This lesson covers... how to tell a good story.
By the end you should... understand how almost every Hollywood film is structured.
Time 3 minutes

Here’s the structure that most American films use. Learning this may change the way you watch films (it did for me). It’s a structure as old as time and storytellers have been using it for thousands of years. Joseph Campbell called it the monomyth or Hero’s Journey. I’ll refer to as narrative structure. Its basic elements are:

  1. Status Quo
  2. Inciting Incident/Status Quo Change
  3. Raise the stakes
  4. Moment of Truth
  5. Outcome/New Status Quo

Status Quo

Life as is. The hero, our main character, is living his/her normal life.

Inciting Incident/Status Quo Change

One day, something happens. A boy discovers he is a wizard (Harry Potter). A girl falls down a rabbit hole (Alice in Wonderland). A murder happens (almost every mystery). You get the idea. In short, the hero is called to adventure.

Raising the Stakes

Things get more dangerous and important.

  • In small dramas, the events become more important inwardly, to our main characters’ personal lives, threatening to change them forever.
  • In action movies, events become more important outwardly, escalating until not only our characters’ lives are threatened, but the country, the world, then (in big budget films) Civilization as We Know It.
  • In some films, the character’s inward journey (what s/he must learn) and outward journey (what s/he must do) are intertwined. See: Star Wars, Avatar, The Dark Knight.

Moment of Truth

The climax. The moment of highest tension. The character must make the Ultimate Choice or fight the Ultimate Battle.

  • Will Beauty kiss the Beast and save his life? (Beauty and the Beast)
  • Will Neo realize—and accept—his role as The One before it’s too late? (The Matrix)
  • Will Frodo destroy the Ring and save Middle Earth? (Lord of the Rings)

Outcome/New Status Quo

The result.

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