Finding the Bones, Part 2: Story Structure in Four Films

Front part of a the skeleton of a lion. Text: Somethign for Sunday, September 29, 2019; Finding the Bones, Part 2Last week I described my project, breaking down the story structure of four popular films (Finding Nemo, Taken, The Martian, and Wonder Woman). I pointed out the placement of the first two major plot milestones (the Inciting Incident and Plot Point 1). Today I’ll conclude the project with the remaining three milestones, and talk a bit about what this exercise taught me.

Midpoint. As its name suggests, the midpoint comes at the middle of the story and is in the middle of Act II. The story undergoes a dramatic change, typically with some kind of reversal or change in the fundamental understanding of the true nature of the story. In these films, the midpoint fell at an average of 54% of the way through the story.

  • As I said before, Finding Nemo is two stories in one, and they both hit their midpoint together. Marlin has learned how to get to Sydney and is well on his way, when at 47% of the way into the story he is knocked out by jellyfish and nearly dies. Meanwhile, back in the fish tank, Nemo attempts an escape that fails, leaving him in despair of ever getting back home. These both represent a serious setback, a reversal of their progress toward their individual goals.
  • In Taken, the father has gone to Paris and worked his way into a stable of girls being trafficked as sex slaves. He finds his daughter’s jacket there, proving that he’s on the right track, but she isn’t there. This is a blow, because he doesn’t have another thread to follow.
  • The midpoint of The Martian takes place at the 55% point, when the supply rocket with food to keep Watney alive until a rescue can reach him explodes at launch. There is no backup plan, and at that point it seems that Mark is doomed. Again, note that this point is focused on the events off Mars, on those engaged in the rescue.
  • Wonder Woman shows a different version of this same pattern, in that the reversal is from negative to positive, instead of the reverse. Everything since the first plot point has been discouraging, with Diana trying to strike out for Ares and being held back at every turn. At 56% of the way into the movie, though, she finally drops her mundane shell. In full regalia as Wonder Woman, leaves her companions behind and storms the enemy, displaying her full power.

Plot Point 2. This usually follows on the heels of a black moment, when all seems lost. The main character, having briefly considered giving up, buckles down and begins the final push to victory. From this point forward the path to the goal is relatively clear, though obviously not guaranteed. This point should theoretically happen at 75%, but in these films it fell at an average of 83%. I don’t know whether the delay in this plot point is due to a different in the medium of film or

  • In Finding Nemo the dual stories again have simultaneous plot points. In the fish tank, the latest plan to get out has failed, and the evil Darla has arrived to take Nemo. However, Nemo decides he’ll have none of it, and pretends to be dead so that she will flush him away to the sea. Meanwhile, Marlin has made it to Sydney and connected with a pelican who can take him directly to his son. Both of these things happen roughly 78% into the film.
  • The second plot point falls very late in Taken, at 84%. It’s the moment when he’s penetrated the trafficking ring and sees his daughter for the first time. She’s behind glass, being auctioned to the highest bidder. He controls who buys her, which starts the final push to get her back.
  • In The Martian, the second plot point occurs at 86%, when Watney takes off from Mars to rendezvous with the Hermes. Even though it’s Watney taking off, story control is still in the hands of those working toward his rescue; quite literally, since one of the other crew members will be piloting the launch vehicle. From this point forward, the focus will be on making this rendezvous happen successfully.
  • Wonder Woman is interesting, because it has a false climax at the 80% point, when Diana kills the man she believes is Ares. However, it turns out that this wasn’t him. The true identity of Ares is revealed at 84%, leading to the final boss battle.

Climax. This is the point near the end when the main character either reaches the story goal or fails utterly. It is followed by the denouement, which shows how the character’s world has been changed as a result of the events in the story. In these films the climax happens at an average of 94%.

  • The two stories in Finding Nemo come back together when father and son reconnect at 92% of the film. They have both reached their goals. The film ends when we see that the father is now less protective, encouraging his son to have adventures.
  • The climax in Taken occurs when the father finally kills the ultimate bad guy and he and his daughter embrace. After that, we see them return to the US, and see the father cement his daughter’s love by introducing her to a pop star who will further her dream to become a singer.
  • Mark Watney finally gets into the Hermes at the 95% point in The Martian. Although they’ve mentioned several times how long the journey back to Earth will be and how dangerous space flight is, once Mark is aboard they cut to showing him teaching at NASA, allowing others to learn from his experience.
  • Diana finally defeats Ares at the 97% point in Wonder Woman. After that, we see that war is starting to lose its power. We return to the present day, where Diana is still engaged in the world, fighting for peace.

What I learned

  • Structure is important to story. The people making these films didn’t follow a consistent pattern out of some devotion to a theoretical ideal. They did it to make their story compelling.
  • Structure is flexible. A simple template could easily accommodate the different kinds of stories these films set out to tell.
  • Structure can help me develop my story. I started out plotting my book following this template, but lost that thread in revisions. I’m now going back to make sure milestones still fall where they should.
  • Structure is interesting. I really enjoyed taking these movies apart to see how they tick.

I recommend similar exercises to everyone who writes. When you watch a movie, set a timer for 25% of the length of the movie. When it goes off, reset it. Each time, note the events happening at that point in the movie to see if you find this pattern. I’ve also been known, when reading a new book, to count pages and put sticky notes at the 25%, 50%, and 75% marks and watch for the same thing. I used to worry that it would reduce my enjoyment of the movie or the book, but that hasn’t happened. It’s like an actor watching a play or a musician listening to a concert, noticing the skillful techniques the performers are using. This doesn’t make it boring. It deepens the experience.

How has structure informed your own writing? Have you found a structural system that works well for you?


Finding the Bones, Part 1: Story Structure in Four Films

The front part of a lion skeleton. Text: Something for Sunday; September 22, 2019; Finding the Bones Part 1A 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!