Defining the Plot

When you start off with an idea for a screenplay, you probably have no story. An idea is a starting point but isn’t a complete story, so the trick is to take an idea and expand it into a story. The simplest way to do that is to think of the four parts of any story:

  • Act I – What starts the conflict between the hero and villain?
  • Act IIa – What does the hero do to resolve this conflict?
  • Act IIb – How does the villain intensify the conflict?
  • Act III – Who wins in the end?

The villain always starts the conflict in any story. After the villain initiates the conflict, the villain also intrudes into the hero’s world and forces the hero to react.

Now the hero tries to resolve the conflict, but it only partially succeeds. That means the conflict is still there but the hero seems to have made it better.

Suddenly, the villain finds a way to intensify the conflict. This usually occurs when the villain reveals something new that we didn’t know about before.

The hero typically defeats the villain.

Let’s see how this simple four-part story structure works in popular movies. In “Star Wars,” Darth Vader starts the conflict by trying to retrieve the stolen Death Star plans that wind up in Luke’s possession. Then Luke tries to resolve this conflict by taking these stolen Death Star plans to Princess Leia’s planet. Darth Vader intensifies the conflict by blowing up Princess Leia’s planet, capturing Luke, and threatening to execute Princess Leia. Finally, Luke finally delivers the stolen Death Star plans to Princess Leia and using this information, helps blow up the Death Star.

In “Legally Blonde,” the conflict begins when Elle’s boyfriend dumps her instead of proposing to her. She tries to resolve this conflict by going to law school where her ex-boyfriend is at, but finds out he’s engaged to a new woman. Her ex-boyfriend’s fiancé now makes her life miserable and a law professor tries to treat her as a sex object while ignoring her brains. Finally, Elle realizes she doesn’t need her ex-boyfriend, she can stand up to her law professor, and she can win a court case at the same time.

In “Zootopia,” the conflict begins when Judy the bunny wants to become a police officer but everyone laughs at her. Determines to prove she can become a police officer, she moves to the big city and enters the police academy, becoming a police officer. Then she discovers a plot to turn carnivores crazy so everyone will want to keep carnivores separate from herbivores, which puts her own life at risk when the villain discovers she knows the plan. Finally, Judy defeats the villain and aves the city so carnivores and herbivores can live peacefully after all.

Take your story idea and create a rough four-part structure. You can always change the details later but just by doing this simple exercise, you’ll immediately see how you can turn even the roughest idea into a story.

(What happens if you just have a good idea but no story? You won’t have a movie. Remember, good ideas, even if true, are no substitute for structured story telling. If you want to see an example of an idea that isn’t fleshed out into a full story, just visit this site where somebody is trying to raise funds to make a movie about the Battle of Midway. This guy may be passionate about his idea, but unfortunately, he lacks a compelling story to tell along with the historical facts. As a result, he has no story to tell no matter how much historical research he may have done. Without a story, all he has is a good idea and enough research to make  documentary, but not a story.)

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