As I’ve been threatening, I’m going to start working thorough my Story Elements 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.
So today, Act One checklist, expanded.
----------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.
Screenwriting Tricks For Authors, available on Kindle and for PC and Mac.