I've written multiple blogs analyzing story structure based on my own personal attempts to reverse engineer popular stories. As proud as I am of the progress I've made, I consider this my early work on the subject of story plotting. I'm currently in the process of writing a full-length book breaking down popular movies into boiler plate templates. You can see excerpts in my post, Excerpts from my upcoming book about film script templates , or view the rough draft by clicking here .
You can also see a detailed breakdown I did of the plot to Back to the Future by clicking here .
Here's the original essay:
ACTION STORY TEMPLATE
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.
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.
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.
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.
The protagonist, enabled by his previous success, sets in motion the second part of his plan to accomplish his goal.
The antagonist has to adapt to the new circumstances created by the protagonist’s success and devises a new plan.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The protagonist uses his signature strength and attacks the antagonist’s signature weakness to defeat him.
Having defeated the antagonist the protagonist finally takes possession of the object of his quest.
After the protagonist takes possession of the object of his quest he must do what he planned to do with it.
The protagonist, having accomplished all of his goals must choose what to do next or with the rest of his life.
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
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.
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.).
The protagonist pursues the opportunity and becomes involved with it.
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.
The protagonist tries to free himself of the situation he’s gotten himself into but fails.
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.
The protagonist learns a valuable lesson.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.”
The detective identifies the vital clues in the harbinger’s story and asks the harbinger to elaborate on them.
The detective leaves his office and finds the proof necessary to validate his theory.
The detective catches the antagonist and explains how he solved the mystery.
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:
Introduce the antagonist.
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.
The antagonist finds a way to attain/defend what he wants in a way that nobody else can trace the crime back to him.
The antagonist commits the crime but unknowingly leaves one or more vital clues that can trace the crime back to him.
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.
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.
The antagonist appears and poses a moral quandary to the protagonist.
The protagonist chooses a course of action he believes is most desirable based on his values.
Protagonist executes his decision, and the antagonist reacts accordingly.
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.
The lesson to be learned from the protagonist’s decision is explained.
GROUP JOURNEY TEMPLATE (FOR CHILDREN’S STORIES)
Introduce the protagonist, describe the protagonist, explain the protagonist’s back story.
Something terrible happens to the protagonist, and he has to embark on a journey to get something that will fix the problem.
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.
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.
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.
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.
THE SEINFELD/SNATCH TEMPLATE
This template uses 4 main characters, but the template is easily adjustable to use more or less main characters.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.)
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.”
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?
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?
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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