A story without structure is like a body without bones: it’s messy and won’t get very far. Structure gives both you and your readers a clear sense of direction and purpose. If you check around for story structure outlines, many of them will based on Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet. It is a basic plot structure, typically used in screenwriting. However, it can really apply to any media form because it follows a basic three act structure. This one is somewhat based on Snyder’s outline as well. Note that all of the elements of this outline are not completely set in stone, but this is a good structure for sequence of events. Sometimes it’s hard to analyze exactly where every point of a story falls into the beat sheet, but you’ll get the idea. The three most basic ingredients you need before you can fill out the details of this structure are: a protagonist, a goal, and an adversary. It also helps to have ideas about your story’s theme, your character’s hamartia, and your character’s plan to get whatever it is they want. (Note, I’m gonna talk about Disney’s Tangled a lot, and I’m not exactly sure if I lined up all the plot points right, but they make good examples.)
Your opening should be attention-grabbing and set the tone for the rest of the story. For example, in Tangled, we see a wanted poster in a shadowy forest with a humorous illustration of the co-starring character of the film, Flynn Rider, who is giving a narrative epilogue which denotes that the preceding story will be a lighthearted and amusing off-beat fairy tale.
I’m not really sure how frequently novels do this, but I know that in screenplays the “theme” of the film is in some way presented, either as a statement or a question, within the first five or ten minutes of the movie. This statement is the premise which the rest of the story addresses, an obvious example being Pride and Prejudice’s opener: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” In Freaky Friday the “theme stated” is where the mother and daughter state that her life is much harder than the other’s. By the end of the story the statement can be proved, disproved, or if it’s question it can be answered—but the protagonist must not know the full truth or untruth of the premise until late in the story.
Nothing has happened yet, the character’s world is still business as usual, but the stage is set and ready for something life-altering. Showing your character’s life struggles and desires is important here. This is where we see how angsty yet self-conceited the socialite’s life is, how invisible the youngest daughter feels, how the 30 year old wishes he has someone to marry and start a life with him. In The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe this is when the four children go to live with Professor Kirk. In Tangled, Rapunzel wants to see the “floating lights” but Mother Gothel will not let her, saying that the world outside Rapunzel’s tower is too dangerous. So, while nothing has changed, the stage is set for action.
This is the inciting incident, the big moment, the spot where the story really starts. This is where the world is flipped upside down: the protagonist gets superpowers, the car accident happens, the protagonist discovers a mysterious old box in the attic. In Rapunzel’s case this is when Flynn comes into her tower, and in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe this is when Lucy first enters the wardrobe. The catalyst thrusts the protagonist into action and is the first key event.
This whole new world the protagonist was just thrown into can be a lot to handle, and your protagonist may not know how to deal with it. He or she usually questions how to go on, or whether to go on at all. For example, maybe he thinks he found the perfect girl, but doesn’t know if he is good enough to pursue her. Or she was offered a place as queen, but doesn’t know if she can handle such a duty. In Tangled, Rapunzel has much indecision about continuing with her adventure—she longs to see the outside world, but worries she is doing wrong to Mother Gothel by running away from the tower. In the debate stage, the protagonist still has time to turn back. Rapunzel repeatedly considered forgetting the whole thing and going back to her tower before Mother Gothel even knew what happened, but at the same time loves her newfound freedom and wants to go on the adventure. She goes back and forth like, a dozen time. Not all debate scenes have to be this extreme, but you get the idea.
Transition into Act II: The Decision
The protagonist is done debating and makes a big decision: she will get revenge on the man who killed her family, he will find the girl he loves and woo her, she will use her newfound talent to change the world, he will find the cure for the disease. In Tangled, Flynn takes Rapunzel to the Snuggly Duckling Inn, and Rapunzel is inspired to follow her dream to see the floating lights. In this section, Rapunzel commits to the adventure and there is no turning back. In The Lord of the Rings this is where Frodo decides to journey to Rivendell. The world your character knew before is gone and they are officially committed to the new journey or goal.
B Story Comes Into Play
While this comes in at different times, the B story should be introduced no later than at this point. Perhaps your A story is stealing the crown jewels, but your B story is a love story (a very common B story)—now is the time to start bringing that love story into play. In Tangled, the A story is seeing the Floating Lights and the B story is Rapunzel and Flynn’s romance. The B story begins when the friendship between Flynn and Rapunzel begins to develop into romance as they share heartfelt moments in revealing personal secrets to each other around the fire. The B story is often used to observe the A story and give insight. In the Star Wars prequels, the friendship between Anakin and Obi-Wan (the B story) plays an important role in the A story (Anakin’s turning to the dark side), but also discusses the main plot, as in where Anakin complains that Obi-Wan is holding him back (just as he believes the Jedi as a whole are holding him back from saving Padme) and where Obi-wan tries to set Anakin straight on the burning planet, but ends up mourning their lost friendship.
Fun and Games/Promise of Premise
This is what you sold your story on, the fun part that the readers want to see. If you sold your story on action, we better see a thrilling car chase, and if you sold it on romantic comedy, we better see all kinds of awkward situations with maybe some kissing thrown in. This is where we see the highlights of the genre. By choosing a certain genre, you are promising to come through to your readers on certain elements. So in a mystery story this is where we see all the cool Nancy Drew detective work, in a fantasy story we explore the strange new surroundings and creatures and in a sports story this is where we see training and maybe even minor competitions in preparation for the big game.
This can either be an up or down on your plot roller coaster, but from here on out things should move fast and be fairly intense—no more messing around, turn up the heat! This is where we bring in false defeat and false victory. The protagonist either thinks he lost it all or thinks he’s won. You can use one or both of these elements throughout your story, and even use them multiple times. For example, in The Princess and the Frog, this is where Tiana is able to be turned back into a human and realize her restaurant dream, but realizes it is a false victory because it is the people that matter, not the restaurant dream. In Tangled, Rapunzel is tricked into believing that Flynn has betrayed her—a false defeat. The A story and B story should also cross here. For example, the villain kidnaps the hero’s love interest (cliché, I know) and the villain tries to force her to either save her love interest or solve the A story. This puts the A and B story at tension, which is an especially good element for relationships (and, as mentioned, B stories are often relationship stories).
The Plot Thickens
Blake Snyder calls this plot point “Bad Guys Close In.” In other words, the aliens have not only landed, but they come armed; the superhero must not only save the city, but save his whole family. Things are really coming down to the wire, and the leads may wonder if winning is even possible. In The Princess and the Frog, this is where the voodoo dude tricks everyone into thinking Charlotte married Prince Naveen and Ray gets killed.
The protagonist hits bottom. It looks like things will never work out right. His love interest gets engaged to someone else, or the doctors say she cannot be cured, or he sees no way to stop the bomb from going off. The protagonist often even considers giving up. In Tangled, Rapunzel is heartbroken, thinking that her dreams are shattered and Flynn has betrayed her. She feels that perhaps Mother Gothel was right, and that the outside world really is nothing but cruel—basically, she has gone as low as she can go, to the point that she almost resigns herself to her fate. Likewise, at this plot point your protagonist should generally think all is lost and should hopelessly despair.
Transition into Act III
This is where things start to look up. The protagonist gets determinations and a new perspective, which causes her to see a possible way out. Remember that B story we introduced earlier? The B story often helps give the A story a push in the right direction at this point. The love interest gives the protagonist words of encouragement, the protagonists remembers words of wisdom from his mentor, etc. In The Return of the King, this is where Sam carries Frodo up the mountain. Note that this is very similar to “Transition into Act II” because it is where a decision is made to act and carry on.
This is it, the big moment, the bursting point. Either we win now or we lose for good! In sport movies this is where the whole team either walks away in shame, or wins the world championship. This is where Frodo battles Gollum for the ring, Scar fights Simba, and Luke fights Darth Vader. This is where we see the most action and drama with very little down time. This is the big game, the final showdown.
Finale and Resolution
The miraculous solution arises and is implemented. In Tangled Flynn saves Rapunzel from Mother Gothel and Rapunzel saves Flynn from death. In Batman Begins, Batman lets the train crash, killing Ra’s al Ghul. In The Return of the King, the ring finally gets into the lava in Mount Doom. The final problem is solved and everything is over, one way or another.
The after picture is the final image that shows that a change has occurred since the beginning of the story and gives and may give an indication about how the things will continue after the story is over. The after picture is the exhale after the storm, a denouement. All loose ends should be tied up. Example: Sam gets married and has a family, Frodo goes across the sea with the Elves, Batman starts to rebuilds his parent’s home, Rapunzel gets married to Flynn, and Tiana gets her restaurant where Naveen plays jazz in it. In Princess Diaries, Mia flies over Genovia, narrating her plans for the future. Disco parties and happy laughing friends are a common “happy ending” after picture, but I would encourage creativity in this area.