Storytelling Essentials: Story Structure

Storytelling Essentials: Story Structure – Act 1

Like it or not, all good stories have an underlying structure that has been purposely put in place to keep you involved throughout the course of the tale. In screenplays, structure is so straightforward and strictly adhered to that certain beats are expected to take place on specific pages. In novels, especially those of the literary variety, structure is much more negotiable, and one can get away with adhering to it loosely (not if you want to be a best-selling author, however). So, what is this big-bad-structure-thing that you fear will suck all of your creative juices dry?

Relax, it’s nearly the foundation to the incredible skyscraper you’re about to erect. Let me point out the basic elements of the first act. From here on out, you would be wise to look for these parts in every movie you watch or book you read. Trust me – you will start to notice them, and become a better writer for doing so.

Act 1 –

This is where we get to know the protagonist. What does she want? What are her goals? Give the reader a reason to empathize with her. The sooner the reader can connect to your protagonist on an emotional level, the better.

Inciting Incident – Theoretically, this should occur as early as page 0. Many argue it should come later. In a 120 page screenplay, anywhere between pg. 8 – 15 is appropriate. The inciting incident changes everything for your protagonist – it gives them a reason to take up a new quest. Whether it be the death of a parent (like in my novel, A New Kingdom), the attack of a terrorist, or the sudden outbreak of Malaria, the inciting incident makes the protagonist’s former way of living impossible. Their leisurely life has been taken from them – and the only way they can ever to return to it is to take up a new quest.

1st plot point – This marks the end of the 1st act and the beginning of the second. In screenplays, it typically falls between pg. 25 – 30. It is the decision of your protagonist to take up their quest. They know what they want, and they’ve decided to go after it, even if they haven’t figured out how to succeed yet. The antagonist, or ‘the force that stands against the desires of your protagonist’, is known at this point.

I will introduce you to the remaining acts in other posts, and hopefully get more in depth with any concepts that may seem alien to you. Act one should take up the first quarter of your story, in case you were wondering.

 If you want to learn more about story structure, I highly recommend Story Engineering, by Larry Brooks. I know it had a huge impact on my approach to writing, and I could have never gotten my current position as a script analyst without first understanding the concepts laid out in that book. Kevin Brown, my good writing friend whose blog can be found at creative, also agrees that it was a tremendous influence and help to him.

Hope this helps!

– Thomas M. Watt

– Author of A New Kingdom

Inciting Incident

Story Telling Essentials: Inciting Incident

The inciting incident – This is the event that propels your story forward. It is the reason your protagonist changes, the reason they take up their quest.

So what is it?

The inciting incident is an event that fundamentally changes your protagonist’s wants and needs. It can be a sudden, unexpected kiss. It can be the loss of a parent. Maybe your protagonist was robbed, maybe your protagonist got dumped. Whatever the inciting incident is, it will always leave your protagonist different than she was before. It provides the motivation for her first plot point decision, which will be the decision to take up her quest.

While the first plot point of a story is the protagonist’s decision to take up their quest, the inciting incident is typically an event that occurs to the protagonist. In “A New Kingdom”, my latest novel, James watches his father get brutally murdered at the hands of giant red aliens. This provides his motivation to overthrow the alien race, the first plot point decision that he makes later on.

You want your inciting incident to occur as early as possible. Some argue that it is imperative to show your real world beforehand, so that the reader can better notice the change. Others prefer the inciting incident to occur right away, claiming that readers prefer action over back story. Where you place the inciting incident is up to you – whether you include it is non-debatable.

– Thomas M. Watt

– Script Analyst for

– Author of A New Kingdom

Ticking Clock


The ‘ticking clock’ goes by many names in storytelling. It is a literary device used to add suspense. Suspense, remember, is information withheld. For this particular device, the information withheld is typically whether or not the protagonist will accomplish his objective before a ‘time-bomb’ goes off. Let’s take a look at a short scene that involves a ticking clock, and see if you can figure out what it is.

* * *

Barry sprinted out of the bank, twenty-five thousand dollars cash in his gym bag. He hurried to his rusty grey Camry, turned the lock, swung the door, then crashed inside. He heard the sirens then gulped. Cops were on the way.

Barry searched both pockets for his keys. His cheap, cotton face mask was at a tilt, covering his eyes. He ripped it off to get a better view. Instead of spotting his keys, he caught the red and blue lights flickering in his rear view mirror. He should have been blazing down the highway. Instead he was parked and waiting. A dead duck.

But where were the damn keys? He grabbed two fistfuls of his light, thinning hair.

“This isn’t happening. This isn’t happening!”

His breath was chaotic. His eyes fidgeted from one corner of the car to the other. It was a mess, as always. He reached over and opened the brown gym bag he’d had the banker stuff the green bills into. He tossed the stacks of twenty into the backseat, one after another. Still, no keys.


He looked at the mirror again. The cops were close. He was finished, done for – his dream had changed from a beach house in the Bahamas to a nightmare that involved his dropping the soap next to Bubba, who had a tattoo of his mom on one arm and a porn star on the other.

“Where the fu-“

Barry remembered.

He rolled down his outdated, turn-style window, and reached outside. There they were, just on the other side of the door. He’d forgotten to pull them out after unlocking it.

The sirens were blaring now. He took one last fleeting glimpse as he started the engine. The cops screeched to a halt as he turned the key, blew black smoke through his muffler, then pressed the pedal to the medal.


Too late for that now. Barry was on his way to the Bahamas, and he was going to get there. Some way, some how…

* * *

Did you figure it out? The ‘ticking clock’ in this example is the approaching authorities. The element of suspense, or information withheld, can be summed up best with this question – “Will Barry find his keys in time to start his engine and escape before the cops arrest him?”

Not knowing the answer to that question is what compels you to keep reading. If you read yesterday’s lesson, you also may have noticed the elements of exterior conflict, or obstacles, that got in the way of Barry’s quest.

Barry’s quest – Escape the crime scene; get to the Bahamas

Exterior obstacles – Misplaced keys, approaching authorities

Interior Conflicts – Barry’s inability to keep cool. His state of panic was the reason he was unable to think rationally and locate his keys. Barry must learn to compose himself in high-pressure situations if he is going to succeed in the long run.

Hope this helps!

– Thomas M. Watt

– Script analyst for

– Author of A New Kingdom

Story Essentials: Internal and External Conflict

STORY ESSENTIALS: Internal and External Conflict

What keeps the viewer interested in a t.v. program? What keeps a reader reading? What is the most basic element of story?

At its most basic level, a story is about a protagonist who is after something, and the obstacles she must overcome in order to attain it.

The obstacles your protagonist faces present the conflict that keeps readers interested. Conflicts are either internal or external.

External conflicts are physical elements that keep the protagonist from attaining the object of their desire. They can be the distance needed to travel, the antagonist who fights against them, or even the giant box blocking the entrance to that room they desperately need to pass through. These obstacles exist outside of the mind of the protagonist.

Internal conflicts, on the other hand, are the mental blocks your protagonist must overcome within themselves to attain the object of their desire. This can be a fear of heights, short-temper, or fear of success. Your protagonist must learn to overcome these mental and emotional roadblocks throughout the course of your story. Done correctly, this will create an effective character arc and lead to an emotionally fulfilling climax. Ideally, the protagonist demonstrates they have finally overcome their internal conflict at the precise moment they finally attain the object of their desire.

– Thomas M. Watt

– Script analyst for

– Author of A New Kingdom

Suspense vs. Conflict


Writers often confuse suspense and conflict, or even worse, use the two terms interchangeably, as if they imply the same thing. They don’t. See if you can figure out the element that is employed in each of the two scenes below in order to test your own understanding.

Scene 1 –

George saw his favorite ball sitting on the grassy hill in the middle of the park. He raced over to get it, but before he came close, a dog ran by and scooped it up with its jaw. George chased after the dog, but soon tripped and fell flat on his face. He returned to his feet and broke into a sprint, chasing the dog into the picnic area. George hurdled over families, dodged joggers, and tumbled under frisbees. When he was finally close enough, George launched off his feet and tackled the dog to the ground. He let out a sigh of relief, before a shrill cry reminded George the dog wasn’t his. He stood up, ball in hand, and hurried to escape the mob of angry dog owners chasing after him.

Scene 2 –

She told him not to open the box. She warned him sternly that he was to never, ever, open the box. Still, George stared at it with his eyes fixated upon the single, unbolted latch that held it shut. All he had to do was flip it up and he could finally learn what was inside. So many years, so many sunny afternoons, so many times had he pondered what was inside that box. Never had he a chance to see before, but this day, this bright, beautiful day, George had a chance – his sister was at her friend’s house.

George gulped. It was go-time. There was no backing out of it now. He had already entered her room, and one loud noise would result in a week’s worth of chores, dictated by his mother. He crept closer on his hands and knees. Carefully, and as silently as possible, George flipped open the latch. He couldn’t help but scream after what he saw. His mom came running, and he knew an incredible punishment was in store for him. It didn’t matter – he was too angry to care. Inside the small box was a single note, written by his sister.

“Got ya.”

* * *

Figured it out? The first scene employs the use of conflict. The second suspense.

Conflict is anything that gets in the way of the protagonist and her objective. Suspense is information withheld.

In the first scene, George’s objective is to attain his favorite ball. The elements of conflict involved are the dog, the families picnicking, the frisbees, and George’s own clumsy feet. These are all elements of external conflict. Internal conflict is equally important, but we’ll save that for another day.

In the second scene, the elements of suspense are George’s sister’s refusal to tell him what is inside the box, the latch, and the prospect of his mother overhearing his sneaking around in his sister’s room.

Both suspense and conflict are extremely important elements of writing, and one would be wise to employ each element into every scene that they write.

– Thomas M. Watt

– Script analyst for

– author of A New Kingdom

Wild Bill

Wild Bill

Wild Bill is by far the most menacing of all his bandits. He carries with him an 11 inch Belgium pacifier. The sawed-off shotgun is attached to a shoulder sling, and lining the interior of his black coat are steel hacksaw blades.

He was the father figure to my main character Michael, influencing him into committing both the Bandit Beach Massacre and the Slave Owner Slaughter.

To find out more about my novel, “Way of the World,” just check out my website at

The Upscale Saloon

The Upscale Saloon

The Upscale Saloon is a popular place for Gnashing’s elite residents. It is frequented by Mayor Dunlap, who just so happens to be the angry man to Evelynn’s right in the scene. Adam, one of two main characters in my novel, “Way of the World,” is holding her hand in his. Undoubtedly, the young man is chasing after a new lover for the night.

To view more illustrations and read some excerpts from my novel, just take a look at my website at