hero in your story can too if you need him too.

  • Classical conditioning/force of habit

Everyone has a unique set of experiences in their memory bank. We only know how to do what we’ve experienced. After doing something enough times, it becomes second nature or force of habit. If your hero has been conditioned by people or his subjective experiences to repeat a behavior pattern, then enacting the pattern is a psychological need.

  • Beliefs/Indoctrination

Everyone has their own collection of beliefs, and they’re usually not very articulate or organized. Whatever your hero believes, regardless of why, becomes a rule he must follow.

  • Psychological-based mental and behavioral disorders

Not all mental and behavioral disorders are caused by biology. Many are caused by traumatic and toxic experiences. Even if the problem is all in your head, if you believe all germs will kill you, like the hero in “The Aviator” or “Matchstick Men,” the need for obsessive compulsive cleanliness is real to you.

  • Logic processes

There’s a skill to thinking and problem solving that most people aren’t very good at. Everybody has their own unique style. You can think logically or emotionally, visually or concretely, regularly or rarely. You can use refined, effective thinking habits like Sherlock Holmes or logical fallacies like “Brian Fantana.” It isn’t required that you define any of your hero’s thought processes. He can just act like a normal, rational person with a personality quirk or two. But if you need to motivate his actions, you can do it by saying, “This is how he thinks.”

  • Self-image/self-esteem/self-worth

Everyone has an idea of who, what and how valuable they are. Society tells us how valuable it thinks we are, and we tend to believe it. If you mature enough to break free of that trap, you’re still compelled to assign a value to yourself. You can do that by coming up with an inspirational philosophy on life or by measuring yourself against your expectations for yourself. Struggling to maintain/improve your self-image has motivated people to climb to the top of the world and run into gun fights.

  • Love, hate, hope, and fear

You can justify your hero doing anything, including killing 50 people over a pet, like in “John Wick” and “Keanu” as long as you say, “The hero had an experience that caused him to love, hate, hope for or fear something.”

 

If you enjoyed this post, you’ll also like these:

 

Formula Plot Templates
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TV plot break downs
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Art

 


A Basic Sitcom Episode Plot Template For TV Screenwriters

I created this sitcom template by analyzing popular TV shows and breaking them down into their fundamental parts and identifying the most common denominators. I found sitcom episodes tend to follow a predictable 5-Act structure. This formula assumes there is one protagonist and one plot. For help writing stories with multiple protagonists and subplots, read “Advanced Sitcom Episode Plot Templates For Writing Stories With Multiple Protagonists And Subplots.”

 

SUMMARY OF THE 5-ACT SITCOM STRUCTURE

WITH ONE PROTAGONIST AND ONE GOAL

 

1: THE INTRODUCTION (1-3 MIN)

Establish what goal the protagonist wants to accomplish in this episode.

2: THE CATALYST (3-8 MIN)

A major opportunity or obstacle appears between the protagonist and his goal.
The protagonist reacts to the antagonist/obstacle in his own signature fashion.
The protagonist comes up with a plan to neutralize the obstacle.

3: COMPLICATIONS AND ESCALATIONS (8-13 MIN)

The protagonist enacts the plan, but sub-obstacles keep getting in the way.
Each time a new obstacle appears in front of the protagonist, he comes up with a new plan to overcome the sub-obstacles and enacts the plan with varying levels of success.

4: THE SHOWDOWN (13-18 MIN)

The protagonist reaches the final obstacle between him and his goal.
The protagonist pulls out his last resort.
The protagonist wins…or loses.

5: THE SUNSET (18-21 MIN)

Show where the protagonist’s success or failure leaves him.

 

DETAILED BREAK DOWN OF THE 5-ACT SITCOM STRUCTURE

ACT 1

THE INTRODUCTION

 

The first 1-3 minutes of your sitcom is the introduction segment. Then the opening credits role. The screen time allotted for this time frame must serve a very specific purpose. It establishes what the protagonist wants (in this episode). The first 1-3 minutes don’t (usually) reveal the antagonist or any obstacles that will stand in the protagonists way. You can squeeze that in, but if you’re new to writing sitcoms, try writing a simple script first.

There was an episode of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” that began with the gang standing in a parking lot drinking beers shouting, “Reunion! Reunion! Reunion!” In those three words, they established that that episode’s plot would revolve around them going to a high school reunion. For the rest of the time until the opening credits rolled each character expressed why they wanted to go to the reunion. No obstacles were introduced. All the audience learned was where they were, who would be in the episode and what they wanted. It was a prime example of good sitcom writing, and it worked. The episode flowed logically and was enjoyable.

This short, 1-3 minute skit needs to have a beginning, middle, and end. Or you could think of it as a setup, a delivery and a reaction. It’s basically a joke. It says, “Here’s where I’m at. Here’s where I want to be…but that’s my life!”

When you’re outlining your script, don’t write this whole scene before starting on the next scene. Write one or two sentences saying (not showing) what happens in the scene to establish what the protagonist wants. After you’re finished outlining the whole sitcom then you can go back and “show, don’t tell.”

 

ACT 2 

THE MIDDLE: PART 1

THE CATALYST

 

The entire middle of the story lasts 15 minutes, and is divided into 3, 5-minute segments.

The Middle: Part 1 introduces the protagonist and the audience to the main obstacle that will stand between the protagonist and his dream of the week. In a standard movie or novel the protagonist would experience a catastrophic cataclysm that irrevocably cuts him off from the most important goal of his entire life. It’s like the pillars of the earth are ripped out from underneath him destroying the foundation of his existence, which will require him to reassess everything he’s ever taken for granted and reinvent himself to overcome this unprecedented challenge.

In sitcoms that will happen to a small degree in season finales, but in a sitcom the protagonist has to begin every episode in basically the same place he started the last one and the same place he’ll start the next one. So to tear out the foundation of his world is to rip out the foundation of the sitcom, and to reinvent the protagonist is to invent a new sitcom.

For those reasons, the protagonist of a sitcom can’t suffer an apocalyptic cataclysm that turns his whole world upside down. Instead, of having the floor fall out from under him he should just have a wall appear in front of him that prevents him from achieving the most important goal in his short-term life plan.

For example, Seinfeld’s life plan (in the series) was to become a world famous comedian. His character only ever took a few steps towards that goal through the 9 seasons it aired. Instead, each episode focused on him and his friends confronting day-to-day obstacles that stood in the way of their short-term goals such as having a good meal, having casual relationships, renting a car or helping a friend. The protagonist’s goal of the week is should be expressed in the first 1-3 minutes before the credits, and it’s established what the main obstacle between him and that goal is.

Since you have to begin a new scene after the opening credits that means you have to begin that scene (as you do every scene) with an introductory segway bit that establishes where the protagonist is now and what he’s doing.

A the writer you already know (in a general sense) where the protagonist should be and what he should be doing. He should be at the next logical place to do the next logical thing to fulfil his want. You can establish where he’s at and what he’s doing with one camera shot and a sentence. It could only take two seconds, but it has to be there. The audience needs it to keep them on track with your fast-forwarded story. Plus, it will set you up for what happens next.

As soon as you’ve established where he’s at and what he’s doing then you establish the main obstacle that will stand in between the protagonist and his goal. It’s important to pick this obstacle carefully, because the rest of the episode is about this obstacle as much as it’s about the protagonist. After all, the protagonist will spend the rest of the episode trying to neutralize this problem in order to get what he wants.

The MIddle: Part 1 has to have a beginning, middle and end. You’ve already written the introduction where you establish where the protagonist is and what he’s doing. You wrote the middle where something gets in the way of the protagonist and his goal. Now, you need to cap-off this segment of the story with a logical ending. The logical thing to do after someone has discovered a dire obstacle between them and their goal is to freak out and then recollect themself. The characters in Seinfeld and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia are usually screaming at this point. Then they have a huddle and figure out what they’re going to do address the problem.

The plan they come up with has to reflect the characters who came up with the plan. The characters from “Workaholics” and “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” would approach the same problem from very different angles. If you’ve already mapped out your characters right down to what their personality type is then the scenes where they formulate a plan should write themselves. You shouldn’t ever ask yourself, “What should I have my characters do next?” You should always ask yourself, “What would my characters do next?”

Once your characters have stated what they’re going to do to solve the problem you can throw in a punch line and end the scene.

 

ACT 3

THE MIDDLE: PART 2

COMPLICATIONS AND ESCALATIONS

 

You begin a new scene here. It will establish where you’re protagonist is at now and what he’s doing. He should be at the next logical place to do the next logical thing to enact his plan.That’s the introductory scene to The Middle: Part 2.

Once you’ve set that up the protagonist will actively put his plan in motion. However, that plan can’t work. If it did then the episode would be over. So the protagonist must encounter another obstacle. This obstacle isn’t apocalyptic and life changing, and it’s not standing between him and his dream. It’s a minor, amusing problem that stands between him and his ability to solve the bigger problem that’s preventing him from achieving his goal of the week. So it’s a little problem within a bigger problem…like a Russian stacking doll.

It doesn’t matter if the protagonist overcomes this (or any other) obstacle throughout the story. The protagonist can lose every single battle and the war. He can just bounce around like a pin ball getting hit in the face by life until he falls into a hole in the ground and dies. What’s important is that there are progressively bigger obstacles between him and that which he’s motivated to attain, and he confronts those obstacles according to his own personal style. That’s what builds tension and puts the audience on the edge of their seats.

Another logical reason why protagonists often fail to overcome minor obstacles is because it would be extremely hard to maintain a sitcom about a protagonist who waltzes through every problem for  9 seasons. “Highlander” had this problem. You knew that the protagonist had to win in every episode, because to lose would mean getting his head cut off. This was exciting for a while, but after a few seasons there was just no point to watch the show anymore…and it was cancelled.

If your protagonist is going to fail then there needs to be a logical reason why. There are really only two reasons why a protagonist ever fails to achieve their goals. Either the obstacles in front of them are simply insurmountable or the protagonist has a major character flaw. If the only reason the protagonist ever fails at anything is because life is just that unfair then you’re going to have a very depressing sitcom. However, if the protagonist has a major character flaw that often gets in his way then his successes and failures will make more sense.  From that point of view, Archer and House from “Archer’ and “House” almost had to be drug-addicted, obstinate jerks. If the protagonist’s character flaw helps him sometimes and hinders him sometimes then you’ll keep the audience on the edge of their seats guessing what will happen next.

If you simply can’t bear to soil your protagonist with a major character flaw you can give him a problematic sidekick that screws things up for him, but this can get annoying if every episode is based on that premise. A classic example is “Inspector Gadget.” Despite the misleading title, the protagonist was Inspector Gadget’s niece, Penny. She was a nearly flawless super hero whose brilliant schemes were always complicated by her retarded alter ego, Inspector Gadget. The show had a novel premise, but it got boring watching Inspector Gadget complicate Penny’s life every single episode, and the show was cancelled.

A more interesting reinvention of “Inspector Gadget” is “Wilfred.” In “Wilfred” the protagonist (Ryan) has a goal he wants to accomplish, but his bungling sidekick, a talking man-dog named Wilfred, serves as his sidekick and a minor antagonist who places minor obstacles in Ryan’s path as he tries to overcome the primary obstacle in each episode. This works better than “Inspector Gadget” because both Ryan and Wilfred are both tragically flawed characters with their own redeeming qualities as well. Plus the jokes are funnier. It all adds up to a multi-faceted, entertaining sitcom.  However, since it does stick to the same formula every episode it does get a little tedious after a couple of episodes.

It’s worth noting that protagonists in sitcoms fail more frequently than protagonists in blockbuster movies. People watch blockbuster movies to see the protagonist win so they can feel good about themselves. People don’t watch sitcom to see if the protagonist wins or loses. They watch sitcoms to see what kind of zany situations will stand between the protagonist and his goal of the week, what kind of zany methods he’ll use to attempt to solve those problems and whether or not the writer can deliver these rote, tension building devices in a way that actually makes the audience laugh, cry or feel any emotion other than the dull, cold comfort they’ve settled into in their drab, suburban lives.

If you’re having trouble figuring out what obstacles to put in front of your protagonist, just ask yourself what a bored, suburban TV zombie would wish they could see happen in real life. Or just copy and paste the real problems that normal people face every day like Seinfeld did with its idiosyncratic insights into the little trials of life like “double dipping” and trying to spend as much time in the shower as possible. Those little problems resonate with people, and if you spice them up then they’ll really get a reaction from the audience. Or you could write a sitcom like “Heroes” that is geared towards letting suburbanites live out their fantasy of having super powers and saving the world from super villains. If you can’t think of a better obstacle to put in front of your character than say a literal road block preventing your character from getting across town to watch “Thunder Gun Express” then you can make that boring road block interesting by having the road block be there because the president’s motorcade is coming through town and the secret service has the entire area on lockdown. If you can’t make mundane problems interesting then you probably shouldn’t be writing sitcoms.

If the protagonist manages to get past the first sub-obstacle in 30 seconds then just keep putting progressively more difficult sub-obstacles between him and the main obstacle of the episode. Each new sub-obstacle will have to constitute a new scene with its own introductory shot. Then the protagonist will have to figure out a way to address the new sub-obstacle and then attempt to enact his plan. The plan will then succeed or fail as is characteristic for the protagonist. Do this until you’ve filled 5 minutes. If you’re having a hard time filling space or it doesn’t make sense to add a new sub-obstacle then just add a fluffy joke segment. A sub-character may go on a rant or the protagonist may force you to watch a Johnny Cash video for three minutes. Or you could spend that extra time pumping up how important it is to the protagonist that he accomplishes his goal or how difficult it’s going to be for him to accomplish that goal.

The sub-obstacles that present themselves to the protagonist in The MIddle: Part 2 don’t have to be logically connected together. The only connection they need to have is that they block the protagonist’s path to his dream. These obstacles can be completely random and be delivered by a deus ex machina with no foreshadowing or relevance to the story afterwards. Normally this would be a lazy way to structure a story at best or cheating at worst. However, this form of storytelling is often easier for zoned-out television viewers to follow. They don’t want to have to track the plot with a pencil and paper every week. They don’t want to watch “Primer” over and over again. They just want to see something amusing happen. So don’t get hung up on trying to tie your plot line into an elegant Celtic knot.

For example, if your protagonist wanted to get across town to watch the movie “Thunder Gun Express” at a movie theatre you could literally throw a road block in his way. After that, have him miss a train and then have him hijack a boat. None of those events technically have anything to do with each other except they’re all obstacles that stand between the protagonist and his goal, and they get progressively more intense.

Once you’ve had your protagonist jumping over and smacking into hurdles for 5 minutes throw in a punch line and end the scene.

 

ACT 4

THE MIDDLE: PART 3

THE FINAL SHOWDOWN

 

The protagonist has been working towards his goal for 13 minutes now. What started as a straightforward goal has devolved into a gauntlet of progressively more outlandish obstacles that he’s had to endure just to get to the main obstacle that knocked his day off course in the first place.

Now the stakes are as high as they’re going to get, and the antagonist has the upper hand. Time is running out, and the protagonist is getting desperate. So he pulls out his last resort and throws a Hail-Mary. Likewise, the antagonist could be getting desperate to stop the protagonist’s surprising success at passing all the minor obstacles. So the antagonist throws one more major punch. It doesn’t matter who throws the final punch, but somebody has to.

The last resort either succeeds or fails completely to neutralize the primary obstacle (regardless of whether or not any of the minor obstacles were ever successfully neutralized). By the end of this scene it is absolutely clear whether or not the protagonist was able to attain the prize he’s been chasing the entire episode. If the protagonist has to enter a boxing match to save the orphanage then the referee should be holding up one of the boxer’s hands and declaring the winner as the bell rings. This should happen between 17-18 minutes into the sitcom.

 

ACT 5

THE END

THE SUNSET

 

There are only 1-3 minutes of screen time left after the knockout punch has been delivered. This final scene shows how the outcome of the episode’s conflict will affect the protagonist’s future, which won’t be much. This final scene doesn’t have to have an ingenious turn-about or give the audience closure to the protagonist’s life. It just shows where the protagonist and what he’s doing now that the storm has passed. The protagonist can be in jail, the hospital or in another country, and you don’t have to explain how he gets back to his normal life by the next episode. You can just start the next episode like nothing ever happened if you want to.

The final 3 minutes of your sitcom should be the easiest scene to write. It should be logical how the outcome of the episode will affect the protagonist. If he won then he won. If he lost then he lost. Just show that in an amusing way. And since this scene doesn’t have to set up a following scene then it doesn’t matter how it ends. It just matters that it ends with a really amusing punch line.

 

 

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