Tag Archives: formula plot

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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Plot break downs

Tips on being a writer


Plot Breakdown: Back to the Future

back_to_the_future

This is a breakdown of the plot to Back To The Future. It divides the plot into 38 beats and the time they occur, rounded to the nearest minute. The beats are color-coded to show which quest chain is active at that time, and the beats are broken down into 6 sub-beats. Instances of foreshadowing are mapped to the beat they influence and are color coded according to their purpose.

Click the picture below to enlarge the image. Click here to download an Excel spreadsheet of the plot breakdown.

Back to the future Plot Picture

 

 

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Formula Plot Tempates

Tips on being a writer


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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Formula Plot Templates

Plot break downs

General writing advice


8 simple formula plot templates


ACTION STORY TEMPLATE

ACT 1

SEGMENT 1

The story begins by introducing the protagonist in a way that reveals his defining characteristics, strengths, weaknesses, life circumstances, motives, and goals. SEGMENT 1 also establishes the setting and tone.

SEGMENT 2

Something happens to the protagonist that is out of the ordinary (for the protagonist, not for you). The event should be as apocalyptic as possible. This event throws the protagonist out of his comfort zone. The more disastrous it is for the protagonist the higher the stakes are. The higher the stakes are the more interesting the story will be.

SEGMENT 3

The protagonist weighs his options. He decides he can not ignore the event that has thrown his life off track. There is either too much at stake or the event has irrevocably closed the door on his previous life until he confronts the issue.

ACT 2

SEGMENT 4

The protagonist makes a plan of action to address the source of the conflict. The event that threw him off course has given him 1 clue as to where to start finding answers or he knows the first obstacle standing between him and the resolution of his conflict.

The protagonist executes his plan and succeeds, closing the door on the antagonist’s original plan. Not only does the antagonist not achieve his goal he was hoping for, but the exact opposite of what he intended happened and the door he was trying to go through is now closed. The protagonist learns more about the antagonist, himself and the antagonist’s motives/goals. Based on this new information the protagonist makes a new plan to get closer to the antagonist.

SEGMENT 5

The protagonist, enabled by his previous success, sets in motion the second part of his plan to accomplish his goal.

SEGMENT 6

The antagonist has to adapt to the new circumstances created by the protagonist’s success and devises a new plan.

SEGMENT 7

The protagonist executes his new plan and fails. Not only does he not achieve the goal he was hoping for, but the exact opposite of what he intended happened.  The door he was trying to go through is now closed.

SEGMENT 8

Despite the protagonist’s failure he has learned something new about the antagonist. He uses that information to create a new plan to approach the conflict from a different angle.

SEGMENT 9

The protagonist executes his new plan and succeeds.

Note: You can repeat SEGMENTS 4-9 as many times as logically needed to fully develop the characters and the conflict.

Also

There’s no set rule for how early or how late you should reveal the antagonist. It just needs to be logical and provide maximum tension.

SEGMENT 10

The protagonist’s success places him in a position to confront the antagonist directly, which he does. This is the Battle of the Bulge. The protagonist has made it to/into the gates of the antagonist’s lair and must directly battle all of the antagonist’s signature strengths with his own signature strengths.

SEGMENT 11

The antagonist has the protagonist cornered. The protagonist is at his weakest point and all hope is lost. The antagonist is one step away from accomplishing all of his goals and defeating the protagonist.

SEGMENT 12

The protagonist uses his signature strength and attacks the antagonist’s signature weakness to defeat him.

ACT 3

SEGMENT 13

Having defeated the antagonist the protagonist finally takes possession of the object of his quest.

SEGMENT 14

After the protagonist takes possession of the object of his quest he must do what he planned to do with it.

SEGMENT 15

The protagonist, having accomplished all of his goals must choose what to do next or with the rest of his life.

SEGMENT 16

The denouement tells what lies in store for the protagonist, any supporting characters or the world in general.

A VERY COMMON SITCOM TEMPLATE: THE TRAGIC OPPORTUNITY

SEGMENT 1

A sitcom episode does not need to begin by introducing the protagonist at length since his character has already been established in previous episodes. However, the first segment of an episode should begin by revealing the protagonist’s primary motive/goal for that particular episode. In a sitcom Segments 1 and 2 can be combined often within a single sentence of dialogue.

SEGMENT 2

The protagonist finds (or is presented with) an unusual (for him, not for the audience) opportunity to attain whatever it is he values (usually money, fame, sex, love, freedom, leisure, etc.).

SEGMENT 3

The protagonist pursues the opportunity and becomes involved with it.

SEGMENT 4

The opportunity turns south. Not only does it not help the protagonist achieve his goal, but it actually prevents him from achieving it and results in him attaining the thing he was trying to avoid.

SEGMENT 5

The protagonist tries to free himself of the situation he’s gotten himself into but fails.

SEGMENT 6

The opportunity, being faulty, ends up destroying itself and spitting the protagonist either right back where he started, farther behind, or miraculously ahead in some unexpected way.

SEGMENT 7

The protagonist learns a valuable lesson.

SEGMENT 8

In the final scene it is explained how the resolution of the conflict will affect the character’s life in the future.

THE SHERLOCK HOLMES MYSTERY TEMPLATE

SEGMENT 1

Introduce the detective. Arthur Conan Doyle usually just showed Sherlock Holmes in his home office and said, “This is Sherlock Holmes. He’s a genius detective.” Just to prove the point he would sometimes have Sherlock Holmes make genius deductions about his sidekick based on his appearance.

SEGMENT 2

Introduce the harbinger. Someone walks through the door and tells the detective they have a case they need solved. Then the detective agrees to hear the case. If you want to rub in what a genius the detective is then you can have him make deductions about the harbinger based on their appearance.

SEGMENT 3

The harbinger explains the case as they understand it. They leave out the critical details necessary to solve the plot. However, they give the detective all the clues he needs to solve the case. These clues are laid out in plain sight, but they’re presented along side heaps of superfluous details so that it’s impossible for the reader to guess which details are the true clues.

Note:

If the crime was murder then the harbinger must be someone who has a close connection with the murder victim, and the harbinger will tell the victim’s story. If the crime was theft, blackmail or manipulation then the harbinger can be the victim, and then they will tell the story of their own victimization.

The harbinger will relate their story to the detective in this general order:

  • Give a general description of all the characters involved in the crime. The harbinger explains who the characters are, where they came from, what they do, what their greatest hopes and fears are (to establish their motives). For example: “My father was a gold hunter in Australia, and he retired in England with his partner who was a bastard.”
  • The harbinger relates the significant events that happened to the victim leading up to the day of their victimization that set the stage for the crime committed against them. For example: My father started receiving strange letters that freaked him out.”
  • Next the harbinger relates the specific details of the crime as they happened on the day of the crime. This part reads like a police report. (Studying how to actually write a real police report will help you write detective fiction.) For example: “My father was last seen by the lake arguing with his business partner’s son.”

SEGMENT 4

The detective identifies the vital clues in the harbinger’s story and asks the harbinger to elaborate on them.

SEGMENT 5

The detective leaves his office and finds the proof necessary to validate his theory.

SEGMENT 6

The detective catches the antagonist and explains how he solved the mystery.

NOTE

The key to plotting a mystery is to understand that a mystery story is really three stories: The story of how/why the antagonist committed his crime, the story of how/why the crime affected the harbinger and the story of how/why the detective solved the case. The easiest way to weave these together is to write them in this order and then splice them together in the format explained above.

So the first thing you need to do is to write a dark crime story starring the antagonist, which you do like this:

SEGMENT 1

Introduce the antagonist.

SEGMENT 2

The antagonist has an opportunity to attain or defend what he wants most in life (usually a lot of money or a lover)…at the expense of someone else.

Segment 3

The antagonist finds a way to attain/defend what he wants in a way that nobody else can trace the crime back to him.

Segment 4

The antagonist commits the crime but unknowingly leaves one or more vital clues that can trace the crime back to him.

Segment 5

The antagonist goes on about his life hiding his secret.

Once you’ve written this relatively simple, strait-forward crime story then creating a mystery out of it is just a matter or plugging the details into the detective formula.

FABLE TEMPLATE

SEGMENT 1

The story begins by introducing the protagonist in a way that reveals his defining characteristics, strengths, weaknesses, life circumstances, motives, and goals. SEGMENT 1 also reveals the setting and tone.

SEGMENT 2

The antagonist appears and poses a moral quandary to the protagonist.

SEGMENT 3

The protagonist chooses a course of action he believes is most desirable based on his values.

SEGMENT 4

Protagonist executes his decision, and the antagonist reacts accordingly.

SEGMENT 5

If the protagonist chose wisely it has positive consequences for him and negative consequences for the antagonist. If the protagonist chose unwisely it has negative consequences for him and positive consequences for the antagonist.

SEGMENT 6

The lesson to be learned from the protagonist’s decision is explained.

GROUP JOURNEY TEMPLATE (FOR CHILDREN’S STORIES)

SEGMENT 1

Introduce the protagonist, describe the protagonist, explain the protagonist’s back story.

SEGMENT 2

Something terrible happens to the protagonist, and he has to embark on a journey to get something that will fix the problem. 

SEGMENT 3

The protagonist sets out on his journey and runs into his travel companions who each have personalities, values and/or skills relevant to the quest. Explain each supporting characters’ back story and their incentive to join the protagonist. 

SEGMENT 4

Explain the first obstacle the characters must surmount to resolve their conflict. The characters must draw on their combined resources (mental and physical) to overcome the obstacle.

SEGMENT 5

Explain the second obstacle the characters must surmount to resolve their conflict. This one must be more difficult than the first, and the characters must overcome it or work around it.

Note: You can have as many obstacles as are logical, but they must keep getting progressively more difficult.

SEGMENT 6

After surmounting all the obstacles between the characters and their goal they (or just the protagonist) face the antagonist head on. Describe the antagonist, Explain the antagonist’s back story. Explain the antagonist’s motivation to oppose the protagonist. The protagonist (possibly aided by his/her friends) defeat the physically superior antagonist by outwitting him/her.

SEGMENT 7

Denouement

THE SEINFELD/SNATCH TEMPLATE

This template uses 4 main characters, but the template is easily adjustable to use more or less main characters.

SEGMENT 1

Introduce all 4 characters in one location. “Seinfeld” uses a diner. “Friends” uses a cafe. “The IT Crowd” uses a work office. “The Big Bang Theory” uses communal living space. “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” uses an Irish pub. You get the idea.

In the introduction segment each character expresses some goal they want to achieve. Reverse engineer what goal each character would most likely want to accomplish based on their distinctive personality. Prime time television leans towards using petty, idiosyncratic, common, day-to-day goals like trying to get a bowl of soup from a mean chef. Or you can go the “Snatch” route and have them trying to get something extraordinary…like a gigantic diamond.

SEGMENT 2

The characters go their seperate ways, and each of them either encounters a problem that prevents them from achieving their goal or an opportunity opens up that allows them the chance to attain their goal given that they complete a task relevant to the goal.

SEGMENT 3

Each character does something that commits them to accepting the challenge before them. They could simply declare that they’re going to achieve their goal like making a vow to get laid on prom night or they can do something they can’t back out of like making a deal with a mobster.

SEGMENT 4

Each character steps up to the plate and takes their first swing at their problem. They go on the date. They go to the job interview. They steal the beer. They steal the diamond. Remember that they engage their challenge in a way that reflects their distinctive personalities and values.

SEGMENT 5

Up until this point it doesn’t matter if each character’s story line intersects or affects any other characters’ story line. Whether or not that happens up to this point just depends on what moves your particular story along. Having reached this point though, the story lines have to start weaving together. Here’s one way to do that:

Character #1 will succeed or fail at his goal as is typical for his character. His success or failure will directly influence the situation Character #2 is in when he takes his final stab at achieving his goal. Character #2’s success or failure will then affect character #3, and character #3’s success or failure will affect character #4. This is a simple domino progression that looks simple in outline form, but when your story is fully fleshed out it’ll look genius.

The big question is how each character’s story line affects the next character’s. You can psych yourself out by trying to preplan this, but you don’t need to. Simply get each character to the second to last step of their journey and then reverse engineer a way to connect the dots from there. Your characters may end up miles apart with no obvious way to connect them, but this just means you’re going to have to do something absurd and nonsensical to connect them. This may seem like a cheap deus ex machina trick when you look at your outline, but when your story is fully fleshed out your reader will be amazed at how creatively you managed to connect 4 seemingly unrelated events.

SEGMENT 6

After each character succeeds or fails they end up back where they first met in SEGMENT 1 and lick their wounds and/or celebrate their victory.

THE “HERO YOU WANT TO BE” TEMPLATE

Answer the following questions and you’ll have written a complete story. Your outline will “tell” what happens. Based on that outline write a story that “shows” what happens.

ACT 1

Chapter 1. Name your 3 favorite characters from your favorite books or movies. Note: They don’t have to be from your favorite stories. They just have to be your favorite characters. Now combine yourself and those characters into one person. That’s who your protagonist is.

Next, name your three favorite stories. Now combine the setting/environment in those 3 movies into one place.  That’s where the protagonist lives. Write a short narrative about what that protagonist’s daily routine is like. Have him engage a conflict that is typical of his life, and have his succeed or fail as would be typical for that character.

Chapter 2. What is the one thing you want most in the universe? Who/what is the most likely agent in the the story setting you just created to have the power and the motive to take that away from you?  What is the most logical obstacle that would prevent you from stopping this agent of loss from taking away the most valuable thing in the universe from you? That agent takes your thing away and you fail to stop it from happening.

Chapter 3. What’s the first thing that would go through your mind after the traumatic loss? How do you react to the loss?

ACT 2

Chapter 4. What would it take to get your very important thing back? What would be first logical thing you would do to get back your very important thing given the strengths/weaknesses of your protagonist and the specific nature of the agent that took it?

Chapter 5. What’s the most logical reason why that wouldn’t work? Because it didn’t work, and that’s why. So where does that leave you now?

Chapter 6. What would be the most logical way for you to get your very important thing back from the agent of loss now? You do that, and it almost doesn’t work, but you do it a little more and it finally works perfectly. (Or fails miserably if you want your story to be a tragedy.)

Act 3

Chapter 7. What’s the first thing you would do after getting your very important thing back?

Chapter 8. And what would that accomplish? What’s the biggest effect that would have on your life and/or the world?

Chapter 9. Once that happens what does the future hold for your character and/or the characters left behind in the story environment you created?

 THE “IT’S LIKE THE AUTHOR UNDERSTANDS ME” TEMPLATE

Answer the following questions and you’ll have written a complete story. Then go back and change enough details to hide the characters’ true identities and make the story flow. Remember, critics say good art reflects life, and good artists say the key to creativity is hiding your sources. Mark Twain said, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”

Act 1

Chapter 1. Who are you? What is your day to day life like?

Chapter 2. What was the biggest personal problem or tragedy you had to overcome in your life?

Act 2

Chapter 3. How did you figure out the solution you ultimately used to solve (or at least cope with) the problem?

Chapter 4. What steps did you take to solve/cope with the problem.

Chapter 5. How did the final events that brought closure to the issue play out?

Act 3

Chapter 6. How did the initial recovery period after that go? What was it like adjusting to life after having gone through what you went through?

Chapter 7. Where are you now? What are doing with yourself these days? How is life going for you? Have the old wounds healed?

Chapter 8. What are your plans for the future, or are you just living for the moment right now?

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