A lion is beautiful to behold. But without its complex internal bone structure, it wouldn’t be an elegant killing machine. It would be a short-lived pile of meat. The internal structure may be hidden, but it’s essential. Stories are like lions. If they don’t have a strong and well-articulated internal structure, they collapse.
That analogy sounds a little strained, doesn’t it? Stories are made of words and ideas, not muscle and blood. Why would they need bones? One explanation is from Wired for Story by Lisa Cron. I love this book because a lot of her message is based on cognitive psychology. She tells us that humans learn primarily through story, and that stories “click” when they have a structure that engages that story-learning system. Authors Kristen Lamb and Jami Gold have blog posts about why structure is so important in writing stories that stay with people.
There are lots of different ways to describe story structure. The most basic is a three act structure (beginning, middle, and end). Some people expand this into four parts or six stages, possibly following beat sheets laying out just when each piece of the structure should fall. K. M. Weiland has a long series of blog posts drilling down into each step of story structure, beginning here.
Structure applies to all kinds of stories, regardless of length or medium. I decided to pull four movies off my shelf more or less at random and go through them to see how story structure plays out there. I chose five key story points that can be found in most systems of story structure, and identified where in the run time of each movie that point occurred. The ones I chose don’t come close to covering the complete range of film, of course, but they are different enough to offer some revealing information.
- Finding Nemo (2003) is an animated children’s movie about a father fish that goes searching for his missing son.
- Taken (2008) is a tense action-adventure movie about a father who goes to rescue his kidnapped daughter.
- The Martian (2015) is a science-fiction drama about an astronaut trying to survive after being mistakenly abandoned on Mars.
- Wonder Woman (2017) is a comic-book superhero movie about an Amazon princess who fights the God of War against the backdrop of WWI.
Some technical bits. I measured the actual time for the movie itself, starting from the opening shot (after any introductory bits about film companies), and ending when the closing credits start to roll. Each of the plot points is given as a percentage of that total duration. For each point, I picked the moment in the scene that most clearly carries the meaning of the point, and used that as my time index. (Do I need to say that this analysis will include major spoilers for the films?)
There’s a lot to talk about here, so I’m breaking this analysis up into two parts. This week we’ve looked at structure in general and introduced the films I’ll be digging into, and I’ll go into the first two structural elements. Come back next week for the other three elements and an overall look at what this exercise accomplished. Here we go!
Initiating Incident. This is the point early in the story where the main character (MC) is kicked out of their previous world. Something happens that triggers the rest of the story. In these four movies, this happened at an average of 13% into the movie, but with a range of 6%-19% it is the most variable of the points I’ll talk about. Some stories have a lengthier setup; others jump right into things. I would not have predicted which is which.
- In Finding Nemo, the initiating incident happens at 16%, when Nemo is captured and his father goes after him. This is a bit on the late side, with the film spending some time explaining why Nemo and his father Marlin are alone (no mother and no siblings) and showing his father’s overprotective nature.
- Taken, the high-octane, action-packed story, has the latest inciting incident of the four, at 19%. That’s when the father goes against his better judgment to give his daughter permission to travel to Paris. There is a lot of time spent before this showing the father’s strained relationship with his daughter and also his impressive abilities to respond aggressively and effectively to danger.
- The Martian has the shortest setup before the initiating incident, which occurs at only 6% when the mission commander makes the decision to take off from Mars without Mark Watney, because to stay any longer would be to risk the rest of the crew. I find it interesting that a story set so far from our everyday experience has such a short setup. This is also interesting because it focuses on a decision made by Commander Lewis, not Mark Watney. More on this later.
- The inciting incident in Wonder Woman occurs right in the middle of the pack, at 14%, when Diana rescues Steve from the sinking plane that broke through the wall surrounding her magical kingdom.
Plot Point 1. In some systems, this marks the end of Act I. It’s the point where the MC fully engages in addressing the problem raised by the inciting incident and moves forward decisively toward a resolution. Up to this point they’ve been trying to figure out what’s going on, trying to pretend things can continue unchanged, or floundering around without a direction. Now the story is fully in gear, and the MC has a specific goal to strive for. Most systems put this at the 25% point, and these films are close to that ideal. The average was 27%, with a tight range (25%-29%), indicating how important it is to get that point to happen at the right place.
- In Finding Nemo, Marlin initially follows Dory, whose memory difficulties make her an unreliable guide, and then gets sidetracked by some sharks, and doesn’t really have any idea how to find his son. At exactly 25%, though, he and Dory find the scuba mask that has the address of the diver who took Nemo, so they now have a specific goal; get to Sydney. In the very next scene, we see Nemo arrive in the fish tank and shortly he states his specific goal: to get home. This takes place at 27%, and also counts for Plot Point 1. What this tells me is that Finding Nemo is two stories in one; Marlin’s story, and Nemo’s story. Both of these stories proceed in parallel, and both hit their first plot point simultaneously.
- The father in Taken has been struggling with how to connect with his daughter, including granting the permission she wanted to travel to Paris. However, at the 29% mark, she is kidnapped, and he now has a very specific goal: find her and get her back.
- In analyzing The Martian, I discovered that it’s not really a story about Mark Watney. Yes, Matt Damon is undeniably the star of the movie, and he has much more screen time and more action than anyone else. However, in terms of story structure, the movie is about the people who left him behind and those trying to rescue him. It’s no accident that the most visible words on the cover of the DVD are BRING HIM HOME. I noted before that the inciting incident was the decision by Commander Lewis to abandon Mark on the planet. Then we get to the first plot point, which falls at precisely 25% of the movie, which is the moment when folks at NASA figure out that Mark is still alive. This establishes their very specific goal; how to bring him back.
- In Wonder Woman this plot point is the latest of all, falling at 29%. It’s when Diana defies her mother Queen Hippolyta, taking on the specific goal of finding and destroying Ares, the God of War.
Next week we will take a look at the remaining three plot points and a broader look at the value of this kind of structural analysis. I hope to see you then!