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Story 101, The Basics
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Story 101, The Basics


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Basic story structure for film and a few other handy items.

Basic story structure for film and a few other handy items.

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  • 1. Story 101 The Basics of Structure S
  • 2. A Story is Not a Story Unless You Have Something to Say S Story is not PLOT, Character or Setting. Those are element IN a story. Story is a message, a point an idea or belief. It is something that the author is trying to communicate to their audience. If you do not have anything to say, then don’t bother with a story. S More importantly, the best stories are the ones where the author ACTUALLY BELIEVES what it is they are sharing with the audience. The TRUTH they are trying to reveal to others. IF the author does not BELIEVE what it is that they are communicating, the story will feel false, and ultimately fall flat.
  • 3. Premise S The MEANING or IDEA behind any good story is called the Premise. The Premise is the guiding principle, the thing that needs to be explored throughout, comparing, contrasting, poking and prodding and ultimately searching and tearing off any falsehood leaving only the BARE NAKED TRUTH. The premise could also be a question the storyteller is asking the audience. Akira Kurosawa asked a question is his stories; “Why are people not kinder to one another?” Examples: S Every man dies but not every man really lives. S There was a king who died of grief. S True love conquers even death. S There is no place like home.
  • 4. Story Structure Outline
  • 5. The 3 Rules of Story! Most Important Rules in Storytelling: S Orient the Viewer S Advance the Plot S Orient the Viewer
  • 6. The Hook S Introduces a character an activity or a puzzle. Used literally to HOOK the audience into watching the story.
  • 7. Act 1 S The story is broken into 3 acts. Act one is considered the Set Up. It sets up the major elements of the story, primarily the characters, their world they live in and what is happening. It should be immediate. Typically 10 minutes of a feature film.
  • 8. Plot S The Plot is what is HAPPENEING in the story. It is NOT what the story is about. S Act 1 Introduces the Plot. It does not reveal ALL the information, just enough to get the story in motion.
  • 9. Character (Protagonist) S The Protagonist is typically introduced in their world, doing every day normal things. We need to learn about their normal life, enough to identify with them. Typically the PLOT is THURST upon them and they initially reject any call to action. They, like the rest of the audience, never want to upset the norm.
  • 10. Setting S This is where the story happens. Again, we don’t see the entire setting, but enough to allow the audience to be oriented to the world the story happens in. The Protagonist’s inner character can be revealed by a good Setting
  • 11. Catalyst S The Catalyst is an event in the story that LAUNCHES the story into motion, regardless if the Protagonist is ready for it or not. A decision is made, and it forces a decision by the Protagonist. Regardless the story is forced onward!
  • 12. st 1 Turning Point S The 1st Turning Point needs to do these things; take the audience in an unexpected direction and raise the over all stakes of the protagonist. Stakes could be loss of security, like a job or a home. It could be any kind of change the character fears. In an action movie it could be personal survival. The 1st Turning Point also launches the story into Act 2.
  • 13. Act 2 S The second and largest Act in the Three Act Structure is typically divided into two sections. The first half usually is the Protagonist trying to maintain the Normal World. They do everything in their power to avoid ANY major change. This typically causes more problems and pushes them deeper and deeper into danger and chaos. S The second section, after the Mid Point Scene, finds the Protagonist in UNCHARTED territory. They are forced to do things they have never done, take risks with higher and higher stakes and find themselves with only one possible choice, the one they have been avoiding their entire lives. S Act 2 typically introduces new characters. It also allows for the subplots to add dimension to the story allowing the character to become more relatable and more likable. S Rule: The helpers can HELP but they should NEVER solve the major problem the Protagonist has. That must and should only be done by the Protagonist.
  • 14. Introducing Conflict S Conflict is the major driving force of every story. The conflict MUST be CLEAR and CONCRETE. It must also be VISULIZED. There are 5 sources of conflict. A good story will utilize ALL 5 but there will be ONE central CONFLICT GENERATOR. If that source is removed the entire story falls apart.
  • 15. Man Vs. Man S This is the most common form of conflict. It puts two human beings at odds with one another, mainly with two Mutually Exclusive Goals. Like a Football game, there cannot be two winners. Only one can succeed. This conflict must be brought to it’s highest point before it can be resolved, if it is the main source of the conflict in the story.
  • 16. Man Vs. Nature S This puts the Protagonist at odds with the natural environment. They are in an unfamiliar place, one that they need to adapt too to survive. It can also put them at odds with the creatures and people who are already in balance with the natural surroundings. A story revolving around a natural disaster or one where the character is plunged into an environment they are not familiar with is typical. This conflict must be driven to its maximum height before resolution if it is the main source of conflict in the story.
  • 17. Man Vs. Time S Time is constantly moving forward and is a great way to drive your story forward. This conflict places a specific time on a major event that the character is trying with all their might to avoid or prevent. You must try to AVOID the CLICHÉ of the ticking clock. Be creative. Remove all clocks from your story and find another way to show the audience time. Again if this is the central source of conflict it must not be resolved until the LAST POSSIBLE SECOND!
  • 18. Man Vs. Himself S This is a difficult source of conflict for our visual medium of film. ALL of the conflict is internal, happening INSIDE the MIND of the Protagonist them selves. THEY are the source of their OWN CONFLICT! Any time conflict is presented to the character it is because of something they did, said, or failed to do. This conflict MUST be EXTERNALIZED and VISUALIZED for the audience to SEE it. Everyone has self doubts, but this conflict is much more than that. Megalomania, and other mental disorders may be the cause. Phobias and other fears may be the cause. Regardless ONLY the Protagonist can OVERCOME the problem and resolve the conflict. If this is the main source of the conflict in your story it must not be resolved until it reaches the maximum height!
  • 19. Man Vs. God (or Cosmic Conflict) S Like Man Vs. Himself this conflict appears to be INTERNAL. God typically does not manifest in the Protagonists vision to be confronted directly. The conflict comes from the fact that the Protagonist is not in a peaceful relationship with their creator. This unbalance in their life leads to disharmony and in in a good story, chaos and disorder in all aspects of their lives. This type of conflict may also be used when the character is dealing with a force of unimaginable power. Like in many fantasy or Horror films this force is unseen or uses clever disguises to hide its presence from all but the protagonist causing chaos in their lives. Again if this is the main cause of conflict in the story it must not be resolved until it has reached its maximum height.
  • 20. Antagonist S The Antagonist in the story is really a tool used to VISUALIZE conflict for the audience. Sometimes it is a character that is actually causing the conflict, or a character that is antagonistic because the Protagonist is out of balance with one or all of the conflicts listed above. Whatever it is it should be used to REVEAL THNGS ABOUT the protagonist. The Main job of the Antagonist, and any supporting character for that matter, is to get the Protagonist into a place or state of mind that they must discover something about themselves. This ideally will also force the audience to discover something about them selves as they witness the unraveling of the tale. In some cases they are the opposite of the Protagonist, a reflection of what they could be like if they make the wrong choices. Or they represent a faceless, uncaring, unstoppable thing that comes from the deepest nightmares of the Protagonist’s mind. Whatever the case, they must be INTERESTING.
  • 21. The Reversal S Every story needs twists and turns. As soon as the Audience can PREDICT what happens next, they get board. SIMPLE reversals can be just that, twists in the plot and the direction of the story. However STORY is also about EMOTION. A GOOD REVERSAL is one that changes the EMOTIONAL Direction of the story as well. Character’s and the audience’s MOOD changes as the Protagonist goes through the emotional rollercoaster of the story. Jubilation becomes humiliation, Anger becomes deep passion, and so on, keeping the audience entertained and thrilled through out the story.
  • 22. Barriers S Barriers are just that, obstacles put in the Protagonists way to prevent them from the FAST and EASY ROAD. If the story can be resolved by calling the police, disconnect the phone. If the monster can be stopped by running it over, loose the car keys. What ever it is it should drive the Protagonist to the hardest, most dangerous, least likely to succeed option that they have been avoiding all along.
  • 23. Complication S The Complication is TYPICALLY TIED to the PROTAGONIST. The Complication is some kind of problem that ONLY the protagonist has and ONLY the Protagonist can overcome. For example, fear of the water, fear of heights, lacking a needed skill or anything that might prevent them from solving their problems. Complications are a great way to raise the stakes during the Climax of the story and throughout the second act. One of my favorite complications is John McClane’s lack of Shoes in Die Hard.
  • 24. The Mid Point Scene S The Mid Point Scene is a crucial and important part in any story. The Protagonist is thrown into a world that is new and foreign and dangerous territory. The setting in most cases literally changes. In Jaws Brody leaves the island and is on the ocean for the rest of the film. The Mid Point must also achieve these things; the stakes must be raised HIGHER and the story must YET AGAIN take the audience in a direction the DID NOT EXPECT. Sometimes a new Helper Character is introduced to help navigate the strange new world and reveal more about the Protagonist.
  • 25. Between the Mid Point and the nd Turning Point 2 S Typically the second half of the 2nd Act is and ever increasing path of danger. Each one worse than the other, each close call closer and closer. The Protagonist is being lead further and further out onto the branch as it is slowly being cut behind them. S Here again the story will utilize the Reversal, Barrier and Complication to ratchet the conflict higher and higher until the story reached the 2nd Turning Point.
  • 26. nd 2 Turning Point S The Second Turning Point puts the Protagonist at the point of NO RETURN. The Stakes are raised even higher almost to the point of Climax and the Protagonist is typically stripped of any helpers. All their friends are gone or dead, their trusty weapon is out of reach and all they have left is what they have not yet discovered inside themselves. The story has yet again shifted in a direction the audience DID NOT EXPECT and the Climax is immanent!
  • 27. The Climax S All of the EMOTION and CONFLICT of the story have been brought to the HIGHEST possible point. The climax will lead to the RESOLUTION of the story and the conflict will be OVER. The Climax should be a balance od surprise and satisfaction for the audience, avoiding at all cost the deus ex machina or god out of the machine. The audience must never feel cheated! The Protagonist’s success or failure must be wholly their own. This is where they discover that thing deep down inside themselves that they did not know was there and pull it out to face their greatest challenge. Only this type of Climax is worthy of a story. Then and only then can there be resolution.
  • 28. The Resolution S The resolution is the shortest part of the story, used only to tie up loose ends or PAY OFF B Plot foreshadowing. The audience is tired; the story is over, say what is only necessary and fade to black.
  • 29. Creating the Characters S Stories are ABOUT people even if the person is a talking dog. Stories are used as lessons for life a sort of owner’s manual. The reason people get into a story is mostly because of a character that is INTERESTING and RELATABLE. You must have both. If the audience cannot RELATE to a character they will not CARE when something happens to them. S Some characters are Archetypes based on millennia of characters real and fictitious. But all characters should be human even if they are a talking dog. The Audience MUST ALWAYS be in mind when creating a good Protagonist or Antagonist. The story teller themselves MUST LOVE these characters, care for them and ultimately be willing to do the most terrible things imaginable to them for the sake of the story. S Think of all the memorable characters in your life, real or not and ask yourself what makes them INTERESTING and RELATABLE. Once you know that then you can go down the path of creating your own.
  • 30. Main Character Characterization
  • 31. Foreshadowing or Plant and Payoff S The Plant and Payoff is one of the most important tool in story. It prevents the deus ex machina and it allows for SUSPENSE to happen. Here is the HARD RULE, break this one and your just flat out wrong. S What ever is planted MUST be paid off. What ever is Paid off MUST be planted. For example; if there is a shotgun hanging over the fireplace, it MUST go OFF before the story is over. Otherwise it is NOT needed! Take it out!
  • 32. Suspense S Suspense is NOT surprise. Surprise is a bomb suddenly going off and then the audience has a few seconds of shock. Suspense is different. Suspense is SHOWING the audience that a bomb is about to go off in five minutes, then having the Protagonist talk about Baseball. The audience is squirming in their seats, as the bomb gets closer and closer to going off. The Protagonist does nothing but continues with the pointless discussion. The scene builds and builds until the audience is literally yelling at the screen, “GET OUT OF THERE!” but the Protagonist can not here them. Then BOOM! S HOWEVER, NO ONE MUST GET HURT! If you actually hurt the protagonist the audience will be VERY angry with you. You must take them in a direction they did not suspect and it must be PLANTED!
  • 33. Motif S A motif is a reoccurring image, rhythm or sound that helps deepen and dimensionalize the premise of the story. It could be music, or sounds from the setting or even a prop that is used in various ways throughout the story.
  • 34. B Plots / Characters S B Plots or Subplots are used to REVEAL things about the Protagonist that the audience would not be witness too in the Main Plot. For instance, a B Plot may include a love interest for the Protagonist. This allows the audience to see a side of the character that they would not normally see while he confronts the evil monster attacking the castle. B Plots also allow for SUSPENSE. B Characters can be engaged on a separate adventure and unleash even more obstacles in the Protagonists path. B characters are more interesting if they are or seem to be more powerful, experienced and wiser then the Protagonist. If the strongest and the wisest people in the Protagonist world cannot over come the obstacle, how is it possible for the Protagonist to do so? S In essence these plots and characters should enhance the story by STRICTLY sticking to the three rules of Storytelling; Orienting the viewer, Advancing the Plot and Revealing Character(Protagonist).