Story Structure for Fiction Writers

By applying screenplay structure to your novel and incorporating compelling heroes/heroines, internal and external desires, and conflict, your characters will be able to obtain their goals.

One of the quickest ways to see story structure in action is to watch movies. No matter the length of the movie, the five key turning points will happen at the same place (%) in the movie.

I’ve broken down the romantic comedy 50 First Dates, a film by Peter Segal, for my examples. I’m using the hero Henry Roth (played by Adam Sandler). This movie is 100 minutes long—note the minutes at each percentage and what happens.

Each act is broken down into percentages.

ACT 1 (0%-25%)

0-10%: Stage 1 – Setup

  • This stage must grab the reader’s attention.
  • The hero or heroine (H/h) must be likeable: sympathetic, humorous, and or powerful.
  • Showing the H/h in their everyday life the reader must see their character flaws.
 In the beginning:
Henry is a playboy in Hawaii–spending every night with a different, beautiful tourist showing each woman the time of her life–but living a no-strings-attached life and pretending to someone he’s not.
By day, he is a marine biologist working at the local sea world taking care of walrus. 
Flaw: He lacks comittment.

10%: Turning point 1 – New Opportunity

  • In a romance, this is where the H/h meets each other;
  • The protagonist meets the antagonist;and/or
  • The dead body is revealed.
 10 Minutes into the movie:
Henry meets Lucy (played by Drew Barrymore) at a local diner. Their connection and attraction is immediate and funny.

 10%-25%: Stage II – New Situation

  • During this time, the H/h reacts to their new situation.
  • As the conflict builds, the H/h realizes that he must change his plans.

 ACT II (25% – 75%)

Turning Point 2 – Change of Plans (Desire/Goal/Motivation Defined)

  • At the end of this stage, the H/h defines their desire.
  • The story goal is defined.
  •  The H/h outer motivation is revealed.
25 Minutes into the movie:
Intrigued with Lucy and disregarding her memory loss, Henry leaves his old way of life and tries to make Lucy fall in love with him every day.
 
External Goals:
Henry shares his goal to study walrus’s in Alaska.
Lucy wants to teach art.
 
25%-50%: Stage III – Progress
  • During the progress stage, obstacles to achieve the GOAL are easily overcome.
  • The H/h could return to their old life.

 50%: Turning Point 3 – Point of No Return:

  • Once the H/h passes the 50% mark there is no going back.
  • They fully commit to their goal.
  • This is when the H/h stop acting from their flaw and are rewarded with sex.
50 Minutes into the movie:
After discovering that Lucy has short term memory loss, integrating with her family, seeing the reality of what his daily life with Lucy would be like, having to reintroduce himself to her and make her fall in love with him all over again every day, he makes the decision to stay. He tells her he wants to have sex.

50%-75%: Stage IV – Complications and Higher Stakes

  • As a result of passing Point of No Return, the conflict heightens and the H/h has a lot to lose. The goal becomes difficult to achieve.
  • As the conflict continues to build, the H/h sees their goal in reach, but at the end of this stage suffer a major setback called the Black Moment.

ACT III (75% – 100%)

75%: Turning Point 4 – Black Moment

  • Black Moment is when the H/h confronts their fears and what they desire most is taken away.
  • They are stripped of their flaws, but they see the truth and accept to move on.
75 Minutes into the movie:
When Henry discovers that her condition is permanent, he is willing to give up his dream to study walrus and take care of Lucy (note: he rejects his no-strings-attached flaw accepting commitment).
Lucy over hears him telling this to her doctor, and then she convinces him to breaks up with her.
He returns to the aquarium, fixes his boat, and decides to leave for Alaska.

75%-90%: Stage V – Final Push

  • In this stage, the H/h must face the biggest obstacle;
  • Conflict is overwhelming;
  • The pace is accelerated;
  • Everything works against the H/h until they reach the Climax.

90%: Turning Point #5 – Climax

  • They must face the biggest obstacle of their journey.
  • The H/h must determine THEIR OWN FATE SEPERATELY
  • Outer motivation must be resolved.
90 Minutes into the Movie:
Henry returns to island. He finds Lucy teaching art (She has obtained her external goal).
She asks him “Why do I dream about you?” (She remembers him).
He asks her to marry him – she says yes. He gets girl.
He becomes self-accepting, genuine, and benevolent.

90%-100%: Stage VI – New Life

  • The H/h objective is resolved.
  • The H/h gets their internal and external goal (if you’re writing a happily-ever-after HEA)
  • But because the H/h has changed, the resolution of the H/h goal is not exactly as they originally expected.
90 Minutes into Movie:
Together they journey to Alaska, where he studies walrus and she creates a memory book (art).

Try applying this method to other movies—it’s fun!

Now open a book and search for the turning points, or better yet, create a story of your own using the Three Act Structure.

Leave me a comment. I’d love to hear from you!

Happy Writing, Cyndi Faria

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