Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Story Structure Basics - 13 Major Beats

[Revised 18 March 2015]

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Often when a producer or writer sends me a script to analyze it's because they sense that there's a problem with their story. Usually they're right, and the biggest offender is a lack of structure.

The problems reveal themselves in several ways. There may be three acts, but the protagonist doesn't have a physical goal that the audience can see and root for. Their protagonist may have a physical goal, but the turning points are not the result of the protagonist's moral decision or action. There may be turning points initiated by the protagonist but not for any singleness of moral purpose. In biographies the writers are often so taken by what they presume to be the moral virtues of their protagonist that they fail to include any serious conflict or an antagonist that forces the protagonist to change. The result of problems such as these is the lack of drama, weakened entertainment value, or no way for an audience to become emotionally engaged. 

Perhaps most difficult to obtain is an even emotional roller coaster effect throughout the story. Often critics and viewers complain about a slow second act, or a "sagging middle." The beat outline describe in this post can solve that problem. Each beat (13 or 20), when properly understood and applied, creates a regular roller coaster from front to back. Notice the wavy blue line in the graphic; this represents one ideal of how an audience's emotions can be manipulated by understanding the placement of the 13 (20) beats. Each peak and valley of the line corresponds to a beat. If the beats are missing or misplaced, the blue line sags or plateaus.

What causes the ups and downs is whether or not the protagonist is portrayed as achieving his goal or not. Is he or she being successful or endangered? That emotion is tied directly to the           assimilation of the Moral Premise in the life of the protagonist—will the protag. learn the truth of the moral premise and achieve his or her goal or not. All of this happens in the minds and hearts of your audience on a subliminal level, but it should never be subliminal to the creator, you.

What follows is a generic summary of what I might write in a story report to such writers or producers, as I explain the basics of what's missing in their story. I usually start off by describing that what follows is a natural law of story telling. It's not my opinion, but the consequence of untold experiments of storytelling over the ages. If you want a story to connect, then you can't ignore this stuff, at least not story foundations. [See subsection Story Development Steps/Story Foundations]

First Entertain

There's an adage in Hollywood, and similar industries, that says: "FIRST ENTERTAIN."

Successful entertainment, to me, is defined as emotionally engaging audiences so that they're willing to buy a ticket, or dispose of some of their free time. 

For me, the term "entertain" has an emotional element and a training element. (I'm sure this is NOT the word's etymology, but humor me.) Successful entertainment always emotionally engages your audience, AND it passes onto them some true moral message usually hidden in the subtext.  (For the girl on the right that truth is "Never, ever believe your mom when she says, 'Trust me, you'll love it.'")

So, we have something that is emotional (E) and we have a training element (TRAIN). That gives us E-TRAIN. Also there is the idea that both the emotional and the training enter into the person's consciousness and become INGRAINED (which rhymes with ENTER-TAIN-ED -- like I said, humor me). The key word there is ENTER.

Successful entertainment, therefore, ENTERS into a person EMOTIONALLY and TRAINS them about something true. First ENTERTAIN as you EMOTIONALLY TRAIN.

Okay, Okay, so TRAIN and TAIN are not the same. Let me  s t r e t c h  it for ya. TAIN rhymes with STAIN, and good entertainment leaves behind a stain.... no, no, you potty head... a stain in your brain—a memory. (Geez! I can't take you anywhere.) Another way to understand this is that ENTER-TAIN is a lot like INNER-TRAIN. That is, something is "entertaining" because it has the ability to train our memories. The reverse is also true: if we want to train our memories there must be some emotional involvement, some entertainment. Memories do not "stick" without adrenalin burning some synapses together in our brain.  

The long of this short post is that successful communication has three components. It must ENTERTAIN, and for it to do that it must be MORALLY TRUE (at a psychological, spiritual, or subliminal level), and it must EMOTIONALLY ENGAGE (it must be be a visceral simulation of life).

That is what stories do better than a thrill ride at an amusement park, and what stories do almost as good as real life experiences (life's best teacher), but with out the physical danger.

(And you can believe the little girl above would feel a lot safer at the movies. Real life does have its drawbacks, especially when your mother is C R A Z Y!)

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Screenplay Checklist & the 4M's of the Moral Premise


Came across this very good checklist for screenwriters at Danny Santos' blog.  Here's the first of eight sections. All good. The only problem is you have to have some sense of what the answers SHOULD be.  Check out the whole list at his blog, HERE.


  • Does the script make yourself ask “what comes next”, is it a page turner?
  • Are the stakes realistic for the setting?
  • Is the journey compelling?
  • Does the protag make a decision that leads to an action?


Danny has also condensed the essence of the moral premise to four words. I like this. You can read the full post (it's short) HERE:
It takes 4 “M’s” to work out the moral premise, they are Morality, Malignance, Maturation and Misfortune.  The first two are the choices the protagonist has to choose between [that] ... lead to the other 2 “M’s”, Maturation and Misfortune, these are the effects of the choice.
But he doesn't mention the book or my site.  : (>

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Moral Premise Statement LIST

I have created a single page that lists all the moral premise statements used in the book and my workshop slide presentation. In the weeks to come, I'll be adding statements from his blog, of which I think there are more than in the book and workshop. That page is here:

The page is the idea of William Fitzpatrick who created and manages WikiScreenplay, a site "committed to supporting the enterprise of quality storytelling - particularly through the medium of film." More importantly, however, is William's offer to create a place at WikiScreenplay where anyone can contribute MPS for the stories that they have analyzed. When that site gets up and working its link will replace this sentence.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Abby Sunderland's Story Leads to Inspiration

In the wake of Abby Sunderland's rescue in the South Pacific, at the cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars to Austrailia and at least one fishing vessel, some have compalined that the rescue cost too much money. Others have written that letting a 16-year old sail around the world by herself was foolish and should have been prevented. And still others suggest that the parents and/or sponsors should be punished  and forced to pay for the rescue.

But there is a more significant reason we do not hesitate to rescue people like Abby Sunderland.

Abby's quest is an inspiration and a salute to our efforts to overcome the difficulty of the human condition. Her attempt to sail around the world (even with the rescue) rouses in our spirit a desire to conquer what seems otherwise impossible. While thousands of teenagers are destroying their lives with drugs, violence, sex, and more mediocre journeys of self-indulgence, Abby Sunderland rises above the roar of the headlines with a truly remarkable accomplishment... even in her rescue.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Karate (Kung Fu) Kid

In August of 2008 I was asked to review the then current screenplay for the KARATE KID V, in which Jaden Smith would star. At the time I didn't understand how an a boy Jaden's age and size could pull off a movie with so many physical demands. But based on the TRAILERS on the movie's YouTube page, there is no doubt that Jaden Smith is not your typical 11-year old. On both an emotional and physical level he appears to carry the role with a weight that redefines his otherwise small stature. He is, after all, the off spring of Will and Jada Smith and the star quality DNA is clearly present. I will write more about the film's moral premise after I see it a few times.  Check it out this weekend and let me know what you think.

UPDATE: Just got back from a sold out screening in Novi, MI. This movie is better than the original. It's 140 minutes (with credits) and it has you for the whole ride. Jaden's performance is remarkable. The moral premise is about "respect"... more later. Highly recommended. Loved it.

My moral premise analysis of Karate Kid (2010) is HERE.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Romance Writers & The Moral Premise

A few blogs ago I wrote about Myra Johnson and her "gang" of romance writers. Well, I didn't know they were a gang then, just a few I thought. Then she asked  me to be a guest blogger for Seekerville, the blog site for The Seekers, "a group of fifteen unpublished and newly published Christian writers."

The first writer on their bio list, Mary Connealy, "writes romantic comedy with cowboys."  She's married to a Nebraska rancher. Yep, they sure do sound like a posse out hunting for .... romance. This should be fun, a few are sending me romance novels they've published, for me to read before I write for them.

Myra was kind enough to send along a couple of links to Seekerville Blog posts that referenced The Moral Premise. One was a Guest Post by their agent Natasha Kern where she shares her critical understanding of novel story structure and elements. It's a very enlightening read, and about mid way she has some nice things to say about TMP.

Aside from TMP, however, she gives stellar advice to all writers about lessons that need repeatedly to be learned.