STORY STRUCTURE: The 5 Key Turning Points of All Successful Screenplays
Hollywood movies are simple.
Though writing a successful Hollywood movie is certainly not easy, the stories for mainstream Hollywood films are all built on only three basic components: character, desire and conflict.
Film stories portray heroes who face seemingly insurmountable obstacles as they pursue compelling objectives. Whether it’s Clarice Starling trying to stop Hannibal, Captain Miller Saving Private Ryan, or Billy Elliott trying to gain admission to a ballet school, all these protagonists confront overwhelming conflict in their pursuit of some visible goal.
Plot structure simply determines the sequence of events that lead the hero toward this objective. And here’s the good news: whether you’re writing romantic comedies, suspense thrillers, historical dramas or big budget science fiction, all successful Hollywood movies follow the same basic structure.
Even if you are a novelist, speaker, marketer or attorney, understanding these turning points, and incorporating them into your stories, will strengthen your ability to enthrall your reader or audience.
In a properly structured movie, the story consists of six basic stages, which are defined by five key turning points in the plot. Not only are these turning points always the same; they always occupy the same positions in the story. So what happens at the 25% point of a 90-minute comedy will be identical to what happens at the same percentage of a three-hour epic. (These percentages apply both to the running time of the film and the pages of your screenplay.)
In the explanation that follows, I want to take two recent blockbusters through this entire structural process: Susannah Grant’s screenplay for Erin Brockovich; and Gladiator, written by David H. Franzoni, John Logan and William Nicholson. As different as these two films are in style, genre, length and subject matter, both have made more than a hundred million dollars at the box office, both were among the most critically acclaimed films of 2000, and both employ the same basic plot structure.
STAGE I: The Setup
Erin Brockovich: Erin is a broke, unemployed single mother who can’t find a job, gets hit by a car, and loses her lawsuit.
Gladiator: Maximus, Rome’s most powerful, and most popular, general, leads his troops to victory in their final battle.
The opening 10% of your screenplay must draw the reader, and the audience, into the initial setting of the story, must reveal the everyday life your hero has been living, and must establish identification with your hero by making her sympathetic, threatened, likable, funny and/or powerful.
Cast Away transports us into the world of a FedEx executive, shows him as likable and good at his job, and creates sympathy and worry when he must leave the woman he loves at Christmas to fly off in dangerous weather. Or think of Lowell Bergman’s mysterious, threatening pursuit of a story at the beginning of The Insider. These setups pull us out of our own existence and into the captivating world the screenwriter has created.
TURNING POINT #1: The Opportunity (10%)
Erin Brockovich: Erin forces Ed Masry to give her a job.
Gladiator: Maximus is offered a reward by Emperor Marcus Aurelius, and he says he wants to go home.
Ten percent of the way into your screenplay, your hero must be presented with an opportunity, which will create a new, visible desire, and will start the character on her journey. This is the point where Neo is taken to meet Morpheus and wants to learn about The Matrix, or where Ike gets fired and wants to go meet the Runaway Bride.
Notice that the desire created by the opportunity is not the specific goal that defines your story concept, but rather a desire to move into…
STAGE 2: The New Situation
Erin Brockovich: Erin begins working for Ed Masry’s law firm, meets her neighbor George, and starts investigating a case in Hinkley, California, but then gets fired
Gladiator: Maximus is asked by the dying Emperor to take control of Rome and give it back to the people, in spite of the ambition of his son Commodus.
For the next 15% of the story, your hero will react to the new situation that resulted from the opportunity. He gets acclimated to the new surroundings, tries to figure out what’s going on, or formulates a specific plan for accomplishing his overall goal: Fletcher has to figure out that he’s been cursed to tell the truth in Liar, Liar; and Mrs. Doubtfire devises a plan for seeing (his) children.
Very often story structure follows geography, as the opportunity takes your hero to a new location: boarding the cruise ships in Titanic and The Talented Mr. Ripley; going to Cincinnati to bury his father in Rain Man; the President taking off on Air Force One.
In most movies, the hero enters this new situation willingly, often with a feeling of excitement and anticipation, or at least believing that the new problem he faces can be easily solved. But as the conflict starts to build, he begins to realize he’s up against far greater obstacles than he realized, until finally he comes to…
TURNING POINT #2: The Change of Plans (25%)
Erin Brockovich: Erin gets rehired to help win a suit against PG&E.
Gladiator: Maximus, after learning that Commodus has murdered his father, vows to stop the new emperor and carry out Marcus Aurelius’ wishes.
Something must happen to your hero one-fourth of the way through your screenplay that will transform the original desire into a specific, visible goal with a clearly defined end point. This is the scene where your story concept is defined, and your hero’s outer motivation is revealed.
Outer motivation is my term for the visible finish line the audience is rooting for your hero to achieve by the end of the film. It is here that Tess discovers that Katherine has stolen her idea in Working Girl, and now wants to close the deal herself by posing as a broker. This is what we’re rooting for Tess to do, and we know that when she’s accomplished this goal (or failed to), the movie will be over.
Please don’t confuse outer motivation with the inner journey your hero takes. Because much of what we respond to emotionally grows out of the hero’s longings, wounds, fears, courage and growth, we often focus on these elements as we develop our stories. But these invisible character components can emerge effectively only if they grow out of a simple, visible desire.
STAGE III: Progress
Erin Brockovich: Erin gets some Hinkley residents to hire Ed to represent them, and gets romantically involved with George.
Gladiator: Maximus is taken to be killed, escapes to find his family murdered, and is captured and sold to Proximo, who makes him a powerful gladiator.
For the next 25% of your story, your hero’s plan seems to be working as he takes action to achieve his goal: Ethan Hunt begins closing in on the villain in Mission: Impossible 2; Pat gets involved with the woman of his dreams in There’s Something About Mary.
This is not to say that this stage is without conflict. But whatever obstacles your hero faces, he is able to avoid or overcome them as he approaches…
TURNING POINT #3: The Point of No Return (50%)
Erin Brockovich: Erin and Ed file the lawsuit, risking dismissal by the judge, which would destroy any hope of a settlement.
Gladiator: Maximus arrives in Rome, determined to win the crowd as a Gladiator so he can destroy Commodus.
At the exact midpoint of your screenplay, your hero must fully commit to her goal. Up to this point, she had the option of turning back, giving up on her plan, and returning to the life she was living at the beginning of the film. But now your hero must burn her bridges behind her and put both feet in. (And never let it be said that I can’t work two hackneyed metaphors into the same sentence).
It is at precisely this moment that Truman crosses the bridge in The Truman Show, and that Rose makes love with Jack in Titanic. They are taking a much bigger risk than at any previous time in these films. And as a result of passing this point of no return, they must now face…
STAGE IV: Complications and Higher Stakes
Erin Brockovich: Erin sees less of George and her kids, while Ed brings in a big firm that alienates the Hinkley plaintiffs.
Gladiator: Maximus becomes a hero to the Roman people and reveals his true identity to Commodus.
For the next 25% of your story, achieving the visible goal becomes far more difficult, and your hero has much more to lose if he fails. After Mitch McDeere begins collecting evidence against The Firm at that movie’s midpoint, he now must hide what he’s doing from both the mob and the FBI (complications), and failure will result in either prison or death (higher stakes).
This conflict continues to build until, just as it seems that success is within your hero’s grasp, he suffers…
TURNING POINT #4: The Major Setback (75%)
Erin Brockovich: Most of the plaintiffs withdraw due to the bungled efforts of the new lawyers, and George leaves Erin.
Gladiator: Maximus refuses to help the leader of the Senate, and Commodus plots to destroy both Maximus and the Senate.
Around page 90 of your screenplay, something must happen to your hero that makes it seem to the audience that all is lost: Carol dumps Melvin in As Good As It Gets; Morpheus is captured in The Matrix. If you’re writing a romantic comedy like Working Girl or What Women Want, this is the point where your hero’s deception is revealed and the lovers break up.
These disastrous events leave your hero with only one option: he must make one, last, all-or-nothing, do-or-die effort as he enters…
STAGE V: The Final Push
Erin Brockovich: Erin must rally the Hinkley families to agree to binding arbitration, and find evidence incriminating the PG&E corporate office.
Gladiator: Maximus conspires to escape from Proximo and lead his former troops against Commodus.
Beaten and battered, your hero must now risk everything she has, and give every ounce of strength and courage she possesses, to achieve her ultimate goal: Thelma & Louise must outrun the FBI to reach the border; and the Kennedy’s must attempt one final negotiation with the Soviets in 13 Days.
During this stage of your script, the conflict is overwhelming, the pace has accelerated, and everything works against your hero, until she reaches…
TURNING POINT #5: The Climax (90-99%)
Erin Brockovich: Erin and Ed win a $330 million dollar settlement, and George returns.
Gladiator: Maximus has his final battle with Commodus in the arena.
Several things must occur at the climax of the film: the hero must face the biggest obstacle of the entire story; she must determine her own fate; and the outer motivation must be resolved once and for all. This is the big moment where our heroes go into the Twister and the Jewish factory workers make their escape in Schindler’s List.
Notice that the climax can occur anywhere from the 90% point to the last couple minutes of the movie. The exact placement will be determined by the amount of time you need for…
STAGE VI: The Aftermath
Erin Brockovich: Erin gets a $2 million bonus, and continues working with Ed.
Gladiator: Maximus is united with his family in death, and his body carried away in honor by the new leaders of the Roman republic.
No movie ends precisely with the resolution of the hero’s objective. You have to reveal the new life your hero is living now that he’s completed his journey.
In movies like Rocky, Thelma & Louise and The Truman Show, there is little to show or explain, and the writer’s goal is to leave the audience stunned or elated. So the climax occurs near the very end of the film. But in most romantic comedies, mysteries and dramas, the aftermath will include the final five or ten pages of the script.
Understanding these stages and turning points provides you with a powerful tool for developing and writing your screenplay. Is your story concept defined at the one-quarter mark? Is your hero’s goal truly visible, with a clearly implied outcome and not just an inner desire for success, acceptance or self worth? Have you fully introduced your hero before presenting her with an opportunity around page 10? Does she suffer a major setback 75% of the way into your script?
But a word of caution: don’t let all these percentages block your creativity. Structure is an effective template for rewriting and strengthening the emotional impact of your story. But you don’t want to be imprisoned by it. Come up with characters you love and a story that ignites your passion. Then apply these structural principles, to ensure that your screenplay will powerfully touch the widest possible audience.
Thanks for sharing informative article, I really like this post.
Awesome article thanks for sharing
Very Helpful Article! Can’t wait to start working on my new project implenting these points. Storyboards are time taking process, are they really necessary? Thank you
I just signed up to say; you’re the best Micheal! I’ve been quietly listening to you(YouTube) and reading your articles for 7 years now, and you’re just that simple real deal guy that always helps when we’re in a jam, thank you, thank you, thank you!
There are five key turning points in all successful screenplays. This blog post is an introduction to what they are and how to use them in your own screenplay.
this was extremally helpful as i want to wright a novel set in another dimension that me and my friends have developed for at least 5 yrs. looking at this helped me remove a lot the useless story that made the story grind to a halt. one of these was i tried to focus on two characters at once. i think i will try to wright two books taking place at the same time period. and actually it is in several other dimensions.
Because of a chronic illness I’ve had to put down my instruments and invest in an old love of mine; writing. I’ve wanted to write since I can remember, but it always seemed so intricate and complicated. I’d look back on my work and be disgusted.
Seven months ago I began to drown myself in articles and videos about all aspects of writing and I’ve made drafts and redrafts of my novel, knowing the relationships and the goals and desires of my characters, but never being able to make the story cohesive and linear.
I’ve read and watched plenty on story structure, but reading your article made everything click. It’s simple and straightforward and suddenly writing this novel has become absolutely surmountable. I have found nowhere that has so plainly laid this structure out.
I’ve had absolutely no formal training in writing on top of having untreated ADHD, and yet this was so easy for me to process and understand.
Sir, I thank you for all of the effort you put into this article, as well as your thought-out responses to the commenters. You are a gem and I hope you are well.
Hello! Thank you for letting us know about this. It took around …
24 hours to find this post. Gonna share it on Twitter if you allow me this.
This is the right site for everyone who wants to find out about this topic.
You realize a whole lot its almost tough
to argue with you (not that I really will need to…HaHa).
You definitely put a fresh spin on a subject
which has been written about for ages. Great stuff, just excellent!
The post you shared here is very informative. Thanks for writing such a great stuff for us.
This was so amazing and helpful I feel like I can accomplish anything.
Thanks Micheal! I needed a quick highly level perspective for my structure, as Blake Snyder’s structure albeit effective, felt a bit formulaic. This let the creativity boundaries open up a bit more for my screenplay.
Greatly appreciate – Gareth Pitt-Hart
Thank you Mr. Hauge!
Your story structure plan is a terrific tool in structuring one’s story and an invaluable fallback to use as a guide in writing oneself out of a wilderness of one’s own construction, which sometimes happens. In situations like that, going back to your basics is just the ticket to finding your way again.
I am writing a novel and I find that the 6-stage structure applies in this medium as well as it does in film. Having studied filmmaking extensively and attended Syd Field’s course in Hollywood decades ago, I am a passionate film lover and of course I see my novel being made into a film. As such, I see it in visual terms and am trying to write it that way. I am a wordsmith as well as a designer and photographer, which makes me an intensely visual person, so i see my books as films and would appreciate any pointers you can give about fiction writing, for novels, that one wishes finally to see as films.
Specifically, romance/mystery such as, to use a film example,The Thomas Crown Affair (Pierce Brosnan edition.) Suspense/Mystery/Romance may not be a genre, but it is nevertheless what I’m writing, and I have at least three or four books planned using the same heroine, each set in different countries where I have lived. Charade would fall into this category, I suppose, I’m sure you can name others. Perhaps Adventure/Romance is the more appropriate term? Romancing the Stone, et cetera. I’m sure you can elaborate on this category of film.
I am thankful that you agree that novels can be more “fluid” with their use of the 6 stages and percentages but am crossing my fingers in hopeful anticipation of any further wisdom you might afford to the fiction-destined-for-the-screen writer. Trying to weave a love story into a mystery is harder than it looks!
Thanks for greatest breakdown of screenplay structure build-up.
I read the above with great enthusiasm. My script (143 pages – for a feature movie) includes description where there is no dialogue) My script, titled – SIX MILLION YEARS BC to 1956 AC – is about four cave dwellers (ages – 14 to 19) growing up with their joys/fears/loss/uncertainty. Overtime the four cave dwellers are captured by monsters from the ‘thing’. With four others, are Put under the glass dome. The last thing Brandenella sees before collapsing across the others, is the Captain of the space ship and the robots engulfed in flames.
I believe my script (for TV) could be made into a 2part series.
Would you give me some sort of feedback on the above please.
Shirley (Lithgow, Blue Mountains, NSW, AUSTRALIA) PS – I am almost 84 years young
Shirley – I can’t give any kind of detailed comments in this space, but I will say that 143 pages is way too long for a screenplay. And in reading your summary, the story sounds very complicated, and tries to cover too much territory. I would pare it down until you can describe in in TWO SENTENCES, with a single hero who encounters a specific problem and then has a simple, clearly defined goal with lots of obstacles to achieving it. Keep at it – you’re on the right track, just simplify the story.
Here’s another article that you may find helpful: https://storymastery.com/character-development/what-does-your-hero-want-outer-motivation/
Hello and greetings. Thank you very much for this posting. I was lead here during my scriptwriting class, and I have to say how amazingly simple, yet effective this is as I’ve thought about all the good movies I’ve watched, and how well this is applied.
Mr. Hauge I absolutely adore your screenplay of “the Truman Show” and I highly appreciate some of the aspects incorporated into the book that were left out of the movie. For example I liked how “Marlon” did in fact actually recognise Truman but didn’t expose him. I very much enjoy your concept and hope to read more from you.
Thank you for your inspiring work. Greetings from Germany
[…] https://storymastery.com/story/screenplay-structure-five-key-turning-points-successful-scripts/ […]
[…] Hague’s framework hangs upon the notion of turning points. These points remain the same no matter the type of story and they also occur at the same point of a story regardless of its length. The first stage is the initial setup that leads an opportunity at the 10% mark. The second stage introduces the new situation that leads to a change in plans at the 25% point. The third stage covers what progress is being made, and this leads to the point of no return at the halfway mark. The fourth stage introduces more complications and even higher stakes where a major setback is going to occur 75% of the way into the plot. The fifth stage represents the final push that leads to the climax somewhere around 90-99% of the story being done. Finally, the sixth stage shows the aftermath and a glimpse into how the character goes on. Read more here. […]
Mr. Hauge — Thanks for an excellent article! I bought and read your book, “Writing Screenplays that Sell” years ago, and incorporated many of your ideas into a compilation of notes on screenwriting craft, which I still refer to. After reading this article, I want to go back and read your book again, cover to cover. You really have a talent for putting across important ideas in a way that writers can relate to, and apply to their own projects.
All the best!
I learn more every time I watch “The Hero’s 2 Journeys” DVD, which lays all of this out in terrific detail.
Vogler’s approach is confusing to me, but I skip right past it.
Hi Michael, Is there any chance you could do a screenplay breakdown for Judd Apatow’s “This is 40”? Also, does the structure change if you go back in time at some point in the screenplay? Thank you!!!
Sir, your narration is interesting and I noticed the sharpness which draw the people even a common reader into the subject taken for the blog. Finally I find the best track for my search in this regard. Thanks. M.Eswaran from Madurai India.
Thanks, Michael for this clear and informative post. 🙂 — Suzanne
Thanx from all creative people! You give professional advices for free… Outstanding!
I am finishing screenplay of my personal and professional life (Diplomat), Modern International Relations with a sci-fi element. Story is based on true facts.
Let me ask you: Is it possible to ask you to become a co-writer or mentor of a screenplay?
I will try to fly to Tucson, AZ (November 18-19) to listen Story Mastery and salute you there.
Agile Diplomacy Committee LLC
Hello Mr. Hauge
thanks a lot for the post,
I am a screen writer and director from Tanzania, as well as a student pursuing Masters degree in Film and Television at the university of Wits (SA), what i can say is that the post is awesome and really helpful
Thanks for this insight.
2 quick questions.
1. I’ve got my story structure all set but I’m struggling on my dialogue. My favourite films for dialogue are Tarantino but my script is much more in the Saving Private Ryan tone than it is a Tarantino movie. Do you have any good examples of how I use dialogue to drive the story?
2. How long should the average script be (in pages)?
Thank you for breaking this down. I’ve got a M/S; not a screenplay, but this is perfect to learn from to write my synopsis. The structure/turning points align perfectly; I need only define ’em, now. And I’ve seen the movie-as you explain it, I picture it; it makes sense. I’ve jumped a hurdle in learning from your post.
Hey Mr Hauge, this is an amazing piece.
Thenks a lot this will greatly help me with my first screenplay
Thank you sir for this very interesting article,
it will help me a lot to better structure my screenplays’s story…
Just i’m wondering how to present my screenplay to hollywood’s studios once it’s finished?!
Are there any writing guide to hollywood producers?
Thank you in advance…
Redha – Start by reading my book Writing Screenplays That Sell (go to the products page of this site), the join iMDbpro.com.
Keep up the good work and generating the group!
Am working on my first. This is Awesome
I’m trying to write suspense horror story….I’m not getting clear plot… I’m expecting different plot for my story ….pls help me
[…] Hauge’s Six-Stage approach to story structure divides any successful story into setup, new situation, progress, complications and higher stakes, retreat and final push, and aftermath. These stages are divided by five key turning points: opportunity, change of plans, point of no return, major setback and climax. For a more detailed explanation of his approach, go to this article on his website: STORY STRUCTURE: The 5 Key Turning Points of All Successful Screenplays […]
Having just completed NaNoWriMo I tried to just pants/ write free flow to get to the requisite 50,000 words in 30 days and then go back and impose a structure over the last week . I found it really worked for me. I also discovered my characters , plot and inciting incidents by forcing myself to write a jumbled draft and then going back over them and move everything around in Scrivener. When I previously have written very exact plans I felt caged at times, I have a new discipline in writing and a relationship with my mind and the blank page by writing things down on paper rather than typing them up. (I then do my first real edit as I go along typing it up later as a form of the second draft) . I use VIKI King’s outline for structure and have taken great inspiration from Blake Snyder (Save the cat!) . I don’t think there really is a right way to do this as such, it’s really finding out what works for you but knowing what the rules are before breaking them seems to be the right way to go, I was also pleasantly rewarded for my efforts recently by selling my first script and also having my first play performed this month so something must be working! (now to get the Novel finished with all the various edits out the door to the proofreader!) This article really helped me go back and examine the basics again, a useful thing to revisit!
[…] an outline that would work for me. Most of the outline is straight from Michael Hauge’s Six Stage Story Structure for screenplays because it worked so well for this novel. You’ll also see K.M. […]
[…] (You just can’t go wrong when you start with Michael Hauge’s amazing 6-Stage Plot Structure.) […]
Than you so much Michael! Your article has REALLY helped me with my script! 🙂
Hello Mr. Hauge,
Thank you for this explanation of story structure. I have been developing a fantasy story for about 3 years now and I think this is just what I needed to start pulling all the pieces together! For that reason, I decided to do a little experiment with it. So, last night I sat down with my wife, a stop watch, a pen and some paper and put in one of my favorite DVDs , Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone. (Not that year one is necessarily my favorite of the bunch, but the beginning seemed like a logical place to start!) And just like the cold reality of a scientific formula it began to play out… Stage 1, The setup, there’s poor Harry in everyday life with the wretched Dursleys and then, true to the formula exactly 10% of the way in, Turning Point 1, Harry is presented with an opportunity… he’s a wizard and given an invitation to Hogwart’s. So I reset my stopwatch for the next 15% and waited as Harry made his way through Stage 2, The New Situation, going through Diagon Alley, arriving at Hogwart’s… and then, POOF! The formula, as if by magic, seemed to disappear! Where’s the change of plan? Where’s the clear outer motivation? What exactly is the goal here? Best I could figure it wasn’t until about 100 minutes in that Harry realized he must be the one to protect the the stone! Then a little bit of panic set in… what if I’m just not seeing it? Maybe I’m just not recognizing the different turning points and stages. If I can’t even recognize these crucial points in one of my favorite stories, maybe my own story is doomed to be a broken, incoherent mess! HELP! Am I just missing it? Does this story really go that far in its own way? Thanks for any help with this!
Perhaps some fellow subscribers could help us out here. I haven’t seen the film since it was first released, so my memory of it isn’t that sharp. And I’d love to hear how others would define the structure of the first Harry Potter film. Meanwhile, I will say that the film was based on a hugely successful novel, to which the filmmakers paid a great deal of allegiance. Novels can be much more fluid with the six stages, and their percentages than can most screenplays. And there will always be films that take liberties with my 6-stage approach (and any other formula for that matter). But having said that, I suggest you go back to the film to see what DOES happen at the 25% mark. Isn’t this close to the sequence where Harry has prepared for his life at Hogwarts, and his goal is now to complete the school year, and help his house win the trophy? I’d also bet that while he may not yet know that he must protect the stone, SOMETHING mysterious or threatening happens at the 1/4 mark that Harry and the others want to solve and possibly prevent or stop. The movie would then match the structure of most mystery-thrillers, where we don’t know the exact finish line, but we know something bad is going to be confronted. And finally, just because one movie seems inconsistent to you, that is no indication that your own script is doomed – or even that it won’t be great. Look at LOTS of scripts and films and you’ll get steadily stronger and understanding, and employing, proper structure in your writing.
Thanks for the quick reply… and WOW, considering it’s about 15 years since the 1st Harry Potter movie came out and you pretty much nailed what happens at the 25% point.. I’d like to have even half your memory! I watched it a few nights ago and still had to go back and see what happened at that point. Harry has just arrived at Hogwart’s. They are about to be sorted into their houses and just had the house cup rules explained. It is also when Harry first meets Draco Malfoy, so I guess that would definitely qualify as something threatening. I just didn’t see any of that as a clear outer goal. I have actually studied a number of other screenplays in the past, but not with your 6-stage structure in mind. My “doomed” remark was just a bit of sarcasm that didn’t fly! I wrote a feature length screenplay a few years back and I spent all my effort on the hero’s inner goal or desire and didn’t really have a clear outer goal and therefore not enough action on the part of the hero – a problem that did not go unnoticed by the judges at The Page Awards (I did at least make it to the quarter finals though!). Anyway, Harry Potter and J K Rowling have been an inspiration for my current project and my fondness for the story is why I wanted to give it a test. When it seemed like there might be some of what I did in my first screenplay, it just got me wondering. No one can argue the success or love for the Harry Potter books or movies. I have soooo many more questions now, but I don’t want to rob you of your consulting fee so I will wait until I have a few extra dollars, hire you, and ask you then! Thanks so much for your time already.
Just a thought… A film franchise, like HP or Star Wars for example, May not be the best for the exercise you discribed. Those stories have very long story archs that develop over the course of multiple films. You may want to try it with a film that’s more of a one-off and not part of a series. I think you’ll find something closer to your expected results. I’ve also found this article a huge help. I’m just starting to put together an idea for my screenplay and it’s help me find some much-needed Focus as I begin. Best of luck to you both!!
I finished my story and my question was how to get it read in Hollywood, because this guy — Terry Rossio, who is one of the highly paid screenwriters (he wrote Shrek, Pirates of the Caribbean, Deja Vu (he sold Deja Vu for $5 million:-)) and yes he is genious, I am still watching Shrek, but he definitely knows how to get them read.
Well, I read Michael’s book “Writing screenplays that sell” – this book not only answered every my question but I see now weak spots in my story and working on them.
I am impressed by the work Michael did writing this book. I have read other books and do not remember one where the theme of the screenwriting craft would be depicted that fully.
Thank you Michael.
Yana – Thanks! Being mentioned along with Terry Rossio – whom I’ve know for a long time – is a real honor. Good luck with your script – and Keep Writing!
Hello Mr. Hauge :
I am Mahmoud from Egypt .
iam writing War-fantasy novel , i have multi empires , kingdoms and organizations , heroes an villains have super natural power , last tow years i read tons of articles about this genre , but they are
paradoxical , i wrote about 60000 words but i found my self in no where area , hopefully asking for your advise.
Thanks for your time and pardon me for bad writing because English not my main language.
Mahmoud – Based on what you have said, you have probably gotten lost in the thicket of all the amazing elements of your story. Go back to the foundation and answer these three questions: Who is your hero? What does he want? What makes that seem impossible? You must be able to answer those three questions easily, simply and clearly. If you can, then EVERY SINGLE SCENE in your screenplay – no matter how fantastic – must move your hero closer to that goal, or create more obstacles to it. Any scene that doesn’t must be removed. Start there, and it should put you back on the right track, so you won’t feel so confused and overwhelmed. Let us know if that helps.
Thanks for this amazing breakdown. I’m looking to create a 10-15 minute comedy-drama, web series/tv series. Does this same formula work for that as well?
Thanks, Kornelius. If you go to my Q&A article “Structuring Short Films and Email Stories” it will answer that very question.
To feed my insatiable appetite for knowledge of all things writing, (I am an aspiring novelist) I came across this website and specifically have been slowly absorbing the information on this page.Love it.
After hearing over and over about the three act structure having been in place since before the earth cooled, it was refreshing to hear about the five tuning points, which make a whole lot more sense to me, and seem to offer more latitude in creating stories.
My other studies include that of the enneagram (a list, and a progression of personality types for those unfamiliar). It was a striking similarity to me that there are six personality dimensions in a character arc, as there are six stages in stories with five turning points.
While this probably isn’t the first time a writer has made this connection, I was wondering, in your opinion how much importance should writers (for both print and screen) be placing on this character evolution, in the traditional progression?
I would imagine that it would add tremendous depth to any story, but is there such a thing as too much character change in a story.
Thank you for you time.
Martin – glad you found us! And thanks for your comments. In response to your question, When it comes to storytelling it’s always impossible to give a specific answer to anything that begins, “How much?” “How many?” or “How long?” These are always judgment calls which vary with every story or script or manuscript. But in essence, the greater the conflict and emotion generated by external obstacles (as in action or horror films), the less need for inner conflict and character arc. And in my opinion, transformation for a hero always deepens and strengthens a story. As for having too much character change, it’s not something I remember ever encountering, but I would suggest finding ONE deep-seated fear your hero must confront and overcome, and weave that through the story. More than one will most likely make your story too complicated and disjointed. Hope that helps!
Really appreciated the time and effort put into this and I went through and saw how your formulas does indeed match up to Shakespearean 5 Act structure. The motivations of your 6 stage and 5 turning points are all the same as the 5 Act structure but i feel a few lines may be blurred based on each writer’s pacing.
I’m curious to see what you think of this organization:
1st Act: THE INTRO
-Stage 1: THE SETUP Opening 0- 10%
-Turning point 1 at 10% – The Opportunity
2nd Act: THE CONCEIT
-Stage 2 – New Situation 10%-25%
-Conceit can even be on page 17.
-Turning Point 2 25% – Change of Plans
-STAGE 3 Progress 25%-50%
3rd Act: THE TURN
-Turning point 3 50% – Midpoint and Point of No Return
-Stage 4 Complications and Higher Stakes 50%-75%
4th Act: THE SPIRAL
-Turning Point 4 75% – Major Setback
-Page 90 of screenplay
-Stage 5 – The Final Push 75%-90%
5th Act: THE CLIMAX
-Turning Point 5 90-99% – The Climax
-Stage 6 – The Aftermath
I love you. I am impressionism painter for the farm to table movement in Okanagan valley Canada. I am setting up my marketing by doing short interviews about the person place or thing. I will be turning your story out line structure into 6 questions I will ask to everyone who I interview. And I will ask these to myself about my painting. Speaking not writing cause obviously I am still very poor writer. But I looked up 5 epic story telling questions. So I could repeatedly do same format every time. To create content. So thanks I will take it from a pro. Love your idea/experience/your show/explanation.
I’m karan 20 from India
it’s very useful for me
thank you very much for posting this
I started working on my story Just because of you
Your ideas make me to write my screenplay trouble free
Thanks again Sir
Thanks for getting in touch – I’m glad the article is helpful. Keep writing, and good luck on your journey!
What is a structure of a short film screenplay? Is it the same as a full length with all the acts/5 key turning points?
I actually answered this question in a previous Q&A: STRUCTURING SHORT FILMS AND EMAIL STORIES. Take a look!
Very helpful to see Raiders of the Lost Arc broken down in your response to R Michaels. Thanks! Most people don’t take the time to respond to trolls but in this case it helped clarify your point!
I absolutely love this breakdown. I’m going to attempt to adapt it for a series of books I’m writing! Thanks for sharing your wisdom.
Hugely formulaic and over simplified. Try applying these ‘rules’ to any film based on a Shakespeare story, or for that matter RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK.
Mr. Michaels –
My first response to your comments is that you are absolutely right. My approach to structure IS very formulaic and simplified. This is my intention. I want to demystify structure, and encourage writers to follow the form that has worked for the vast majority of successful Hollywood movies for at least the last 40 years. I want to make the process of developing a plot, and maximizing the emotional experience of a story, as clear and as simple as I can.
But this approach is over simplified only if you believe that the work ends here. Creating a solid foundation and structure for you story is just the beginning. Now you must begin exploring your characters in depth, make certain your hero’s inner conflict informs every scene, create unique and involving supporting characters, come up with powerful dialogue and write it all in a style that will create a movie in your readers’ minds.
As for applying the rules – which are not rules at all, but only guides – to Shakespeare, I again agree that it won’t work. But why does that matter? Structuring a contemporary Hollywood movie or novel is vastly different than defining the structure of a 500 year old play.
I do, however, challenge your statement about RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. I waited to reply to your comment until I had seen the film again. It had probably been twenty years since I last experienced it, and I wanted to see if it really was an exception to the structural principles I use.
Though there were some slight variations, it was actually a great example of the six-stage/five turning point approach.
The film is 116 minutes long. The biggest exception to the location of the turning points is the 10% Opportunity. Because of the lengthy prologue, the first turning point is about 16 minutes in, rather than 11 or 12, as I would expect. This, in turn, makes all the other turning points about 5 minutes later than normal. Otherwise, the stages and turning points are pretty much on the money:
Stage I SETUP: We meet Indy living his everyday life, retrieving and then losing an artifact unrelated to the main story.
Turning Point 1 OPPORTUNITY (10%): Indy first learns about the Nazis searching for the Lost Ark (this occurs 15 minutes into the film).
Stage II NEW SITUATION: Indy’s initial desire is to get the medallion with the crystal from his former mentor.
Turning Point 2 CHANGE OF PLANS (25%): After retrieving the piece and reuniting with Marion, Indy now wants to pursue his overall Outer Motivation for the film – finding and retrieving the Lost Ark. (34 minutes)
Stage III PROGRESS: Indy goes to Cairo, where he eventually figures out the location of the Ark.
Turning Point 3 POINT OF NO RETURN (50%): Belloq and the Nazis steal the Ark from Indy and depart for Berlin (65 minutes).
Stage IV COMPLICATIONS AND HIGHER STAKES: Indy follows them, attempting to get the Ark back and putting himself in much greater jeopardy.
Turning Point 4 MAJOR SETBACK (75%): The Nazis take the Ark, and Marion, from the ship and onto their submarine (95 minutes).
Stage 5 FINAL PUSH: Indy sneaks on board the German sub and tries to save Marion and stop the Nazis from getting the Ark to Hitler.
Turning Point 5 CLIMAX (90-99%): The power of the Ark destroys all the bad guys (108 minutes).
Stage 6 AFTERMATH: Indy returns to the US with the Ark and Marion, but Army Intelligence takes the Ark away for “study”.
The most difficult turning point for me to identify was the Major Setback, since the goal of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK was to replicate old-fashioned Saturday matinee serials from the 40s and 50s. As a result, the story is just one major setback after another. Otherwise, it follows the same basic structure as hundreds of other Hollywood films – and then adds all of the elements within that formula that make it unique, emotionally involving, and a mammoth commercial success.
I’m delving into Shakespeare for the first time since high school with the 70s BBC adaptations.
I’m two plays in (Caesar and Othello) and in both, the midpoint is in fact “the point of no return” — Caesar’s assassination and Othello learning the “truth” about Desdemona. The single most important events in each story.
Now, I’m no expert but I’m beginning to suspect a lot of these rules are rules at least partly because “that’s how Shakespeare did it.”
I am not a writer by any means but I have a great idea for a feature movie. I have written almost all of the story line but do not have a script. Is there any way for me to protect my idea and also is it possible to get something like this to someone who will get it to the next level. I just today started to look into this and was hoping for some advice from you. The movie is very current in its nature and I have run it buy several people with very good responses. Any ideas will be appreciated
[…] if you don’t read screenwriting master, Michael Hauge’s STORY MASTERY blog, you should. For example, take a read of this article on structure (screenplay or […]
[…] makes it more personal (or “Complications and Higher Stakes” in Michael Hauge […]
Thanks for mentioning me in this terrific article simplifying outlining – and for including a link to my article on plot structure. I might add one suggestion to the step outline for your novel. Complications and Higher stakes come after the midpoint of the story – what I term the Point of No Return. This midpoint is a moment of bigger commitment on the part of the heroine to her goal(s). Based on where you position your characters’ first kiss (#10), it sounds like that is your logical midpoint. After that, the outside world should start closing in on your heroine. So I’d suggest that you put your villain “making it personal” AFTER the kiss, and after the hero and heroine start their investigation into the crime and stopping the villain. This alerts the villain, he starts coming after her, and that’s what leads to the complications and higher stakes, the greater conflict and the accelerated pace of the second half of the story.
Just a thought – hope it helps.
[…] Here is the article I’m working from: https://storymastery.com/story/screenplay-structure-five-key-turning-points-successful-scripts/ […]
[…] play, he gets them together. At almost EXACTLY the three-quarter point of the play, he suffers “the major setback” of having his couple torn apart (it is here that Diomedes takes possession of Cressida); and he […]
[…] read your article on the 5 Key Turning Points of All Successful Stories, and watched your lecture on 6-stage plot structure that’s part of The Hero’s Two […]
[…] the hero’s introduction in the setup of the story, he is presented with an Opportunity that will either make life even worse (Katniss’ […]
[…] https://storymastery.com/story/screenplay-structure-five-key-turning-points-successful-scripts/ […]
Ruth – Thanks for referencing my article. Just want to mention that in my approach there are 6 stages, with the 5 turning points in between. You left off the final stage, the AFTERMATH. This is a glimpse of the new life the hero/protagonist is now living after completing the journey of the story. I imagine it’s very similar to the “new equilibrium” that your presenter, Roy Stafford, spoke about.
– Michael Hauge
Awesome! This couldn’t come at a better time, and even though this is primarily for screen writers, it is definitely what I need to get a story off the ground. I guess one of the reasons some writers have a hard time coming up with a clear idea on what they want to actually achieve in their novels is that blurry image of the story, with no proper structure, in the head.
i am from Ethiopia , script writters
i need more varification on obstacle creation
The obstacle can be anything that is a negative mirror of the hero/main character, not necessarily a person, or even another person. Obstacles also can be about the need for the hero, but he doesn’t know he has a need, at the start. Simple obstacles like good vs evil, family vs work, gender equalities. It’s a question of moral responsibility.
[…] https://storymastery.com/story/screenplay-structure-five-key-turning-points-successful-scripts/ […]
[…] was a big challenge so I’ve been relying heavily on Michael Hauge’s 5 Key Turning Points. Its from his book, Writing Screenplays That Sell. Its also in Audiobook form. The stripped down […]
Hello Mr Hauge
Thank you so much for this detailed post.
I am a screenwriter from Nigeria working in Nigeria presently and this has been supper helpful…Godbless.