How to Learn Story Structure in Two Minutes or Less

Went to a movie yesterday.  The new Clooney flick about staring at goats.  Not bad, a few grins, but in my view a little over-the-top silly at the end.

But that’s not my point today.  What happened before the movie is.

Because I saw a bunch of previews for upcoming films.  And in doing so, I realized how each of them, in their own way, is little workshop on story structure.

To see what I mean, go HERE and watch the preview for Mel Gibson’s new flick, Edge of Darkness.  I’m not a big Gibson fan – actors who go rogue in real life tend to sour me on their work – but this one looks pretty good.

Here’s the takeaway: the preview is pure story structure in all it’s glory.  Watch it now, then come back.  We need to talk.

Once You Know It, You Can’t Un-see It

If you understand story structure, with its attendant four parts and major milestones, you can’t help but see them – feel them – leaping off the screen at you in this preview.

And really – now that this can of worms has been opened – any preview.

Think about it.  The trailer opens with a Part 1 set-up.  Dad gets call from daughter, she’s coming to town.  They talk.  Relationship is chilly, need to reboot.  A little backstory, some inner Mel Gibson demons (irony at its best).  All classic Part 1 stuff.

Then the daughter is murdered.  Is that the Plot Point?  Could be, seems like one… but it’s not.  Because we don’t yet know what Mel’s new journey will be.  That’s the next clip.  They were after him

Or so we believe.

Now we have a Plot Point.  On to Part 2.

Mel reacts.  Outrage.  Fear.  New dark forces enter the story.  Mel is a wanderer.  Straight out of Part 2, the 101. 

Then, the film’s Mid-Point is shown.  There’s much Mel doesn’t know about his daughter.  Who she worked for, and how that connects to her death.  The curtain parts, the story has new context.

Now Mel has something to work with. 

Welcome to Part 3: Mel the warrior.  He’s Mr. Proactive, Mr. Pissed Off.  Kicking butt and taking names.  Getting closer to the truth.  Attacking.

The second Plot Point is a bit vague, as it often is in previews, since it would usually give away too much (this is a preview, after all).  But, we do see a lot of the action in Part 4, where Mel the wanderer turned warrior now becomes Mel the martyr.  Willing to do whatever is necessary to make things right.

And if you don’t think martyrdom is what you’re seeing, listen for the very last line he speaks in the preview.  It’s as if someone has been reading my new ebook.

And a Few Other Core Competencies, Too

It’s worth noting that previews aren’t just about the structure of the story.  There are five other storytelling competencies besides structure, and this preview, like most of them, touchs on them all in some way. 

The concept screams at you here: what if a guy’s daughter worked in some dark corner of the espionage world, got killed before your eyes, and now they want you?  A hundred ensuing drilled-down “what if” questions immediately coagulate in your brain.

Theme?  Listen to that last line again.  This story is all about theme.  As most effective stories are.

Character arc?  Oh yeah.  This is Mel’s comeback vehicle, and he’s all about growing and changing and showing us who he is, as a man, as a father, as an icon for justice and testosterone.

The Attack of the Movie Trailers

Once you analyze this preview through the lens of your understanding of story structure, you may never watch a movie preview the same way again.

Because they all do this. 

Virtually every trailer begins with the set-up… gives you a glimpse of an inciting incident (first Plot Point) that very clearly defines the hero’s forthcoming quest (hey, that’s what the story is about)… it shows you the hero staggering around, a bit lost (Part 2)… it tosses in a big not-everything-is-as-it-seems twist that is, in all likelihood, the Mid-Point… it’ll show the hero stepping up in attack mode (Part 3)… they’ll only hint at what the second Plot Point might be because they don’t want to give away too much… and then you’ll get a sense of how it all winds up.

All in about two minutes.

Every time.

Even if it’s not a thriller.  Comedies, science fiction, Nicholas Sparks’ romances… they all do it.   Even the trailer for Clooney’s new flick.

They’re all teaching you about story structure by using it to sell you a ticket.  Just like you’ll be using it to sell your story… to an agent, to an editor, to a studio hack… to a reader.

Have some fun with this. 

Watch a few previews (you can do that right here) and see if you can pick out the story’s four parts and the major story milestones.  Look for the concept, theme and character arc.  Look for the tone of the story (the equivalent of the writer’s voice, one of the six core competencies), it’ll be there in the form of music, style of editing and, if it’s a comedy, most of the movie’s good lines.

The more you see it, then the more you’re getting story structure.

And the more you don’t, the more these trailers have to teach you about it.  Because seeing is believing.

Which brings me to the Big Moment point for today.

Story structure is storytelling.  An effective trailer can’t help but rely on structure to intrigue you, because that’s the mission of structure in the first place.

No structure, no story.  No story, no sale.

 Learn more about how to engage the power of structure in your storytelling in Story Structure – Demystified.


Filed under Story Structure Series

11 Responses to How to Learn Story Structure in Two Minutes or Less

  1. Okay, to test your theory, I went and clicked on some trailer called “Old Dogs.” First, I’m not wasting my money to go see that movie. Second, I think it may add one more point to your post. No structure, so story, not worth going to the theater for. 🙂

    I saw the set-up, weak. I saw them attack the problem. And then it all fell apart. Or maybe I just missed it. Or maybe it’s a stinky movie with a stinky trailer.

  2. @Pegg — I probably should have pointed out that trailers for comedies, because they aren’t plot-driven, often focus on the best one-liners rather than the storytelling. That’s certainly the case with “Old Dogs.” But if you look closer, you’ll see structure there — a set-up, a probable first plot point (bringing Robin Williams into the family), a reaction to that, a proactive “attack”, and some shenanagans that could be part of the final act.

    Trailers are never an exact or complete model for story structure. I just think, as both a fun aside and an academic exercise, that it’s interesting to see what structural elements you can find in them, because to some extent, some are always there. And, some are missing, perhaps to an extent you could argue this glass to be half empty instead of half full. Your call on that. Thanks for commenting, Pegg, appreciate it.

  3. After I completed my novella, I put together a trailer to market it. After I finished the trailer, I sat back, shocked at how clear the story seemed to come together in really simple words and pictures. In a sense, I think for the next book I want to start with a trailer (succinctly providing the outline/plot/character arc/etc) and then write the novel from there! Part of me thinks that this worked for me so well because I’m an extremely visual person, but who knows. Great post, as usual! 🙂 And inspiring. Thanks so much!

  4. Rob

    I think I need to know more about theme. I’ve read your articles here and both e-books, but is there another resource that you know of that explains it well? I’m just not catching on with theme.

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  9. Julie

    “Once you know it, you can’t un-see it”

    Lol! Recognizing story structure = Seeing the Fnord 😉

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