The Magnificent 7 Plot Points

by David Trottier

from lectures delivered at a variety of American universities

How many movies would you say you've viewed in your lifetime?  Hundreds, I’ll bet.  So why do you watch so many movies?  Think about that for a moment.  For me, it's to experience emotion vicariously by means of a story.  I still remember when I first saw Casablanca; it was love at first sight.  Wow, what a story!
I have two main objectives for this lecture.  First, I’ll reveal the basics of story structure, including the seven key plot points that virtually all movies have.  Second, I will show you why the best movies are really two movies in one.  My desire is to double your pleasure and double your fun while watching movies.  Along the way, we’ll review the structure of three classics—Chinatown, Star Wars, and—of course—Casablanca.

Story Structure Basics
Nearly 3000 years ago, Aristotle defined the basic parameters of drama in his immortal work, The Poetics.  And nothing has changed since.  According to Aristotle, all drama has a beginning, a middle, and an end. You’ve heard this before.  In the world of screenwriting, we have Act 1, Act 2, and Act 3 (beginning, middle, and end).  In a typical 100-minute movie, the first act is about 25 minutes, the second act is about 50, and the third act is another 15 to 25. 

Now each of these three sections or acts has a primary purpose.  The beginning sets up the story.  
The middle complicates it.   The end resolves it.   Put your hero in a tree, throw rocks at him, and get him out. 

But how does a story turn from beginning to middle, and from middle to end?  With turning points.  Also called plot points.  These are the twists and turns, the important events that complicate or even reverse the action, such as cliffhangers, revelations, and crises.  

The Two Main Plot Points
Although there may be dozens of turning points in a movie, there are two main turning points on which the movie turns.  I call the first major turning point the Big Event because it is a “big event” that dramatically affects the central character’s life.  In fact, it’s often the point when the central character (or protagonist) loses control of his or her life.

Often, the Big Event transports or forces our character into a new world. 

The second major turning point moves us into Act 3. This is the Crisis. Of all the crises in your story, this is the big one that forces the central character to take the last final action, or series of actions, that will resolve the conflict.  It’s often the low point of the movie where all seems lost. 

…But the Crisis is not always a low point or the darkest moment.  It is often an event that forces the protagonist to make the key decision that leads to the resolution of the story.

I know you’ve seen movies that were so bad that you’ve thought, “I can write something better than that.”  Hold that thought, and let’s look at what you would need to accomplish in terms of basic structure. 

The Magnificent 7 Plot Points
There are five additional plot points you’ll need to apply, making seven in all.  Since there will be many plot points in a movie, I call these The Magnificent 7 Plot Points.  They are:  the Back Story, the Catalyst, the Big Event (we’ve mentioned that one), the Midpoint, the Crisis, the Climax, and the Realization. 

Let’s start with the Back Story.  The Back Story is an event that generally takes place before the movie begins.  The Back Story is some past trauma that affects the character’s attitude and behavior throughout the movie. 

Sometimes, moviemakers show the Back Story as the first scene in the movie and then cut to “years later” where the present-day movie begins.  Other times, they show us a flashback of the Back Story at some point in the movie.  Usually, the back story is revealed through dialogue.  “My Dad beat me as a kid and that’s why I’m a jerk.”  That sort of thing.

When a movie begins, life is in balance. Yes, the protagonist may have a problem, but it’s a problem she’s always had—it’s her status quo. Then something kicks things out of balance and gives her a new problem or desire.  That something is the Catalyst.  The Catalyst usually happens within the first ten minutes of the movie. 

And there’s usually a clear relationship between the Catalyst and Big Event, which comes at about 25 minutes or so into the movie.

You may be familiar with the term Inciting Incident.   In Hollywood, some refer to the Catalyst as the Inciting Incident while most mean the Big Event.  To avoid confusion, I use the more descriptive terms Catalyst and Big Event. 

The Big Event ushers us into Act 2 – the middle – where the central character reacts to the big change created by the Big Event.  Usually, that first reaction fails, forcing new actions that precipitate a rising conflict.

About half way through, another major event occurs. This is the Midpoint, the fourth plot point of our Magnificent 7.  At this point, the central character often becomes fully committed or reaches some kind of point-of-no-return.  Sometimes the Midpoint is simply a major event close to the middle of the movie.

From the Midpoint on, the central character takes stronger actions, the conflict intensifies, and the pace quickens until the worst thing that could happen happens. This is the Crisis, the point when all seems lost, and/or the point when the central character faces a crucial decision.

As you know, the Climax or Showdown follows the Crisis.  This Showdown is the big battle at the end.

Although many movies end with car chases and explosions, it’s not mandatory.  But there will always be a final confrontation of some kind between the central character and the opposition.  The Showdown is the biggest scene or sequence of scenes in the movie. It’s when everything comes together.  

During or just after a screenplay’s climactic scene or sequence of scenes, the central character realizes something new about herself, or we see evidence of her growth or change. This is the movie’s moment of Realization – our seventh and final major plot point.

In summary, the Magnificent 7 Plot Points are:

Number One. The Back Story haunts the central character.

Number Two. The Catalyst gets the character moving. It’s part of the story’s setup.

Number Three. The Big Event changes the character’s life.   

Number Four. The Midpoint is the point of no return or a moment of deep motivation.

Number Five. The Crisis is the low point, or an event that forces the key decision that leads to your story’s end.

Number Six. The Climax or Showdown is the final face-off between your central character and the opposition.

Number Seven. The Realization occurs when your character and/or the audience sees that the character has changed or has realized something.

Star Wars
Now that we have a sense of how these Magnificent 7 Plot Points work, let’s put them into action!  First, we’ll apply them to two classic film—Star Wars and Chinatown…after which, we’ll explore just how one movie can actually be two movies in one.  We’ll look at a couple of comedies as examples.  And we’ll conclude with our review of Casablanca.  Are you ready?

Okay, let’s analyze the structure of Star Wars—Episode Four.  And please note how one plot point leads naturally to another to create a logical and compelling story flow.

Star Wars opens with a war amid the stars.  That’s visually perfect.  Luke Skywalker is the central character. 

His Back Story is this: His father was once a Jedi knight who was killed by Darth Vader…or so he was told.  Likewise, Obi-Wan, Darth Vader, Princess Leia, and Han Solo all have Back Stories.  Even though Star Wars is essentially a cartoon on the screen, these Back Stories give the film a richness it would not otherwise have.

Luke Skywalker wants to become a pilot, but he’s stuck on the farm. It’s a problem he’s always had.  Life is in balance. 

For Luke, the Catalyst happens when he tinkers with R2-D2 and accidentally triggers a holographic image of Princess Leia saying, “Help me Obi-Wan, you’re my only hope.” Now Luke has a desire to help the beautiful Princess Leia.  He begins a search for Obi-Wan.

The Big Event is when Luke returns home and discovers that his aunt and uncle have been slaughtered. Now he joins with Obi-Wan to fight the empire. He enters a whole new world and is trained by Obi-Wan to join the fight against the Empire. 

As you can see, the Big Event is bigger in Luke’s Life than the Catalyst.  The Catalyst upsets the normal equilibrium and gets the character moving.

At the Midpoint, a tractor beam pulls him (and his friends) into the Death Star.  This is obviously the point of no return.  There’s no going back to the farm now.

The Crisis is the death of Obi-wan.  Without his mentor, all looks lost for Luke. 

The Climax or Showdown is the battle that leads to the destruction of the Death Star.

At the end we enjoy an awards ceremony—this is the Realization or acknowledgement that Luke and Han have become heroes.  Luke’s life is now at a new level of equilibrium.

See how that works?  This is fun.  Okay, let’s review Chinatown.

The Back story in Chinatown is supremely important.  You see, Jake Gittes used to work in Chinatown for the district attorney.  While there, he tried to keep someone from being hurt, and—in that effort—ended up making sure she was hurt.  Now Jake is sensitive about being embarrassed or looking like a fool. The past hurts.

As the movie opens, Jake now works as a detective who deals with extramarital affairs.  A woman claiming that she is Mrs. Mulwray hires him to spy on her husband.  The Catalyst, right?  Jake goes to work.  He takes some photographs of Mrs. Mulwary’s husband with a girl. These are published in the local paper, and his job is done. He celebrates at a barber shop, where he hears a dirty joke.  He’s feeling good.

Cheerfully, he returns to his office and tells his operatives the joke, but they try to stop him. He doesn’t see the beautiful high-class woman standing behind him. The tension increases as Jake tells his joke because we know he’s going to be embarrassed when he finally notices the woman. That’s the suspense.  Jake delivers the punch line and turns. Surprise! The woman informs him that her name is Mrs. Mulwray and she certainly didn’t hire him to spy on her husband.  She says, “I see you like publicity, Mr. Gittes, well you’re going to get it.”   

Is this not a big event in Jake’s life? Jake has big problems now. If this woman is the real Mrs. Mulwray, who was the first Mrs. Mulwray? Who set him up and why? And how is he going to save his reputation?  We’re all set up for Act 2 where Jake gets on the case.

The Midpoint occurs after Mr. Mulwray’s body is found.  The police question Mrs. Mulwray who is evasive and who gets Jake to cover for her.  Now he’s fully involved with the case and with her.  You could say, he’s passed a point of no return

In fact, Jake is attracted to Mrs. Mulwray, who notices that he doesn’t like to talk about Chinatown.  In the love scene, he finally confesses to her how he tried to save a woman once, and inadvertently made sure she got hurt.  This painful confession not only foreshadows the resolution of the story, it reveals the Back Story.

Later, Jake finds the necessary clue that implicates Noah Cross (Mrs. Mulwray’s rich father) as the murderer, but Noah Cross takes Jake prisoner.  That’s the Crisis.  He drives Jake to Chinatown where Mrs. Mulwray is waiting.

At the Climax, the result of Jake’s trying to help Mrs. Mulwray results in her being killed. 
The Realization is summed up in one unforgettable line: “Forget it, Jake.  It’s Chinatown.”  Once again, Jake feels like a fool.

Two Movies in One
Now that we have reviewed how a story generally works, let’s expand on that.  Let’s delve deeper into the wonderful world of movies.  As mentioned earlier, great movies are generally two movies in one. 

These two are the action story or spine of the story, and the relationship story, or heart of the story.  

The Action Story is usually driven by a tangible and conscious outside goal.

The Relationship (or Emotional) Story usually derives from a relationship, and is generally driven by an unconscious inner need. The Relationship Story often resolves in the growth of the central character.

Each story—the Action Story and the Relationship Story—has its own turning points and structure.  One story is the main plot; the other the main subplot.  In the best movies, the two plots are intertwined synergistically.

Such is the case with Chinatown. The action plot is driven by Jake’s goal to solve the case.  The relationship subplot is the love story—Jake and Evelyn.

Do these principles apply to comedies as well?  Yes.  After all, comedy is drama in disguise. And Twins serves as a fun example.

Vincent (played by Danny DeVito) has a conscious, measurable goal of 5 million dollars.  That’s what he wants.  There is a strong opposition to this goal—a really bad guy wants the same money.  Vincent’s goal drives the Action Story.

Vincent also has an inner need of which he himself is unaware.  He needs the love of a family and to connect with his twin brother (played by Arnold Swartzeneggar).  So the relationship story, in this case, is about two brothers.

What opposes or blocks Vincent’s need?  In other words, what keeps him from the love of his family—it’s his flaw.  He’s greedy and selfish.  Where does this flaw come from?  The Back Story.  What is Vincent’s Back Story?  His mother abandoned him, and so he learned early that people are out to get him, so he’d better get them first.  The resultant greed and selfishness is his flaw.   Ah, ha—so the Back Story often gives rise to a character flaw that affects the character’s actions and attitudes in the story.

Vincent can never have what he really needs inside until he abandons his flaw.  (And that’s true for many movies.)  And that’s what the Relationship Story is most often about—learning to sacrifice the flaw for the relationship or for a higher value. 

In Vincent’s case, the Crisis is an event that forces Vincent to choose between his goal (the 5 million dollars) and his need (the life of his brother).  Fortunately, in the end, Vincent gets both a family and the money.  Don’t you love those Hollywood endings?

The Action Story is what keeps us interested, but the relationship is what touches us emotionally. Although there are exceptions, the Relationship (or Emotional) Story is what the movie is really about.

Well, if the movie is really about a relationship, why worry about the action plot at all?

Romance Needs Action
Just for fun, let’s do a little role play to illustrate.  I’ll be a budding screenwriter, and you can be the professional script consultant.

I tell you that I have a script idea about a woman who goes on vacation to a foreign country and falls in love.  "It's going to be a beautiful love story," I say.

"Sounds interesting," you kindly respond, "but it’s not compelling enough.  What is your character's goal?" 

“Happiness,” I respond.  "Everyone identifies with happiness."

 “Ah, but happiness is not a goal. It’s too vague and abstract.”

That gets me thinking.  “Well . . . romance is her goal. That’s it.”

You wisely respond: “That feels more like an inner need than an outside goal.  It should be part of your Relationship Plot. You need an action track for this Relationship Story to roll on.”

I’m flustered now and say, “Well, vacationing is her goal. She consciously wants to have a good vacation. She deserves it.”
It appears as though I have a complete story now, but then you say, "Technically, vacationing is a goal, but it does not stir my heart, nor does it set up strong opportunities for conflict. Something specific has to happen.”

And that’s when I realize you’re looking for a plot point.  “I know!” I say triumphantly. “What if her sister is kidnapped and she has to save her?”

You smile supportively.  "Good, now you have a strong Big Event.  And if this woman needs romance, what if you made her a romance writer?  That would help express her inner need and add a bit of irony."

Now we are in a flow.  I say, "And this romance writer goes to South America to rescue her sister, but she falls in love with her…ah…travel agent." 

Again you help me out: “Travel agent doesn’t ring my bell, Dave.  Maybe he should be an adventurer, or some kind of romantic figure that could team up with her.”

And by now you’ve figured out that we’re talking about Romancing the Stone.  Can you imagine Romancing the Stone without the action plot? 

Casablanca is considered the best movie ever made and the best screenplay ever written.  So if you haven’t seen Casablanca, you’re in for a treat.   

The Relationship Story is about Ilsa (played by Ingrid Bergman) and Rick (played by Humphrey Bogart).  It’s the love story.  And, in this movie, it’s the main plot.

The Action Story is about how Ilsa and her husband Victor Laslow finally escape from Casablanca (with Rick’s aid) to help the Allies win World War II.  It’s the main subplot.

Does Rick have a flaw?  Yes, he is a bitter and cynical isolationist.  “I stick my neck out for nobody.”  How did he get that way?  His Back Story.  He once loved Ilsa in Paris, but she left him.  Disappeared without a trace.  What is Rick’s unconscious inner need?  To put aside his own bitter feelings and help Ilsa and Laslow escape.  In other words, become a patriot. 

As the movie opens, the city of Casablanca is portrayed as a huge prison, complete with searchlights and guards (the police) making sure no one escapes.  That’s the opening image system.  The place is corrupt and life is cheap.  When Prefect of Police Louie can’t find a criminal, he simply “rounds up the usual suspects.”  (By the way, that foreshadows a wonderful moment at the very end.)

Rick runs a saloon and casino.  Before we are ten minutes into the movie, a man named Ugarte (played by Peter Lorre) asks Rick to hide two stolen Letters of Transit.  Think of these as free passes out of prison.  That event is the Catalyst. 

Later, Ilsa enters Rick’s place and recognizes the piano player.  She says, “Play it, Sam.”  Sam recognizes her and tells her that she’s bad luck to Rick, but plays “As Time Goes By” anyway. Then Rick enters and tells Sam, “I thought I told you never to play that—“  And then he sees Ilsa.  His angry look and the entire scene imply that there’s a lot of history between these two people.  This is the Big Event.  It’s so big that no one dares leave the movie theater for popcorn again until the movie’s over.

That night, Rick drinks…and recalls how Ilsa loved and left him in Paris.  This is a flashback to the Back Story.

After the flashback, in present time, Ilsa comes to Rick to tell him what happened in Paris, but he is so drunk and abusive, she leaves.  The next day, Rick tries to make up, but Ilsa tells him she is married to famous Nazi-fighter Victor Lazlow, and she was married to him even in Paris.  SLAP!  This is the Midpoint for the Relationship Story.  And it deepens Rick’s bitterness. 

A moment later, Ilsa learns that Rick has two letters of transit.  This is the Midpoint for the Action Story.  Ilsa must get the letters of transit from Rick. It’s the only way she and her husband, Victor Laslow, can escape from the Nazis.

One night, Rick returns to his room, and Ilsa is waiting for him. She pleads with him for the Letters of Transit, but he will not give them to her.  He’s getting even with her.  Finally, she pulls a gun on him. He says, “Go ahead and shoot, you’ll be doing me a favor.” But can Ilsa shoot him? 

She can’t, and Rick realizes that she must still love him. They have their moment together.  She says she can never leave him again. This is a wonderful, romantic moment, and it doesn’t feel like the Crisis at all.  But it is.  Let’s see why. 

Ilsa says, “I don’t know what’s right any longer. You have to decide for both of us, for all of us.”

Please allow me to translate this: “Rick, there are three key people in this movie and only two Letters of Transit.  You have to decide who gets the Letters of Transit.  I am just the love interest.  That’s why I don’t know what’s right any longer.  But you are the central character and the person who has to be the most active character in the final act.  Therefore, you must make the crisis decision as to who leaves Casablanca for both of us, for all of us.”

Rick says, “All right, I will.”  So this romantic moment forces Rick to make the Crisis decision. 

At the airport, we have the Showdown.  Rick shoots the Nazi major and makes sure that Ilsa and her husband escape.  As the police arrive, Rick expects to be arrested by Louie, but Louie is inspired by Rick.  Louise says to the police, “Major Strasser has been shot.”  Then he exchanges glances with Rick.  Will he arrest Rick?  He says, “Round up the usual suspects.”

A moment later, Louie observes, “Well, Rick, you’re not only a sentimentalist, you’ve become a patriot.”  This is the moment of Realization.  Rick has reformed, overcome his flaw.  He’s no longer an isolationist.  He sacrifices what he loves most (Ilsa) and gets involved in the fight.  In other words, he sacrifices his flaw for two things: a higher value and Ilsa (the relationship)—“We’ll always have Paris.”

You see, the movie plays at another level.  Rick is a symbol of America that does not want to get involved in the war, but that makes the sacrifice and eventually does. 

As you can see, film is a powerful medium when the foundations of story structure are artfully and effectively applied.  I am referring to Aristotle’s beginning, middle, and end; the Magnificent 7 Plot points; and the Two-movies-in-one Principle that we have discussed today.

I would like to conclude this lecture with an assignment.  Identify a movie you truly love and answer these two questions.

Number One:  What are the Magnificent 7 Plot Points of that movie? 

Number Two:  What are the two stories that combine to make that movie enjoyable? 

As you analyze your favorite film, you will likely come to a new appreciation of its basic structure, and perhaps better understand why it resonates with you. 

Thank you for your attention and have a great time at the movies.