Above, you can see the first instalment in my new, exciting kind-of-a-podcast-I-guess-but-not-really series of ‘Everything Matt Knows About…’. For the opening episode, I rant about story structure for about 30 minutes. If you don’t want to listen to me drone on for that long, the transcription is below.
Hi, and welcome to Everything Matt Knows About Story Structure. I’m not a professional writer, but I have spent a long time reading up on story structure, and I’d like to share with you today everything I know on the subject.
Deciding where to start when talking about story is difficult. There’s so many aspects to cover, and diving in without getting the basics out of the way will only end up confusing you. So, I think the most interesting place to start would be ‘the point’. As in, what’s the point of a story? Stories have been used for many purposes over the millennia – they’re used as parable, as education, as entertainment and escapism… Stories have the power to convey meaning and excitement, the power to take the viewer or reader into another world. As long as there are people, there will be stories.
So now we know why we have stories, what is a story? A story is a structured, conflict-driven narrative. We’ll get into the ‘structure’ of a story shortly, but let’s focus on the ‘conflict-driven’ part for now. At every story’s heart is a question that needs to be answered, and every story has a protagonist that is trying to answer that question – perhaps subconsciously. These questions can be obvious – in action films, the question is usually a variant of ‘Will the hero survive?’ or ‘Will the hero save the day?’. In dramas, the question is normally more varied, like ‘Will the hero keep his family together?’ or ‘Will the heroine find her place in the world?’. Sometimes the central question isn’t obvious at all to the protagonist, but instead made clear to the audience.
In trying to answer these questions, the protagonist will come into conflict with other characters or their environment. This conflict is the true star of any piece of media. Without conflict, you don’t have a story, you have a lecture.
Let’s go another level deeper – what is conflict, then? This is where it can get a little hazy. In action-media, obvious conflict is whenever the hero has to fight bad guys. But what about scenes that don’t involve violence? Well, one kind of escalation is a verbal disagreement, an argument between characters. But what if I told you that you can introduce conflict without any harsh words spoken between two characters, or any violence occurring at all?
Imagine a character walking through a desert – they reach for their canteen, put it to their lips, but… it’s empty. Frustrated, they throw the canteen to the sand and keep moving. This is conflict. This is a human fighting for their life against nature itself.
We can be even more abstract. Imagine another scene with two characters – one character asks the other on a date, and the latter enthusiastically agrees. But when the first character turns around, the second casts their eyes down sadly. Why do they suddenly look so sad? What’s going on in their head? Conflict is happening within the character, even when the dialogue between the characters suggests all is well.
Films and books are prolonged, structured sequences of conflict. Save for the end or resolution of a piece of media, conflict should be constantly occurring, the values of the characters changing and being challenged. Robert McKee once wrote that a scene without conflict (that doesn’t ‘turn’, as puts it) is just exposition, and he’s right. But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. Let’s add some context to conflict by introducing structure.
So, everyone knows the basics of act structure – you’re normally taught it in primary school. Stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. What you’re not normally taught, is that the middle can be broken down further into the beginning-middle and an ending-middle. Novelists will normally make a distinction between these two ‘middles’, and explicitly call them parts 2 and 3. Screenwriters sometimes do this breakdown as well, but they’re more likely to refer to the middle as being broken down into ‘Act 2A’ and ‘Act 2B’. These four acts are roughly equal in length.
And again, in school you’re taught about what happens in these acts – the beginning is when everything is set up, the middle is when everything happens, and the end is when, well, the story is wrapped up and concluded. But this further distinction of act ‘2A’ and ‘2B’ helps guide the writer into understanding what they should be accomplishing in the middle part of the story.
Very generally speaking, Act 1 involves introducing the problem that the hero must solve, Act 2A involves the hero’s first attempts at solving the problem, Act 2B serves to show the hero’s progress towards solving the problem before a massive setback occurs, and Act 3 is the final rush towards resolution.
Immediately, we can see how conflict is integrated into structure. Media is structured as a sequence of problem-response pairs, where the problems introduce conflict, and the protagonist provides a response to that conflict.
This can be made clearer through examples. Take Die Hard – for some reason, Die Hard is everyone’s favourite film to use when explaining this concept, don’t ask me why. The three-act structure is extremely clear in Die Hard. Let’s break it down real quick. I’ll assume you know the film, because… everyone has seen Die Hard. If you haven’t, you can skip ahead to the time below if you don’t want to be spoiled. But seriously, you should have seen this film by now.
So, Act 1: Introduce the characters, introduce the threat – John McClane is flying over from New York to his wife Holly’s company’s Christmas party. It’s revealed through dialogue that they’re having a difficult time with their marriage. However, this party is destined to be crashed by terrorists, led by the charismatic Hans Gruber. We’re introduced to all the key players inside the building and their motivations – after the terrorist attack, everyone’s motivations become clear: John wants to save Holly, Holly wants to save her friends and colleagues, and Hans wants the bearer-bonds from the safe. Act 1 ends when John starts to take action against the terrorists – you can define this as either the moment he pulls the fire alarm to try and summon help, or when he kills his first terrorist shortly after.
Act 2A: Now John is in trouble – he continues to work against the terrorists, but doesn’t make much headway. Despite managing to contact the police, they don’t immediately believe him, and instead send a desk jockey cop, Al Powell, to go check out the situation. There’s a lot of gunfights, and John spends of his time running away from the bad guys. But finally, towards the halfway point of the film, John finally manages to kill a couple more terrorists, and uses one of their bodies to get Powell’s attention at last. He has a clear goal throughout this portion of the film – get the police to come to Nakatomi Plaza – and he accomplishes it. In the process, he also takes a bunch of C4 and detonators from one of the dead terrorists.
Act 2B: However, while losing the detonators was a blow, getting the police to come was all part of Hans’ plan. But John then has a string of successes, culminating in him eliminating another pair of terrorists and saving the lives of an inept swat team. Complications arise – the FBI takes over the scene, and a minor character leaks information about John to Hans before biting the bullet. This is the start of a major fall for John, who eventually is tricked into a difficult situation by Hans, loses possession of the detonators, and is seriously wounded. This is the crisis moment – the lowest point in the film. It looks like all is lost, but…
Act 3: After a pep talk over the radio from Powell, John makes a realisation about Hans’ plan and goes to investigate, learning that the terrorists have rigged the roof of Nakatomi Plaza with enough explosive to bring it down. He ends up fighting Hans’ strongest underling and winning, before saving the lives of the hostages and eventually confronting Hans and one of his remaining comrades, who still have Holly held captive. With only two bullets left, John still manages to kill one terrorist and force Hans into a precarious situation, dangling from one of the top floors of the building, holding to Holly’s wrist watch – with Holly still attached. With John’s help, Holly manages to undo the clasp of the watch and Hans falls to his death. Tension over. The film wraps up with some feel-good scenes of John meeting Powell in person for the first time, and John and Holly leaving the scene.
That’s about it. Let’s make it simpler:
Act 1: Terrorists attack a party that John McClane and his wife are attending. John tries to alert the authorities, and kills a terrorist in the process.
Act 2A: John continues to try and summon the police, but only manages it after being chased around by the terrorists and put in dangerous situations. He also steals detonators that are vital to the terrorist plan.
Act 2B: Feeding information to the police, John manages to save the lives of a swat team, but later loses the detonators in the process. His wife is also put in severe danger.
Act 3: John is suffering, but he picks himself up. Before the detonators can be used to kill a bunch of hostages, John saves them. He then moves on to save his wife and kill the terrorist leader.
And one more time, let’s try and make it generic:
Act 1: Problem presents itself, hero is reactionary but eventually commits to solving the problem.
Act 2A: Hero still reacting, but has a victory and starts to gain a feeling of control, possibly misplaced.
Act 2B: Hero feels in control, has another victory but suffers major defeat and loses control.
Act 3: Hero pulls self together, saves the day.
What if I told you that you can apply this structure to basically any blockbuster? Sometimes you move the highs and lows around, but for most part it’s the same. Let’s try it with another film.
Star Wars: A New Hope – please, please tell me you’ve seen this one? You’ve had like over 40 years. But again, if you don’t want spoilers (ugh), here’s the timestamp to skip this bit.
Here we go:
Act 1: Luke Skywalker is a farm boy living on a desert planet, whose life is interrupted when two droids from the Rebellion are sold to his uncle. He discovers a secret message on one of the droids from Princess Leia, who says she needs help from an ‘Obi-Wan Kenobi’ to combat the evil Empire. Luke sets out to find Obi-Wan, and does so. Together, they learn that Leia wants Obi-wan to escort the droids to Alderaan. But Luke isn’t sure about the mission – it’s dangerous, and he has obligations to his Uncle and Aunt. But he soon finds out his Uncle and Aunt have been murdered by the Empire, and he makes his decision to help Obi-Wan take the droids to Alderaan.
Act 2A: Luke follows Obi-wan to Mos Eisley, a very dangerous city on their planet. After some hiccups involving aggressive aliens, and a display of the power of the Force against some storm-troopers, Luke and Obi-wan manage to secure the services of Han Solo and Chewbacca, who offer to take the pair to Alderaan. There’s a bunch of mess involving Jabba the Hutt, but eventually the team manage to escape Tatooine and are on their way to Alderaan, with Luke learning the ways of the Force from Obi-wan. However, unbeknownst to them, Tatooine has been destroyed by a new threat – the Death Star.
Act 2B: The Millennium Falcon is captured by the Death Star, but with some quick thinking the heroes are able to outfox the storm-troopers that search the ship, and formulate a plan to rescue of Princess Leia. Without much hassle, they successfully rescue Leia, who reveals that the droid contains the plans for the battlestation they’re currently in. They suffer a minor scare with a garbage compactor. They almost escape, but then Luke’s mentor, Obi-Wan, is killed by Darth Vader – a definite low point.
Act 3: After some moping around, and Han Solo stating he’s leaving after dropping everyone off on Yavin (the location of the Rebel Base), the heroes deliver the droids to the rebel leadership. However, they’ve been followed by the Death Star. The Rebels formulate a plan to destroy the Death Star by attacking it with their fleet of small fighter craft. Luke joins the mission, and after putting his faith in the Force, he is able to fire a torpedo into the Death Star’s exhaust chute, destroying it. In the ending sequence, Leia gives medals to everyone except Chewbacca, because she’s mean.
Let’s apply some simplification:
Act 1: Luke finds some droids, discovers there’s a very important mission, oohs-and-ahhs a bit before finally committing to helping Obi-Wan.
Act 2A: Luke and Obi-wan manage to get passage to Alderaan after some close scrapes with the Imperials and denizens of Mos Eisley – things are finally going well and Luke starts to understand the Force but hasn’t mastered it yet.
Act 2B: Oops, maybe not so well – there’s no more Alderaan. But the heroes are able to secure a victory by saving Princess Leia from the Death Star – but then Obi-wan is killed by Darth Vader.
Act 3: After commiserating the loss of Obi-wan, the heroes use the knowledge they gained from the droids to formulate a plan an attack on the Death Star, which is closing in on the Rebels. Luke finally taps into the Force, and is able to destroy the Death Star.
And one more time:
Act 1: Problem presents itself, hero is reactionary but eventually commits to solving the problem.
Act 2A: Hero still reacting, but has a victory and starts to gain a feeling of control, possibly misplaced.
Act 2B: Hero feels in control, has another victory but suffers major defeat and loses control.
Act 3: Hero pulls self together, saves the day.
That might not be enough to convince you, and it shouldn’t be – try it with any of your favourite movies, remembering the key transitions between phases happen 25%, 50%, and 75% of the way through the movie or book.
Why Three-Act Structure?
So why do stories follow this structure? There’s a blase answer – it works. If it ain’t broke, why fix it? But the trick is understanding why it works – stories that follow three-act structure are a roller-coaster of emotion. To further the analogy – with roller-coasters there is a build-up, followed by a drop, then another build-up, followed by a drop… In stories and roller-coasters, the ‘drops’ are bigger every time, and the people on the roller-coaster anticipate this. In stories, the stakes get higher and higher, the conflict reaches boiling point. We start at zero, and have minor wins, minor losses, then bigger wins and bigger losses, and then we have the biggest loss of all… followed by the hero’s victory.
Indeed, in the same way that people anticipate roller-coasters to get more exciting as time goes on, many people have subconscious knowledge of story structure – perhaps you’re able to predict that something bad is about to happen, because things are going too well, or that the hero is due for something good to happen because they’ve been having a rough time. It’s these highs and lows that drive interest in the story, even when you ‘know’ roughly how it has to go. Heck, for some people, knowledge of this structure even enhances their enjoyment of the medium.
Simply put – there just aren’t many other working structures in today’s worlds of cinema and literature that can deliver the same up-and-down emotional roller-coaster. Art cinema or high literature is something different entirely, and usually has very different goals from regular films and novels. If the goal is to entertain, three-act structure is the way it’s done today.
If acts are the sections of a story, scenes are the paragraphs. Acts are broken down into multiple scenes of varying length, although it’s generally known that for films you’re looking at around 40-60 scenes, while novels can have up to a hundred or more. But these are rough counts and not hard-and-fast limits.
Simplified, a scene is a dramatic unit that is a combination of location and character. If the primary characters interacting change, the scene changes. If the location changes, the scene changes. This is how it’s normally thought of in the case of cinema, but don’t apply this too rigidly – it’s more important to consider the dramatic scene, especially in cinema where you may have two different locations being cut-between rapidly. The dramatic scene is where the primary conflict is taking place. I differentiate between the two because it’s very easy for a screenwriter to get hung up on the definition of a scene, because they’re forced to explicitly write location changes in their scripts. But a number of locations used repeatedly for the same dramatic purpose with the same pair of characters still constitutes only a single dramatic scene.
Something has to happen in a scene – specifically, a value must be challenged or changed for one or more characters in the scene. The notion of a value can be a bit vague, but take any scene from any good film and you’ll see that something happens. In action stories, the most common value under examination is the life of the protagonist and those around him. In a courtroom drama, there will be a scene where the accused is declared either innocent and guilty – the value here is the freedom of the accused, and it could be about to change in a BIG way. So as long as something is happening in your scenes, you don’t have to think too hard about values, because they’ll naturally be part of the scene’s reason to be. I said it before – a scene without conflict is pure exposition. It’s not that exposition doesn’t have a place in a story, but it’s better to incorporate it into a scene with values.
I know we’ve examined it already, but let’s look at Die Hard again. In the scene where John and Holly are alone in Holly’s office shortly after John’s arrival at Nakatomi Plaza, there’s a clear tension between the two. John brings up Holly’s career in a negative way, and the pair have a falling out. So we got two-for-one – we found out a bit about how John perceives how he thinks a marriage should be in the context of Holly’s career – ie. exposition – while also seeing how that perception affected the value of the relationship between the two characters. Perfect.
For those lucky enough to have seen ‘The Room’ by Tommy Wiseau, this lack of marriage between conflict-powered scenes and exposition is one of the many, many reasons that film feels disjointed. But I won’t go into that…
Let’s talk about sequences. Sequences are collections of scenes. Two or three sequences appear in acts 1 and 3, with four or five sequences appearing in act 2. Scenes do not exist in a vacuum – they exist together to form a coherent plot in themselves. A sequence is a story somewhere between the macrocosm of the full picture, and the microcosm of the scene. The logic behind grouping scenes into sequences is that it becomes easier for both the writer and audience to understand how a particular element of the plot is introduced and then elaborated upon.
If we look at act one of Die Hard, there are two clear sequences – the first sequence is John’s arrival in Miami, followed by his meeting Holly at Nakatomi Plaza, culminating in his argument with her that leaves her isolated from him – physically and mentally. Did you spot it? There’s a beginning, middle, and end in the sequence! It’s a story in itself of a man who fails to reconcile with his wife. But fortunately, the film doesn’t end there. The next sequence begins when terrorists attack the party and take hostages – the tension is raised when John witnesses the death of Mr. Takagi by the hands of Hans Gruber – and finally, John takes action against the terrorists by pulling the fire alarm. A beginning, a middle, and an end, again! Each sequence in act 1 has a clear goal in mind – in the first sequence the aim is to establish John and Holly’s characters and set the scene for their eventual reconciliation. The second sequence introduces the terrorist threat, establishes its credibility, and features John’s decision to fight against them.
Sequences help establish a short-term goal for the character to achieve or fail or merely make progress with, and then takes them through to the end. They make up the ups-and-downs in the conflict roller-coaster by encapsulating scenes of varying dramatic tension. They’re present in most blockbusters you watch and novels.
So, armed with this knowledge of structure, we now know a story is comprised of three acts, with about two, four, and two sequences in them respectively, with six to ten scenes per sequence for films, likely more for novels. The scenes need to be conflict-driven, with any exposition interweaved with the conflict. This conflict does not need to be opaque, and can in fact be downright subtle. We know that between acts, there are important events that occur that help drive the roller-coaster of tension. We know that sequences help guide the flow of the plot by giving context to groupings of scenes.
Let’s look at these important events in more detail. These act-dividers are important, but there’s a few more points that successful stories hit. Let’s break them down by Act.
In Act 1, there are two major events that should occur. The first of these is the inciting incident, as termed by Robert McKee. Other story gurus have other terms for this, but I’ve found this one to be closest to the actual content of the event.
The inciting incident is simply a point of diversion in the main character’s life. Something is happening that means that this day, week, month is going to be unlike any other. Sometimes it’s something subtle, like a lover slowly falling out of love. Other times, it’s bombastic – a full-on war is declared and the main character is conscripted. This is normally an event entirely outside the character’s control – it is happening to them, it is not driven by them. They often don’t want to go down the path that the inciting incident is leading them, and that’s okay – for now.
Examples of inciting incidents include…
Star Wars: Luke finds a hidden message in one of the droids his Uncle has brought – literally calling him to adventure.
Die Hard: This one gets contentious, but it’s generally agreed that it’s either John’s mere attendance at the Christmas Party, or the terrorist attack beginning.
Casablanca: Rick is asked to guard the MacGuffin – a set of transit papers that let anyone freely leave Casablanca – which he begrudgingly agrees to do.
This is a very important event to hit – without it, the story lacks context. It’s normally introduced within the first ten minutes of a film, or the first ten to twenty pages of a novel. This event doesn’t mean the writer is done setting up the players or providing the necessary background – the audience just needs a clear indication that something has changed in the protagonist’s life and that this change will offer them a new path.
Next, we have act-divider. Robert McKee calls this the ‘first plot point’, while Blake Synder simply calls it the ‘Break Into Two’. I’ll be calling it the first plot point. The idea is that at around the 25% mark of your story, the lead character makes a decision to pursue their goal. They may have already done this earlier on, but this should be a real reaffirmation of the character’s intentions. We already discussed this for Star Wars and Die Hard, with Luke deciding to join Obi-wan and John deciding to try and summon the police to the Plaza.
In Casablanca, it’s when Rick breaks from his regular no-drinks-with-the-customers policy to sit with his once-lover Ilsa Lund and resistance leader Victor Laszlo.
In Thelma and Louise, it’s the moment that the eponymous pair decide to go on the run – and not the moment they kill the man attacking them. The killing is a more appropriate inciting incident.
This is a very important moment in the story. The lead character has accepted the call to adventure and has taken a significant step out of their comfort zone. They might not know what that entails, and they’re certainly not ready for it, but they’ve made a conscious decision – often one that goes against their regular instincts.
In Act 2, there are four events that should take place – two of which are very similar, which we’ll cover first. These are the ‘pinch points’, according to McKee. Snyder prefers to spice this term up, with phrases like ‘Fun and Games’, which may more accurately reflect what is happening in the pinch. Pinch points are challenges for the protagonist to face, to either demonstrate how ready or unready they are for the trials ahead.
These either advance the plot or simply demonstrate the power of the antagonist force. In Die Hard, the first pinch point is more about reminding the audience that the terrorists are not messing around – they chase John into a lift shaft after a high tension gunfight. The second pinch point is when Hans kills Ellis, having learned a great deal of information about John in the process – this is a case of the stakes being raised by the pinch point, as this information leaks out to the press and police and causes further problems down the line.
But more important than the pinches is the midpoint, which is placed exactly where it sounds – slap-bang at the 50% mark of the story. It’s a turning point for the protagonist – at this stage, they become fully committed to the story, normally through an action they take, or a decision to take action. Like the first plot point, we discussed this for Star Wars and Die Hard already – in Star Wars, it’s the decision to rescue Princess Leia after the Millennium Falcon is captured by the Death Star. In Die Hard, it’s when John finally manages to get the attention of the police by throwing a dead body out of a high-rise window.
Normally, this moment is wrapped up with a feeling that things are finally going well, but actually comes with the realisation that the path is still long and difficult. In Star Wars, the protagonists actually have failed their goal by the midpoint, as Alderaan has been destroyed. And in Die Hard, the police arriving was actually part of the terrorist plan. It’s important to bring the protagonist back down to Earth, otherwise we have a runaway train of wins for the protagonist, which does not lend itself well to telling a conflict-driven story! These are ‘everything changes’ moments for the story, and the protagonist must be forced to adapt to this new scenario.
In Casablanca, the midpoint is when Rick learns why Ilsa left him in Paris. This is 100% an ‘everything changes’ moment for Rick. He is forced to re-evaluate his bitterness and previous actions in a new light. While externally pitiful in this scene, inside he starts the road to redemption.
The last major event in act 2 is the end of it – the second plot point, as per McKee’s terminology, or the ‘Break Into Three’ in Snyder’s. This is a crisis-and-resolve moment, 75% of the way through the story. The protagonist suffers an enormous setback that pulls into question everything they’ve accomplished so far. The audience needs to believe that this could really be the end of the road for the protagonist. For almost the last time in the discussion of important events, let’s review the Star Wars and Die Hard moments – in Star Wars, this crisis moment is the death of a major character, Obi-Wan Kenobi, which hits the team hard. In Die Hard, it’s when John is outsmarted by Hans, and suffers serious injury to his feet and loses the detonators. But in both films, very shortly after, the lead has a realisation and suddenly, they’re back on track and stronger than ever. They’re ready to take on Act 3.
We’ve already talked about the need for a low point. Unless the story has a downer ending, this is its lowest point. It looks like the antagonistic forces will win, and everything so far has been for nought. Of course, this is actually a set-up – we’re setting the stage for Act 3, for the protagonist to finally face the final confrontation with their demons, and to prevail. To do that, we need to break them down so they can show how they pick themselves up again.
This brings us neatly into Act 3. There are two major events to hit in Act 3 – the first is the Climax, around 90% of the way through the film. This is the final confrontation between the hero and their problem. In action films, this is normally (but not always!) when the hero and villain face off in an action-packed, explosion-filled display of violence. In a courtroom drama, this could be the closing arguments before the verdict. In a story centering around a race, it could be the home stretch, with the hero and their rival barrelling towards the finish line. Every moment in the story has come down to this moment – it’s time to answer the central question once and for all. Let’s revisit our favourite friends, Star Wars and Die Hard. In Star Wars, this is the iconic trench run on the Death Star. In Die Hard, this is John’s final face-off against Hans with Holly held hostage.
In Casablanca, the climax is the final rush to get the resistance leader and his wife on the plane. In Thelma and Louise, it’s when they’re finally backed into a corner by the authorities. It’s the last stand, the final push.
This is arguably the most important part of the story. If you don’t have a strong climax, the audience won’t be satisfied. Some writers take this to the extreme, beginning with the climax and working their way backwards through the key plot events. As the final victory of the protagonist over their own faults and their antagonistic force, the climax must come about through the power of the protagonist – it’s their moment, after all. Secondary characters can help, but the final, definitive resolving action must come from the hero.
After the Climax, comes the Resolution. Resolution is that slow exhalation after the exciting climax. Resolution is a summing up of the message of the story – a final confirmation that the protagonist has grown since the outset. In Star Wars, it’s Luke’s acceptance of his new life as an adventuring Jedi Knight. In Die Hard, it’s when John and Holly are finally able to reconcile after their shared ordeal. This is the capo of your story – it needs to be satisfying, whether the story ends well or miserably. If the Climax is the end of the outer story, the Resolution is the end of the internal journey.
In Casablanca, it’s Rick’s acceptance that his one time lover has moved on, and his new role as an agent working against Nazi Germany. In Thelma and Louise, it’s the suicide pact, the hit of the accelerator, and the imagery of the car careening off the cliff.
That’s about it for the must-hit events. Blake Snyder has a few more up his sleeve – commonly seen devices that can be used to inject familiar tropes and structure into a story, but by no means are these mandatory. As long as your story hits these milestones, and remembers to keep the tension at an appropriate level, you’re already doing well.
Internal / External Story
Towards the end there, I alluded to an internal and external journey. This is because any good story is actually two intertwined tales in one. We have external journey – this is the one kicked off by the inciting incident. Even in a drama story, this could be termed as the ‘action’ side of the story. A new job opportunity threatens to tear a family apart; a friend is arrested for murder. The lead character is not ready to deal with this scenario, because of their inner journey. The inner story is about the evolution of the characters themselves – often, the resolution of the external story can’t come about until the character has conquered some inner demon. For an ancient example, look at A Christmas Carol. The external story is that Scrooge’s path will lead to misery for not only himself, but everyone around him. The inner story of Scrooge’s transformation from miser to philanthropist is deeply interconnected with the external story, and eventually his transformation is how the external story is resolved. Even Die Hard has an inner story – John and Holly’s relationship is rescued by John’s growing appreciation for their marriage during the terrorist threat. Yes, that’s right – terrorists saved the McClane marriage.
Set-ups / Pay-offs
Next, let’s talk about set-ups and pay-offs. I think everyone is aware of Chekov’s Gun, a special case of the set-up. For those out of the loop, Chekov’s Gun is a narrative device described by Anton Chekov. The idea is simple – if the audience’s attention is drawn to a gun, but the gun isn’t immediately used in that scene, they will have the expectation that the gun will appear at a later point in the story. This is a called a set-up – when the gun is eventually used, it is called a pay-off. Chekov’s Gun is a special case because the audience can see it coming a mile away – they expect it, because why would you include a gun in your story if it’s not going to be used? In reality, most set-ups are a bit more subtle.
Let’s look at set-ups and pay-offs in our favourite examples.
In Die Hard, we have set-ups in the first lines of dialogue spoken in the film, when John is given advice by a fellow plane passenger for alleviating air sickness – a process which involves removing his shoes. The pay-off for this set-up happens again and again, when John is caught shoe-less during the entire terrorist threat, culminating in serious wounds to his feet when Hans compels John to run across broken glass.
Another set-up used early on is when Ellis makes Holly show John her Rolex watch. It’s understood that the watch is a metaphor for Holly’s attachment to the corporate ladder – but even discounting that, the watch ends up being the final ingredient in bringing down Hans Gruber, as Hans grasps onto it while dangling from one of the top floors of Nakatomi Plaza. The pay-off is when the watch is used to finally defeat Hans, simply by unclasping it and having it fall with him all the way to the ground. Metaphor indeed.
In Star Wars, we have a set-up that cross films. In the first act of A New Hope, Obi-wan states bluntly that Darth Vader killed Luke’s father. This is an unchallenged statement until the climax of The Empire Strikes Back, where it’s revealed that Darth Vader is Luke’s father. That’s one hell of a set-up/pay-off pair – Luke suddenly needs to re-examine all of his feelings towards Darth Vader and make sense of this new, strange truth.
Why do pay-off and set-ups work? They appeal to the audience’s sense of continuity, and to their intelligence. The audience appreciates the fact that they’re paying attention to the story, and some of them will feel a sense of satisfaction in predicting how the set-ups evolve over time. They’re also useful devices for creating or resolving tension. Audiences latch on to the most subtle of things, even subconsciously. By introducing set-ups early on, the writer avoids having to introduce them in order to get their characters out of trouble. Reward the audience for this with a cathartic use of the information they’ve absorbed, and they won’t feel cheated and feel like the story works only on the basis of deus ex machina.
So taking all of the above into account, on top of the three act structure we already went through, a well-structured story will contain plenty of set-ups and pay-offs. It will remember that it must contain both an internal and external story, each one feeding the other with new motivations and developments. And it will hit multiple key events in each act, such as the inciting incident, pinch points, and climax. Put all of this together and… you’re still missing quite a bit if you’re looking to write the next bestseller or blockbuster, to be honest. There’s characterisation, an understanding of your medium’s strengths and weaknesses, effective dialogue… But in terms of structure, with everything I’ve told you, you’re well on the right path.
And so that about wraps up just about everything I know about structuring a story. It might be more accurate to call it ‘everything I remember’, but yeah. If you enjoyed this… whatever this is, please let me know. And if you have anything you want to hear me talk about in future, also get in touch! Especially if you think it’s something I already know about. I hope you learned something, and see you in the next one.