Story Architecture: A Clinic With Popcorn

Lessons from The Source Code

Imagine an aspiring doctor or med student who, upon being invited to sit in on a lung replacement operation, declines because they’re planning on going into podiatry and, besides, they have a conflicting tee time.

Only on Grey’s Anatomy.

Which is my way of introducing you to a movie I’m hoping you’ll check out.  One that may or may not be your cup of Joe.  It’s science fiction, with elements of action thriller and speculative adult drama.

It’ll be worth your time.  Both as a movie experience, and more importantly, as a writer seeking to steepen your learning curve on story structure.

It’s called The Source Code.

It stars Jake Gyllenhaal (pronounced Jill ‘n Hall in case you’ve never watched Extra on TV) as a decorated soldier who suddenly wakes up – the term used loosely here – inside the body and life of another man, someone he’d never heard of.  At first it’s as confusing to him as it is to the viewer.

The film has been getting good reviews and it’s a lot of fun, in addition to being thought-provoking.  But more importantly, it’s a clinic for writers, one that strips away the flesh of dialogue and setting to exposure the bare bones of story structure and dramatic physics.

If you’re struggling to understand story architecture, if you’re a “show me” type of learner, or if you’d simply like to the see Six Core Competencies play out before your writerly eyes as if someone was narrating with Cliff Notes and a highlighter… this is the story.

You might even want to see it twice.

Check your watch, the plot points happen right when they’re supposed to.

Notice how the hook happens early.  As in, the first scene.  And how the hook isn’t the First Plot Point (it never is), it’s just a way of kicking things off in a compelling way by posing questions that compel answers.

Notice how the first quartile of the story – Part 1 – is 100% a set-up of what’s to come, none of it explained.  This is intentional and perfect, the job here isn’t to answer questions, it’s to pose them. 

Also, if you notice there’s precious little here in Part/Act I  in the way of character establishment or development, well, that’s part of the set-up.  Be patient.

Pay attention to how – and this is critical – nothing changes at the First Plot Point. 

That isn’t a rule, it’s an option.  But the role of the First Plot Point isn’t optional.

When the First Plot Point arrives (right on time, too, and clearly so, as the hero demands answers to the same questions you’ve been asking), it fulfills the primary purpose of this most important of all the story milestones: the hero suddenly has a mission.  A quest.  A need.  One neither he nor the viewer fully understood before this moment.  One with an opponent.  One with stakes (that weren’t there until the FPP).

Notice how, after the First Plot Point, everything that happens is there to show the hero’s response to this new agenda and quest.

Then – and it is just as critical – comes a whopper of Mid-Point context shift. 

The curtain parts, both for the audience and the hero, which is the first job of the Mid-Point.  Note how this changes the context of the hero’s journey (in Part 3, which follows), how he is suddenly in attack mode as opposed to the response mode of the second quartile (Part 2) of the story.

Then comes the Second Plot Point, which is even more astounding and game-changing than the First.  Notice how the story spins in a new direction here toward what we know will be the climax of it all, and how our hero takes charge —  literally – of that resolution.

It’s all classic story architecture.

Notice, too, how this is all concept-driven, and how the concept is exposed early but not explained until, well, the First Plot Point.  This isn’t a rule, per se, it was the writer’s choice, but in terms of how the set-up is built and the nature of the First Plot Point, it’s perfect.

In fact, the First Plot is the explanation of the story’s concept.

Notice how character builds, adding layers and backstory and inner demons along the way.  Notice how we begin to care about this guy, how the story becomes more than a cool and astoundingly original idea as it morphs into something we empathize with.

Something with theme infusing every scene.

Check out the sub-plot (a romance, often the best sub-plot you can create), which provides sub-text to the primary conflict.

And watch how the writer doesn’t give it all away, how there are dead ends and suspect baddies and a nifty deception that’s been visible all along if you just knew where to look.

And then, at the end – which, admittedly, relies on some very Hollywoodesque leaps of logic as it asks the viewer to just go with it (none of which compromises story structure, by the way) – makes you feel, makes you smile and maybe even pinch back a tear or two.

That’s the power of theme.  Right here slapping you upside your head in this overtly high concept thriller being marketed to fan boys, popcorn movie lovers and Gyllenhaal fans.

Theme isn’t optional.  Ever.  No matter how cool the special effects.  No more or no less than the other five core competencies.

The Model Exposed

Not everyone likes or writes science fiction or even high concept adult fiction.  Some writers favor character-driven drama, romance and the arena of historical context to add juice to the experience.

Not everyone believes movies are a place that can shed light on story architecture for novelists, either.

Doesn’t matter, in either case.  When it’s there for the taking, the exposure and illumination of classic story architecture at work, and effectively so, is an opportunity the real writer – in any genre – should not pass up.

Need more story architecture?  Check out my new book, “Story Engineering: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Storytelling,” out now from Writers Digest Books.


Also, if you’d like to see these principles demonstrated just as clearly in a critically-acclaimed novel, I’ve just released my 2004 novel, Bait and Switch, as a new Kindle edition for only $2.99.  Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review and named it to their “Best Books of 2004” list, so I’m not all full of myself in suggesting that you might just like it.  A funny, sexy thriller, if that’s your thing.




Filed under Six Core Competencies

9 Responses to Story Architecture: A Clinic With Popcorn

  1. I smiled as I read this, not because it’s a movie I really want to see (although it *is* a movie I really want to see) but because your description of the story fit the points in my WIP EXACTLY.

    So at least I seem to have one of the six core competencies down.

    First Plot Point: “…it fulfills the primary purpose of this most important of all the story milestones: the hero suddenly has a mission.” <~~ In my WIP this is the point where our hero discovers her roommate didn't commit suicide, he was killed. Her mission (and she chooses to accept it) is to buck the local authorities who are convinced it's a suicide and try and find out what happened.

    The MidPoint: "…changes the context of the hero’s journey (in Part 3, which follows), how [s]he is suddenly in attack mode as opposed to the response mode of the second quartile (Part 2) of the story." <~~ Hero finds out, to her surprise, who the killer is. Knows with certainty (and he knows she knows) but has no conclusive evidence to take to the police.

    And then the Second Plot Point: "… which is even more astounding and game-changing than the First." <~~ Hero now has the evidence, again the killer knows, and it's a race/battle to avoid the bad guy while getting the evidence to the police.

    Really, really heartening to know I can tick that box.

    Thanks again!

    (Got a nice ‘young actress trying to make a career in a foreign country’ subplot going on too.)

  2. MeganS

    One of my TV writing teachers always used “Star Wars” to illustrate plot structure, which is also a great example of each key point happening “exactly” when it’s supposed to. Thanks for giving us some insight into “The Source Code” – now, I want to see it and further explore how it’s structured. Really enjoying your blog as well! Thanks for sharing.

  3. I’m enjoying the heck out of STORY ENGINEERING, relearning some things I had forgotten–gaining a new perspective on them–and learning new things.

    Movies are a great way to observe story structure in action, and I am definitely going to see THE SOURCE CODE. It was on my list before, now doubly so.

    I look at my watch every time I see a movie, looking for those plot points. Seeing countless sample of them helps me create my own.

    Thanks for your insight into the craft.

    Chuck Hustmyre

  4. Martha

    Just so happens I’m planning to see this movie tonight (Regal Theaters’ five bucks all day admission on Tuesdays). I’ve noted the running time (hour and a half) so I’ll watch for the PP’s and midpoint. Thanks for the tip, Larry! Great post, as always.

  5. Saw the movie tonight, at your recommendation.

    It’s the Christ story, just in time for Easter. Rebirth. Yup!

  6. Steven Daniel

    Hi, Larry.
    You are right. Source Code fits both the story architecture and the elements of character building that you have written about. The concept of the reader (or watcher in this case) being ‘inside the skin’ of the character is driven home in eight minute segments over and over.

    I went to see this movie right away Saturday night, partly because I believe that my writing fits into this category of romantic sci fi. I love biotech stuff but a machine is just a machine without a heart or soul.

    Funny thing happened. After the movie I went into the theater bathroom and looked in the mirror…it wasn’t me…I think it was some writer. I’ll have to see where that goes.
    Thanks again for your contributions to my writing career.


  7. Kal Bashir’s broken down Source Code according to his 510 stage hero’s journey over at his site ; and quite effectively I may add.

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