The Hollywood movie plot outline structure

There’s no single, right way to structure a movie plot. However, Hollywood executives have gotten addicted to certain format. So if you want to impress them, you’re best strategy is to give them what they want. Many successful script writers have reverse engineered the formula by breaking down existing movies, and a few of them have been gracious enough to share their findings. I’ve studied them all and have been frustrated by each of them. They all leave key bits of information out, which makes them feel like pieces of a treasure map. So I laid them all out, side by side and compared them. Then I studied popular movies to fill in the gaps. The result is the outline below. This outline isn’t meant to be followed 100%. This is just a baseline. As you fill in the key points, you can flesh out the spaces between them and even push the plot forward or backward a little bit.

I’ll explain a little bit about the outline. The A-story is the hero’s journey. This is the hero’s external quest to achieve the goal that’s most important to him, such as: saving the world, saving his home, getting rich, paying off a debt, escaping a dangerous place, getting back home, etc. The B-story is the love story.

A beat is a series of events that usually fit in one scene, that is one minute long, which equals one page of a screenplay. For every beat that’s longer than one minute, another beat must be equally shorter. The sequence of a beat goes like this: Set up a situation with a goal. Put a conflict between the hero (or lover in the B-story) and their goal. The hero reacts to the conflict and tries to overcome it. This produces an outcome. Typically, the hero meets a person. They have tense conversation or a fight, which the hero either succeeds or fails to overcome. If the hero succeeds, something good happens to him in the next beat. If he fails, something bad happens to him. If he wins in one of the major conflict beats, his success tends to be a false victory. He wins the battle, but it backfires and sets him back worse than he was before, which raises the stakes and lowers his hope of succeeding at his ultimate goal.

The beat chains on the right are suggestions for how you can fill in the blank beats between major conflicts and points of no return. You don’t have to follow them exactly, but a hero’s actions will only be believable and relatable if you show or state the hero’s goal, the conditions of achieving the goal, and his plan to fulfill the conditions. You also need to show or state his motivation. This means the stakes. If he succeeds, something good him will happen that’s important to him. If he fails, something bad will happen. In other words, either his wildest dream or worst nightmare will come true.

As the hero works towards fulfilling the conditions of his quest, he will constantly run into setbacks that will change the conditions of completing his goal. Then he’ll have to identify the new conditions, debate going forward and make a new plan. Each time he encounters a setback, the stakes get raised and his chances of success get lower until all hope is lost. The hero’s successes are rarely luck. They happen when the hero uses his signature strength. His failures are rarely luck as well. They happen when the hero uses his signature flaw. So the plot is driven more by the hero’s flaws than his strengths. If he was perfect, there would be no story to tell. The hero resolves his signature flaw through the course of the B-story. It’s only by accomplishing that goal, which he probably didn’t even know he had, can he accomplish his ultimate goal in the A-story.

There’s more to be said about movie plots than I can summarize in a single blog post. So I’m guilty of giving you pieces of the treasure map, just like the writers I complained about, but I’m working tirelessly to bring you the rest of the puzzle pieces. So stay tuned.

Click here to view a large version of the outline in your browser.

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