It’s a Wonderful … Story Structure
(January 2016 issue)
A Newsletter by Michael W. Anderson
I have never enjoyed the Christmas movie, It’s A Wonderful Life. Not until this year, that is. What changed? This past year I spent an inordinate amount of time studying story structure, capped by a trip out to Hollywood in November for a screenwriting workshop put on by MovieGuide. It turns out, It’s A Wonderful Life has remained popular for so many years not only because of (a) its incredibly positive, uplifting, and encouraging message and (b) its artful interweaving of personal and overall conflict with a satisfying resolution, but also because (c) it keeps to the mathematical rules of crafting a story with amazing precision.
Good stories (both novels and movies) are crafted with mathematical precision to lead the reader/viewer along a progression that makes sense to the human mind. Understanding the structure of a story will change the way you look at movies and novels, and help you diagnose why you liked (or didn’t like) a story.
The Structure of a Story
Writing a story is more of an art than a science, right? For the most part, yes. But if that art doesn’t get the science correct, it will be a mess. Almost every good story is divided into four sections which include:
Part 1: The Setup (0-25%)
We meet our hero/protagonist before he has started into his journey. We learn about his background, his desires, what he does with this life, and what’s at stake for him. This is the world-building stage, and it’s where the writer builds empathy for the protagonist. If the setup is too short, the audience will rarely care what happens to the protagonist since it hasn’t been given enough time to get to know him. If the setup is too long, the audience will likely deem the story “slow” since it is taking too long for anything to happen. For this reason, knowledgeable writers aim to end the setup exactly at the 25% marker with the First Plot Point – something that happens which changes the trajectory of the protagonist’s life.
Part 2: The Response (25-50%)
The protagonist responds to this story-altering event in the second quarter of the story. Now the hero faces a whole new set of problems, objectives, obstacles and needs. It’s a new quest, and he responds to it somehow: by investigating, running, challenging it, disbelieving it, or wishing it would go away. There is a change in the protagonist’s actions which is just short of actually attacking the problem in an informed manner. This thought-process, whatever it is, begins the protagonist’s character change or “character arc” (which is necessary, lest the audience shout “flat character!”). In part 2, there will be some wins and some losses, but ultimately, it appears that the antagonist is prevailing while the protagonist battles his inner demons. At this point of the story, we arrive at the Midpoint – another something happens which starts the protagonist on the road to victory.
Part 3: The Attack (50-75%)
The protagonist is finally on the road to victory even if he doesn’t realize it yet. He is taking actions that are proactive and aggressive, rather than reactive and responsive. It may not work as well as he had hoped – in fact it shouldn’t – but he’s not going to fail without a fight. And, boy, is he in for a fight! The forces of evil are stacking up against the protagonist, the inner demons are cropping up in rare form so that even the protagonist sees them for what they are, and we are building up to a climatic moment (the “all is lost moment”) when it seems like things can’t get any worse and there is no hope. That’s the Second Plot Point.
Part 4: The Resolution (75-100%)
The hero shows up. The protagonist doesn’t jump into a phone booth and come out in tights – rather, he starts making decisions and actions that allow him to become worthy of the title “hero.” In this fourth quartile, the protagonist is much better equipped to win this fight and is ready to square off with the antagonist. He has learned lessons. He has changed. He has matured. He has courage. He’s conqured his inner demons. Now it’s winning time. He rides that momentum all the way to the end of the movie, where the enemy is conquered, the problem is fixed, and there is a happy ending.
That’s story structure. It’s precise and it forms the basis for every good movie you’ve seen (and most good books you’ve read) from The Godfather to Toy Story. Shall I prove it? Let’s look at It’s a Wonderful Life.
Structure of IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE
Part 1: The Setup
It’s a Wonderful Life presents a thorough picture of George Bailey (played by the iconic Jimmy Stewart). The audience learns of his life, hopes, dreams, and disappointments. He’s a man with ambitions far too great for the small town of Bedford Falls, NY. He has talent, but also a strong sense of order and discipline, responsibility, and loyalty to his family. Those latter characteristics have kept him home waiting patiently for his chance to seek fame and fortune. He works diligently for his father who runs a savings and loan company which helps ordinary citizens make ends meet and, more importantly, gives them an alternative to becoming beholden to Mr. Potter, a wealthy slumlord/lender who is buying up the town. To George, however, this is “nickel and dime” work and he comforts himself that it won’t be forever. He is so focused on getting out of Bedford Falls that he doesn’t even notice the attention being paid to him by the beautiful Mary, the woman who eventually becomes his wife.
FIRST PLOT POINT: Exactly 25% through the movie, George’s father dies of a heart attack. Mr. Potter seizes the moment to pressure the board of directors to dissolve the savings and loan company. Just when it looks as if the board will cave under the pressure, George stands up to Mr. Potter, extolling the virtues of the savings and loan, even if he wants nothing to do with it. The board confers and excitedly relays the message to George. The company will not be dissolved. The catch? George has to run the company.
Part 2: The Response
Duty. Loyalty. Responsibility. George can’t let the people of Bedford Falls fall under the control of Mr. Potter. With a heavy heart, he turns his back on his dreams. His life is not without happiness. He finally realizes he has been crazy to ignore Mary. They get married and have four children. They fix up an old house that Mary had dreamed about when they were young. And George becomes a respected and cherished part of the community for his tireless work at the savings and loan company.
But George is constantly reminded of his broken dreams. His younger brother Harry, who, unlike George, was unwilling to sacrifice for the family, is given a scholarship to play football in college. Harry then goes off to fight in World War II and comes back a decorated hero. George couldn’t enlist because of a hearing disability he got after saving Harry from drowning in a frozen lake when they were kids. To pour salt in the wounds, George’s high school buddy, Sam Wainwright escapes Bedford Falls, finds his Midas’ Touch in all manner of business endeavors, drives fancy cars, and dates models.
MIDPOINT: Despite the frustrations, life is tolerable for George – until his absent-minded Uncle Billy accidentally hands the saving and loan company’s cash reserves – all $8,000 – to Mr. Potter. Of course, Mr. Potter sees this as his chance to squash the savings and loan and, specifically, George Bailey, who has set up an affordable housing complex in town, cannibalizing Mr. Potter’s profits. Meanwhile, George and Uncle Billy scour the town searching for the money as bank examiners wait in the lobby of the savings and loan company. “Someone is going to jail for this, and it won’t be me!” George screams, uncharacteristically, at Uncle Billy.
And what do you know? This happens at exactly the 50% marker of the movie.
Part 3: The Attack
George arrives home stressed. The savings and loan company will go bankrupt. Someone will go to jail. Mr. Potter has won. And his life of sacrifice was all for naught. Once he arrives, the kids tug on his clothes, ask him questions, and play the piano loudly. Mary chatters away about Christmas festivities and get-togethers. The stress compounds these small irritants and George loses it. He throws a fit, breaking up furniture in the living room. Embarrassed, he apologizes and heads out into the night. After crashing his car, he finds himself at a bridge, seriously considering committing suicide.That’s when Clarence, an angel that hasn’t earned his wings yet, comes to the rescue. Clarence shows George what life would be like if he had never existed. It’s a very bleak place and it has Mr. Potter’s fingerprints all over it.
Second Plot Point: George has a hard time accepting how different Bedford Falls would have been without his presence. Reality comes crashing down on him when he finds Mary – who ended up an unmarried (gasp!), unfulfilled librarian. George tries to talk to her, than grabs her and hugs and kisses her. Naturally, in this alternative universe, this freaks her out. The police chase after him, even firing shots. George runs back to the bridge where he was going to commit suicide and recants, in a prayer, his wish that he had never been born. He wants to go back. He had a wonderful life.
75%. Almost to the second.
Part 4: The Resolution
George goes home with a new lease on life. He values his wife and children. He values the work he does at the savings and loan company. He still faces the problems of reality, but the town rises up to the challenge on his behalf. The years of loyalty and responsibility are repaid as one by one, all of the town citizens whom he has helped in the past arrive at his home and contribute their money to replenish the lost reserves. In the end, it’s enough to satisfy the bank examiners. Harry punctuates the point of the movie when he says: “To my big brother George, the richest man in town!”George realizes his desire to achieve in life has already been accomplished, even though he had never been able to leave Bedford Falls.
File this away in the “there’s very little ‘random’ in this world” folder. Stories, like everything else, follow a set of rules, and there is a better chance of success if the rules of the game are followed. Still, you would be surprised how many movies get made and books are written where no thought is put into story structure. If you find yourself saying, “Too slow” of “Who cares?” next time you’re watching a movie or reading a book, now you know why.
Michael W. Anderson is the author of Provoke Not The Children. The first book of a trilogy, The Civility Code, is due to be released in March. If The Monthly Takeaway was forwarded to you (awesome!), but you would like to receive future issues directly, please click HERE.