Writing stories for comics or screen can be hard work. Some writers take a bottom-up approach, letting the characters find their own way through a world that may not be very clear yet. Other writers are a little more conceptual, taking a top-down approach, they develop the world and structure first before populating it with characters to vehicle the story. Some writers do both and some do neither.
Regardless, all writers should have some understanding of structure so they can populate a story with the right sign posts so neither you or your characters get lost. Reading other stories, especially screenplays, helps here.
When reading you should be noting the core 11 plot points that are usually present in most screenplays. Plot points occur around certain page ranges. Act 1’s points are usually pretty obvious, these page ranges can be identified in most scripts as they usually fit within 20-30 pages. Acts 2 and 3’s plot points vary as they depend on the overall page count and structure. These are guidelines only. These plot points include:
- Hook: the atmosphere, mood, emotional setting, genre
Usually around pages 1 – 5, this is what draws you into the story.
- Inciting Incident/Catalyst:
Usually around pages 5 – 10, this sets up the protagonist’s goal/desire/mission/need/problem.
- Call to Action:
Usually around pages 10 – 20, this is the event that calls the protagonist to act in order to reach the end goal set up in the previous step.
- Big Event:
Usually around pages 20-30, this is the event that sets the protagonist on the path into a new world and towards the end goal.
- Part 1 – Training:
This is the protagonist’s first or established steps in the new world they engage. It’s sometimes referred to as the ‘fun and games’ section of the story, as this is usually where we get to experience this new world for ourselves adequately. Things begin to escalate here.
This is the halfway point and also a critical event that changes the flow of the story or takes it to the next level emotionally by escalating tension and raising the stakes. It usually leads to the more serious side of the story…
- Part 2 – Escalation Spiral:
This part escalates the action, deals with the fallout or consequences of the midpoint and spirals the protagonist into dealing with the sheer power of the antagonistic forces opposing the protagonist’s journey towards the end goal. It usually ends with the protagonist or central character in a state of despair. (That central character remark will be explained soon.)
- Hero’s Recovery:
This is as it sounds, the protagonist recovers from the events of Act 2 – Part 2 and is back on track towards the end goal.
- Ticking Clock:
Around this time, the protagonist may encounter a time limit imposed on reaching the end goal, i.e. ‘Quick, Batman! You only have 10 minutes to reach the Joker’s bomb!’
The final battle! All roads have led to this, the protagonist faces off against the antagonist in order to finally reach the end goal.
This is the fallout from the climax. Did the protagonist win, finding closure or growth? Or did the protagonist lose, finding psychosis or, Heaven forbid, death?!
That’s it! Well, it covers a basic story structure with some leeway. But it’s all there. The better stories hide these plot points quite well. They do this by choosing how to show the past, present and future around and in the event.
Take Juno for instance. The inciting incident is that she wants to get rid of her unborn baby, however, we already know this because the hook established she’s pregnant by showing her complaining about the unborn child while taking several pregnancy tests in the opening scene.
What about that central character remark? Certain scripts may have multiple vehicles to get the story across, this can be seen in a protagonist, who must overcome a flaw, a central character, who we ride with to unfold the story, and even an avatar, a character that may reflect the protagonist or central character’s needs or wants.
This is most evident in the Oscar winning screenplay for The Exorcist, where you have Father Karras as the tragic protagonist, a faithless (flaw) priest who sacrifices himself (the tragedy) to save a young child from a demon (regaining his faith in the act); Chris, the central character whom we follow for most of the story as she comes to terms with this new world of the supernatural portrayed in her daughter; Regan, the avatar, who depicts the wants and needs of the central character and at times the protagonist, by becoming the goal of both these characters: save her from the demon in possession of her body. Yes, it’s complex but executed to seem very simple.
Anyway, you should be noting this stuff down when reading any story to learn how things tick.