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Story structure secrets you can borrow from screenwriters

By H. R. D’Costa

If the success of mega-author James Patterson is any indication, readers enjoy novels whose plotting, pacing, and twists mirror those found in a Hollywood blockbuster.

Using the basic template which underlies most movies can enhance the flow of your novel, resulting in high reader satisfaction, positive word of mouth–and hopefully more sales.

So what is this basic structure?

It consists of 7 essential plot points, carefully deployed at specific times. Take a look:

Inciting Incident: This is the pivotal event which jolts your hero out of his everyday world and directly leads to his adventure. Traditionally, it occurs within the first 10 minutes of a movie.

Today’s readers seem keen on instant gratification, so your inciting incident might take place quickly. Take Marie Force’s bestseller Treading Water. The protagonist learns that his wife has been in a terrible accident on page 1.

First Act Break: This is when your hero pursues his goal in earnest. It usually occurs a quarter of a way into a movie and often involves a change in location. For example, in the first act break of COMING TO AMERICA, Eddie Murphy leaves his African homeland for Queens, New York.

It can also be the point where a hero gets “locked” into a particular situation like when a monster gets stuck with a human child in MONSTERS, INC.

As a novelist, you might hit this plot point earlier than the 25%-mark. Take David Baldacci’s thriller First Family. The first act break occurs either 11% or 15% into the book, depending on when you define the first act break. (If you want me to elaborate, ask me in the comments!)

Midpoint: Making an appearance smack dab in the middle of a movie (or thereabouts), this is a fulcrum which signals a shift in the hero’s fortunes or actions.

For example, in MINORITY REPORT, Tom Cruise goes from being on the run (defensive) to infiltrating the organization accusing him of murder (offensive).

In romantic comedies like THE PROPOSAL, it’s usually when the hero and heroine share a moment of physical and/or emotional intimacy. In action movies, a really great set piece occurs here. Think the dockyard scene in Guy Ritchie’s SHERLOCK HOLMES or the construction site scene in TAKEN.

Point of Commitment: This plot point was first brought to my attention by Viki King in her book, How to Write a Movie in 21 Days. Basically, it’s when the hero reaffirms commitment to his goal like when Jim Carrey commits to defending his client in LIAR LIAR. (This is a clever twist on the standard point of commitment because Carrey spends half of the movie trying to weasel out of his court case.)

All Is Lost: Occurring approximately 75% into a film, this plot point is often described as when your hero is the farthest away from his goal. He has been dealt a devastating blow, full of emotional upheaval.

Perhaps he loses a friend or valuable ally (SPEED, BRIDESMAIDS) or he’s unexpectedly captured by the villain’s henchmen (TAKEN, BEVERLY HILLS COP).

Climax: In this final showdown, the hero will test his mettle against the antagonistic forces which have thwarted him throughout the movie.

As with the midpoint, a well-chosen setting can take your climax from drab to fab. For example, the Venetian canals added a unique touch to the end of CASINO ROYALE.

Resolution: In most movies, this is when the hero enjoys the fruit of his labors. Oftentimes, the resolution will echo scenes from a film’s beginning. OCEAN’S 11 is a good example of this. The movie begins—and ends—with George Clooney being released from prison.

Along with your hero, readers also achieve closure during the resolution, so don’t skimp on it!

YOUR TURN: Do you think this structural pattern will help you plot your next novel? Why or why not? Please sound off in the comments!

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About the Author

HR_DCostaRobert Redford once called H.R. D’Costa “a bionic woman.” (Not in a writing capacity, but still pretty cool.) A staunch supporter of the Oxford comma, she shares screenwriting tips and tricks at her website Scribe Meets World.

If you’d like to use screenwriting techniques to improve your own novel, check out her writing guides available on Kobo…like this one—Inciting Incident: How to Begin Your Screenplay and Engage Audiences Right Away.

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