Q&A: Structure by the Numbers

Q: I have a structure question that pertains to my notes from your Story Mastery seminar, and from your video with Chris Vogler, The Hero’s Two Journeys. You place the ALL IS LOST moment at 75%, but in Save The Cat, Blake Snyder suggests page 75 (about 68%) for THE DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL. So if I follow your formula, should I place the DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL at 75-80% and then the ACT THREE FINALE from 80% to the end of the script?

A: I appreciate your question, and sympathize with your struggle trying to reconcile two different approaches from two alleged experts. But here is my best advice: put away your calculator.

It’s true that I am very left brained, and I love using charts and lists and jargon in order to be as clear and specific as possible. But even I don’t regard plot structure as nuclear physics.

Your goal as a storyteller is always the same: maximize the emotional experience for your readers and audience. Generally speaking, successful movies place the turning points in close proximity to the percentages I talk about. But the numbers can vary a few minutes in either direction, depending on the number of heroes, the genre, the pacing, the budget, or a dozen other factors. And Blake Snyder (whose structural approach is very compatible with mine) might have meant something different than I do with his terminology. But I’m sure he would have agreed, and I know Chris Vogler and my other well-known associates do, that we want to guide you, not dictate what you must do.

So include the turning points (Blake’s or Chris’ or mine or any others that are helpful), but give yourself some latitude, and allow for some discovery as you write. Let the plot grow organically from your characters and situations. And most of all, concentrate on how well your stories reflect your own truth, and how deeply they touch others.