“Monsters vs. Aliens” isn’t great, but it’s not bad either. Despite its flaws, it still follows the eight segment, mini-movie structure that forms the backbone of today’s screenwriting.
Look at every movie as a series of eight distinct mini-movies. For a 120 minute movie, that divides into eight 15-minute segments, but it’s really the segments to consider and not the actual length. In “Monsters vs. Aliens,” the eight segments are easy to spot.
Act I — Exposition
Segment 1: An inciting incident that represents the villain starts off the movie and the first segment. Then we meet Susan in her dead-end life, about to marry a self-centered man. Here we see the hint of the future when Derrick, her boyfriend, cancels their Paris honeymoon so he can audition for a TV broadcasting job in Fresno. Segment 1 always ends with a hint of the future, introduces the hero, and defines the hero’s main problem in a dead-end life. The cliff hanger at the end of segment 1 usually defines the central question of the hero’s dilemma. In this case, the question is, “Will Susan ever discover how powerful she really is?”
Segment 2: Every segment begins with an interseting, eye-catching grabber scene, and segment 2 starts with the meteorite hitting Susan. Next, Susan tries to get married and grows to an unnatural size. The military rushes in, tranquilizes her, and hauls her away. When she blacks out, we’re left with a cliff hanging wondering, “What will happen next?” Every segment ends with a cliff hanger.
Act IIa — Positive Rising Action
Segment 3: Susan wakes up in a strange prison, meets the other monsters in the facility, and learns where she is and what will happen to her. Segment 3 is where the hero almost always meets allies. This segment ends with Susan crying and being locked in her cell. Once again, we’re left wondering, “What will happen next?”
Usually segment 3 ends with a positive note with the hero gaining control in the new world, but “Monsters vs. Aliens” ends on a down note.
Segment 4: Susan has adapted to her imprisonment but allows the mad Dr. Cockroach to experiment on her to bring her back to her normal size. Meanwhile, the villain has sent a robot to retrieve the substance in the meteor that made Susan gigantic. The robot arrives, causes havoc, and the general suggests to the President that the monsters fight the alien. The monsters are set free and battle the alien. Surprisingly, they defeat the robot and this segment ends with a False Victory as the government now gives the monsters their freedom.
Act IIb — Negative Rising Action
Segment 5: Susan and the monsters arrive in Modesto and try to fit in. Susan rushes to Derrick and discovers that he no longer wants her. The monsters try to party with Susan’s parents, but discover that they don’t fit in either. Dejected, everyone leaves and hangs out around a gas station, wondering what will happen next.
Segment 6: The villain captures Susan into his spaceship and retrieves the substance that caused her to grow. She’s now her normal size. Meanwhile, the other monsters work with the general to land on the spaceship and look for Susan. They rescue Susan and try to escape, but Susan gets cut off from the rest of the monsters and has to face the villain alone in her normal size. The cliff hanger in segment 6 usually always ends with the hero isolated and lost.
Act III — Climax
Segment 7: Susan confronts the villain by herself and battles him to a standstill. Unable to save her friends as herself, she manages to have the meteorite substance fall on her again, causing her to grow back to her gigantic size. Now she can rescue her friends. This cliff hanger leaves us wondering, “Will she succeed?”
Segment 8: Susan rushes back and saves her friends and manages to help them escape the spaceship when it finally self-destructs. The other monster, a flying grub, now comes to rescue them before the spaceship blows up and they all land safely back to the ground. Derrick wishes Susan well and asks for an interview to boost his career. Susan smacks him in the air and the monsters are then assigned to fight another threat. In the end, Susan discovers she can stand for herself and stick by her monster friends, answering the cliff hanger question posed at the end of segment 1.
Animated films tend to be shorter than 120 minutes, so the eight distinct segments tend to be shorter in length. Remember, each segment creates a distinct mini-movie with its own inciting incident, exposition, rising action, and climax. The point is to divide your screenplay into eight mini-movies and you’ll find that the flow of your story is much easier than trying to create everything from scratch.