Compiling the whole expanded Story Elements Checklist in one post, with Act Three added.
Next, we start working through the Checklist item by item with examples of how movies and books handle these key story elements. (Here’s the original checklist)
For those of you new to some of these elements, what I’ve been doing on this blog for a couple of years now is identifying key story elements of WHATEVER dramatic form you happen to be working in – film, novels, plays, television - pointing out where relevant how often these elements occur in about the same places in the Three-Act Structure (and the Eight Sequence Structure) and discussing how different stories present those elements for maximum impact.
What I am forever suggesting is that studying the movies and books that you love, and looking specifically for those story elements and how they are handled, is like playing scales on a piano or doing barre work in dance. Practicing this kind of analysis builds your chops as a writer and becomes a natural part of your writing process. It can also help you solve virtually any story problem you come up against.
(All of this and more is compiled in the workbook, Screenwriting Tricks For Authors.).
But before I launch into examining these elements one by one, I wanted to post an expanded story elements checklist along with some questions that you can apply either to movies and books you’re analyzing, or to your own story.
----------STORY ELEMENTS CHECKLIST------------
ELEMENTS OF ACT ONE:
(The full discussion is here - but a very brief summary:
- In a 2-hour movie, Act One starts at the beginning and climaxes at about 30 minutes.
- In a 400-page book, Act One starts at the beginning and climaxes at about 100 pages.
And adjust proportionately depending on the length of the story.
First, identify the separate SEQUENCES of this act. What time do they start, and what time do they climax? (Full discussion here.
In a movie there will usually be two approximately 15- minute long sequences, Sequence 1 and Sequence 2, and the climax of Sequence 2 will be the Act 1 Climax, at about 30 minutes into the movie. But if the movie is longer or shorter the sequences will be longer or shorter to match, or there might be three sequences or even (rarely) four in Act I. There may also be a short PROLOGUE.
In a book you have more leeway with number and length of sequences – there may be three or four in one Act, and they may vary more in length – 40 pages, 20 pages, 30 pages. But generally in a 400 page book, the Act One climax will be still be around p. 100.
- OPENING IMAGE/OPENING SCENE
Describe the OPENING IMAGE and/or opening scene of the story.
What mood, tone and genre does it set up? What kinds of experiences does it hint at or promise? (Look at colors, music, pace, visuals, location, dialogue, symbols, etc.).
Does the opening image or scene mirror the closing image or scene? (It’s not mandatory, but it’s a useful technique, often used.). How are the two different?
* What’s the MOOD, TONE, GENRE (s) the story sets up from the beginning? How does it do that?
* VISUAL AND THEMATIC IMAGE SYSTEMS
(More discussion here.)
* THE ORDINARY WORLD/THE SPECIAL WORLD
What does the ordinary world look and feel like? How does it differ in look and atmosphere from THE SPECIAL WORLD?
* MEET THE HERO OR HEROINE
How do we know this is the main character? Why do we like him or her? Why do we relate to him or her? What is the moment that we start rooting for this person? Why do we care?
• HERO/INE’S INNER AND OUTER DESIRE
What does the Hero/ine say s/he wants? Or what do we sense that s/he wants, even if s/he doesn't say it or seem to be aware of it? How does what s/he thinks s/he wants turn out to be wrong?
• HERO/INE’S PROBLEM
(This is usually an immediate external problem, not an overall need. In some stories this is more apparent than others.)
* HERO/INE’S GHOST OR WOUND
What is haunting them from the past?
• HERO/INE’S CHARACTER ARC
Look at the beginning and the end to see how much the hero/ine changes in the course of the story. How do the storytellers depict that change?
• INCITING INCIDENT/CALL TO ADVENTURE
(This can be the same scene or separated into two different scenes.)
How do the storytellers make this moment or sequence significant?
* REFUSAL OF THE CALL
Is the hero/ine reluctant to take on this task or adventure? How do we see that reluctance?
• 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).
How do we know this is the antagonist? Does this person or people want the same thing as the hero/ine, or is this person preventing the hero/ine from getting what s/he wants?
* OTHER FORCES OF OPPOSITION
Who and what else is standing in the hero/ine’s way?
• THEME/ WHAT’S THE STORY ABOUT?
There are usually multiple themes working in any story, and usually they will be stated aloud.
• INTRODUCE ALLIES
How is each ally introduced?
* INTRODUCE MENTOR (may or may not have one)
What are the qualities of this mentor? How is this person a good teacher (or a bad teacher) for the hero?
• INTRODUCE LOVE INTEREST (may or may not have one).
What makes us know from the beginning that this person is The One?
* ENTERING THE SPECIAL WORLD/CROSSING THE THRESHOLD
What is the Special World? How is it different from the ordinary world? How do the filmmakers make entering this world a significant moment?
This scene is often at a sequence climax or the Act One Climax. Sometimes there are a whole series of thresholds to be crossed.
* THRESHOLD GUARDIAN
Is there someone standing on the threshold preventing the hero/ine from entering, or someone issuing a warning?
• SEQUENCE ONE CLIMAX
In a 2-hour movie, look for this about 15 minutes in. How do the filmmakers make this moment significant? What is the change that lets you know that this sequence is over and Sequence 2 is starting?
(Each sequence in a book will have some sort of climax, as well, although the sequences are not as uniform in length and number as they tend to be in films. Look for a revelation, a location change, a big event, a setpiece.).
• PLANTS/REVEALS or SET UPS/PAYOFFS
• HOPE/FEAR and STAKES
(Such a big topic you just have to wait for the dedicated post.)
What does the hero/ine say they want to do, or what do we understand they intend to do? The plan usually starts small, with a minimum effort, and gradually we see the plan changing.
• CENTRAL QUESTION, CENTRAL STORY ACTION
Does a character state this aloud? When do we realize that this is the main question of the story?
* ACT ONE CLIMAX:
In a 2-hour movie, look for this about 30 minutes in. In a 400-page book, about 100 pages in.
How do the storytellers make this moment significant? What is the change that lets you know that this act is over and Act II is starting?
You will also possibly see these elements (these can also be in Act Two or may not be present):
***** ASSEMBLING THE TEAM
***** GATHERING THE TOOLS –
***** TRAINING SEQUENCE
And also possibly:
***** MACGUFFIN (not present in all stories but if there is one it will USUALLY be revealed in the first act).
*****TICKING CLOCK (may not have one or the other and may be revealed later in the story)
* And always - look for and IDENTIFY SETPIECES.
ACT TWO, PART ONE
(Elements of Act I checklist is here).
In a 2-hour movie Act II, Part 1 starts at about 30 minutes, and ends at about 60 minutes.
In a 400-page book it starts at about p. 100 and climaxes at about p. 200.
Identify the separate SEQUENCES of this act. Where do they start, and where do they climax? In a movie, usually there will be two 15-minute long sequences, Sequence 3 and Sequence 4, and the climax of Sequence 4 will be the MIDPOINT, at about 1 hour into the movie. But if the movie is longer or shorter the sequences will be longer or shorter to match, or there might be three sequences or even four in Act II, Part 2.
And a book may have several more sequences in this section of more variable length, but the MIDPOINT will still be at about p. 200 in a 400-page book.
Act II, Part 1 is the most variable section of the four sections of a story. I have noticed it also tends to be the most genre-specific. It doesn’t have the very clear, generic essential elements that Act I and Act 3 do – except in the case of Mysteries and certain kinds of team action films, which generally have a more standard structure in this section.
IF THE FILM IS A MYSTERY, this section will almost always have these elements:
-LINING UP AND ELIMINATING SUSPECTS
-RED HERRINGS AND FALSE TRAILS
-THE DETECTIVE VOICING HER/HIS THEORY
IF THE FILM IS A TEAM ACTION STORY, A WAR STORY, A HEIST OR CAPER MOVIE (like OCEAN’S 11, THE SEVEN SAMURI, THE DIRTY DOZEN, ARMAGGEDON and INCEPTION) then this section will usually have these elements:
- GATHERING THE TEAM
- TRAINING SEQUENCE
- GATHERING THE TOOLS
- BONDING BETWEEN TEAM MEMBERS
- SETTING UP TEAM MEMBERS’ STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES that will be tested in battle later.
There may also be
- A MACGUFFIN
- A TICKING CLOCK
But if the story is not a mystery or a team action story, the first half of Act 2 will often have some of the above elements, and ALL stories will generally have these next elements in Act II, part 1 (not in any particular order):
- CROSSING THE THRESHOLD/ENTERING THE SPECIAL WORLD
(This scene may already have happened in Act One, but it often happens right at the end of Act One or right at the beginning of Act Two.) How do the storytellers make this moment important? Is there a special PASSAGEWAY between the worlds?
- THRESHOLD GUARDIAN (maybe)
There is very often a character who tries to prevent the hero/ine from entering the SPECIAL WORLD, or who gives them a warning about danger.
- HERO/INE’S PLAN
- What is the hero/ine’s PLAN to get what s/he wants?
The plan may have been stated in Act I, but here is where we see the hero/ine start to act on the plan, and often s/he will have to keep changing the plan as early attempts fail.
- THE ANTAGONIST’S PLAN
Same as for the hero/ine: the plan may have been stated in Act I, but here is where we see the villain start to act on the plan, and often s/he will have to keep changing the plan as early attempts fail. Even if the villain is being kept secret, we will see the effects of the villain's plan on the hero/ine.
- ATTACKS AND COUNTERATTACKS
How do we see the antagonist attacking the hero/ine?
Whether or not the hero/ine realizes who is attacking her or him, the antagonist (s) will be nearby and constantly attacking the hero/ine. How does the hero/ine fight back?
- SERIES OF TESTS
How do we see the hero/ine being tested?
In a mentor story, the mentor will often be designing these tests, and there may be a training sequence or training scenes as well. Sometimes (as in THE GODFATHER) no one is really designing the tests, but the hero/ine keeps running up against obstacles to what they want and they have to overcome those obstacles, and with each win they become stronger.
The hero/ine USUALLY wins a lot in Act II:1 (and then starts to lose throughout Act II:2), but that’s not necessarily true. In JAWS, Sheriff Brody doesn’t get a win until the big defeat of the Midpoint, when he is finally able to force the mayor to sign a check and hire Quint to kill the shark.
- BONDING WITH ALLIES – LOVE SCENES
This is one of the great pleasures of any story – seeing the hero/ine make lifelong friends or fall in love. Besides the more obvious romantic scenes, the love scenes can be between a boy and his dragon, as in HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON; or between teammates, as in JAWS; or a man and his father or a woman and her mother (some of the most successful movies, like THE GODFATHER, HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON, TERMS OF ENDEARMENT and STEEL MAGNOLIAS show these dynamics). What are the scenes that make us feel the glow of love or joy of friendship?
Or in darker stories, instead of bonding scenes, the storytellers may show the hero/ine pulling away from people and becoming more and more alienated, as in THE GODFATHER, TAXI DRIVER, THE SHINING, CASINO.
In a love story, there is always a specific scene that you might call THE DANCE, where we see for the first time that the two lovers are perfect for each other (this is often some witty exchange of dialogue when the two seem to be finishing each other’s sentences, or maybe they end up forced to sing karaoke together and bring down the house…). You see this Dance scene in buddy comedies and buddy action movies as well.
- GENRE SCENES (action, horror, suspense, sex, emotion, adventure, violence)
Act II, part 1 is the section of a story that will really deliver on THE PROMISE OF THE PREMISE.
What is the EXPERIENCE that you hope and expect to get from this story? – is it the glow and sexiness of falling in love, or the adrenaline rush of supernatural horror, or the intellectual pleasure of solving a mystery, or the vicarious triumph of kicking the ass of a hated enemy in hand-to-hand combat?
Here are some examples:
- In THE GODFATHER, we get the EXPERIENCE of Michael gaining in power as he steps into the family business. There’s a vicarious thrill in seeing him win these battles.
- In JAWS, we EXPERIENCE the terror of what it’s like to be in a small beach town under attack by a monster of the sea.
- In HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON, we get the EXPERIENCE and wonder of discovering all these cool and endearing qualities about dragons, including and especially the EXPERIENCE of flying. We also get to EXPERIENCE outcast and loser Hiccup suddenly winning big in the training ring.
- In HARRY POTTER (1), we get the EXPERIENCE of going to a school for wizards and learning and practicing magic (including flying).
(I want to note that for those of you working with horror stories, it’s very important to identify WHAT IS THE HORROR, exactly? What are we so scared of, in this story? How do the storytellers give us the experience of that horror?)
Ask yourself what EXPERIENCE you want your audience or reader to have in your own story, then look for the scenes that deliver on that promise in Act II, part 1. Well, do they? If not, how can you enhance that experience?
And another big but important generalization I can make about Act II, part 1, is that this is often where the specific structure of the KIND of story you’re writing (or viewing) kicks in. For more on identifying KINDS of stories, see What Kind Of Story Is It?
Act II part 1 builds to the MIDPOINT CLIMAX – which in movies is usually a big SETPIECE scene, where the filmmakers really show off their expertise with a special effects sequence (as in HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON and HARRY POTTER, 1), or a big action scene (JAWS), or in breathtaking psychological cat-and-mouse dialogue (in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS). It might be a sex scene or a comedy scene, or both in a romantic comedy. Whatever the Midpoint is, it is most likely going to be specific to the promise of the genre.
THE MIDPOINT –
- Completely changes the game
- Locks the hero/ine into a situation or action
- Is a point of no return
- Can be a huge revelation
- Can be a huge defeat
- Can be a huge win
- 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
More discussion on Elements of Act Two.
In a 2-hour movie this section starts at about 60 minutes, and ends at about 90 minutes.
In a 400-page book, this section starts at about p. 300 and ends toward the end of the book.
First, identify the separate SEQUENCES of this act. In a movie, usually there will be two 15- minute long sequences, Sequence 5 and Sequence 6, and the climax of Sequence 6 will be the ACT TWO CLIMAX, at about 90 minutes into the movie. But if the movie is longer or shorter than 2 hours, the sequences will be longer or shorter to match, or there might be three sequences or even four in Act II, Part 2, and in a shorter movie this section is often condensed into just one sequence or two very short sequences. (I've noticed that Act II:2 tends to be the place where a shorter movie will condense the action).
A book may have 2, 3, or even 4 sequences in this section, and the page count can vary.
Act II, part 2 will almost always have these elements:
* 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.
What’s the new plan?
A good story will always be clear about the stakes. Characters often speak the stakes aloud. How have the stakes changed? Do we have new hopes or fears about what the protagonist will do and what will happen to him or her?
* ESCALATING ACTIONS/OBSESSIVE DRIVE
Little actions by the hero/ine to get what s/he wants have not cut it, so the actions become bigger and usually more desperate.
Do we see a new level of commitment in the hero/ine?
How are the hero/ine’s actions becoming more desperate?
* It’s also worth noting that while the hero/ine is generally (but not always!) winning in Act II:1, s/he generally begins to lose in Act II:2. Often this is where everything starts to unravel and spiral out of control.
* INCREASED ATTACKS BY ANTAGONIST
Just as the hero/ine is becoming more desperate to get what s/he wants, the antagonist also has failed to get what s/he wants and becomes more desperate and takes riskier actions.
* HARD CHOICES AND CROSSING THE LINE (IMMORAL ACTIONS by the main character to get what s/he wants)
Do we see the hero/ine crossing the line and doing immoral things 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).
Do any allies walk out on the hero/ine or get killed or injured?
* A TICKING CLOCK (can happen anywhere in the story, or there may not be one.)
* REVERSALS AND REVELATIONS/TWISTS
* THE LONG DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL and/or VISIT TO DEATH (also known as: ALL IS LOST).
There is always a moment in a story where the hero/ine seems to have lost everything, and it is almost always right before the Second Act Climax, or it IS the Second Act Climax.
What is the All Is Lost scene?
* In a romance or romantic comedy, the All Is Lost moment is often a THE LOVER MAKES A STAND scene, where s/he tells the loved one – “Enough of this bullshit waffling, either commit to me or don’t, but if you don’t, I’m out of here.” This can be the hero/ine or the love interest making this stand.
THE SECOND ACT CLIMAX
* Often will be a final revelation before the end game: often the knowledge of who the opponent really is, that will propel the hero/ine into the FINAL BATTLE.
* Often will be another devastating loss, the ALL IS LOST scene. In a mythic structure or Chosen One story or mentor story this is almost ALWAYS where the mentor dies or is otherwise taken out of the action, so the hero/ine must go into the final battle alone.
* Answers the Central Question – and often the answer is “no” – so that the hero/ine again must come up with a whole new plan.
* Often is a SETPIECE.
More discussion on Elements Of Act II:2
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) (Sequence 7).
2. The final battle itself (Sequence 8)
* In addition to the FINAL PLAN, there may be another GATHERING OF THE TEAM, and a brief TRANING SEQUENCE.
• There may well be DEFEATS OF SECONDARY OPPONENTS (each one of which should be given a satisfying end or comeuppance. (This may also happen earlier, in Act II:2).
* 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 ally/allies’ character change (s) and/or gaining of desire (s)
* Possibly a huge final reversal or reveal (twist), or even a whole series of payoffs that 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.
• Possibly a sense of coming FULL CIRCLE – returning to the opening image or scene and showing how much things have changed, or how the hero/ine has changed inside, causing her or him to deal with the same place and situation in a whole different way.
* Closing Image
More on Act Three:
Elements of Act Three
What Makes a Great Climax?
Elevate Your Ending
Now, I'd also like to remind everyone that this is a basic, GENERAL list. There are story elements specific to whatever kind of story you're writing, and the best way to get familiar with what those are is to do the story breakdowns on three (at least) movies or books that are similar to the KIND of story you're writing.
What KIND Of Story Is It?
Screenwriting Tricks for Authors and Writing Love, Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, II, are now available in all e formats and as pdf files. Either book, any format, just $2.99.
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