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The Hollywood movie plot outline structure

Scroll to the bottom for an explanation of the movie plot template:]

Click here or on the image below to enlarge it in your browser.

There’s no single, right way to structure a movie plot. However, Hollywood executives have gotten addicted to certain format. So if you want to impress them, you’re best strategy is to give them what they want. Many successful script writers 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 result is the outline below. This outline 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.

I’ll explain a little bit about the outline. The A-story is the hero’s journey. This 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.

A beat is a series of events that usually fit in one scene, that is one minute long, which 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 (or lover in the B-story) 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.

There’s more to be said about movie plots than I can summarize in a single blog post. So I’m guilty of giving you pieces of the treasure map, just like the writers I complained about, but I’m working tirelessly to bring you the rest of the puzzle pieces. So stay tuned.
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Formula Plot Storyboards

You can click any image below to enlarge the whole story board.

Here are a few outlines you can’t print out and write on to help you structure your story:

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The Wise Sloth formula plot template

Below is a story outline. Below that are the terms used in the outline. 

Generic Story Outline

ACT 1

Introduction-

  • Setup-
  • Delivery-
  • Outcome-

Cataclysm-

  • Setup-
  • Delivery-
  • Outcome-

Decision-

  • Setup-
  • Delivery-
  • Outcome-

ACT 2

Preparation-

  • Setup-
  • Delivery-
  • Outcome-

Engagement-

  • Setup-
  • Delivery-
  • Outcome-

Neutralization-

  • Setup-
  • Delivery-
  • Outcome-

ACT 3

Prize-

  • Setup-
  • Delivery-
  • Outcome-

Reckoning-

  • Setup-
  • Delivery-
  • Outcome-

Sunset-

  • Setup-
  • Delivery-
  • Outcome-

Terms

Setup

This is where you see the cause of what’s about to happen.

Delivery

This is the event the cause…caused to happen.

Outcome

This is what happened as a result of that thing happening.

Introduction

Introduce the protagonist and the setting. Show the protagonist in his natural setting doing what he always does the way he always does it. Show how life usually reacts to him doing what he usually does. Show what the protagonist loves, hates, fears and hopes for most. Show what he’s best and worst at. Show who he is and who is isn’t, what he does and what he doesn’t.

Cataclysm

The worst possible thing that could possibly happen to the protagonist happens. He loses that which is most dear to him.

Decision

The protagonist must decide to set the universe right again. Show how he makes that decision and why.

Preparation

If the protagonist already had everything necessary to solve the problem then it would have been solved already. So he has to gather the resources he’ll need to use to solve the problem.

Engagement

Once the protagonist has those resources, he goes about applying them to the problem.

Neutralization

There is a key moment where the solution and the problem meet and the solution neutralizes the problem conclusively. For example: throwing water on a witch. The audience needs to see the final event in full detail.

Prize

There wouldn’t have been a journey if there wasn’t a prize. The audience needs to see the protagonist pick up the prize in full detail.

Reckoning

The protagonist didn’t come all this way to get a prize and just hold it up for the crowd to admire the rest of his life. He planned on doing something with that prize. Show the first thing the protagonist does with the prize…or what it does to him.

Sunset

For the sake of closure, show the audience what the long term future holds for the protagonist.

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