I’ve always written stories from the time I was young. But I never read any books on how to improve my writing. I thought writers just sit down and start writing. Sure they might plan a little, but more or less they have a general idea of the story they want to tell, and they just start typing till they’ve told it. That’s also how I’ve written my own stories.
I used to read lots of books, and watch lots of movies. So I have a general sense of how to tell a story. There’s a beginning, middle and end. The beginning is the introduction, the middle is when most of the story takes place, and the end is the climax and resolution. But how to get from the beginning to the middle to the end, was something I had to struggle to do each and every time.
More recently though, I’ve felt that my stories were lacking something. I couldn’t tell what it was, until I stumbled on a series of videos talking about story structure. There’s different story structures but one that kept repeating was Blake Snyder’s 15 story beats. This was an aha moment. As soon as I heard explanations of the story beats I knew this was something great. I went ahead and purchased the book, read through it in a week while also practicing the different instructions he gives. I’m not confident that I know it well enough to write 1st class stories, but I am confident, that I at least know what steps to take. The story beats works as a guide to help you write good stories.
His book was so informative that I felt like a different person after reading it. To the point that the story I’ve put months into, and months more doing the rough draft for, has been scrapped. It was a tough decision because I’m throwing away half a year of effort, but I think it’s necessary. The story I had didn’t follow any structure, and it shows. I want to improve with each graphic novel I make, and I did anticipate my third graphic novel would be better than my second (Stuck), but using what I’ve learnt from Blake Snyder’s book it should be even more so.
There’s arguably much more important important information in his book, beyond just the story beats. I’m not going to explain it all here, because honestly it’s much better to just purchase the book. It’s a very ease read, with many examples. If you want to improve your writing do yourself a favor and purchase the book.
What I will do here though is give an example of what I mean, regarding story beats, by breaking down Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse into Blake Snyder’s 15 story beats. If you’ve seen the movie then it’ll be easy to follow along, and if you haven’t you can see it or find a story summary.
One last note before we start. Blake Snyder’s book is for screenwriters. I’m not planning a movie, but a graphic novel with a self contained story would fit nicely into the movie format. The numbers indicate what page the beats should appear in your story, if it’s a 110 page story. If it’s longer than that then it should still be proportional to what is shown here. OK let’s start!
Opening image (1): The opening image is important because it sets the tone of the story. For Spider-man it’s a comic book cover of basically the Spiderman that we’re accustomed to, and Spiderman giving a monologue of who he is.
Set-up (1-10): The setup is explaining that Spiderman is skilled and experienced. The movie then focused on Miles Morales. It shows his room, his family, and how popular he was at his old school and neighborhood. He heads towards his new private school where he’s not popular at all. He seemingly doesn’t fit in. Many of the important characters are introduced during the setup. His uncle Aaron, Gwen Stacy, Doctor Ock (in the classroom science video they watch), and his family.
Theme Stated (5): within the setup the theme is stated by Miles’ father, “we all make choices in life.” This is what Miles will have to tackle the whole movie. Miles doesn’t understand what his dad means, and this is what is explored in the movie.
Catalyst (12): Everything that happens prior to this point is showing Miles’ ordinary life. Everything after this is new territory. It’s at this point that Miles gets bit by the multi-verse spider. At first Miles thinks it’s an ordinary spider and thinks nothing of it. The next day though there are many obvious changes, which forces him to go back to the place he was bitten. When he gets there he’s lead to an area underground where he sees Spiderman fighting the Green Goblin.
Debate (12-25): The debate is when the character “debates” whether or not he’ll continue with his journey through the unknown, or go back to his normal life. Of course if he goes back to his normal life, then the movie ends. In fact there would be no movie. This debate occurs when Miles sees spiderman die, and spiderman gives him an override key to turn off the black hole collider. Miles knows that he can’t do it, but he’s so moved by spiderman’s heroics and eventual death that he decides he must try.
Break Into Two (25): Miles accepts the journey.
B Story (30): According to Blake this is where the audience can take a breather. In the movie Miles is introduced to another Peter Parker from another universe. What follows is a sort of push and pull from the two characters. Miles, and the audience, has certain expectations from Spiderman, but this Spiderman is unlike the spiderman we’ve been introduced to, and know from the decades of movies. This Spiderman is jaded. He’s lost so much, that a large part of him doesn’t care, and is bored by the whole hero business. While Miles is new to the game, and hoping to be mentored by an experienced Spiderman. Unfortunately he, at this point, has no interest in teaching him anything.
Fun and Games (30-55): Blake describes the Fun and Games as being where much of the trailer for the movie will be taken from. He says, “The fun and games section answers the question: Why did I come to see this movie? What about this premise, this poster, this movie idea is cool?” In the movie it’s the scene where Miles and Peter Parker are being chased by the police. Peter is coming in and out of consciousness, and Miles is desperately trying to avoid the cops, getting injured, and removing the web sling that’s attached to moving train.
Midpoint (55): If you split your story in half, the midpoint is the threshold between the two halves. The midpoint is where the fun and games ends and the stakes are raised. The midpoint will be a false victory or a false defeat. Meaning it will appear to the audience that the characters has achieved a large step towards his eventual victory, or he’s had a set back. Blake says, “The rule is: It’s never as good as it seems to be at the midpoint and it’s never as bad as it seems at the All is Lost point.” For our movie the midpoint is where Spiderman decides to teach Miles for real how to be Spiderman. It’s where he believes he can eventually be him. And in terms of plot it’s where they get what they need to produce a new override key (because the previous one was broken).
Bad Guys Close in (55-75): While your heroes are trying to achieve victory, the bad guys aren’t going to sit around and wait to lose. They’re going to plan and attack your heroes. This is where that happens. In this movie it’s where all the bad guys appear at Peter Parkers house and have a brawl with the different spider people.
All is Lost (75): This is the opposite of the up or down of the midpoint. In this movie since we had a false victory, this point is a false defeat. This is where uncle Aaron, aka the Prowler, is killed by kingpin. The setup is really nice, since it appears the Prowler may kill Miles, then when he takes off Miles’ mask and sees it’s his nephew, he decides to let him go, but is immediately shot by the Kingpin. Blake advises that all movies should have a “whiff of death” at this point of the movie. It’s these types of moments that lead to the most growth. In Islam death is the reminder of our purpose in this world, and also the destroyer of desires. It’s through death that we wake up and realize what we need to do.
Dark Night of the Soul (75-85): This is the point of the story where the character has to dig deep to find the answer to the theme. Your character finally realizes the whole point of his journey. In this case, Miles finally realizes that he needs to make a conscious choice on how to live his life, and not let others decide for him. He keeps asking, “how will I know when I’m ready.” Spiderman tells him, “you won’t, it’s a leap of faith.” Meaning you just have to believe and take action based on that belief. Due to the death of Miles’ uncle and other directly preceding events, Miles digs deep and takes the step he was always afraid to take. We see him leaping off buildings and practicing his web slinging, and he’s doing it all while beating down his own fear. He finally believes in himself, much like how his father believes in him.
Break Into Act Three (85): The theme is answered.
Finale (85-110): Where the climax happens. The spider people infiltrate Kingpin’s headquarters and a battle ensues. Blake says, “The finale is where a new society is born.”
Final Image (110): The final image is to show the change that’s taken place in the movie. In this case it’s a comic cover for Miles’ character and Miles introducing himself. We started this movie with the Spiderman we’re accustomed to, and ended it with a new and vastly different Spiderman.
I hope this was a helpful explanation on how to structure a story. When thinking of your own story this is a good place to start. What’s the theme? What is the new world the hero will be in? How will he learn his lesson? How will he change? What are some defeats that will occur along the way? What are some victories? There’s a lot to think about when constructing a story, so any tool that can be used, should be used. Stories are very complex with many characters, many of which are going on their own story arcs. Much like in our own lives, every character should think he/she is the protagonist of their own story.
You don’t have to follow this story structure, or any story structure for that matter. But kind of like in sports, you need to first learn the basic fundamentals, before you can decide how to form your own style.
In future posts I’ll go over other lessons I learned from Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat!: The Last Book on Screenwriting That You’ll Ever Need, God willing. Stay tuned!