Plot structure

Ask eight authors how they plot their book, and you will receive 12 or more answers. The common refrain is that there are three acts: One, Two Three. However, we recognize that there is a midpoint. This leads some authors to say there are four acts; anachronistically numbered: 1, 2A, 2B, 3. For several years, I have held that there are four acts; numbered: 1, 2, 3, 4. British director David Lean identified eight segments to a movie, which neatly fall into four acts. You may ask yourself why look to film for novel structure. We are trained to expect this structure when reading. Our readers are likewise trained.

Eight Plot Segments

Using the Snowflake Method, each segment should have a one-sentence summary.

  • Act One - Crossing the Threshold / Ends in Disappointment
    • Segment 1 (S1) - Inciting Event / Lie Believed
    • Segment 2 (S2) - Embracing the Story Goal
  • Act Two - Trying to solve the problem the old way / Ends in Disaster
    • Segment 3 (S3) - Build the Coalition
    • Segment 4 (S4) - Pyrrhic Victory (achieve goal but useless)
  • Act Three - Learning what you need to solve the problem the new way / Ends in Destruction
    • Segment 5 (S5) - Villain takes charge
    • Segment 6 (S6) - Hero’s Rock Bottom
  • Act Four - Applying the learning to the problem to the Epiphany
    • Segment 7 (S7) - Hero Rallies, Storms the Castle
    • Segment 8 (S8) - Truth Embraced

Segments as Mini-Movies

  • Segment 1 - Our hero’s status quo, his ordinary life, ends with an inciting incident or “call to adventure.
  • Segment 2 - Our hero’s denial of the call, and his gradually being “locked into” the conflict brought on by this call.
  • Segment 3 - Our hero’s first attempts to solve his problem, the first things that anyone with this problem would try, appealing to outside authority to help him. Ends when all these avenues are shut to our hero.
  • Segment 4 - Our hero spawns a more grandiose, more extreme plan. He prepares for it, gathers what materials and allies he may need then puts the plan into action–only to have it go horribly wrong, usually due to certain vital information the hero lacked about the forces of antagonism allied against him.
  • Segment 5 - Having created his plan to solve his problem WITHOUT changing, our hero is confronted by his need to change, eyes opened to his own weaknesses, driven by the antagonist to change or die. He retreats to lick his wounds.
  • Segment 6 - Our hero spawns a new plan, but now he’s ready to change. He puts this plan into action…and is very nearly destroyed by it. And then…a revelation.
  • Segment 7 - The revelation allows our hero to see victory, and he rejoins the battle with a new fervor, finally turning the tables on his antagonist and arrives at apparent victory. And then the tables turn one more time!
  • Segment 8 - The hero puts down the antagonist’s last attempt to defeat him, wraps up his story and any sub-plots, and moves into the new world he and his story have created.

Questions from the Fifteen Minute Movie

Segment 1

  • Who is the hero?
  • What does the hero want?
  • What’s stopping the hero?
  • Who is the villain?

This is the general flow of how Segment 1 should progress:

  • Opening scene that introduces the villain and the tone of the story
  • Introduce the hero, the hero’s current negative situation, and what he or she wants
  • Introduce something new in the hero’s life that will help open a door to a new opportunity
  • Close with the hero feeling or being defeated and left in a dead-end situation

Segment 2

  • What enters the hero’s dead-end world that will create a new opportunity?
  • What new goal is offered to the hero?
  • What forces the hero to take action?
  • How will the hero voluntarily leap into a new world?

This is the general flow of how Segment 2 should progress:

  • Something new and big enters the hero’s world and jolts the hero out of a dead-end existence
  • The hero tries to stay stuck in the current dead-end situation, but fails
  • Something outside the hero’s control backs the hero into making a decision
  • The hero chooses to enter a new world despite any fears

Segment 3

  • Who can help the hero succeed?
  • What new skills does the hero need to succeed?
  • How does the hero’s actions indirectly thwart the villain’s goal?
  • What minor goal can the hero achieve?

This is the general flow of how Segment 3 should progress:

  • The hero meets new allies and gets familiar with the rules of this new world
  • Villain faces minor setback due to the hero’s actions, but the villain may not know that the hero is responsible
  • Hero learns something new that will help later
  • The hero achieves a minor victory related to what caused the hero to leap into the new world in the first place

Segment 4

  • After the hero achieves a minor victory at the end of Segment 3, how does the villain respond?
  • What new goal does the hero pursue?
  • How does the hero discover the villain’s plans?
  • What False Victory does the hero achieve?

This is the general flow of how Segment 4 should progress:

  • The villain responds to the hero’s minor victory at the end of segment 3
  • Villain tries to defeat the hero without directly facing him or her
  • Hero discovers part of the villain’s goal
  • The hero achieves a False Victory that seems to solve the real problem, but it only helps the hero achieve a selfish goal

Segment 5

  • What is the villain trying to do?
  • How does the hero react to the villain by choosing a minor goal?
  • How does the villain appear to win?
  • How does the hero thwart the villain?

This is the general flow of how Segment 5 should progress:

  • Villain takes control and forces the hero to react
  • Hero pursues a minor goal to thwart the villain
  • Villain appears to win
  • Hero defeats the villain in a minor victory

Segment 6

  • What drives the villain closer to the hero?
  • How do the hero and the villain fight each other?
  • What major goal does the villain achieve?
  • What near-death experience does the hero reach where things look hopeless?

This is the general flow of how Segment 6 should progress:

  • Villain starts a plan in motion
  • The hero and villain fight each other and the hero loses
  • The villain achieves his or her goal
  • The hero hits rock bottom and somebody dies or nearly dies

Segment 7

  • What is the villain planning?
  • How does the hero expect to stop the villain?
  • What are the consequences if the villain succeeds?
  • How does the hero attack the villain?

This is the general flow of how Segment 7 should progress:

  • The villain’s plan is nearly complete
  • The hero plans to attack the villain
  • The hero heads towards the villain
  • The hero defeats all the villain’s allies, but nearly loses each time

Segment 8

  • How does the villain threaten someone that the hero cares about?
  • How does the villain nearly win?
  • What skill or ally from the past help the hero?
  • Who wins?

This is the general flow of how Segment 8 should progress:

  • The hero confronts the villain
  • The villain is on the verge of winning
  • Something from the past helps the hero at the last minute
  • The hero wins (or loses)
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