Story Structure: 8 Essentials for Outlining Your Novel or Script | Rebecca Loomis | Skillshare

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Story Structure: 8 Essentials for Outlining Your Novel or Script

teacher avatar Rebecca Loomis, Compulsive creative with too many hobbies

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

    • 1.

      Class Overview


    • 2.

      Intro to Act I: The Setup


    • 3.

      Act I - Point #1: The Hook


    • 4.

      Act I - Point #2: Upsetting the Status Quo


    • 5.

      Act I - Point #3: Doorway of No Return


    • 6.

      Intro to Act II: Rising Conflict


    • 7.

      Act II - Point #4: The Initial Plan


    • 8.

      Act II - Point #5: Midpoint & Mirror Moment


    • 9.

      Act II - Point #6: All Hope is Lost


    • 10.

      Act III - Point #7: Transformation


    • 11.

      Act III - Point #8: Climax & Resolution


    • 12.



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About This Class

There's no one-size-fits-all approach to writing story, but having nowhere to start can be intimidating. Whether you're a panster or a plotter, novelist or screenwriter, these eight essential story points will help you define the heart of your story and build your conflict towards the most emotionally satisfying climax.

Each lesson will go over one of the eight essential story points, putting it into context within a three-act structure and giving you tips on how to utilize it for your unique story. You will also have the opportunity to see how these points have been used in successful stories of varying genres. Your class project will be an outline of your own story, using these eight points.

No story, however, is 100% plot-driven. Character must be taken into account as well! For the best results, pair this course with my other writing class,  Making A Hero: Protagonist Development for Film & Fiction.

Meet Your Teacher

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Rebecca Loomis

Compulsive creative with too many hobbies


Rebecca is a freelance photographer, graphic designer and author, with experience in marketing, videography, and more. When she crawls out of her introverted Hobbit-hole, Rebecca enjoys adventuring the great outdoors, social dancing and making delicious food!

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1. Class Overview: Hi, my name is Beca, and today I'll be teaching you a simple way to structure your story for success. Nothing is more terrifying to the writer than a blank page, especially after writing a chapter to justifying that, you've got nowhere to go next. I found myself there a few, too many years into the process. That's about when I decided to use what I learned from film and fiction to assemble the perfect outline. Some people swear by the Panster method, flying by the seat of their pants when they write. The plotter is on the other hand, plan everything down to the most minute detail. My approaches somewhere in-between. Using an outline composed of eight essentials within a traditional three-act structure, you can stand track as you sink into the moneyness of subplot inside characteristics. All the while leaving yourself plenty of wiggle room. Should you choose to switch gears along the way. Whether you are writing a novel or a script. Nailing these essentials as a tried and proven method to giving your audience or readers an emotionally satisfying adventure. In this class, I will go over each essential story point and present examples of them used in a variety of genres. Your class project will be to compile your own outline using these points. It can be as basic or in-depth as you please. I hope this piers is helpful to you as it was for me and I look forward to seeing what you come up with. 2. Intro to Act I: The Setup: We'll start by creating your project. Locate the outline template under the Class Projects tab. Copy Acts 1-3, and creating a new project, paste them into the text body. From here, you can continually add your own notes, scenes, descriptions, and so on. Now for the outline itself. The beginner structure with Act 1 in which we set the stage and the stakes. You'll want to establish the world your hero lives in, who your hero is, the status quo of his life, his greatest need for change, his deepest desire, what's standing between him and it, and what horrible thing will happen to him if he doesn't attain his goal. Act 1 also depicts the incident which sets your story and motion and cuts your hero off from going back to the way things were. As you can probably tell, there will be a lot of character development you'll have to do before or during the outlining process. If you still don't know the answers to questions like who is your hero? what does he want? and what is his greatest need for change?, you might want to take a quick break and head over to my class on protagonists development, which can be found in the description of this course. 3. Act I - Point #1: The Hook: The opening of your story should grab the reader with something visual, fresh, weird or mysterious, something they've never seen before, that begs questions they do not yet know the answer to. The first few pages of your book or script are incredibly important. Not only will they be the difference between someone reading your book or putting it back on the library shelf but they will also set up your entire story. We sit through a two hour movie because the first few minutes of it give us a promise. They tell us what to expect and why we should care. A helicopter chasing is nothing we haven't seen before but one in which the pilot is afraid of heights, that's a different story. Here are a few things you'll want to establish in your first few scenes. Who is your hero? Your readers will get to know your protagonist more and more throughout the story but you want to give them a solid idea of what type of person this is from the start. Give them the key elements they'll absolutely need to know before moving forward. That will add weight to the incident that sets the story in motion. What is his greatest need for change? By the end of your story, your main character should grow into a better version of himself. Unchanging characters are flat and uninteresting. What is one major flaw that is hindering your hero from reaching his full potential? What is his greatest desire? This desire may not be conscious but it will be the driving force that moves your hero through to the end of the story. In most cases, he will achieve his desire in the end but it might not look the same as he anticipated. What will happen if he doesn't achieve his desire? Set the stakes. What is being threatened? These stakes could be physical, emotional, mental or all the above. Don't go easy on your character. The higher the stakes, the higher the emotional impact. One of my favorite quotes says, "As authors, it is our duty to create lovable, enticing characters and do horrible, evil things to them." What is standing in his way? This will define your antagonist and can be anything from an over-the-top evil supervillain to the cruel, untamed wilderness. Many times, what's standing in your hero's way is himself and overcoming his flaw is the only way to have his deepest desire. What is the status quo of his life? What's your hero's daily routine, which is about to be rudely interrupted by the incredible story you write? What makes this day special? In contrast, what makes the day you start your story any different than your hero's regular routine? Why begin now? Like I said before, make it weird, make it fresh, make it irresistible. Now we've spent some time talking about setting the stage for potential character growth but it's important you don't forget to make your character likable as well. This can be as simple as what Blake Snyder calls the "save the cat" moment, in which your hero goes out of his way to do something good for someone else. Your hero may have a clearly defined flaw and even argue against his own transformation, but make sure your reader has some reason to think him redeemable. Now for our movie examples. In the classic Jurassic Park, we're shown something we've never seen before or hadn't ever seen before the film came out. We asked questions like, what's in the box that just ate that guy? The stakes are clearly physical. Then we meet our protagonist in his status quo, digging up dinosaur bones. We discovered Dr. Alan Grant's passion to learn about dinosaurs, his love for Ellie Sattler, his assistant and a strong aversion to children, a flaw that might stand between him and Ellie. The Incredibles. Here's something new. A world of superheroes that doesn't want supers. Notice we meet our antagonist right away, even though we are unaware of who he is. Our lead character, Mr. Incredible or Bob, is dissatisfied with his status quo. He wants to take care of his family and to be himself again. Standing in his way are financial problems and his flaw of dishonesty as he lives a secret life of illegal crime fighting. If he doesn't overcome his flaw, he might lose the relationships he loves most and if he doesn't attain his goal, he will live a rather miserable life behind a desk. His "save the cat" moment, he literally saved the cat. Pride and Prejudice. In a time when marriages were arranged based on one salary, Elizabeth Bennet desires instead to marry for love. She's caring and smart but feisty for a woman of her time. It is clear that her prejudice will be her undoing, acting as both her flaw and her obstacle. She herself defines what will happen should she not attain her goal. I am determined and nothing but the very deepest love will induce me into matrimony. So I shall [inaudible] and teach your ten children to embroider cushions and play their instruments very [inaudible]. 4. Act I - Point #2: Upsetting the Status Quo: Story point number 2 is upsetting the status quo. Something needs to change in our hero status quo, of course, otherwise there would be no story. Point number 2 is the spark that starts the wildfire, where a particular incident disrupts our hero's world and sets his story in motion. Sometimes referred to as the inciting incident, this disturbance will either force or in some cases inspire the hero to do something out of his comfort zone. If forced, the hero often spends a good chunk of the story trying to return things back to the way they were. Following the inciting incident, the audience or reader often gets a sense that there's more to the story than meets the eye. They can tell that there's trouble brewing. In Jurassic Park, our inciting incident is when the elderly and eccentric billionaire, John Hammond invites Dr. Grant and Ellie to a remote island, and hopes that they will endorse his new theme park, and he offers to fund three years of their research and return. A dream come true. For Mr. Incredible, his world gets turned upside-down when his temper loses him his job. But shortly afterwards, he has offered another position with a mysterious woman named Mirage. The classic inciting incident in romances as when boy meets girl. In this case, when Elizabeth meets Mr. Darcy, she loads him at first, but you get a sense that there's more to him than meets the eye. 5. Act I - Point #3: Doorway of No Return: Point number 3, the doorway of no return. At some point it must be clear that the only available option for our hero is forward into conflict. When you decide on this point in your story, take away all options by trying them out. So he has absolutely no choice but to go on the adventure before him. He is shot out of a cannon or caught in a trap. The doorway of no return forces our hero to try to find a solution to the crisis he is in and challenges him at the point of his initial need for change. At this point, the audience should know to a certain extent what the story is going to be about. Be careful not to falsely advertise. You want to keep your audience thinking they have it all figured out even though they know very little. You don't want them to be completely lost, but you don't want to explain away the mystery of your characters up front either. Reveal information gradually and show, don't tell. For Dr. Grant and his companions, the doorway of no return is fairly simple. They're on an island in the middle of nowhere. Plus, there are dinosaurs, real life dinosaurs. There's no turning back from this one. For Mr. incredible, his need to provide for his family leads him to accept the position and like in Jurassic Park, he gets sent to an island in the middle of nowhere. He's challenged to change by being honest to his wife about the situation, but he lets the opportunity pass by. When Elizabeth's beloved sister and Mr. Darcy's best friend fall in love, Elizabeth finds that she and Mr. Darcy's paths will continue to cross whether she likes it or not and their interactions bring out the very worst of her prejudice. It seems there's no getting away from him now and everywhere around her is pressure to marry against her will. 6. Intro to Act II: Rising Conflict: Act II is a gradual build of conflict. It is the majority of your story in which your character will succeed in some areas, fail in others, re-evaluate his plan and himself. In Act II, the hero begins by making a plan to respond to the situation before him. A plan that will be adjusted as he's bombarded with challenges that force him to face his need for change. These ups and downs eventually lead to the end of Act II. When everything that could possibly go wrong goes wrong. Make sure to keep the roller coaster going in between each major point. Especially if you were writing a novel, which will have much more scenes in between each point than a movie. You want to make your reader feel a wide variety of emotions, jump from hope to fear, to joy, to despair. As you do so, make sure that you are building up to the climax. Every emotion you make your audience feel, whether good or bad, should be progressively better or worse than the one before it. If you've made your hero walk through a desert, now make him walk through a scorpion infested desert, and next make him lost and out of water in that scorpion infested desert. The point is that each scene just keeps getting more intense. 7. Act II - Point #4: The Initial Plan: Essential story point number four, the initial plan. Now that our hero realizes there is no turning back, he makes a plan. This initial plan should correspond with the character that has been introduced, flaws and all. That's where you often have a hero trying to return things back to the way they were. He has been challenged on his initial need for change, but he hasn't necessarily changed yet. Many times the hero is confident that the plan will work, but the audience gets a sense that it might just not cut it. Things may seem okay now, but again, there's trouble brewing on the horizon. Start to introduce obstacles to his plans, starting with little ones and moving towards bigger ones. Like real humans, how your hero responds to these unfamiliar challenges is what will communicate to the audience who he really is. That doesn't just mean his flaws though. In Jurassic Park, for example, you later see that Dr. Grant's disposition in the face of danger is incredibly calm, and he maintains his integrity, regardless of threat, or temptation. But back to the initial plan. To strive towards his goal of a life alongside Ellie and an intellectual pursuit of dinosaurs, Dr. Grant follows through on their investigation of the park, even though he's not a 100 percent sure that this park is a good idea. John Hammond, grandchildren, Lex and Tim, join in on the tour. A challenge for Dr. Grant's need for change. He clearly doesn't like them, and avoids them like the plague. Mr. Incredible's initial plan is to keep living a double life, taking care of his family as he desires to, but also fulfilling his need for adventure. Though he thinks everything is going just fine, his secrecy leads his wife to believe that he is being unfaithful. Elizabeth's initial plan is to reject Mr. Darcy. Her prejudice is fueled when she meets Mr. Wickham, who claims to have been greatly wronged by Mr. Darcy in their youth. They continue their usual banter, and Elizabeth continues to misunderstand Mr. Darcy, which will only go so long before it blows up in her face. 8. Act II - Point #5: Midpoint & Mirror Moment: Midpoint and Mirror Moment. This is best explained in James Scott Bell's, Write Your Novel From the Middle. Bell argues that the mirror moment is not only smack at the midpoint of every well-structured story, but it also is the very instant that defines what your story is really about. At this point, a turn of events such as a new discovery or major setback slaps a mirror to your hero's face and in a moment of self-reflection, he faces his flaw. He realizes that he cannot possibly overcome the challenges before him unless he also overcomes his weakness. This major development spins the story in a new direction. The hero significantly adjusts his plan and actually does something to begin to change. Now that our hero is growing into a better version of himself, the scenes that follow the midpoint are hopeful as the good guys mount forces against the bad guys. This fun and games period is usually when most movies will have a montage. Watch out, that's usually a sign that the end of Act 2 is coming. The disastrous moment when all the lights go out. "He left us. He left us." "But that's not what I'm going to do." In Jurassic Park, Dr. Grant makes a choice to be better than our lawyer friend, whose decision to abandon Lex and Tim leave him, well, dead. Even though he dislikes them, Dr. Grant uses his understanding of dinosaurs to help them all get to their new more primal goal of survival. Hope builds in a touching scene where they interact with a so-called veggiesaurus and as they make their way successfully across the park. Which seems a lot less terrifying in broad daylight. Mr. Incredible hits the midpoint when he stumbles upon some dreadful information. The man he's working for has been luring ex supers to the island to kill them. He has made a huge mistake and his mirror moment gets really real when he is convinced that his actions have resulted in his family's death, and that none of it would have happened if he had been honest about his whereabouts. But don't worry, hope builds as they are reunited and band together to fight back according to our hero's new plan. The moment that spins Elizabeth's story in a new direction, is shortly after Darcy proposes to her for the first time. She treats him horribly as a result of her assumptions against his character. Mr. Darcy then writes a letter to Elizabeth explaining what really happened between him and Mr. Wickham, which inspires in her the first signs of remorse towards her prejudice. Hope builds as you see her act upon this new information, gently cutting her ties with Wickham, and showing hints of her newfound admiration for the real mister Darcy. 9. Act II - Point #6: All Hope is Lost: Essential story point number 6. All Hope Is Lost. In a moment of absolute despair, the hero's plan fails. All ties are broken and all hope is lost. It is an unexpected sudden twist in the story that crushes all sense of optimism that started building after the midpoint. It leaves the audience with a feeling of emptiness. The hero's companions are scattered, deprived of their resources and it seems as though they can't move forward. It is imperative that you make this point as dreadful as it can possibly be. If your audience isn't crying, cringing are clinging to the edge of their seats, you're doing it wrong. Make them read the line over and over again and say out loud "That can't be. " Why is it so important to torture your readers so? Because the more better the moment when all hope is lost, the more blissful your climax and resolution will be. You could have the perfect setup, the perfect character development, and the perfect midpoint but if you leave your audience with an anticlimactic aftertaste, you can be sure that your movie will never be more than a rental Murphy's Law was hard at work in Jurassic Park. The systems have gone offline releasing the velociraptor in ensuring that the characters have lost all control over the dinosaurs. The only guy who can get the power back on is the same one who turned it off and he's dead. Two of Dr. grants other companions have also died trying to get it back on and Ellie has been unsuccessful in her attempt to do the same. Meanwhile, just when Lei and Tim think they're safe, they're trapped in a kitchen with the worst of all the man-eating dinosaurs and there's no one around to help them. Things are looking pretty bleak. Just when all hope is lost. Syndrome will save the day. In the Incredibles , antagonists have the floor and it seems that their plan is unstoppable. Seeing as Mr. Incredibles entire family is captured. They are without hope of escape and the entire world is in jeopardy. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth's youngest sister, Lydia lopes, with none other than Mr. Wickham, a huge scandal in their time that completely jeopardizes her sister's prospects for marriage. Elizabeth finally accepts that she has fallen in love with Mr. Darcy but she doubts he will ever reconsider his offer after how she's treated him and how Lydia has ruined her family reputation. 10. Act III - Point #7: Transformation: Essential story point number 7, Transformation. At the very start of Act 3, the climax, something inspires our hero out of the darkness and into a new plan. One that requires him to do something he's never done before at the most basic level of his need for change. This new plan is ultimately in pursuit of the same initial desire or goal established from the beginning. The most likely it's painted in a new light. As the climax unfolds, our hero transforms into his best self, the one we hoped for and are so very proud of. Dr. Grant faces his greatest enemy, the velociraptors, in order to save the children of a total stranger. He could have left them behind and escape to the way things were, but he didn't. In his last stand, he becomes the best version of himself. I have to do this alone. What is this to you, play time? No. So you can be Mr. Incredible again. No. Then why, what is it? I'm not. Not what? I'm not strong enough. Strong enough, and this will make you stronger? No. That's what this is, some work out? I can't loose you again. Mr. Incredible lets his family into his life in a way his secrecy wouldn't allow him to before, and trusting one another once more, they face the challenge together as a family. Elizabeth proves that she's overcome her prejudice towards Mr. Darcy when Lady Catherine de Bourgh corners her, demanding that she promised to refuse any offer made by him, as rumor has gotten to her that he intends to marry her. Elizabeth refuses, however, saying she is not engaged to him, but she will not promise anything against her own happiness. 11. Act III - Point #8: Climax & Resolution: The last of our eight essential story points, is the final showdown, that fulfills the needs established in the setup. The new plan succeeds or sometimes fails, and our hero reaches his goal in an unexpected way, that satisfies his need for growth and change. Your climax is the most emotionally intense part of your story. But it's also followed by a quick decline as your audience settles into how everything resolved. Similar to how you slow your pace after a sprint on the treadmill. Thoroughly satisfied, they take in a deep breath, and watch the credits roll. In a surprising turn of events, a T-Rex attacks the Velociraptors, and they escape, attaining their goals of survival, unity, and an expanded understanding of dinosaurs. Dr. Grant chooses not to endorse the park, concluding that nothing is worth risking the safety of loved ones, even three years of research funding. With danger far behind them, we experienced the sweet resolution of seeing Dr. Grant allowing Tim and Lex to sleep on his shoulder in the helicopter. He shares a loving glance with Ellie, and we know that he has succeeded in every way. In the final showdown against Syndrome, everyone uses their powers freely, even Jack Jack as one family. Mr. Incredible has attained both his desire to be his true self, as well as to salvage his relationships with his wife and kids. As intensity dies down, we get a glimpse into their new life together as, not the Parr family, but the Incredibles. Inspired by her seeming change of heart, Mr. Darcy admits to Elizabeth that he still desires to marry her, asking if her feelings have changed. She admits that they have and repents of her prejudice towards him. She tenderly accepts his proposal and the two live happily ever after. She has achieved her goal of marrying for love, in a way she least expected to. Now it's your turn. Go write a fabulous story. 12. Conclusion: I hope you've enjoyed this story structure as much as I enjoyed discovering it. This is just the first of quite a few courses that I plan to teach and writing, so keep an eye out for those in the description around my page. Special thanks to one of my favorite teachers in college, Christopher Riley. He's a fabulous screenwriter and he taught me so much. Also special thanks to the authors of those books that I mentioned, Save the Cat! and Write Your Novel from the Middle, they're great books, you should get them and read. Please post your class projects, even if you think they are, maybe not good enough, you're not finished. Writing isn't really messy process but I hope that this can be a launching point for you as you dive into your next story. Thank you so much and I'll see you in the next class.