The 5th edition of “The 15-Minute Movie Method” is now available with updated information. Much of the updated information can be freely found on this blog so if you don’t want to buy the updated edition, simply browse through the past blogs. The book simply packages the latest blog posts in a convenient book form.
The new, updated version of the book contains the following chapters:
1 It All Begins With an Idea
2 Theme: What Do You Want to Say?
3 Creating a Logline
4 The Four-Part Story Structure
5 The Magic Middle
6 Starting the Story (Act I)
7 Pursuing a Dream (Act IIa)
8 Losing the Dream (Act IIb)
9 The Final Battle (Act III)
10 Structuring a Story in Four Acts
11 The Hero’s Change
12 Defining Your Villain
13 How the Villain Defines the Story
14 The Mentor and the Ally
15 Plotting Multiple Storylines
16 The Eight Part Story Structure
17 Start with the Ending (Segment 8)
18 Creating the Opening (Segment 1)
19 Forcing the Hero to Act (Segment 2)
20 Exploring a New World (Segment 3)
21 Achieving a False Victory (Segment 4)
22 The Villain Takes Charge (Segment 5)
23 The Hero Hits Rock Bottom (Segment 6)
24 The Hero Strikes Back (Segment 7)
25 The Final Battle (Segment 8)
26 Wrapping Up the Subplots
27 The Structure of Different Genres
28 Studying Bad Movies
29 Your Next Step
Appendix A: Additional Resources
Appendix B: List of Exercises
Appendix C: Plotting the Action in Four Acts
Here’s a sample of Chapter 5:
Chapter 5 — The Magic Middle
If the hero starts the story in a negative state, he or she ends the story in a positive state. The key to every story is getting the hero from the initial negative state in the beginning to the final positive state in the end. That’s the purpose of the middle.
Remember that every story needs contrast so if the beginning starts with the hero in a negative state, the middle must follow up with the hero in a positive state. But the middle can’t leave the hero in a positive state in both the middle and the end. Therefore you need two middle parts to complete the four part story structure:
- Act I – Negative state for hero (Problem)
- Act IIa – Positive state for hero (Solution)
- Act IIb – Negative state for hero (Problem)
- Act III – Positive state for hero (Solution)
The purpose of Act IIa is to take the hero from a negative state and end in a high positive state where everything looks like the hero has achieved his or her goal and life is wonderful (but it’s really not).
In “Die Hard,” John McClane has tried to contact the authorities and alert them about the terrorists. First, he tried pulling the fire alarm, but the terrorists told the fire department it was a false alarm. Next, he tried calling the police on a radio but the police don’t believe him.
They send a squad car to the skyscraper and the police officer is just about to leave when John McClane finally succeeds in alerting the authorities by dumping a dead terrorist on the police car. At this point, John McClane thinks his problems are over and hopes that the police will take care of the terrorists for him.
In “Star Wars,” Luke finally gets off his boring planet in the Millennium Falcon, but Darth Vader is still looking for the stolen Death Star plans hidden inside R2D2.
In “Little Miss Sunshine,” the hero’s family has stopped for the night at a cheap motel on the way to the beauty pageant, and the hero’s goal of competing in the beauty pageant looks like it may finally be realized.
In Act I, the hero is stuck in a negative state. Act IIa gradually takes the hero from this negative state to a high point. Where Act IIa gives us hope, Act IIb suddenly intrudes and drags the hero down from this high, positive state to the lowest possible negative state.
In “Die Hard,” John McClane has just contacted the authorities and thinks his problems are over. Then Act IIb begins and the FBI shows up, questioning whether John McClane is helping or not. That’s when John McClane watches helplessly as the SWAT team walks into an ambush.
John McClane’s problems continue when he accidentally runs into Hans and doesn’t realize it. When Hans realizes John’s running around barefoot, he shoots the glass to cut up John’s feet. Now John seems worse off than ever pulling glass shards out of his bleeding bare feet while isolated in a restroom.
In “Star Wars” just after Luke gets off his boring planet, they arrive at their destination only to find that it’s gone. Then the Death Star captures them and life suddenly looks a lot worse.
In “Little Miss Sunshine,” the hero has spent the night in a motel on her way to the beauty pageant. Suddenly, the grandfather dies. To make matters worse, the hospital won’t let them leave the body or take it with them. To avoid missing the beauty pageant, they smuggle the grandfather’s body out of the hospital and hide it in their car.
A police officer stops them but they manage to keep the grandfather’s body hidden. When they finally get to the beauty pageant, they’re late and the woman won’t let the hero sign up for the pageant. Life looks bleak for the hero.
At the end of Act IIb, the hero’s pursuit of the initial goal must look completely in doubt.
In “Die Hard,” John McClane’s original goal of getting back with his wife looks in doubt because the terrorists have the detonators and John’s crippled with bleeding feet.
In “Star Wars,” Luke’s original goal of having an adventure looks in doubt when Obi-wan is killed before his eyes.
In “Little Miss Sunshine,” the hero’s goal of competing in a beauty pageant looks in doubt when the beauty pageant administrator won’t let her sign up because she’s a few minutes late.
Remember how important contrast can be? At the end of Act IIa, life looks wonderful. By the end of Act IIb, life suddenly looks completely hopeless.
To make your story fit with the beginning and end, the two middle parts of your story must link with the initial goal of the hero.
Linking All Four Parts of Your Story
In the beginning, your hero has a dream. In the end, your hero achieves (or fails to achieve) that dream. The beginning and end tell a condensed story on what happens.
- Act I – Hero has a dream
- Act III – Hero finally achieves that dream
The purpose of the middle is to explain how the hero goes from having a dream to achieving that dream. Act IIa brings the hero closer to the initial dream while Act IIb drives the hero as far away as possible from that initial dream.
So the structure of the two middle parts must link to the beginning and end like this:
- Act I – Hero has a dream
- Act IIa – Hero appears to have achieved that dream
- Act IIb – Hero appears to have no hope of achieving that dream
- Act III – Hero finally achieve the initial dream
In “The Martian,” the four parts look like this:
- Act I – Hero wants to get back to Earth
- Act IIa – Hero grows potatoes so he’ll have enough food to last until the next Mars mission can land and rescue him
- Act IIb – The potatoes get destroyed and a rocket delivering more food blows up at launch
- Act III – Hero finally gets back to Earth
In “Die Hard,” the four parts look like this:
- Act I – Hero wants to get back with his wife
- Act IIa – Hero contacts the authorities so they can deal with the terrorists and once the terrorists are gone, the hero can get back with his wife
- Act IIb – Hero isolated in rest room with bleeding feet as the terrorists plan their getaway by blowing up the roof with all the hostages (including the hero’s wife) on it
- Act III – Hero finally gets back with his wife
In “Star Wars,” the four parts look like this:
- Act I – Hero wants to get off his boring planet and have an adventure
- Act IIa – Hero gets off his boring planet and heads towards Princess Leia’s planet
- Act IIb – Hero witnesses Darth Vader killing Obi-wan
- Act III – Hero blows up the Death Star and has the biggest adventure of his life
Exercise #18: Define Your Hero’s Dream
In the beginning of your story, your hero is stuck in a dead end life. Despite this, your hero still has a dream. This dream defines the actions of your entire story.
The hero’s dream can be anything, but whatever that dream might be will define the setting where the story takes place and the obstacles the hero must overcome.
In romantic comedies, the dream is always to find true love. The difference between romantic comedies lies on the obstacles stopping the hero from finding true love.
In “Sleepless in Seattle,” the main obstacle is the distance between the hero and his true love. In “The Proposal,” the main obstacle is that the hero needs to pretend to be in love so she can stay in America.
In action thrillers, the hero’s dream may have nothing to do with the action in every scene. The purpose of the action is simply to help the hero achieve his or her dream. In “Die Hard,” the hero just wants to get back with his wife. To do this, he has to rescue her from terrorists.
Yet in another action thriller like “Enter the Dragon,” the hero’s goal is to find out if a man running a martial arts tournament is involved in illegal activities. To do this, the hero must fight various martial artists.
In comedies, the hero’s dream defines the environment where the story takes place. In the original “Ghostbusters,” the hero wants to fall in love with a woman whose apartment happens to be a portal to another dimension. To win this woman’s affections, the hero has to defeat a supernatural monster.
In “Miss Congeniality,” the tomboy hero needs to learn how to become a woman. To do this, she has to go undercover at a beauty pageant.
If you change the hero’s dream, you literally change the story. There’s no right or wrong dream for your hero, but whatever dream your hero wants will define your story. In your own story, define your hero’s dream.
The crucial element of any dream is that the hero can win only if the villain loses. Conversely if the villain wins, the hero will fail to achieve his or her dream.
In “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” the hero wants to find a physical goal, the Ark of the Covenant. Either the hero gets the Ark of the covenant or the Nazis get it.
In “Kung Fu Panda,” the hero wants to become a kung fu master. Either the hero demonstrates he’s a kung fu master by defeating another kung fu master, or he gets beaten up.
In “Jaws, the hero wants to redeem himself by killing a great white shark that has killed several people. Either the hero kills the shark or the shark kills him.
In your own story, define your hero’s dream. Whatever dream you choose, make sure that dream can be understood by everyone.
Luke’s dream in “Star Wars” is to have an adventure, which is a dream everyone can understand. Likewise, the hero’s dream in romantic comedies is to find true love. Even a dream of achieving a physical goal like the Ark of the Covenant in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” is clearly understood.
The more relatable the hero’s dream is, the more likely your story will appeal to a wide audience. The more emotional the dream, the more appealing it will be. A dream to find true love, get revenge, or get rich is understandable by everyone.
What is your hero’s dream?
What makes your hero’s dream appealing to everyone?
Defining the False Victory
The hero’s dream defines Act I. The pursuit of this dream culminates in a high point that seems to have solved the hero’s dream, but really doesn’t. As a result, the end of Act IIa creates a False Victory that all of the hero’s problems are magically over.
In “Star Wars” after Luke leaves his planet to head towards Princess Leia’s planet, Luke’s problems appear to be over – except Darth Vader still exists.
In “The Martian,” the potato crop seems to give the hero a chance to survive – except he’s still stuck on Mars.
In “Die Hard,” John McClane finally alerts the authorities of the terrorists by dumping a dead terrorist on a police car so the problem of wiping out the terrorists appears to be over – except the FBI and SWAT team are actually helpless and incompetent.
In “WALL-E,” WALL-E appears to have finally been reunited with Eve again – except he’s still marooned in space away from Earth.
In “10 Cloverfield Lane,” the hero steals the key from the villain and finally reaches the front door to escape the underground shelter – except the air outside the shelter really is poisonous because a diseased woman is outside the door, screaming to get in.
In “The Shawshank Redemption,” the hero wins the favor of the prison warden, gets his own private cell, and has the prison guards beat up the inmates who were raping him. Now the hero’s life appears much better – except he’s still trapped in prison.
The False Victory of Act IIa must be directly related to the hero’s initial dream defined in Act I. In any movie, the False Victory occurs at roughly the halfway point. In a 120-minute movie, the False Victory occurs at approximately 60 minutes.
(In the old days when movies had intermissions, the theater would turn up the lights and stop the movie right after the False Victory and just at the beginning of Act IIb where life starts falling apart. This would create a cliffhanger effect where audiences would be anxious to get back to their seats to see what would happen next.)
Exercise #19: Define the False Victory
The False Victory is when your hero appears to achieve his or her dream and life looks like there will be no more problems from now on. In romantic comedies, the False Victory is where the hero appears to have found his true love.
In “Sleepless in Seattle,” the hero spots his true love in an airport and is mesmerized by her. Then she happens to spy on him with his sister at the beach. Fearful, his true love manages to say hello to him before running away.
In action thrillers, the False Victory brings the hero closer to defeating or escaping from the villain. In “Aliens,” the False Victory occurs when the android (called Bishop) volunteers to crawl through pipes to reach a transmitter and bring a drop ship down to rescue the hero and everyone else stranded on the planet.
In “Terminator 2,” the hero has saved John and Sarah Connor from the villain (the evil Terminator) and has taken them to their safe house where Sarah has stockpiled an arsenal that looks powerful enough to help them defend and possibly even defeat the villain.
In “Kill Bill, Volume 1,” a flashback shows the hero comatose in a hospital with an assassin, disguised as a nurse, coming to kill her. The False Victory occurs when the villain calls off the assassination because he considers it dishonorable to kill the hero when she can’t defend herself.
Knowing your hero’s dream in Act I, what False Victory moment can you create in Act IIa that gives the hero hope of achieving his or her initial goal?
Defining the Rock Bottom Moment
In Act IIa, the hero achieves a major milestone that seems to be the initial goal, but really isn’t. Immediately following the optimism of Act IIa, Act IIb dashes the hero’s hopes to the point where the hero is actually worse off than before.
The rock bottom moment is when the hero appears on the verge of defeat and the villain appears on the cusp of victory.
In “Finding Nemo,” Marlin’s rock bottom moment occurs when he’s trapped inside the stomach of a whale. Now his dream of rescuing his son appears gone for good.
In “Harold and Maude,” Harold’s dream of finding a reason to live appears gone for good when he learns that Maude, the woman he wants to marry, has just taken pills to commit suicide.
In “The Matrix,” a traitor kills several people and the leader of the human resistance movement gets captured. The villain plans to torture this leader to get the access codes to find and wipe out the last of the human freedom fighters.
In “Back to the Future,” the hero’s on the verge of disappearing out of existence if his parents don’t kiss at the school dance. To make matters worse, not only is the hero’s mother trying to kiss him instead, but the villain wants to kiss the hero’s mother too, which provides two obstacles to getting the father to kiss her.
Exercise #20: Define the Rock Bottom Moment
The rock bottom moment occurs at the end of Act IIb and includes these elements:
- The hero appears helpless, isolated and alone
- The hero often loses a mentor or is separated from the mentor
- The hero admits his or her faults
- The villain appears on the verge of achieving his or her initial goal
In “Die Hard,” the rock bottom moment looks like this:
- John McClane’s bare feet are bleeding from the glass shards the villain created by shooting the windows out as he’s isolated in a restroom
- John McClane’s mentor, the black police officer, talks to him through the radio but can’t help him
- John McClane admits that he’s been a jerk to his wife
- Hans (the villain) has not only retrieved the detonators, but has finally opened the vault to steal the corporate bonds he’s been after since the beginning of the story
In “Star Wars,” the rock bottom moment looks like this:
- Luke watches helplessly as Darth Vader kills Obi-wan
- Obi-wan dies
- Luke feels like he didn’t do enough to possibly save Obi-wan
- Darth Vader has put a tracking device on the Millennium Falcon so it will lead him to the rebel base
In “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the rock bottom moment looks like this:
- George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) is suicidal and about to jump into the river so his life insurance will give his family money
- George feels abandoned by everyone
- George believes life would have been better if he had never been born
- Mr. Potter has George’s money and is on the verge of bankrupting George’s Savings and Loan so he can take over the town
In your own story, create a moment when all appears lost for your hero and all appears well for your villain for the end of Act IIb.
How can your hero feel or be isolated and alone?
How can your hero admit his or her faults?
How can your villain be on the verge of victory?
Laying Out the Four Parts of Your Story
Your theme defines the beginning and the end of your story. In the beginning, your hero is stuck in a negative state that represents the opposite of the theme. By the end, your hero has reached a positive state the represents the theme.
To show how the hero changes, you need two middle parts that connect the beginning to the end. The first middle part moves the hero towards achieving an initial dream. The second middle part pushes the hero’s initial dream far out of reach.
Now it’s time to put all four parts together by writing two sentences that briefly describes the change within each Act as follows:
- Act I – The hero has a dream. The hero willingly leaps into a new world.
- Act IIa – The hero learns to survive in this new world. The hero nearly achieve the initial dream (False Victory).
- Act IIb – The villain threatens the hero. The hero looks like he or she will never achieve the initial dream (Rock bottom).
- Act III – The hero confronts the villain. The hero achieves (or fails to achieve) the initial dream.
Don’t worry about the details of your story just yet. Just sketch out the skeleton of your story. For a romantic comedy, the four story parts look like this:
- Act I – The hero wants to find true love. The hero gets a chance to find true love.
- Act IIa – The hero gets to know his or her true love. The hero almost finds his or her true love (False Victory).
- Act IIb – Outside forces keep the hero away from his or her true love. The hero looks like he or she will never find true love (Rock bottom).
- Act III – The hero nearly loses his or her true love. The hero finally finds true love.
In “Sleepless in Seattle,” the four story parts look like this:
- Act I – The hero has lost his wife and yearns for love. The hero’s son gets the hero on a radio talk show to bring him to the attention of his true love in another city.
- Act IIa – The hero starts dating a woman the hero’s son dislikes. The hero’s true love nearly meets him in Seattle.
- Act IIb – The hero’s dating another woman more and the hero’s true love is about to marry someone else. The hero and his true love are in completely different cities.
- Act III – The hero follows his son to New York. The hero meets his true love.
In romances where the goal is to find true love, the biggest enemy usually isn’t a separate person but the hero’s own flaws and the person who the hero loves.
For most other types of stories, there’s usually a single villain or series of villains who oppose the hero. In those types of stories, the four story parts look like this:
- Act I – The hero wants to achieve a goal. The hero gets a chance to achieve that goal.
- Act IIa – The hero learns a new world. The hero almost achieves his or her initial goal (False Victory).
- Act IIb – The villain threatens the hero. The hero looks like he or she will never achieve his or her initial goal (Rock bottom).
- Act III – The hero confronts the villain. The hero finally achieves the initial goal (or something better).
The basic structure of “Star Wars” looks like this:
- Act I – A young kid on another planet longs for adventure. One day, he gets his chance to leave.
- Act IIa – The young kid is excited to be on his way to another planet. Suddenly, he’s captured by the villain.
- Act IIb – The young kid manages to escape from the villain. Then he joins the rebels planning to attack the villain.
- Act III – The rebel force attacks the villain but gets wiped out. Now the young kid attacks the villain, defeats him, and saves the day.
Notice that the details may be missing, but the basic plot becomes clearer. Once you know your plot, you can easily add the details later. However if you focus on the details too soon, you risk creating a solid plot. If you don’t know where your story is going, you risk writing a screenplay and then hitting a dead end, wondering what should happen next.
The four basic Acts of “Die Hard” might look like this:
- Act I – A man wants to get back with his wife. Before he can get back with his wife, terrorists invade, forcing the man to hide.
- Act IIa – The man tries to contact the police. Finally, he succeeds.
- Act IIb – The police fail to attack the terrorists. When the terrorists come for the man, he narrowly escapes.
- Act III – The terrorists plan to escape. The hero defeats all the terrorists and finally gets back with his wife.
When there’s a single villain, the hero and the villain must battle each other in all four story parts. The villain often doesn’t physically battle the hero until the end, but the forces of the villain keep attacking the hero, such as Darth Vader’s storm troopers in “Star Wars” that try to keep Luke from escaping in the Millennium Falcon.
In “Django Unchained,” the basic villain is the slave society, but this gets personified in the form of several people. First there’s a plantation owner who tries to get revenge on Django, but Django shoots him instead. Second, there’s another plantation owner who owns Django’s wife. Third, there’s the loyal black slave of the plantation owner who provides the final villain representing the slave society the hero is fighting against. In “Django Unchained.” the four story parts look like this:
- Act I – The hero is a slave, separated from his wife. The hero gets rescued by a bounty hunter.
- Act IIa – The hero helps the bounty hunter find some men. The bounty hunter agrees to help the hero find his wife.
- Act IIb – The villain owns the hero’s wife and treats her cruelly. The villain discovers the hero’s plan and after a shootout, captures the hero and sends him to work in a mine.
- Act III – The hero goes back to the plantation. The hero defeats the villain and reunites with his wife.
Exercise #21: Define the Four Basic Parts of Your Story
Once you know your theme, you know that your hero begins in a negative state that represents the opposite of that theme. You also know that your hero must end in a positive state that represents the theme. Now you just have to fill in the two middle parts that take your hero from a negative state in the beginning to a positive state in the end.
The False Victory occurs when the hero achieves a major milestone to his initial goal.
The rock bottom moment occurs when the villain is on the verge of success and the hero’s goal seems further away than ever.
In “E.T.,” the hero’s goal is to get E.T. back home and in the end, he finally succeeds, so the two middle parts of “E.T.” are:
- Elliot (the hero) helps E.T. build a transmitter that can send a signal to E.T.’s spaceship so they’ll come rescue him
- Elliot and E.T. appear to be dying when the government captures them
Putting together the four basic Acts in “E.T.” looks like this:
- Act I – The hero feels isolated and alone and wants a friend. The hero finds E.T. hiding in their tool shed.
- Act IIa – The hero makes friends with E.T. The hero helps E.T. send a signal to his spaceship.
- Act IIb – E.T. and the hero get sick. The government agents capture E.T.
- Act III – E.T. helps the hero escape from the government agents. The hero has finally found a friend in E.T. as E.T. goes back home.
In “Back to the Future,” the hero’s goal is to get back to his own time so the two middle parts look like this:
- Marty (the hero) finds Doc and convinces him that he’s really from the future so Doc can help him get back to his own time
- Biff (the villain) threatens to wreck Marty’s plan by forcing himself on Marty’s mother
Putting together the four basic Acts in “Back to the Future” looks like this:
- Act I – The hero lacks confidence and lives with a loser family. The hero gets transported back in time.
- Act IIa – The hero meets own dad and mom from the past. The hero convinces Doc to help him get back to his own time.
- Act IIb – The hero plans to get his mom and dad to kiss at the school dance. The villain almost wrecks the hero’s plan by driving away the hero’s dad and forcing himself on the hero’s mom.
- Act III – The hero plays guitar to get his mom and dad to kiss at the school dance. The hero gets back to his own time again.
Define the two middle parts of your story:
- What False Victory can your hero achieve that seems to achieve the initial goal but really doesn’t?
- What rock bottom moment can wreck your hero’s chance of reaching his or her goal and bring the villain on the verge of success?
Write two sentences to describe the basic story of each of the four Acts that make up your story.
The middle of the story acts as a bridge between the beginning and the end. Once you know the beginning, you automatically know how the story ends because beginnings are the opposite of endings.
The two middle parts involve a False Victory and a rock bottom moment. The False Victory occurs when the hero seems to achieve an initial goal, but problems still remain unresolved. The rock bottom moment occurs when the villain is on the verge of success while the hero is often isolated and pushed as far away as possible from achieving his or her goal.
By defining the beginning and end, you know that the first middle part must lead your hero to a False Victory. Then the second middle part must lead your hero to a rock bottom moment of despair when it looks like the villain will triumph after all.
Just by sketching out the four basic parts of your story, you’ll have a much stronger structure for how your story begins, progresses, and ends.