An Easy Approach to Story Building : The Bedtime Story Model

A Holiday Gift to Writers, from Art Holcomb

Novelists and screenwriters are like cousins twice removed. We only cross paths occasionally but, when we start swapping stories, it can be fascinating what each can learn from the other.

(Larry note: it’s also fascinating how much they can resist each other.  Which is a shame, because despite popular belief, there is so MUCH crossover relative to structure and craft.)

I have been using a model to help some of my film students find and complete their ideas for a screenplay when all they have is a basic notion and a main character. It was developed by a great screenwriting instructor, Pilar Allesandra, in her groundbreaking book, The Coffee Break Screenwriter.

It wasn’t long before I realized that it offeredpowerful applications for novelists as well. By giving you the basic story model of a fairy tale, it leads you through the story-creating process and gets you thinking about structure without realizing it! I recently shared it with Larry and he encouraged me to share it with you here.

How to begin: Start with an idea that you’ve been thinking about, and fill in the blanks as you go along.

Give it a try on your current project or something new. I think you’ll be VERY surprised with what you come up with:

The Bedtime Story Model

ACT 1 (same as “Part 1” in novel structure): Once upon a time there was a ____________________( main character) who was ____________________ (character flaw). When ____________________ (obstacle) happened, she ____________________ (flaw-driven strategy). Unfortunately ____________________ (screw up). So she decided ____________________ (goal) and had to ____________________ (action that begins a new journey).

ACT 2A (which is Part 2 in novel structure): In order to take this action, she decided to ____________________ (strategy). Unfortunately ____________________ (obstacle) happened, which caused ____________________ (complication)! Now she had to ____________________ (new task) or risk ____________________ (personal stake)

ACT 2B (which is Part 3 in novel structure) : Where she once wanted to ____________________ (old desire) she now wanted ____________________ (new desire). But how could that happen when ____________________ (obstacle)? Filled with ____________________ (emotion) she____________________ (new action). But this only resulted in ____________________ (low point).

ACT 3 (which is Part 4 in novel structure) : Fortunately, this helped her to realize ____________________ (the solution)! All she had to do was____________________ (action using new lesson)! Using ____________________ (other characters), ____________________ (skills) and ____________________ (tools from the journey) she was able to ____________________ (victorious action). Unfortunately, ____________________ (final hurdle). But this time, she ____________________ (clever strategy)! This resulted in ____________________ (change of situation)

(Larry note: the three-Act structure for film is as immovable as those faces on Mt. Rushmore, so we must accept that.   But don’t be fooled at a first glance.  Because given that its “Act II” has two separate and equal-length elements, separated by the Midpoint and each with its own contextual mission — the first being a response to the hero’s call as launched by the First Plot Point, and the second post-Midpoint quartile being a proactive attack on the obstacles blocking the hero’s path — it’s really four parts after all. 

Just to be clear, both models are almost exactly the same architecture , so don’t be confused.  Part of that sameness includes a sequence of four — not three — contextual “quartiles” (roughly; hence, the quote marks) with their own contextually-driven missions relative to how they forward the story’s narrative.

That said, screenwriters — and the teaching of screenwriting in general — is orders of magnitude ahead of the conventional wisdom offered to novelists (although, I have to say, Storyfix is an exception, because one of my goals is to bridge that gap; its one of the reasons Art contributes here… we are on the same page on almost everything about storytelling.  Any time you can step into a screenwriting learning opportunity, grab it, it’s pure gold.)

We thank Pilar for this model and I encourage you to pick up her book, The Coffee Break Screenwriter from Michael Wiese Publications.  It holds a treasure of storytelling techniques that you can adapt for your latest novel.

Pilar runs a great writing studio in Southern California and you can learn more about her work at

Until next time – Keep Writing!


Art Holcomb is a novelist and screenwriter who teaches motivated private clients how to move from aspiring to professional writers. You can read more about him, his writing tips and his services at .

Or you can write him at


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10 Responses to An Easy Approach to Story Building : The Bedtime Story Model

  1. I love this. I’ve been struggling with the plot for my next book. This may help me break through my plotter’s block.

  2. Art Holcomb

    @ Ron: I hope it helps – – Go get’em! Email me and let me know how it turns out.

  3. I’m always looking for another way to help struggling authors “get” story structure. This is pure gold. Thanks Art, Larry, and Pilar.

  4. Martha Miller

    This is kind of magical, isn’t it? I too, have been struggling with the plot for my next idea and this approach is not only unsnarling the kinks in the idea, it’s making sure I don’t leave out any of the important parts. Thank you!

  5. Recovering pantser here, now gobbling up screenwriting tips and other methods for plotting a novel. This is a great, easy way to get a hold on the four part structure. Thanks for this.

  6. Robert Jones

    Thanks, Art. I ran my current plot through this as an exercise and discovered something no one mentioned yet. By using this template, you’re forced to fill in the blanks with the key actions only of the core story. Subplots and extraneous bits get forced out, directing you to see what’s really important. It seems like a great way to keep folks focused on the right path. This could really come in handy for editing. Or save time editing by helping to eliminate waste before you even start writing.

    I know I’ll be putting “The Coffee Break Screenwriter” on my list of future books on writing.

  7. Very helpful, and a great template for taking notes during films and novels to deconstruct the story. Thanks for sharing!

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