Take a two hour movie (120 minutes) and break it into eight 15-minute segments where each 15-minute segment tells an interesting story. If you study the first 15 minutes of any good movie, you can see how it tells a mini-story that movies the story forward.
In “Ex Machina,” a man discovers he’s the winner in a lottery at work. That kicks off the first 15-minute segment, which is where the villain initiates the story although we as the audience don’t know that. Although the hero won a lottery at work, we don’t know what this means, which keeps us in suspense. All we see is the hero on a helicopter flying over a wilderness and being dropped off in a field. All of this stems from the initial scene because if the hero didn’t win the lottery at work, he would never have been sent on his journey.
Now the end of this first 15-minute segment is where the hero meets a Symbol of Hope, which is something that links the hero to the villain that the villain introduces to the hero. This Symbol of Hope will be responsible for how the story ends. In “Ex Machina,” this ending 15-minute segment (actually slightly shorter since the movie is less than 120 minutes) is where the hero meets Ava, an artificially intelligent android. That’s when we learn the purpose of the lottery, which was to select someone to test whether the android is really intelligent or not.
In every 15-minute segment, you have movement in the story. In “Ex Machina,” this movement is where the hero goes from working in a company to being sent to find out the meaning of his lottery win, which is to test an android. This initial goal of testing the android drives the rest of the story.
Take a more familiar movie like “Star Wars” and you can see that the villain initiates the story (Darth Vader) by capturing Princess Leia. Now the villain introduces the hero to a Symbol of Hope (R2D2) indirectly when R2D2 lands on Luke\’s planet in search of Obi-wan. This first 15-minute segment ends when we finally learn of R2D2’s mission, when he accidentally reveals the hologram of Princess Leia.
Now this mystery drives the rest of the story as we gradually learn why Darth Vader was after Princess Leia and what Princess Leia hid in R2D2, which were the stolen Death Star plans.
When plotting your story, focus on these eight segments that represent roughly 15-minutes each:
- Segment 1 — The villain initiates the story. The villain introduces the hero to a Symbol of Hope.
- Segment 2 — The hero pursues this Symbol of Hope. This pursuit leads the hero into a Leap of Faith into a new world.
- Segment 3 — The hero learns the rules of this new world. The hero meets the villain.
- Segment 4 — The hero looks reaches an apparent dead end. The hero achieves a False Victory related to the Symbol of Hope.
- Segment 5 — The villain takes control of the situation. The hero (and the audience) learns of the villain’s goal.
- Segment 6 — The villain achieves most of his original goal. The hero hits Rock Bottom where all seems lost.
- Segment 7 — The hero enters the villain\’s lair to fight. The villain gets the upper hand.
- Segment 8 — The hero uses the mentor\’s lesson to fight back. The hero wins (or loses).
Your whole movie is a story, each Act is a story, each segment is a story, and each scene is a story. Every story consists of four parts:
- An initial, intriguing problem
- An apparent solution
- A failure that creates a bigger problem
- A cliffhanger conclusion
When defining each segment, you tell a story in these four parts. The first segment in “Ex Machine” looks like this:
- A hero wins a lottery at work
- Because of his win, the hero is sent to a strange location for an unknown reason as his prize
- The hero meets his eccentric boss who seems a bit intimidating
- The hero learns that his prize for winning the lottery is to test an android to see if it’s intelligent or not
Focus on one segment at a time and make sure each segment foreshadows the future ones to provide continuity. For example, in segment 1 of “Ex Machina,” the hero learns that his eccentric boss got really drunk by himself the night before and wasn’t at a party but by himself, which kinds of shocks him. Later his boss’s drinking will play a major role in the rest of the story.
Segment 1 of “Ex Machina” also foreshadows something more sinister. When the hero meets the android, he sees a broken glass wall but doesn’t know how this happened. Only later when he learns of his eccentric boss’s real past and goal does he learn how this glass got broken.
By foreshadowing, each segment helps provide a payoff in a later segment. Without foreshadowing, segments would appear like unrelated stories with no sense of continuity between them. With foreshadowing, each setup and payoff makes the overall story stronger.
Writing a script without planning the eight segments of your story is like having an idea for a house and jumping straight into laying bricks to make the walls without deciding how many bedrooms, bathrooms, and the overall size of the house you actually want. That’s the reason why writing a script too soon often bogs down with no sense of direction or how to keep moving. If you don’t have a plan, you’ll get stuck almost every time or at least a mediocre story.
Plot your story in eight segments. If you don’t know where your story is going at all times, you won’t know the best way to create suspense and foreshadowing, and that means writing a flat, dull, and ultimately mediocre screenplay.