Story Structure: Laying Down the Bones
(Story Development For Writers, Part 4)
by John Robert Marlow
SEVEN ELEMENTS OF STRUCTURE
Classically-structured (three-act) stories have seven basic structural elements: inciting incident, first act turn, midpoint, low point, second act turn, climax, and denouement or wrap-up. Though you’ll occasionally hear about “mythically structured” tales (like Star Wars) having more than three acts, all of those acts fall within three major acts, so the structure laid out below still holds true.
It’s not as complicated as it sounds. Really. And the structure is exactly the same for books, movies, and other story venues—because story is story, regardless of medium. I use movies as examples because they have a broader audience, and readers are more likely to have seen a given movie than to have read a given book. One note of warning: a great many “spoilers” follow.
The inciting incident is the event that kicks off your story. That doesn’t mean your hero rolling out of bed in the morning qualifies, just because it’s the first scene; that’s part of your protagonist’s (the WHO’s) ordinary life. The inciting incident is the thing that throws a wrench into your character’s ordinary life—after which, things are never quite the same. Generally speaking, this happens roughly 10% of the way into the story.
The inciting incident can be as seemingly innocuous as a chance meeting of two strangers (Dan and Alex in Fatal Attraction, Connie and Paul in Unfaithful, Rose and Jack in Titanic, Jake and Neytiri in Avatar), or as obvious as a letter (Sleepless in Seattle, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone), a new job (Midnight Run, Jurassic Park), or having a friend or loved one kidnapped (Taken, Die Hard) or murdered (Beverly Hills Cop, Ghost, Batman Begins).
While the placement of the inciting incident can occasionally be altered (Iron Man, The Fugitive), this is a rare move most often attempted by seasoned pros—and not recommended for those still looking to break in.
FIRST ACT TURN
This is where the first act ends and the second begins—the point at which your hero (WHO) knows what he must do (the GOAL), and sets out to do it. Knowing alone is not enough, and making a decision (which is passive) doesn’t cut it. There must be action taken toward the achievement of the Goal: a decision coupled with action. The first act turn marks the beginning of the hero’s journey, and typically takes place about 25% of the way into the story.
The “journey,” in this sense, isn’t necessarily physical, but refers to the overall path embarked upon by your main character. This is always emotional, and also includes physical (and sometimes spiritual) elements as well.
Examples include John Anderton going on the run to prove his innocence in Minority Report; Richard Kimball going on the run to find his wife’s killer (and so prove his innocence) in The Fugitive; Neo taking the red pill in The Matrix; Somerset taking one last case and training Mills in Se7en; Steven blackmailing/paying David to kill his (Steven’s) wife in A Perfect Murder (proving that the protagonist isn’t always the good guy, though this is a risky move); the guys in Hangover setting out to learn what happened last night/find their missing friend Doug; Harry Potter leaving the Dursleys to begin his new life (in the first book/movie).
The first act turn needn’t be a single event; multiple, very closely-spaced events sometimes combine to create the act turn, as in Rocky—where he accepts Apollo Creed’s offer (which happens offscreen), takes Mick as his coach, and begins training for the fight. In such cases, the turn takes place over a short span of pages.
The midpoint can be one (or both) of two things: the point of no return (beyond which your hero cannot turn back, cannot undo his actions), or the point at which an unsuspected element is revealed to be at work within the story. This happens at the halfway or 50% mark, or thereabouts; hence the term midpoint.
In The Matrix, for example, the first act turn (taking the red pill) is also a point of no return, so the midpoint takes the form or an unsuspected element revealed; this is where we (but not the protagonist) learn that Cypher is working for the other side. In Harry Potter, the midpoint is where Harry (and we) discover that the mysterious package from Gringott’s is now at Hogwarts.
This is the all-hope-is-lost point, where the main character is as far as it seems possible to be from achieving his Goal. Put another way: if your main character were going to commit suicide, this would be the place. The low point almost always occurs in the second half of the second act, between 50% and 75% of the way in.
This is where almost everyone is dead, and Tank is about to pull the plug on the captured Morpheus (The Matrix); where Rocky realizes he cannot defeat Apollo; where Alan refuses Madison’s touch in the water tank, after they’re captured by the government (Splash); where Mr. Incredible’s family is held captive and they’re all about to die because of his actions (The Incredibles); where Wesley dies and Buttercup gets married (The Princess Bride); where Harry Potter and friends rush to tell Dumbledore that Hagrid has accidentally given away the secret and the stone is in danger, only to find that Dumbledore himself has been lured away—leaving the stone vulnerable to Snape.
It’s also where Doug learns that Fergie will not let him walk away from the trade, and that the FBI has turned Claire against him (The Town); where Tony Stark gets his plug pulled by Obadiah Stane, then collapses just short of reaching his backup power source (Iron Man); where Jake’s previous actions catch up to him, Neytiri turns against him, Hometree is destroyed and Jake is tied up and left to die in the aftermath—and, to top it off, Mo’at seems about to run him through with a blade (Avatar).
SECOND ACT TURN
This is the point where, after what seems a massive, even hopeless defeat (leading to the Low Point), the protagonist comes back with a new plan—taking new action to achieve his goal. This usually happens about 75% of the way into the story.
This is where Harry Potter and friends come up with their own plan to save the stone and set it into motion; and where Jake sets his new plan (the counterattack) into motion by jumping Toruk (Avatar). It’s also where Neo decides to go back for Morpheus, and he and Trinity jack in and enter the building where Morpheus is being held (The Matrix); and where Alan takes action to help Madison escape (Splash). As with the first act turn, the second turn is a decision coupled with action, which can take the form of a single event, or a very brief sequence of events).
The point of maximum conflict between hero (WHO) and OBSTACLE (usually but not always an antagonist or villain), toward which the whole story has been building. For the hero, this is the make-or-break point, because the outcome of the climax determines whether he will succeed or fail in his efforts to achieve the goal. The climax takes place in the last 25% of the story, most often in (or concluding in) the last 10% or even 5%.
This is the final round (and the decision) in Rocky’s fight with Apollo; Harry Potter’s confrontation with Voldemort; Neo’s final confrontation with Agent Smith in the hall outside room 303 (Matrix); Steven and Emily’s final confrontation in A Perfect Murder; Dan and Beth fighting Alex in the bathroom (Fatal Attraction); Sam’s battle with Carl in the abandoned attic (Ghost); Richard Kimball defeating Nichols and saving Gerard, who now knows he’s innocent (The Fugitive).
It is Anderton confronting Lamar (Minority Report); Harry Tasker’s battle with Aziz to save his daughter (True Lies); Sam and Annie meeting atop the Empire State Building (Sleepless in Seattle); Alan jumping off the dock to go with Madison (Splash); Jake and Neytiri’s fight with Colonel Quartich and Jake’s rebirth as one of The People (because this—and not the fight alone—is the culmination of Jake’s emotional, spiritual, and physical journey in Avatar).
The denouement is the wrap-up, showing (sometimes merely indicating) where things go from here. Because the climax is the high point, the denouement is typically kept short—say, the last 1% to 3% of the story. Enough detail to let people know how things are going to turn out, but not so much that it detracts from the climax-induced high. In faery tales and comedies, this sometimes comes down to a single line: And they lived happily ever after.
Nonclassically structured stories can lack any or all of he above elements, including the denouement—and often end ambiguously, refusing to tie things up with a clearly-defined resolution.
Real life, of course, does not adhere to classical story structure. Then again, real life abounds with boring minutiae and meaningless detours that are of little interest to anyone, including the people living through it. In short: few people will pay to read or watch that. Another important difference between reality and storydom: fiction has to make sense.
Which is why it’s crucial, when adapting real stories for the screen, to adapt them in such a way that the finished product adheres to the classical structure expected—indeed demanded—by Hollywood filmmakers. If you’ve ever wondered why such adaptations are promoted with phrases like “based on a true story” or “inspired by true events” rather than “a true story” or “everything happened exactly like this”—ponder no longer. (Fargo, of course, did claim to be a true story—but they were fibbing, so that doesn’t count.)
Even when writing a true story in book form, it seldom hurts to relate the details in classically structured format—assuming this can be done without fundamentally altering the truth of the narrative.
Look again at your favorite stories, and you’ll find these seven elements forming the skeleton upon which those stories are built. This is no coincidence—and if you want your stories to appeal to a large audience, this is the way to go. And while there are exceptions to everything, but as Damon Runyon once wrote:
The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong—but that’s the way to bet.
[For those seeking professional help with logline, structure, or story development, see the author's contact link below.]
SDFW Part 5: The Pitch Sheet. Look for it Thanksgiving week.
The articles in this series are:
Author John Robert Marlow is available for professional editing, development, and consultation services (including logline, structure, and story development options). If you’d like help taking your work to the next level, contact John here.
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