Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Story Elements checklist

I was teaching this Screenwriting Tricks for Authors class at the Jubilee Jambalaya Writers Conference this past weekend and I compiled a list of all the story structure elements I've been breaking down (okay, I've undoubtedly left some out...).

I thought I'd post it here, too.

It's a great list to use when you're brainstorming index cards, because even if you don't know the exact scenes yet, you can write the elements on cards and stick them into your story structure grid in relative order and feel like you've done a whole day's work. Hah!

No, what I really mean is, when you're writing out cards for just general story elements, it, you will be shocked at how great scenes suddenly come to you that will fill in huge gaps in your story. If not right that second, then after you sleep on it, or a few days later.

The post on doing index cards is here, and I've linked to more in-depth discussions on each individual act, too.



- Opening image

- Meet the hero or heroine
- Hero/ine’s inner and outer desire.

- Hero/ine's ghost or wound
- Hero/ine’s arc
- Inciting Incident/Call to Adventure
- Meet the antagonist (and/or introduce a mystery, which is what you do when you’re going to keep your antagonist hidden to reveal at the end)

- State the theme/what’s the story about?

- Allies

- Mentor
 (possibly. May not have one or may be revealed later in the story).
- Love interest 

- Plant/Reveal (or: Set ups and Payoffs)

- Hope/Fear (and Stakes)

- Time Clock (possibly. May not have one or may be revealed later in the story)

- Sequence One climax

- Central Question
- Act One climax



- Crossing the Threshold/ Into the Special World (may occur in Act One)
- Threshold Guardian (maybe)
- Hero/ine’s Plan
- Antagonist’s Plan
- Training Sequence
- Series of Tests
- Picking up new Allies
- Assembling the Team
- Attacks by the Antagonist (whether or not the Hero/ine recognizes these as being from the antagonist)
- In a detective story, questioning witnesses, lining up and eliminating suspects, following clues.


- Completely changes the game
- Locks the hero/ine into a situation or action
- Can be a huge revelation
- Can be a huge defeat
- Can be a “now it’s personal” loss
- Can be sex at 60 – the lovers finally get together, only to open up a whole new world of problems



- Recalibrating – after the shock or defeat of the game-changer in the Midpoint, the hero/ine must Revamp The Plan and try a New Mode of Attack.

- Escalating Actions/ Obsessive Drive

- Hard Choices and Crossing The Line (immoral actions by the main character to get what s/he wants)

- Loss of Key Allies (possibly because of the hero/ine’s obsessive actions, possibly through death or injury by the antagonist).

- A Ticking Clock (can happen anywhere in the story)

- Reversals and Revelations/Twists. (Hmm, that clearly should have its own post, now, shouldn't it?)

- The Long Dark Night of the Soul and/or Visit to Death (aka All Is Lost)

- In a romantic comedy or romance - the All is Lost moment often looks more like: The Lover Makes a Stand.


- Often can be a final revelation before the end game: the knowledge of who the opponent really is

-Answers the Central Question



Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

The third act is basically the Final Battle and Resolution. It can often be one continuous sequence – the chase and confrontation, or confrontation and chase. There may be a final preparation for battle, or it might be done on the fly. Either here or in the last part of the second act the hero will make a new, FINAL PLAN, based on the new information and revelations of the second act.

The essence of a third act is the final showdown between protagonist and antagonist. It is often divided into two sequences:

1- Getting there (Storming the castle)
2- The final battle itself

- Thematic Location - often a visual and literal representation of the Hero/ine’s Greatest Nightmare
- The protagonist’s character change
- The antagonist’s character change (if any)
- Possibly allies’ character changes and/or gaining of desire
- Could be one last huge reveal or twist, or series of reveals and twists, or series of final payoffs you've been saving (as in BACK TO THE FUTURE and IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE).

- RESOLUTION: A glimpse into the New Way of Life that the hero/ine will be living after this whole ordeal and all s/he’s learned from it.


All the information on this blog and more, including full story structure breakdowns of various movies, is available in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks.  e format, just $3.99 and $2.99; print 13.99.

                                           STEALING HOLLYWOOD

This new workbook updates all the text in the first Screenwriting Tricks for Authors ebook with all the many tricks I’ve learned over my last few years of writing and teaching—and doubles the material of the first book, as well as adding six more full story breakdowns.


STEALING HOLLYWOOD print, all countries 


Writing Love is a shorter version of the workbook, using examples from love stories, romantic suspense, and romantic comedy - available in e formats for just $2.99.

Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)


Barnes & Noble/Nook

Amazon UK

Amazon DE


You can also sign up to get free movie breakdowns here:


Bobby Mangahas said...

Alex, thanks for the "Cliff's Notes" on the story elements. It will come in handy (don't worry, I was one of those kids in school who actually READ the books rather than just the Cliff's).

I've still been trying to do the act breakdown for Raiders in my spare time(!). Looking forward to your breakdown of Silence of the Lambs.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Oh, all right, I'll do RAIDERS, too. ;

What the hell, I never get tired of that one.

Samantha said...

Hi Alex,

just wanted to say how much your writing techniques have been helping me out. I finally did decide to sit down and try a novel. I'm only about 10K in, but I've been plugging away. Thanks again for all the useful information you put up.

Looking forward to the release of UNSEEN.


Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Way to go, Samantha!!!

You can do it! You can suffer like the rest of us!!

Very exciting.

Kristine said...

This is awesome, Alex. Thank you!

Russell from California said...

this is extremely helpful!

Richard Heft said...

A regrettably obscure book on this subject is "Shakespeare's Game," by William Gibson. Gibson (who wrote THE MIRACLE WRKER) teaches story structure by examining the works of William Shakespeare, and examines the topic in terms of move and counter-move (e.g., avenging his father's death is Hamlet's "major move"). It's the only book I know in which a successful playwright dissects Shakespeare from the point of view of a fellow (admiring) professional craftsman.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Yes, when I was putting this together for last weekend I thought - now HERE'S something I should post.

Richard, I've never heard of the book. I'll have to look for it - Anything on HAMLET!

Anonymous said...

Alexandra, you're so generous with your time and information. Thank you so much! And I can hardly wait for SOTL, probably my all-time favorite movie. (What does it say about me that my favorite movie is about a diabolical serial killer?)

Stephen D. Rogers said...

Working on a synopsis right now, I'm wondering if you just handed me a blueprint....

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Anonymous, I'm with you on SOTL, probably my favorite film ever, as well.

But it's not JUST a film about diabolical serial killers (two, actually).

It's about a haunted young woman who goes up against both and wins - to one degree or another.

And THAT - says a lot.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Stephen, if not a blueprint, I hope it's at least a map!

Let me tell you, this list has helped me a million times when I've had a grand total of two days to come up with an entire movie pitch.

K. Keith Johnson said...

WoW !!!
I have just finished my first draft, which really sucks, but . . .
What a great check list as I work through the rewrites.
Thank you

Alexandra Sokoloff said...


Even better than the checklist is working through three or four movies/books in your own genre WITH the checklist.

For example, I started reading THE CONCRETE BLONDE last night (I know, I know, I've read almost every Michael Connelly and for some reason never that one). I stayed up WAY too late getting to page 100 to see what the Act One break would be.

And the big reveal was finding the identity of the concrete blonde (a murder victim buried in concrete).

Well, that's a VERY standard Act One Climax for a detective story: finding a big clue, finding a new trail, finding a new victim, finding the identity of an unknown victim. Knowing that about your genre can help you put a scene like that in the right place and give it its proper weight, if you see what I mean.

And that is very often revision work. I love that about rewriting!

laughingwolf said...

gonna nab this list, alex... they work in all kinds of storytelling :D

Michelle said...

This is fantastic! I stumbled upon your site and this post while making sure my memory is correct on 3-act structure. I'm already a firm believer in the index card method, but this will help me get off to a better start with my next project so I don't feel like I'm working backwards (like I am during this round of revisions). Thank you so much!

Sheryl Gwyther said...

Alex, I've struggled over sorting out my stories' structure etc via that 3-Act breakdown, but your articles have been the clearest explanations I've come across.
Thank you! I can see the possibilities opening in my work-in-progress. :) EXCITING!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Tony, you're so right! TV, playwriting, short stories - you might not have all the elements in shorter forms, but you will certainly have many of them.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

You're very welcome, Michelle! Good luck with the revisions!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Thank YOU, Sheryl! That's exciting to hear!