Basic Story Structure

There are lots of different interpretations of what constitutes story structure in film and television stories.  Which is the right one?  In my view, there is no one way that works for everybody.  The best one to choose is the one that helps you tell your story.  My take on story structure came from a number of places: from my experiences as a writer, from reading the work of others, from observing successful films and television stories, but mostly from teaching screenwriting.  

I became a screenwriting instructor at UCLA Extension nearly twenty years ago, and have taught on and off ever since.  I was awarded Screenwriting Instructor of the Year in 1999.  I relate this not to brag, but simply to say that when you have to stand in front of a class for three hours each week, you had better know something about that of which you are speaking, otherwise you're not going to last very long.  I became a screenwriting instructor at UCLA Extension following my transition from being one of their students (where I took many classes in screenwriting) to being one of their success stories (after I had started selling my work).  You can only teach screenwriting at UCLA Extension after you have sold your work professionally.  

So, by becoming a screenwriting instructor, I became, out of necessity, a keen observer of the kinds of story structure that I had seen work for others.  My take on structure is certainly not exclusively my own, and owes itself largely to the work of others.  But, perhaps because I've had the experience of explaining it over and over again in classroom settings, I may be able to communicate it to you in a way that makes sense.   

I don't believe in a rigid acceptance of story structure.  Every story is different and has different needs.  But I explain story structure here so that you can understand some of the basic techniques that have been used by other writers.  Once you know these techniques, I encourage you to accept or reject them as you wish.  But if you choose to reject them, you are doing so by making a conscious choice, not out of ignorance that they exist.    

Why Have Story Structure?  

First of all, why do we need story structure?  In particular, why do we need the three-act structure which is a time-honored method of storytelling?  There are at least three reasons: Dramatic Movement, Character Growth, and Keeping the Writer on Track.

Dramatic Movement: A screenplay is more than an arrangement of scenes.  These scenes should work together to provide growth for your characters, create forward momentum of the plot, express your themes and entertain your audience.  If your story has a definite structure, it will tend to give your story dramatic movement (which simply means it is moving forward in a coherent direction).  If your story has dramatic movement, your audience will be involved, anxious to get to the next step to see what happens.  Without a discernible structure, there is frequently no dramatic movement, the story just lays there without forward momentum and the audience is uninvolved.   A lot of European or art films reject structure, and as a result, American audiences (who have been raised on structured stories) tend not to embrace them.  When a European film like The Artist uses a more traditional act structure, it finds a welcome home with American audiences (as well as an Academy Award).   

Character Growth: act structure also gives form to your character’s growth (what is often called the Character Arc) during the course of the story.  Character growth is the single most determinative factor over whether a movie will or won’t be emotionally satisfying.  If your characters grow, the audience will have an emotional investment in them.  If they do not grow, you’d better have lots of other bells and whistles, because you’re going to need them.  

Some films (e.g. some superhero or adventure movies) get away with this through heavy reliance on action and computer generated effects.  But these are crutches -- things on which writers should not rely.  It’s far better to have solid character growth, and this also shows a more mature writing ability.  The superhero movies that do have solid character growth (e.g. Sam Raimi's Spiderman movies) succeed on both levels.  

So, then how does character growth (or character arc) relate to story structure?  For starters, well-structured film and TV stories are based around ONE character - the lead, the main character, the protagonist, or, as I like to call it, the hero.  I like to use the term hero, not because the character is always heroic, but in the eyes of the audience, this is the character who could potentially act in a manner that is heroic.  At any rate, this one character is the one around whom the story structure is based.  Read this next sentence carefully, because it is the essence of where I believe structure comes from.

Act Structure is based entirely upon decisions the hero makes at certain points of the story.

The key word there is: decisions.  Your hero must make decisions that drive the story forward.  Because of those decisions the hero will change and be made richer and more interesting.  Act structure is not something that should not be imposed upon your story or characters, in fact it should be an outgrowth of decisions and choices made and actions taken by your lead character.  So then, act structure comes from your character interacting with the world into which you have placed them.  These big decisions are called Turning Points.  More about this concept later.

Staying on Track: Knowledge of story structure can help you keep from getting lost in your story.  While writing your screenplay you have many things to worry about: plot, character, conflict, goals, motivations, dialogue, theme, emotion, obstacles, subtext, revelation and lots more.  Crafting a structure for your story gives you a framework to hang all these different elements onto.  It keeps your story (and your hero) on track, and most importantly it keeps you on track.

Three Act Structure

The three act structure is, in its simplest terms, Act I, Act II and Act III.  This roughly corresponds to the story's Beginning, Middle, and End.  Think of how you would tell someone about a movie you saw.  You'd describe how it begins, then where it goes and finally, where it ends.  Structure can be understood as being this simple.  Of course, once you get into it, you'll find that it gets complicated fast.  But the way I like to think of three act structure is Act I (the Set-up), Act II (the Struggle), and Act III (the Resolution).

Act I -- The Set Up

In Act I we are introduced to our hero character and some basics about him or her.  Who is the hero (main character)?  Who is the opponent (who is working against the hero)?  What is the setting (time and place)?  What is the basic situation? Here are some examples of a basic set-up situation.

This is a story about a young man who longs to become a starfighter (Star Wars).  Or a story about a Scotsman who is persecuted the English (Braveheart).  Or it’s about a sensitive young man trying to become a concert pianist (Shine).  Or it’s about an FBI Trainee trying to get information out of an imprisoned psychopathic murderer (Silence of the Lambs).  Or it’s about a down and out lawyer who gets case that might mean redemption (The Verdict). Or it’s about a Roman general who is betrayed by the Emperor and made an outcast (Gladiator). Or it’s about a reformed outlaw who’s struggling to keep his new family alive on a hog farm (Unforgiven).  

These are all "beginnings," meaning: how we encounter the hero when we first meet them.

Setting Up: During Act I we are “Setting up” our characters, we are establishing actions, skills, abilities, motivations, relationships and also important back story events that continue to influence our characters throughout the story.  We are establishing allies, opponents, false allies, etc.  We may even be introducing subplots that we will return to again and again in the story.  

Establishing Inner and Outer Needs: If a character doesn't need anything, then they have no place to go, and cannot really grow.   So it's good to start off with a character that is troubled and needs something to improve in their life if they are to be fulfilled.

The Outer Need is something that the character needs to accomplish.  This need is directly related to the Plot and is generally the Goal that the hero tries to attain.

The Inner Need is something that the character is lacking.  It is a personality defect, or flaw, and only by correcting this defect they can have a better life.    

By the end of Act I we should firmly establish both Inner and Outer needs that our hero will be pursuing for the rest of the screenplay.

Examples: In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker is established as a young man working on a farm who dreams of a more exciting life as a starfighter when he gets a message of vital importance from Princess Leia.  He must now deliver R2D2 (containing plans to the Death Star) to the rebel alliance.  This is his Outer Need (Goal) established.  He is also established as an incomplete being, a boy who yearns to become a man, and connect with the legacy of his father, a Jedi Knight (Inner Need).

In Braveheart, William Wallace is established as a victim of the continuing abuse of the Scottish by the English.  He even has to marry in secret in order to avoid the English Law of “First Nights” wherein the local magistrate gets to sleep with the bride.  But when his bride is killed by the English, he decides to wage war on them.  His Outer Need (Goal) is established: destroy the English.  He is also set up as a man who will, for the moment, defer to the Scottish nobles for leadership, rather than seizing the mantle and becoming a true heroic leader (Inner Need).  

In Silence of the Lambs, Clarice Starling is established as an FBI Trainee who gets the chance to talk to Hannibal Lecter, a serial killer, for a research project, and then her work becomes more critical when Lecter may be able to help catch a new serial killer, Buffalo Bill (Outer Need established).  But we also establish Clarice as a work in progress, struggling to become an FBI agent and carry the legacy established by her father to protect the innocent (Inner Need).

In Shine, we meet David Helfgott, a sensitive young man who is dominated by an authoritarian father determined to mold his son’s career.  David pursues his piano studies abroad even in opposition to his father.  Goal established (Outer Need).  But we also see that he must oppose his father and eventually need to break free of his domination to become a complete person on his own (Inner Need)

In Rudy, we meet a young man, working in a steel mill who decides to break out of his family’s blue-collar history and go to college and play football for Notre Dame (Outer Need).  But we also see that Rudy is a person with a compelling need to rise above his own inadequacies (dyslexia, short stature, low income) to succeed in life (Inner Need).  

Inciting Event(s): In Act I, the hero is existing in a rough state of balance.  They are living day to day, but clearly are not the person they long to be.  But at some point in Act I, something happens to change the equation -- an "out of the blue" event comes along that knocks them off balance.   For Luke Skywalker, it is the appearance of Princess Leia projected by R2D2. In Braveheart, it is the murder of Wallace's wife by the Magistrate.  In Silence of the Lambs, it is the offer of "quid pro quo" that Lecter gives Clarice.  The Inciting Event is the one occasion in a story when a random event can come literally "out of the blue" to knock the hero off balance.  The Inciting Event works in tandem with the next element.

Turning Points (Decisions): Most films are in three acts, and as a result they have two turning points.  One is at the end of Act I, one is at the end of Act II.  The Act I Turning Point spins the action into Act II, Act II Turning Point spins the action into Act III.  If you have a four act structure, you therefore have another act and another turning point.  But for now, let's stick with three acts.

The turning point is a moment of DECISION for our hero.  Because of the Inciting Event, the hero is presented with several choices of direction.  At the Turning Point he chooses a direction and then sticks with it for better or worse.  This is why structure is determined by choices the character makes.  The Turning Points are the moments where those decisions happen.  By the way, some people call these Plot Points.  I prefer the term Turning Point, because, to me, the story takes a turn in direction.  Because of this turn in direction, the action changes from Act I to Act II, and likewise changes from Act II to Act III.

Examples of the Act I Turning Point (Decision): In Face/Off, Archer makes the decision to have his face replaced with Castor’s and go undercover in prison to get information about the bomb.  In Star Wars, Luke decides to go with Obiwan and take R2D2 to Alderan.  In Jerry Maguire, Jerry breaks up with his fiancée and pursues a relationship with Dorothy.  In Shine, David Helfgott decides to disobey his father and leave the family to go to the London Conservatory.  In Braveheart, Wallace decides to pick up a sword and start killing the English.  In Unforgiven, Bill Munny decides to take up the gun one more time and go after the cowboys for the reward.  In The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo decides to be the one to take the ring to its destruction in Mordor.  In The Matrix, Neo decides to take the red pill instead of the blue pill.  

You see how all of these moments are key decisions made by the hero that spins the story in a new direction.  If the hero didn't make that decision, then the story wouldn't go in that new direction.  This harkens back to our earlier point.  

Act Structure is based entirely upon decisions your hero makes at certain points of the story

So this is where story structure comes from: from the choices (decisions) your hero makes.  The Act I Turning Point is the hero's Decision to pursue the Goal.  Since the hero decided to pursue the goal (at the end of Act I), you can see how Act II becomes the Struggle to Achieve the Goal.

Act II – The Struggle

Act II is called a lot of different things by different writers.  Some call it the Complication or the Confrontation.  But I think the easiest way to understand it is to call Act II the Struggle To Achieve The Goal.  What goal does the hero have to achieve?  This is the hero's Outer Need, and it should be the main dramatic action of the screenplay.  The Outer Need. or Goal, is established by the Turning Point decision.  Once the hero has decided to pursue the goal, he is committed.  But pursuing the Goal should not be easy.  There should be lots of tests and trials along the way.  What obstacles must the hero overcome to achieve the goal?  How does the hero overcome them?  What setbacks or reversals will our hero experience?

Act II is the Main Course of your screenplay.  This is where the hero’s main action takes place.  For example, this is where Luke Skywalker sets off to deliver R2D2 and the information inside of it to the rebel forces.  

So the foremost question is: what is your hero struggling against?  

In Act II of Braveheart, William Wallace struggles against the domination of Edward Longshanks of England and has many battles with the English armies as well as the more personal conflicts with the treacherous Scottish lords.  

Act II is where Clarice Starling plays complex mental games with Hannibal Lecter in order to get information about the killer known as Buffalo Bill, so she can help catch the man before he kills the Senator's daughter.  

Act II is where David Helfgott leaves his father’s domination to set out to England and become a world class pianist, fighting the competition, strict instructors and mental illness.

Act II is where Rudy leaves home and family to work his way through college to try to play football at Notre Dame, struggling against his lack of money, a small physical stature and dyslexia.  

Act II is where Bill Munny leaves his family to go with the Scofield Kid and kill some bad cowboys to collect the bounty that the prostitutes have put on them.  

The Hero’s Low Point: Often, the hero will encounter a major setback at the end of Act II.  This sometimes happens when he thinks he has the goal in his grasp only to have it irretrievably slip away.  Or, it could be when the hero attains the goal, but in gaining it finds that there is another more important goal he has yet to go after.  The Hero’s Low Point is often the destruction of the hero’s initial plans.  The way things have been going are no longer working or he is foiled in his plans.  This low point paves the way for the next major moment for the hero...

Act II Turning Point:  At the end of Act II there is a similar change of direction for our hero, once again based upon a decision he makes.  The Act II Turning Point follows the Low Point and gives the hero a new goal to pursue in Act III.  

Examples of Act II Turning Point:  In Jerry Maguire, after leaving Dorothy (his Low Point), Jerry decides to get her back.  In Shine, David, after years in mental hospitals, decides to start playing piano in public at Moby’s restaurant.  In Braveheart, William Wallace decides to face execution rather than give in to Longshanks.  In Unforgiven, Bill Munny decides to go after the sheriff who has killed his best friend.  In Star Wars Luke decides to pilot the X-Wing fighter against the Death Star.

Act III -- Resolution

Act III is where the conflict between the hero and opponent is resolved.  It’s where the final goal is attained.  But the hero’s action in Act III is different in some significant way from the action in Act II.  It is not just a continuation of the same struggle.  The struggle has now changed, the stakes have increased and the hero must go at the struggle in a different way from that which he did in Act II.  But more importantly, Act III is the place where the story's action is the most intense, it is the place for the Battle where the hero squares off against the opponent.  What is the final battle?  What happens during the course of the battle?  This should be the hero's toughest contest.  The plot reaches its peak and climax in “The Battle,” which is the centerpiece of Act III.  How does the battle end?  What happens to the hero?  What happens to the opponent?  Does he live or die?  Act III resolves the story.

Finally, Act III gives us the Denouement, the emotional winding down of the story  -- tying up the emotional beats that we have created in Act I and II, and left unfulfilled by the plot resolution of the Battle.  

Examples of Act III Battles: Luke Skywalker leads the attack squadron against the Death Star.  William Wallace faces the execution ordeal without crying out for mercy, and becomes a hero for his country.  Clarice Starling comes face to face with Buffalo Bill, battling it out in a cat and mouse game in the darkness of his basement.  David Helfgott gets up the courage to start playing again in public.  And Rudy gets the opportunity to play in the big game.  

Working out the story structure before you start writing it allows you to know your ending before you begin.  Most stories are written with an end in mind.  It’s important to know where you’re going to keep on track.

Two Final Points

The Hero's Basic Action: This is determined by the Turning Points.  The hero’s basic action should be slightly different in each act.  The fact that the hero has made a decision at the Turning Point and has set out on a different course necessitates a change in his basic action.  Viewing basic action allows us to see how a character is changing and growing.

Examples:  In Act I, Luke Skywalker is a farmer dreaming of life of a starfighter.  In Act II he is an adventurer trying to get secret plans to a princess.  In Act III he is a starfighter leading an attack squadron against the Death Star.  

In Act I of Unforgiven, Bill Munny is a poor widower and unsuccessful pig farmer struggling to raise two children.  In Act II, he is a bounty hunter trying to kill two cowboys to collect the reward money put up by the prostitutes.  In Act III he is an avenger seeking to punish the men who killed his best friend.  

Act Structure in Film vs. Television: In reality, most TV essentially follows a three-act structure, just as film does.  Stories have beginnings, middles and ends.  Characters make decisions that lead them further into the story.  The biggest difference is that TV generally has act breaks for commercials, and while these sometimes follow the above formula, they can appear to be different.  For example, the beginning of the story might be the Teaser and Act I, the Struggle might be Acts II and III, and the Resolution might be Act IV or V.  But this is an “artificial structure” imposed by the economic realities of the medium.  In reality, the storytelling in a TV story is essentially the same as it is for feature films.  

In the other files in this section, I have done an analysis of the story structures of several feature films.  My hope is that if you've learned something from this dialogue that you will show your appreciation by picking up my newest novel (link below).  And then let me know what you think of its structure! 

Houdini & Lovecraft The Ghost Writer