The 6th edition of “The 15-Minute Movie Method” is now available with revised and new chapters although you can simply find all the new information in this blog. The book just makes it convenient to find everything in one place and is available as an ebook and as a print-on-demand book as well. The following is an excerpt from the 6th edition:
Chapter 14 — The Symbol of Hope Story Structure
Every story needs a hero and a villain because when the hero fights the villain, that creates conflict and conflict creates an interesting story. The trick is how do you get the hero and villain to fight in the first place?
In many stories, the hero and villain live completely different lives in vastly separate worlds. In “Star Wars,” Luke has no reason to fight Darth Vader (and Darth Vader has no reason to fight a farm boy like Luke). What always brings the hero and villain together is a person, object, or symbol that’s the Symbol of Hope.
The Symbol of Hope is a person, object, or symbol that meets the following criteria:
- The villain inadvertently sends the Symbol of Hope into the hero’s life
- The hero pursues the Symbol of Hope to fulfill an emotional goal
- The Symbol of Hope represents the most dangerous threat to the villain’s goal
Because the hero wants to save the Symbol of Hope but the villain wants to destroy it, that creates the conflict from beginning to the end between the hero and villain. Because both the hero and villain want the Symbol of Hope, only one can win in the final battle.
When you add a Symbol of Hope into any story, it forces the hero and villain into constant conflict. The basic Symbol of Hope structure looks like this:
- Act I – The villain inadvertently sends Symbol of Hope into the hero’s life.
- The hero chases the Symbol of Hope into a new, unfamiliar world
- Act IIa – Hero meets an ally who can help get the Symbol of Hope
- The hero achieves a False Victory related to the Symbol of Hope
- Act IIb – The villain threatens the Symbol of Hope, forcing the hero to save it
- The Symbol of Hope is almost lost for good
- Act III – The villain threatens to destroy the Symbol of Hope for good
- The hero defeats the villain by saving the Symbol of Hope
- Act I – The villain inadvertently sends Symbol of Hope into the hero’s life.
Because the Symbol of Hope plays a crucial role in every Act, it creates a unified struggle between the hero and villain from start to finish.
Creating the Symbol of Hope
To create the Symbol of Hope in your story, you can take one of two approaches:
- Find something that your hero desperately wants
- Find something that’s a huge threat to the villain’s goal
No matter what you choose for your story’s Symbol of Hope, it must be something that the hero and villain both want. The hero wants to save the Symbol of Hope while the villain wants to destroy it. Because the hero and villain have opposing goals, they must constantly fight each other until only one can emerge victorious in the end.
The Symbol of Hope must be something that both the hero and villain want. In “Star Wars,” Luke wants to save Princess Leia (the Symbol of Hope) but she represents a threat to Darth Vader’s goal of crushing the rebellion because Princess Leia knows the location of the rebel base and has the stolen Death Star plans. That’s why Darth Vader wants to kill her. Because of this conflict, Luke and Darth Vader must fight each other.
In “Die Hard,” the Symbol of Hope is the hero’s wife. The villain doesn’t care about the hero’s wife initially, but she represents a threat to his goal because the only way the hero can save his wife is by stopping the villain. If the villain can kill the hero’s wife, the hero will lose.
Exercise #59: Why Does the Hero Want to Save the Symbol of Hope and Why Does the Villain Wants to Destroy It?
Identify your hero’s emotional goal. The Symbol of Hope will be the key to the hero achieving this emotional goal.
In “Star Wars,” Luke’s emotional goal is to have an adventure. When he sees the hologram of Princess Leia, he suddenly sees a specific way he can achieve his emotional goal.
In “WALL-E,” WALL-E’s emotional goal is to find someone to love. When he meets Eve and sees how important the plant is to Eve, WALL-E sees a specific way to achieve his emotional goal.
In “Room,” the hero is trapped in a garden shed prison. Her emotional goal is to escape so when she sees a rat, she suddenly realizes if a rat can get into her prison, then she can get out. Now she’s motivated to find a way out of her prison.
Once you know why the hero wants the Symbol of Hope, you must then find a way to make this Symbol of Hope threaten the villain’s goal.
In “Star Wars,” Princess Leia threatens Darth Vader’s goal of crushing the rebellion.
In “WALL-E,” the plant threatens the villain’s goal of keeping the human race marooned in space forever.
In “Room,” the hero’s freedom threatens the villain’s goal of keeping her imprisoned.
Knowing your story’s Symbol of Hope, define why the hero wants to save it and why the villain wants to destroy it.
Using the Symbol of Hope to Structure Your Story
Once you clearly know exactly why the hero wants the Symbol of Hope and why the villain wants to destroy it, you can use this Symbol of Hope to define the rest of your story. The hero must constantly pursue this Symbol of Hope while the villain must constantly threaten to destroy it. This ongoing battle over the Symbol of Hope provides a story with a unified focus even if the setting or even the goals of the hero may change.
In “Legally Blonde,” Elle (the hero) desperately wants to get back with her ex-boyfriend who dumped her. Since her ex-boyfriend went to law school, Elle decides that she wants to go to law school too. Because law school represents her Symbol of Hope, losing that Symbol of Hope means she loses too.
(Notice that halfway through the story, the hero in “Legally Blonde” no longer pursues her ex-boyfriend any more. Yet she continues to pursue and protect her dream of law school and that keeps the second half of the story focused.)
The Symbol of Hope defines a story as follows:
- Act I
- (Midpoint) The villain inadvertently introduces the Symbol of Hope into the hero’s life
- (End) The hero takes a leap of faith and pursues the Symbol of Hope into a new, unfamiliar world
- Act IIa
- (Midpoint) The hero meets an ally who can help achieve the Symbol of Hope
- (End) The hero achieves a False Victory related to the Symbol of Hope
- Act IIb
- (Midpoint) The villain threatens the Symbol of Hope
- (End) The hero appears to have lost the Symbol of Hope for good
- Act III
- (Midpoint) Villain almost destroys the Symbol of Hope for good
- (End) The hero saves the Symbol of Hope and defeats the villain
- Act I
By using the Symbol of Hope as a guide, you can structure every Act towards the struggle between the hero and villain. This is how the Symbol of Hope defines “Legally Blonde”:
- Act I
- Elle decides to go to law school to win back her ex-boyfriend
- Elle leaves Southern California to attend Harvard law school
- Act IIa
- Finding law school difficult, Elle meets a friendly law professor and a hairdresser who help her
- Elle finally starts succeeding in law school and gets picked for an internship
- Act IIb
- Elle’s professor makes a pass at her so Elle quits her internship, putting her law school future in jeopardy
- Elle has no internship and looks like she might leave law school as well
- Act III
- Elle’s professor refuses to sponsor her so she can become the defendant’s lawyer
- Elle wins her first case and eventually graduates from law school
- Act I
Notice that Elle has a dream (get back with her ex-boyfriend) and her path to that dream is law school (her Symbol of Hope). Throughout the story, her Symbol of Hope (law school) is constantly in jeopardy. For Elle to win, she must stay in law school. If she should leave law school, she’ll lose.
“Legally Blonde” shows a hero pursuing a Symbol of Hope to achieve a dream. A second way to define a Symbol of Hope is to look for what threatens the villain’s goal. In these cases, the villain’s goal is often to maintain the status quo against change.
In “The Hunger Games,” the hero (Katniss) has a goal of protecting her little sister. Meanwhile, the villain’s goal is to maintain the status quo of keeping the people oppressed. When the hero’s little sister gets picked for the Hunger Games, the hero immediately volunteers in her place. The hero’s Symbol of Hope is sacrificing her own life to protect her little sister. From now on, the villain’s goal is to destroy this Symbol of Hope (Katniss’s life).
All conflict now revolves around Katniss’s life (the Symbol of Hope). This is how the Symbol of Hope defines “The Hunger Games”:
- Act I
- Katniss volunteers to take the place of her little sister
- Katniss leaves her district to head towards the capitol
- Act IIa
- Katniss meets Rue, a little girl from another district who is the same age as the hero’s little sister
- Katniss has gained the respect of everyone and is a favorite to win the Hunger Games
- Act IIb
- Katniss protects Rue
- Katniss is nearly killed trying to get medical supplies for Peeta
- Act III
- Katniss must battle the last tribute
- Katniss threatens suicide with Peeta to defeat the villain and help spark a rebellion
- Act I
Without the hero constantly struggling to protect the Symbol of Hope, a story will likely feel disjointed where one part of the story feels totally unrelated to another part of the story.
Exercise #60: Motivate the Hero in in Act I
In Act I, the Symbol of Hope motivates the hero to take action and jump into a new world. Act I must constantly prod the hero into pursuing the Symbol of Hope because the hero is often reluctant to act. What pushes the hero into action is a villain where this villain is anyone or anything that works against the hero’s dream.
In “Star Wars,” Luke sees Princess Leia’s hologram. However, he’s forced to act when R2D2 runs away. Now Luke’s motivated to follow R2D2 simply to avoid his uncle’s anger at letting R2D2 get away.
In “Room,” the hero sees a rat that represents freedom. However, she isn’t motivated to escape and regain her freedom until the villain tries to make friends with the hero’s son. Not wanting her son to develop friendly feelings towards the villain, the hero fights the villain.
In “The Hunger Games,” the hero immediately volunteers in her little sister’s place to save her. Although the hero is immediately motivated to act, she’s reluctant to leave her little sister until the villain forces her to go.
At the end of Act I, the hero willingly leaves the past and steps into a new, unfamiliar world. What motivates the hero to leap into a new world is the villain. The villain cuts off the hero’s past so the hero has no choice but to keep moving forward.
In “Star Wars,” this occurs when storm troopers wipe out Luke’s aunt and uncle.
In “Room,” this occurs when the villain cuts off the heat and power to the hero’s prison to punish her from keeping him away from the hero’s son.
In “The Hunger Games,” the villain’s soldiers force the hero to leave for the capitol.
After the Symbol of Hope intrudes into the hero’s life, define how the villain forces a reluctant hero to finally leave the past behind and step into another world.
Exercise #61: Give the Hero Success in Act IIa
In pursuit of the Symbol of Hope in Act IIa, the hero often meets an ally who helps the hero move closer to the Symbol of Hope. In “Star Wars,” Luke can’t deliver R2D2 to Princess Leia unless he can find a starship and pilot who can take him there, and that’s where Luke meets Hans, his ally.
In “WALL-E,” WALL-E is chasing Eve through the spaceship and runs into several allies. First, he meets a cleaning robot. Next he meets a man and woman who will eventually find love with each other through WALL-E’s actions. Although these allies don’t help WALL-E right away, they will play an important part in helping him in the future.
In “Legally Blonde,” the hero has just started attending law school in Act IIa but finds school far more difficult than she thought. Discouraged, the hero meets two allies. First, she meets a kindly law professor who tells her how to deal with each professor so she can pass her classes. Next, the hero meets a hairdresser who helps the hero regain her confidence.
After the hero meets one or more allies, then the hero can continue on towards achieving a False Victory related to the Symbol of Hope. This False Victory appears to be what the hero wants, but it ignores the villain.
In “Star Wars,” Luke finally gets to Princess Leia’s planet. That seems to solve all his problems, but he doesn’t know that Princess Leia’s planet has been blown up by Darth Vader.
In “WALL-E,” WALL-E finally reunites with Eve. Unfortunately, Eve still hasn’t fallen in love with WALL-E in return.
In “Room,” the hero finally escapes from her prison. Unfortunately, this still doesn’t solve her problems because the emotional trauma of her imprisonment will still threaten to wreck her life.
In “The Hunger Games,” the hero has finally gained respect from everyone as a contestant. Unfortunately, she must still fight in the Hunger Games and risk getting killed.
Define how the hero can achieve a False Victory related to the Symbol of Hope.
Exercise #62: Threaten the Symbol of Hope in Act IIb
After achieving a False Victory at the end of Act IIa, the villain threatens the hero’s Symbol of Hope. In “Avatar,” the hero is a paralyzed Marine and his Symbol of Hope is his avatar alien body.
So the first threat to the hero’s Symbol of Hope (his avatar alien body) occurs when the villain threatens to take this avatar body away from the hero. When the villain threatens the hero’s Symbol of Hope, it often reveals the villain’s true goal. In “Avatar,” the villain’s true goal is to kick the aliens out so the humans can dig up the precious minerals underneath.
In “WALL-E,” WALL-E has saved the plant (the Symbol of Hope), but then the villain reveals his true goal, which is to destroy the plant to keep the human race marooned in space forever. To achieve this goal, the villain not only dumps the plant in the trash, but also damages WALL-E and throws him and Eve in the trash as well.
In “Star Wars,” Luke has rescued Princess Leia from her prison cell but now storm troopers have appeared to keep them from reaching the Millennium Falcon. Luke must now run away and keep Princess Leia safe from the storm troopers.
After the villain threatens the hero’s Symbol of Hope, the villain finally appears to have killed the Symbol of Hope for good at the end of Act IIb.
In “Die Hard,” the villain first threatens the Symbol of Hope by nearly discovering the identity of the hero’s wife. Finally by the end of Act IIb, the villain has discovered the hero’s wife’s identity. Now he holds her hostage specifically to use against the hero.
In “WALL-E,” the villain has already damaged WALL-E. Now WALL-E, Eve, and the plant are about to be sucked out into space at the end of Act IIb.
In “Avatar,” the villain first threatened to take away the hero’s avatar body (the Symbol of Hope). At the end of Act IIb, the villain completes this threat by separating the hero from his avatar, putting the hero’s future in serious jeopardy.
In Act IIb, define how your villain threatens the hero’s Symbol of Hope and then nearly succeeds in completing that threat.
Exercise #63: Kill the Symbol of Hope in Act III
In Act III, the villain is on the verge of destroying the Symbol of Hope for good. That’s when the hero and villain fight over the Symbol of Hope for the final time where only one can win. The hero can only win by saving the Symbol of Hope. The villain can only win by destroying the Symbol of Hope.
In “Star Wars,” Darth Vader is nearing the rebel base to blow it up with the Death Star, which will kill Princess Leia (the Symbol of Hope).
In “Die Hard,” the villain holds a gun to the hero’s wife’s head. Even after she gets away, the villain threatens to pull the hero’s wife out the skyscraper window so she’ll fall to her death.
In “The Hunger Games,” the hero nearly gets killed by the last tribute. Even after she defeats him, the villain suddenly changes the rules so only one person can survive. Rather than kill Peeta, Katniss plots to have Peeta and herself swallow poison berries to deny the villain any victor in the Hunger Games. This defeats the villain by letting her and Peeta live.
Act III is where the villain and his or her forces try to wipe out the Symbol of Hope for good. After almost succeeding, the villain tries one last time but the hero defeats the villain and finally protects the Symbol of Hope forever.
Define how the villain can destroy the Symbol of Hope for good. Then define how the hero defeats the villain by saving the Symbol of Hope.
The struggle over the Symbol of Hope defines the structure of your entire story. By plotting the Symbol of Hope’s role, you can outline a basic structure for your story. The Symbol of Hope must be something the hero wants to save but the villain wants to destroy.
The hero wants to save the Symbol of Hope because it’s the path to achieving the hero’s dream. If the hero loses the Symbol of Hope, then the hero’s dream will be killed as well.
While the hero tries to save the Symbol of Hope, the villain actively tries to destroy it because the Symbol of Hope threatens the villains’ goal. The only way the villain can succeed is by killing the Symbol of Hope. This puts the villain in direct conflict with the hero, which is what drives the story’s entire conflict from start to finish.