Story Structure

The following is taken from a lecture by Elana Johnson, who in turn used information from Blake Snyder's Save the Cat.


When I was in a college music class, we learned that there were these complex rules that composers of each time period followed when writing music. As these rules changed from Classic, to Romantic, to Baroque, the composers began to follow these new rules. You could dissect their music and see that they actually did follow these extensive set of rules. What the teacher went on to explain is that the composers at the time never thought about the rules; they were simply writing music. It didn't occur to them to do what they did because the rules dictated that they must - they simply composed.

Well, like it or not, no matter how imaginative and creative you are, when you write a story you follow a set of complex rules as well; you just don't realize it. Just like the composers mentioned above, you write your story. If you go back over what you've written you'll see that indeed, these structure points are all there.

So, to begin with:

All good books have 3 Acts, 2 "Break Into" Points, and 15 Beats. These beats make up the complex rules that writers follow when they write a good story. And beats are critical because they are the turning points in the story which make it satisfying to the reader.

The first Act is outline below.

This is the beginning of the story where certain things take place, including the first 6 Beats.

During Act 1, we are introduced to our main character and the world he lives in. The author will let us know about several (possibly 6, though the number may vary) things that need to be fixed, either in the character or the world he lives in.

I like to think of Act 1 as the point at which the main character is a mass of clay. He could be or do anything at this point. All we know is by the end of the story he will be fully formed, whereas right now he isn't.

The following also lists the approximate page numbers where these beats occur in an average 330- page book.

This is the starting point where we get a snapshot of our main character, and other characters that play a part of his life. He is unaffected, at this point, by the events the story is about to force on him.

It is here that you introduce your main character and world he lives in. As part of that you have to help the reader learn the rules of this world. It may be a bit slow at first, but don't worry, this beginning is necessary. 

BEAT 2 - THEME STATED   (p.15)
Every book has a theme, some sort of moral it will address through the telling of the story. It is as this point the theme of the story is revealed. Usually, it isn't the main character who expresses it. It will be someone else, like his best friend, or a parent. They'll make an off-hand comment like, "Be careful what you wish for," not knowing of course that they are subconsciously placing the theme into the mind of the reader.

BEAT 3 - SET UP    (pp.1-30)
Not only is this section (roughly pages 1-30) where you will use exposition to explain things, this is also the part of the story where several other things get "set up."
Things That Need Fixing:
This is where you will identify (not necessarily in so many words) the things about the character, or the world - that need fixing. It could be items your main character needs to overcome. It could be weaknesses of his which need to be made strong. These things are up to you, but these "6" things (more or less) are the set up for what you are promising the reader he will see taken care of through the course of your tale.

Main Plot or "A Plot":
This is also the section that makes up your "main plot" or your "A" plot.  We find out how your characters see the world. How they act with each other. Also where they come from, why they do certain things, who their parents are, etc. Perhaps introduce some things which will motivate or dictate some of their later actions.
Make Promises to the Reader:
It is at this point that the writer should be setting the reader up for many cool, exciting, interesting and wonderful things that are to come. Make your promises to your reader here. It's important that expectations be made, and of course, finally, realized.

BEAT 4 - CATALYST (p. 36)
The "Catalyst" is the element or event in the story that propels your main character into a new world. In the Wizard of Oz it would be the tornado. In your book it could be just about anything: someone's death, the loss of a job, viewing a meteorite hurling toward earth, discovering that your dog can turn invisible....whatever. It changes things forever. It shatters the world that your character knew up until that point.

In the case of Harry Potter, it is the letter from Hogwarts. For Spiderman it is when he is bit by the spider. There is always some event that changes things.

BEAT 5 - DEBATE (pp. 36-75)
This is the part of the story where the main character has to decide what he's going to do with what happened to him. Should he move forward into a strange new world, or not? He debates this within himself, he looks at the angles. The writer lets us see the process, and the pain of the process. As you can see from the page numbers recommended above, it may take some time to go through this process. And it can be interesting... you can really open up your character in this section.

BEAT 6 - BREAK INTO TWO/ (The Second Part) (p. 75)
This is the moment the main character decides to leave the old world for the new one. It is a distinct moment, there is an act of some sort that defines this decision. We see it happen, it cannot be subtle.
The decision to move into this new world must be the character's; he can't be forced into it.  The decision to do so must be his and his alone.
This "break into 2" is where the main character moves on and begins his journey.

Okay, that's it for Act 1. I'll have Act 2 posted soon.  

------------------------------------PART 2------------------------------------

The following is taken from a lecture by Elana Johnson, who in turn used information from Blake Snyder's Save the Cat.

Okay, let's get on to...

ACT 2 -
This Act will include the next 6 Beats (7-13).

It is in Act 2 where the transformation of the main character really takes place. We will take our lump of "clay" from Act 1 and start to beat it down and soften it up so that it can be formed into what we want it to eventually become by the end of the story. We will watch the main character enter this Act one way, but by the end of it, he will leave the Act forever changed.

BEAT 7 - "B" STORY    (p. 90) 
This is where we get into the "B" Story, or the subplot that runs along side our overall plot line. Generally this is the "love story" part of your book. It doesn't have to be romantic love, however. For example, in the movie Despicable Me this is the part where Gru starts to fall in love with the little girls.

This part of the story is also where we find the theme of the story being developed.

During the "B" story, we generally also take a break from much of the more action-packed "A" story where all the debating and action have been taking place.

Upside Down World of Act 1
Act 2 is also where we introduce some new characters. They will be the contrast to the world the main character knew in the first Act. Think of this as the upside down version of his first world.

  BEAT 8 - FUN AND GAMES  (pp. 90-165)
This is where we really break out in the story. We deliver on what was promised from the premise of the story. If you were looking at a movie poster and saw all this great action, this is where it takes place in the story.

We don't worry about the advancement of the story itself so much as having some fun in discovery. This might even be why we started reading the story in the first place is for this part of it.

For example, this is the part of the story - or movie - where Spiderman begins to really experiment with his new found powers. This is where your character develops his inner/outer abilities and we enjoy his new-found power.

BEAT 9 - MID POINT (p. 165)
At this point of the story the main character is going have some sort of peak. He is going to be at the top of his game, or, he's going to fall to some sort of low where it seems that his world is falling apart around him. In either case, Up or Down, it will be a false high or low. As the author you will need to decide which direction will help your main character drive toward his eventual goal.

In the case of an "UP" this is where the main character seems to be getting everything he wants. There may be a party at the midpoint. He is receiving love and acceptance and it looks good. In the case of the movie Ironman it is the party scene where he almost kisses Pepper.

Here we see the hero seem to lose everything he was after. He could be completely disappointed or embarrassed or put in his place by an opponent. In the movie Legally Blonde, Elle Woods appears at a part dressed up like a ridiculous looking bunny. She is the only one dressed this way and feels like an idiot.


During this Midpoint, the main character is trying to discover if he really is what he is "pretending" or trying to be. During the Fun and Games section he's been experimenting with some new things. Now he is asking himself if he is "real" or "fake."


This is the point of the story where the stakes are now raised. The Fun and Games come to an end and the main character is forced to return to his original task. He has to figure out what he does now and where he goes from this point on.

BEAT 10 - BAD GUYS CLOSE IN (pp. 165-225)

Our bad guys have now regrouped and are going to send in the heavy artillery.

Now the main character's team/friends start to disintegrate due to internal dissent, doubt, and jealousy.

The forces against the hero (internal and external) tighten their grip. That's what really happens in this Act. Evil does not give up.

The Main Character eventually finds himself alone with nowhere to turn for help and he is heading toward a huge fall, a place that leads to . . . 

BEAT 11 - ALL IS LOST (p. 225)

This is the point labeled “false defeat”. It looks total, but it’s just temporary.

Look to put in a "WHIFF OF DEATH," a place where one of the strongest allies of your Main Character can actually lose his life. Very dramatic, the floor drops out beneath him.

For example, this is where Obi-Wan dies in Star Wars. What will Luke do now, without his mentor?

It doesn't have to actually be a character that dies, either, especially if it doesn’t make sense to the story. But put in a reference to something dead here. Something dead should be highlighted even if it is symbolic. In fact, it is supposed to have reference to the old world, the old character, the old way of thinking actually dying.

It clears the way for the thesis of Act One – what was – to fuse with the antithesis, Act Two – the backward version of what was – to fuse into the Synthesis of Act Three, that being a new world, a new life.

Another example of this is in the movie ELF, this is where Will Farrell stands on the bridge and contemplates suicide, because he’s gotten himself into such a mess with everything in New York. The whiff of death.

BEAT 12 - DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL (p. 225 - 255)
This is the darkness right before the dawn. It’s the point just before the Main Character reaches way down deep and pulls out the last, best idea that will save himself and everyone around him. But at the moment, that idea is nowhere in sight.

We have all experienced a moment like this in life. We have all felt – hopeless, clueless, stupid, sitting on the side of the road with a flat tire and no money, late for an appointment that would solve all our problems. We have been beaten AND WE KNOW IT.

This is where you have the All is Lost Moment and the dark night of the soul is the hero’s reaction – how do they feel?about what they’ve just lost. That’s the moment you’re looking for here.

BEAT 13 -  BREAK INTO THREE (p. 255)

This is the break from the upside down world to a blending of worlds. A Synthesis. This is taking what the MC knew and what he learned and blending them into “the third way”. These three worlds force a change in the hero.

We set him up: Act One.

Throw him in a blender: Act Two.

And he emerges as something brand new: Act Three.

This is where the hero can learn from the bad guys closing in, see a solution, and the B story characters can provide the rest of the clue. It’s a blending of the A and B stories to present a solution to the problem and create a “third way” of living.

------------------------------------PART 3------------------------------------

The following is taken from a lecture by Elana Johnson, who in turn used information from Blake Snyder's Save the Cat.

Okay, Act 3 isn't very big, but it is very important. Let's take a look at it:
 ACT 3 -
 Act 3 consists of only 2 more beats: the "Finale" and the "Closing Image."

What happens is that the hero figures out what to do and has a final showdown. After that it's the closing image, which is simply the resolution following the showdown.

The final image is important, however, since it has to clearly demonstrate how different the Main Character is compared to how we saw him on page 1.

BEAT 14 - FINALE    (pp. 255-330)
The Finale actually consists of 5 very important points:

1.  Gathering the Team
The allies, or friends of the Main Character have to come back together. They may not be on speaking terms because reconciliation is a painful process, but they're back because ultimately loyalty rises to the top. Either way, they have to find a way to work together.

2. Executing the Plan
This is the "storming of the castle" - so-to-speak. It must be challenging but at this point in story, it also has to feel foolproof. It should feel like, "There's no way we can actually do this," but they are going to try it anyway. As the story unfolds the reader should be thinking, "I can't believe it! They might just pull this off!"

A great example is in the movie Independence Day when Will Smith and Jeff Goldbloom are actually considering flying an alien spaceship up into outer space, entering the mother ship, infecting it with a computer virus and getting out of there in one piece.

As it looks like they are actually going to pull it all together, this is where the growth of the minor characters pay off and satisfy some arcs. It might even appear that perhaps "this is too easy..."

3. The High Tower Surprise
Think of the archetypical story where the hero reaches the high tower where the princess is being held - or where he believes she is being held - and he gets there to find NO PRINCESS! Surprise!

We see now that we have become over confident in our plan. The bad guys may have even known we were coming the whole time. It is at this point that traitors are exposed. Our brilliant plan was nothing more than a trap set by the Bad Guys.

No matter how much the Main Character has endured, suffered and accomplished, in the end, it was simply not enough. The real challenge of what the hero must do, the tests he must pass, become clear.

4. Dig Down Deep
The whole point to the finale is now revealed and it is not what we expected. All human solution is exhausted. There's no back-up plan, there's nothing. It is all down to the hero now - and he's come up short. It is now up to the hero to strip everything away, and find the last ounce of strength in order to win. 

This is the point in the story where Obi-Wan says, "Use the Force Luke!" It's the point at which the Main Character must abandon the natural world and go into the world with faith unseen.

5. Execute the New Plan
The answer comes from a place we've all hoped is real, and when the hero trusts enough to use it, HE WINS! And consequently, so do we. 
It was only by stepping into the unknown - and trusting it - that the Main Character (now truly the "Hero") could find the way to triumph.

BEAT 15 - FINAL IMAGE    (p. 330)
This is where we end the book with the Main Character now, transformed into a synthesis of the two beings he has been throughout the story: the original lump of clay, then the twisting and forming of his character through the last two Acts until he is a combination of the two. 

Think of Peter Parker who by the end is both Spiderman and Peter Parker, a fused new character. 

My next posting will discuss outlining using the 15 Beat System. Then a bit about how to organize and work on re-writes once you have a first draft completed.


The following is taken from a lecture by Elana Johnson, who in turn used information from Blake Snyder's Save the Cat.

1. Beat Sheet       2. Write Novel         3. Board it Out          4. Revise                   

1. Beat Sheet 
Start out by printing out a "Beat Sheet."  Then just fill-out the following 5 major beats:

     1) The Opening Image
     2) The Closing Image
     3)  The Midpoint
     4)  Break Into 2
     5)  Break Into 3

Just fill in a couple of sentences that briefly describe what you have in mind for each beat.

2. Write Novel
Write the book. Experiment, let things grow organically. Work toward the Midpoint and the breaks. You don't need to necessarily outline any scenes (unless you want to) or fill out character worksheets or anything similar.

3. Board it Out
Once the first draft is complete, there will be problems - it's a first draft after all. This is the point at which you need to story board your novel.  Fill out 15 cards (one for each beat). Go through your story and identify key scenes that represent each beat. You may also want to put page numbers on the cards so you get a feel for where they are falling. Put all these cards up in order on a board where you can look at it and analyze it.

4. Revise
After identifying weak spots, start your revisions. There will be obvious mistakes - anything from sentence structure issues to holes in your plot. But also be working out your story structure. Ensure that each beat fall in the proper place. Does each one lead up to the next one? Later revisions can then focus on character, word choice, setting, voice, world, etc. But each of these features will be easier to work on if your story had been correctly structured.

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