A Challenging Adventure & Writing Conundrum

by David Trottier

Almost every guru and teacher has his or her specific model or paradigm for structuring and outlining a screenplay. Here is a list of the most famous. I call these the “Great Eight,” and they are not listed in any particular order.

  • Michael Hauge's "Six Stage Plot Structure"
  • Robert McKee's "The Quest"
  • Linda Seger's "Story Spine"
  • John Truby's "Twenty-two Building Blocks"
  • Syd Field's "Paradigm"
  • Blake Snyder's "Beat Sheet"
  • Christopher Vogler's "The Hero's Journey"
  • Dave Trottier’s "Magnificent 7 Plot Points"

What’s a screenwriter to do?
It’s easy to get lost in this jungle. Fortunately, with the machete of common sense, we can hack our way to a sensible approach. I did an overlay of all of these once and found that virtually all of them are loosely compatible, but which one should you use?

Personally, I think they are all worthwhile…as guidelines…and not as jack-hammered-into-granite rules. Precisely imitating someone’s surefire model without a strong application of creativity may result in a formulaic screenplay. And you can name a few classic and successful movies that do not exactly follow any of the “Great Eight.”

Furthermore, movies such as Being John Malkovich, The Sixth Sense, Shrek, and O Brother, Where Art Thou? are fun to watch partly because they are so fresh and original. They use classic dramatic structure in inventive ways, and in some cases bend the framework.

Kill the hero
In the case of Joseph Stefano's Psycho (directed by Alfred Hitchcock), the framework is broken when the protagonist is killed before we are halfway into the movie. The tactic shocks the audience so forcefully that a tremendous amount of suspense is created, enough to carry us through the second act.

Double your plots, double your fun
Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction tells two stories. One is about how Jules (Samuel Jackson) comes to believe that God has a mission for him. At the Showdown, he doesn’t shoot the robber because he’s going through a “transitional period.” In the other story, Butch (Bruce Willis) refuses to throw a prizefight and comes to terms with his boss while escaping with his life.

Each of the two stories has a beginning, a middle, and an end, but the events are not presented in exact chronological order. I wouldn’t try something as tricky as this for my first script, but it illustrates an unorthodox and effective use of dramatic principles.

The most rigid paradigm of all
Perhaps the most traditional and rigid of “structures” is the love story or romantic comedy basic structural model.

The two lovers generally meet at the Catalyst and are thrown together by the Big Event. But the Back Story gives rise to a flaw which interferes with love. Even so, they fall in love anyway at the Midpoint (at least one does), and are separated at the Crisis. In the Showdown, one or both overcomes the flaw and they come together. In the end, the Realization comes that they will live happily ever after.

Please note the creative use of those Magnificent 7 Plot Points in Sleepless in Seattle, where the lovers don't speak to each other in more than a line until the end. Thank you, Nora Ephron, David Ward, and Jeff Arch.

You determine the fate of the Great Eight
What I like about the “Great Eight” is they present different ways to look at the same thing—basic story structure. And in that sense, they are all useful and instructive. One may be more helpful than another, depending on the project.

Just remember they are guidelines. And don’t adore and glorify any of them…unless it is mine of course.