“Argo” is a fictionalized version of real events that took place when the Canadian embassy helped six Americans escape during the Iranian revolution. The actual events weren’t as suspenseful, but that would have made for a boring movie. That’s why movies based on actual events often need to break away from facts and tell a more compelling story. Another movie that broke away from actual events is “Munich,” which is about the Israeli retaliation against the men who planned the Munich Olympic massacre.
If you watch “Argo,” you’ll find that every 15 minutes, a complete mini-story has gone by with a beginning, a middle, and an ending. The beginning starts a goal and the ending finishes that goal. The middle shows progress and setbacks like this:
- Beginning goal stated
- Progress towards goal
- Goal achieved (or not)
The first 15 minutes of “Argo” is all about the Iranian revolution. First the Iranians protest outside the American embassy. Then they storm the gates. They face setbacks when six Americans escape. In the end, they achieve their goal of getting into the embassy.
The second 15 minutes introduces the hero and both his personal problem (he’s separated from his son) and his external problem in that he works for the CIA and is called in to come up with a plan to get the six Americans out. This first mini-story introduces the problem (get the six Americans out) and ends with a resolution where the hero shoots down all other plans but has no plans of his own.
This ends Act I. Now the third 15 minutes begins with the hero’s plan. First he gets an idea from watching “Battle for the Planet of the Apes.” What if the CIA gets the six Americans out by pretending they’re a film crew? The CIA thinks his idea is whacky, his co-workers don’t think it will work, but in the end they admit their other ideas won’t work, so they approve his idea dubbed The Hollywood Option. The hero meets some Hollywood people, put together a fake production company, and print phony news in a Hollywood newspaper. At the end of this mini-story, the hero has his cover story.
The fourth 15 minutes is hero heads to Iran. First he leaves the United States. He learns what obstacles he’ll face in getting the people out, then he plans for that by getting fake documents together. Finally, he meets the six Americans he’s supposed to get out. This ends Act IIa.
The fifth 15 minutes is where the hero helps the six Americans learn their cover story of being a film crew. They must risk going out in the open to scout a location. Naturally the six Americans are terrified, but they survive and this helps “prove” they’re a real film crew.
The sixth 15 minutes is where the operation gets called off. Suddenly the hero has to decide whether to leave the six Americans to their fate or help them anyway. In the end, he decides to help them anyway, despite the official cancellation of the operation. This ends Act IIb.
The seventh 15 minutes begins when the hero leaves with the six Americans for the airport. They pass numerous checkpoints and the end of this mini-story occurs when their plane finally takes off and they’re out of Iranian territory.
The eight 15 minutes begins when the hero and the six Americans get home. All the stories involving the characters gets resolved and the hero finally goes to visit his son.
The structure of “Argo” looks like this:
- Segment 1 – Angry Iranians protest outside the US embassy. They take it over.
- Segment 2 – The hero is called to the CIA to find a plan to get them out. He shoots down all other plans but has none of his own.<
- Segment 3 – The hero gets an idea to fake a film crew. The CIA approves his idea.
- Segment 4 – The hero leaves America. He finally meets the six Americans and gives them their cover story.
- Segment 5 – The hero and the six Americans have to prove their cover story by scouting a location in a busy market. They survive.
- Segment 6 – The hero learns the operation has been called off. The hero decides to go through with it anyway.
- Segment 7 – The hero and the six Americans leave the embassy. They get on a plane and leave Iran.
- Segment 8 – The hero and the six Americans come home. The hero goes to his own home with his son.
When writing your own screenplay, think in broad strokes and identify the main stories for your eight segments. If you rush right in and start writing your screenplay, you’ll likely have no structure and run out of steam about halfway through your story. Then you’ll get stuck and frustrated. By taking the time to plan ahead and think, you can plot your story and focus on the major goals of each segment. If defining eight segments seems too intimidating, start with the four Acts like this in “Argo”:
- Act I – Iranians storm the embassy. The CIA needs to get them out.
- Act IIa – The hero creates a Hollywood film crew plan. The hero gets to Iran and tells the six Americans their cover story.
- Act IIb – The hero and the six Americans have to prove their cover story. They’re ready.
- Act III – The hero and the six Americans leave the embassy. They finally get home.
By always thinking in terms of telling mini-stories, you’ll create a more interesting story that constantly pulls the audience along so they can find out what will happen next. If you fail to tell an interesting mini-story, nobody will be interested in your story, even if it gets better near the end.
Watch “Argo” and time the breaks approximately every 15 minutes. Then watch your favorite two-hour movie and time the 15 minutes breaks to see if they tell a complete mini-story that works to tell a much larger story. These 15 minutes segments aren’t a secret, but they can be hidden in a great story that you may not notice this 15-minute structure. When you see this 15-minute structure, you’ll realize that it’s just the basis for telling good stories. Now it’s up to you to write the actual screenplay knowing your story and mini-stories ahead of time so your story constantly keeps moving forward.