Every story (and every sequence in a story) consists of four basic parts. Ignore these four parts and you risk creating a dull, flat, and boring story.
The four basic parts of any story are this:
- Attention Grabber — Grab the audience’s attention with an opener that rivets the audience to their seats and makes them wonder, “What happens next?”
- Explanation and Plan — Explain to the audience what’s going on and lay out a plan of action.
- Things Fall Apart — What can go wrong, will go wrong.
- Climax — The final result.
To see how this four-part story structure works, take the sequence from “Alien” where the crew has discovered that the alien has mysteriously fallen off their fellow crew member’s face, but they don’t know where it might be. This mystery alone rivets our attention and makes us want to know what happened.
The dying alien plops to the floor, scaring the living daylights out of the crew, but the crew member with the alien on his face now wakes up and feels normal, much to the relief of the rest of the crew. Things look positive and optimistic.
Now things start falling apart as the crew member starts gagging during lunch and writhes in agony. Suddenly, the alien bursts from his chest and takes off.
Finally, the crew realizes that they have to catch this alien creature and get it off the ship. The climax is related to the beginning. Initially the problem was how to get rid of the alien that’s clinging to the guy’s face. At the end the new problem is how to get rid of the alien but now the guy is dead.
This four-part story structure works because of the way audiences want to hear a story. Part 1 must grab the audience’s attention. If you can’t do that, then the rest of your story is irrelevant.
Part 2 must make us feel good as we think everything’s going to turn out okay. This appeals to our fantasies as we hope for the best, even if we know it’s not going to last.
Part 3 throws the story out of whack. It’s not what we as the audience really want to see, but in another sense, it is what we want to see. If the story just continued on a positive note from Part 2, then we’d get bored. Part 3 jolts us out of our complacency and lets us see things falling apart.
Part 4 brings us to a conclusion related to the beginning. Sometimes this conclusion is good, but often times it gradually leads the story towards more trouble for the hero of the story.
Let’s take a look at another story sequence to see this four-part structure in action. Take the sequence in “Star Wars” when Luke is heading towards the Death Star. Part 1 is where Luke starts his suicidal run. We’ve already seen others try and fail and we know the Death Star is getting into position to blow up the planet with Princess Leia on it, so time is running out. When Luke makes his run, this grabs our attention because this is the now or never moment. This part sets up the question, “Will Luke succeed?”
Part 2 is where everything goes as planned. Luke gets into the trench okay, he has his wingmen with him, and he’s heading straight towards the target. So far, so good. Naturally, we can’t let Luke succeed so easily because it would be boring, so Part 3 comes along with Darth Vader.
In Part 3, Darth Vader shows up. We’ve already seen him wipe out an earlier attack so we know what he’s capable of doing. Darth Vader quickly cripples one of Luke’s wingmen and destroys the other one. NOw he has Luke in his sights and is about to blow him up once and for all.
Part 4 shows up when Hans Solo returns and blows apart Darth Vader’s wingmen, thereby saving Luke. Now Luke can do what he set out to do in Part 1, which is to fire his photon torpedoes down the shaft and blow up the Death Star. Just as Luke flew into the trench to attack the Death Star, now Luke flies out of the trench to get away as it blows up.
Think of this four-part structure as a roller coaster. First you have to grab the audience’s attention, then you have to lull them into thinking everything’s going to be all right. Then disaster strikes and it looks like all is lost. Finally, the hero manages to survive with outside help and gets to complete his goal, which is what the hero set out to do in Part 1.
Every story and every story sequence follows this four-part structure, so keep this in mind as you’re writing your own screenplay. Omit one of these parts and your sequence will seem strangely flat, incomplete, or dull. If that happens, you may be missing one of these four parts of the story structure.