Writing Plots with Movie Story Beats

Earlier this month, I talked about creating story beats and plot templates from movies. Several people wanted to know exactly how I do this, and then use those beats to craft plots.

If “story beats” aren’t familiar to you, a three-act version is at Live, Write, Breathe. Personally, I like Larry Brooks’ beats,  featured in one of Jami Gold’s spreadsheets. Or, you could just watch Dan Wells’ videos — at this website — and learn almost everything you need.

(Only for plotting geeks: Larry Brooks’ Beat Sheet Basics 101.)

What I Do

movie ticket
photo courtesy FreeImages and Kevin Abbott.

It’s especially easy to find story beats if you watch movies from the late 1990s through the present day.

These are the steps I use:

  1. I select a movie with a theme that appeals to me as a general plot premise.
  2. If I haven’t seen the movie before, or if I haven’t seen it in a long time, I’ll sit down and watch the movie from start to finish. Sometimes, I take notes about important moments in the plot, as they occur.
  3. After that, I figure the length of the movie, in minutes. (Usually, this includes the opening titles and closing credits, but your results may vary.)
  4. I divide that in half. That tells me — usually within two or three minutes on either side — where the story’s Midpoint is.
  5. I divide each of those sections into three exactly equal (in minutes) parts. The first “break” in the pre-Midpoint section is the First Plot Point, and it’s usually within three minutes of that break.
  6. At the second break, you’ll usually find the First Pinch Point. That’s the twist in the plot, and it’s followed by the Midpoint.
  7. After that, the breaks will be at the Second Pinch Point (another twist to increase story tension) and the Second Plot Point (a somewhat dramatic change)… and then you’re at the Resolution, followed by the closing credits.

In most modern, American-made films, you can practically set your watch by those points. I’m not kidding.

However, the big variable is whether you’re counting from when the movie starts to when the screen goes dark, OR if you’re counting from when the opening titles conclude, to when the closing credits start.

From what I’ve seen so far, at least 80% of the time, you can safely measure from the moment the film starts to when the closing credits conclude.

Example: While You Were Sleeping

The movie, While You Were Sleeping, is 1:42 long, which means 102 minutes.

I’ve seen it many times in the past, so I just skipped ahead to see the story beats.

First, I fast-forwarded to the halfway point, at 51 minutes. Bingo. It’s where Jack & Lucy slip on the ice and nearly kiss. That’s the Midpoint. No doubt about it.

Going back to find the First Plot Point, I can argue that the First Plot Point is at the 14-minutes point, where Elsie needs her nitroglycerin and Lucy finds out she “saved the whole family.” (No pressure, right…?)

However, the First Plot Point is probably right where it should be, around the 17-minutes mark, where Lucy can’t sleep and confesses everything to Peter (in a coma), and Saul overhears her. A lot of the remaining plot is based on Lucy’s assumption that Saul will tell the family the truth.

At the 34-minutes mark…? Joe Jr. tells Jack that he’s “dating” Lucy (with a rude gesture to make his point clear), and Jack really starts suspecting that Lucy is conning everyone.

After that, I already know the Midpoint is at the 51-minutes mark, so I keep fast-forwarding.

At the 68-minutes mark, Peter wakes up and doesn’t recognize Lucy. (Ouch!) That’s the Second Pinch Point.

And then, at the 86-minutes mark, Peter proposes to Lucy and she accepts. That’s the final big change (Second Plot Point) before the Resolution.

Except that the proposal is about a minute late (which I can forgive), this is a movie that fits the pattern, perfectly.

I haven’t built a generic plot from this, yet. Nevertheless, I used some of those beats in a recent story. They were heavily mixed with beats from another film, and from a TV series.

That’s because I rarely use a single generic plot (based on a recent movie) for my stories.

… And that leads us to the topic of originality.

Copyrights, Intellectual Property (IP), and Story Beats

First of all, the disclaimer: though my MIT years involved lots of legal work involving copyright and plagiarism, and weekly consultations with copyright lawyers (to be sure I was getting everything right), I’m an editor and writer, not an attorney.

So, the following is not legal advice; it’s just my understanding of it. Double-check everything, if you have any questions at all.

With that in mind, I think the most important point is: No one can copyright an idea. If someone’s general (not specific) idea seems like a great premise — a brilliant start to a story concept — you may be able to use it in your own, very different story context.

Maybe.

(Keep reading. I’ll explain.)

Copyright law falls within the larger topic of intellectual property.  However, when writers talk about “intellectual property” (aka, IP), we usually mean property (an actual thing, like a book or a movie or a game) that results from original creative thought.

As the University of Huddersfield (UK) explains, “The basic idea behind IP is… to ensure that a creation is not copied or used without permission and to protect the economic rewards of the creators.”

That part can be complex, and the issue has been debated for decades.

From Hammer Film Productions‘ remakes to less obvious uses of others’ IP, the practice of using others’ stories isn’t new. In some cases, lawsuits result. In others, they don’t.

(Tip: Don’t think about blatantly copying anything from Harry Potter books. However, you may find a different popular “world” you can safely write about, at Kindle Worlds.)

Of course, public domain movies and stories are fair game. Just be certain they’re actually in the public domain. (For example, some rights to Peter Pan are still protected in the United States and some other countries.)

From Disney’s Snow White and Cinderella, to TV series like Once Upon a Time to Grimm, old stories and tropes can be revised for success.  (Even Disney’s hit, Frozen, was based on one of The Snow Queen stories.)

And then there are mashups, like Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

However, I don’t advocate closely copying any existing story or film plot. Not unless you want your readers to get to page three and say, “Wait. I already know how this will end. It’s the same as the [fill in the blank] story.”

Morphing Generic Story Beats

For fun (and possibly profit), I like to take story beats, like those in America’s Sweethearts, and distill them down to a series of plot points that are plain-vanilla and very generic. In many cases, those general plots could match any of a dozen films, and perhaps more.

Then, I make some changes… big changes. They could be shifting the time period. Or, I might switch genders, so the female role in the film is the male in my story, and vice versa.

Or, more often, I do a mashup of my generic story beats.

I’m not unique. For example, I can see a mix of The Ugly Duckling and (even more obvious) Cinderella in the film, The Devil Wears Prada. That’s the tip of the iceberg. There are even quizzes that mashup movie plots.

My point is: If you’re going to use this movie approach to plotting, it’s a good idea to start with the most generic story beats possible. Make sure you’re using conceptual points, not anything that points to one — and only one — movie. Then mix two or three sets of them.

Use the general premise from one, the First Plot Point from another, and a twist (Second Pinch Point) from a third.

(If you’re writing genre romance, the Midpoint is often the kiss or near-kiss, so you don’t need to “borrow” that from anything. It’s a classic romance trope.)

This can save a lot of time, and result in a great, timeless plot that you can use over and over again, in several different novels.

I hope that’s helpful. And, if you don’t want to sit through a bunch of movies with a calculator, pen, and pad of paper, remember that you can get story beats — as “beat sheets” — from Blake Snyder’s site.

If you have any questions, let me know. I can’t give legal advice, but I’m happy to explain how I work with story beats in my own books.

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