Article: Breaking Down the Story

Formula: Breaking Down the Story

By Joylene Butler
Author of Dead Witness

I'm in the middle of doing movie plotting exercises because I've hit a wall with my work-in-progress. I'm hoping they'll spark some ideas. Monday, I watched Get Carter twice in one day to see if I could pinpoint its turning points.

Get Carter is about an enforcer for the Las Vegas mob going home to attend his brother's funeral. It stars Sylvester Stallone and is directed by Stephen Kay. If you're into screenwriting, you must purchase a copy. Under Special Features, Mr. Kay does a complete audio commentary of the movie. He explains every aspect of the film, from cutting scenes to camera angles to inserting clues. IOWs, he explains why his filmed the story the way he did. Excellent free invaluable lessons for any one interested in writing a great story.

Alexandra Sokoloff, author of The Unseen, does story breakdowns regularly on her blog. She's an excellent teacher and she usually covers stuff that I'm struggling over. After reading the breakdown she did on Chinatown, I tried to find a copy of the movie in my area. So such luck. Of course, I'll end up ordering one online only to see it in every store I visit next week.

But, I digress. Because I follow Alexandra's blog regularly, I decided I'd take her up on the exercises. I watched Get Carter and jotted down what the three Acts were, what happened every 15 minutes of the movie and what the big climax at the one hour mark was. She suggests you keep an eye on the DVD's clock because most films follow a strict formula.

Sure enough. After the first 15 minutes Jack Carter had learned that his brother was murdered. In fact, every 15 minutes another turning point took place. An hour into the film the big climax occurred. Jack discovers who killed his brother and why. He also discovers more than he bargained for.

I found the same formula in The Replacement Killers. I'm watching Collateral next and after that, Point of No Return, then Panic Room, etc , etc. I might stop at 10 movies before I return to my WIP.

I should probably come clean and confess that formulas didn't sit well with me at first. I was under the impressive, for quite a few years, that formulas ruined originality. Silly me. I've come to appreciate the recipe for a good book, just like a good director does when he makes a movie. 15 minutes into a novel is comparable to the first one-third (75-100 pages) of a book. The climax happens around page 200 - 300, depending on the length.

A lot of writers write without understanding the mechanics of writing. More power to them. Me, I need to understand all of it. After publishing Dead Witness, I knew I owned it to myself to hone my skills. Even if it means going over the same old thing. Remembering that novels can be broken down into 3 Acts, prompts me to understand every intricate part of writing a novel.

Act One introduces the protagonist and the problem. Act Two is a series of complications that increase the conflict and adds minor crisis to the story. Act Three reveals the plot and answers the story question. Act Four ties everything together. That's just the basics, but it's a good place to start.

I'm only up to page 71 (35,300 words), but I'm able to rough in an outline of the three acts for my WIP. I'm focusing on the three acts. I know not every writer can write that way, and while I didn't do that for my previous 5 manuscripts, it seems to be working this time.


  1. Thanks again for the hospitality, Jo. I always enjoy being here. You're such an important asset in this business and your contribution is appreciated. Have a great day.

  2. Hi Joylene. Keep trying new things. And thanks for sharing your experiences. Looks interesting.


  3. Thanks Joylene for this great article. I'm one of those who resists outlines and formulas and the way you describe this method appears like one I can use. Thanks so much for the info.
    Jo Ann Hernandez
    BronzeWord Latino Authors

  4. Thanks for stopping by, Keith. Keep writing.

  5. Hi Jo Ann! Thanks for stopping by. I found the exercise to be fun. Sure put a big dent into an afternoon!

  6. I thought I'd have time to work on an outline for my newest wip during my vacation but never got past reading and revisions on a previous ms. It may be that my subconscious is avoiding outlining because I haven't used it before, but I keep hearing how others use it to good advantage and I really want/intend to try it. Eventually.....


  7. Thank you Joylene for such an interesting article.
    Hearing about others techniques can be of great help to other writers.

    Thanks to everyone who stopped by and left comments. It's nice to know what people's reactions are to the posts here.


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