Thursday, 9 October 2014

Basic Plot Outline for Hollywood Screenplays

Almost without exception, Hollywood movies, from the latest Oscar best-picture winner to a children’s animation, follow, in some way, if not entirely, the same basic plot structure. Although these elements of plot are examined extensively by Martha Alderson in The Plot Whisperer (Adams Media, 2011), they appear to be universal, and it could be argued that they are evident in almost every story since ancient times to modern-day bestsellers.
Nonetheless, these plot features are not apparent to the casual movie-theatre audience because there are wild varieties involved. For example, the comfortable, Familiar World of the Protagonist might only be a few minutes for a horror/action flick like World War Z, but almost one hour for an epic fantasy like The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey where all the main characters, or hobbits, need to be introduced. Further, there are diverse ways of transporting the Protagonist from the old, Familiar World to the New World of suspense and danger: it can be by a tornado as in The Wizard of OZ, or by a transport boat carrying Tom Hanks’s character towards the hell of D-Day as in Saving Private Ryan. In addition, an energetic marker to draw the Protagonist away from the Familiar World might be a drastic event like the chest-burster scene in Alien or the slaughter of Luke Skywalkers’s adoptive family in Star Wars Episode Four; but could be something more subtle as in Neo’s choice between the red pill or the blue pill in The Matrix – that is really Neo’s choice to step away from his old, comfortable existence. A Crisis to bring about Transformation might be the death of a girlfriend in a hotel room as in The Ides of March, or an epic battle scene involving thousands as in Peter Jackson’s Tolkin movies. The Transformation itself (where the Protagonist learns about his or her faults and makes the choice to transform) might take place on a battlefield next to a bombed-out pillbox, with the Protagonist in tears, as in Saving Private Ryan, or in a dark cave with the Protagonist in deep thought as in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
I have made one change to Martha Alderson’s analysis of plot outline. Many films have a ‘hook’ at the beginning to draw viewers into the story, so I have included this energetic marker. Also, I have included a case study to further illustrate the basic plot structure.

Basic Plot outline for Hollywood Screenplays

The Beginning

An event, often a Prologue, to ‘hook’ the reader
Can be related to Theme
(NB: this 1st Energetic Marker seems optional; surprisingly, many Hollywood movies do not include it, and just start at the where and when of the Familiar World)

Familiar World
Where and when: immediate, wider, and universal settings conveyed
Convey comfortable, Familiar World of Protagonist
Introduce major characters plus their traits
Show Positive Traits of Protagonist, and hint at Negative Traits (that must be overcome): A)  Weakness  B) Fear  C) Hatred
Beginning Goal for Protagonist and, maybe, hint at Long-term Goal
Allude to Theme (usually in dialogue, details, action, observations, thought)
Can hint at Backstory of Protagonist
Usually there is Foreshadowing of danger to come
(NB: the time of the Beginning varies greatly from movie to movie; it can range anywhere from a few minutes for an action film to one hour for an epic.

An event that pulls the Protagonist away from his/her comfortable world, into a New World fraught with suspense, danger
The Protagonist steps through a metaphorical ‘Gateway’, or threshold, into the middle of the story, or New World
NB: The threshold can be guarded (if it is important to the story), or could be more like a Barrier; and it can convey fear; ie. the Protagonist is hesitant to cross this threshold because of fear

The Middle

New World
New setting, vastly different, more complex than the beginning (relies on details, including sensory, and particulars relating to Theme)
New ‘Middle’ Goal or the same goal from the beginning
Scenes/action moves Protagonist away from this goal
Scenes/action challenge Protagonist’s beliefs, self image; highlight traits, especially fear (of New World)
Protagonist learns new skills
Protagonist conveys new emotions (learns from mistakes of the past)

An event, or test, in the middle of the middle, that recommits the Protagonist to his/her goal
Challenges Protagonist’s determination to reach that goal
The more confident, less fearful Protagonist makes a pledge to recommit; restates goal
Forewarning of increasing danger
Increased danger
Reevaluation of situation
Protagonist’s negative traits are revealed (he/she blames others for these negative traits)
Protagonist becomes more conscious of emotions, thoughts; but confidence is shaken and he/she becomes more vulnerable

High point of dramatic action (that signifies the end of something, or a death);
Lowest point for Protagonist
Protagonist suffers
Negative traits of Protagonist exaggerated

Usually in a quiet, intimate place, the Protagonist is ‘stripped bare’, forced to reflect, look deep within him/herself, rethink life, and become conscious of negative traits (and acknowledges them as his/her own fault)
A new self is born, free of negative traits, with new belief system and, maybe, new positive traits which, all in all, severs the past (transformation)
Wisdom is obtained
Protagonist makes a new plan and new End Goal (or can keep the same goal as the Middle or Beginning Goal); however, the Protagonist must move forward
The Protagonist usually steps through a metaphorical ‘Gateway’, or threshold (that can be guarded or barricaded by forces to prevent the Protagonist from entering if he or she is not ready; and these forces usually want confirmation or proof of the Protagonist’s Transformation before he or she can enter)  
Backstory can be revealed


The Protagonist is stronger, more confident, and reaches the Climax without hesitation
Buildup to Climax: show Protagonist’s new self, new positive traits; Protagonist excited by new challenges; momentum builds swiftly
Climax itself: Protagonist faces the Climax and defeats Antagonist(s) with new skill, strength he or she didn’t have before
Ought to be related to Theme (that is, combination of action scenes and character development; or, in other words, what is the writer’s desire to write?)

Protagonist makes peace with the past and, often, returns to it
Can leave a question or two unanswered questions, or loose ends, so the story lives on in the reader/viewer
Protagonist conveys new personality, sense of freedom; has new status in the old world
Can hint at Theme


CASE SUDY: DRAG ME TO HELL (2009, Universal Pictures, directed by Sam Raimi

The Beginning
The first scene involves a family visiting a house: the floor opens, and the boy is dragged into Hell. The viewer is gripped, and, likewise, dragged into the story.

Familiar World
We are projected into the immediate, Familiar World of the Protagonist: a bank office in downtown L.A. Christina goes along the freeway to work every day, greets customers in the bank, does errands for her boss and makes coffee. Christina has a Beginning goal: she wants to be assistant manager.  
Negative traits are soon revealed: Christina’s gluttony is evident when she pauses at a cake-shop window; she is seen as weak and unconfident by her boss, and an unworthy little farm girl by her boyfriend’s mother.
A Forewarning of doom soon arrives when Christina refuses to help an old woman, Ganush, in the bank by repossessing her home.

The parking garage scene tears Christina away from her comfortable, Familiar World. She is attacked by Ganush, barely escapes with her life, and has a curse placed upon her.

The Middle
New World
Cursed, Christina is now projected into a New World fraught with danger and suspense. Christina struggles internally in this New World. She doubts herself and is haunted by fear.
The Theme of Fate is revealed when Christina and her boyfriend visit a fortune-teller. The Seer’s den is full of Hindu symbolism and mystical artefacts such as a shrunken monkey’s head. There is a debate between the Seer and Cristina’s boyfriend about Fraud and Carl Jung’s different interpretations of fate: Fraud relies on unconscious choices while Jung includes mystical factors and religion in his analysis.
Then Christina has a new Mid-range Goal: to rid herself of the ‘dark spirit’ curse.
Christina’s Backstory is soon revealed when she finds an old photo of herself: she used to be overweight as a child, as this has led to her inferiority trait now as an adult.
Further events reinforce the curse: Christina is attacked by a demon in her house, she has a nightmare, swallows a fly and so on. There is a further reference to the background story, as in: ‘You used to be a fat girl’.

Christina is attacked in her home again by the demon, this time more violently. Now she is desperate to rid the curse. She attempts, or recommits, to do this by sacrificing her cat.
Dinner at her boyfriend’s house highlight new positive traits for Christina such as ambition, backbone, and honesty.
Nonetheless, the curse continues, and this newly-found confidence is severely shaken. She reinstates her attention to the Seer to rid herself of the curse. Forewarning of increasing danger is apparent when the Seer tells her she has only one more day to do so before she is dragged into Hell. Danger is increased when the demon attacks her in the shed.
Christina’s gluttony trait is revealed when she indulges in eating ice cream (this is also a reference to her Backstory).

This is the séance scene where the demon and other souls enter the haunted house from the Prologue. We have glimpsed Christina’s need to change and her positive traits in previous scenes; now comes her test to see if she can become a better, stronger person. But the Crisis means just that: the séance fails to rid the demon and San Dena, the Seer who leads the séance, dies in the process. The Crisis also shows Christina as weak and ‘insignificant’ (all she wants to do is run from the demon): she has failed her test.

Transformation takes place in the coffee shop, which has an intimate, quiet setting. Christina’s new traits are revealed: she is strong, aggressive, and tough; and also compassionate because she refuses to pass on the curse to someone else. Christina has a new End Goal: to pass the curse onto someone who has already died.

Christina, more confident and stronger (as evident through tough-talking dialogue and action), races towards the Climax, or final confrontation with the demon.
The Climax itself is the graveyard scene, where Christina manages to bury the envelope (which contains the curse) in the grave of the deceased Ganush, although she struggles to do so in the mud and rain.

Having rid the curse, Christina is radiant, gleaming in sunshine, and dressed in pink. Her Beginning Goal has been achieved (she has won the Assistant Manager position). She returns to the old, Familiar World of downtown L.A. a distinctively changed person: confident, outgoing, and strong. She buys a new business coat which signifies her new status, and admits her earlier faults to her boyfriend in an effort to further cleanse herself. However, there is a loose end to the story because Christina realizes the curse has not gone away and she is, finally, dragged into Hell.

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