The Promise

The major plot points of a story consists of the inciting incident, call to action, midpoint, all-time low, and climax. Your first act is the set-up, act 2a is the planning stage, act 2b is the action with progress stage, and act 3 is your ultimate battle. The midpoint is the turning point of the story where new information changes the stories trajectory, builds the stakes, and propels the drama into a race against time.

I am a believer in the 3 act structure. I am a believer in plot points. I am a fan of linear structure. However, these elements alone are not what engages the audience.

When we watch movies and read books we do not care about the structure. Most reader don’t even know a story structure exists. You can hit every plot point perfectly, down to the page number, and still produce a boring read that no one will bother with. The viewer is searching for something different.

It starts with the promise. The first scene of any story is a promise to the viewer that a specific emotion is going to be aroused throughout their experience. It may present love, psychological mind games, breath-taking anxiety, or even a simple conversation meant to develop empathy with the hero.

In The Matrix, we are introduced to Trinity bending the rules of physics in the world as we know it. The Dark Knight opens with a scene of the Joker carrying out an elaborate bank robbery as the viewer struggles to identify him. Happy Gilmore and Big Daddy open with a relatable male struggling to accept that his value to the outside world is determined more by superficial judgements than his intrinsic generosity.

The inciting incident is an external event that sets the story in motion. The promise is the drama that compels the viewer to keep watching.

The entire first act should continue to build on the initial promise. Figure out whether it is confusion, empathy, internal longing, or vengeance that you have given the viewer a taste of. Continue to feed the viewer more bites with different seasonings.

Another important element that should happen at the start of any good story is character revelation. When writers contemplate character they consider values, beliefs, desires, goals, etc. But in the mind of a viewer character is only truly revealed by the decisions they make under pressure.

Place your protagonists in a situation where they must choose one of two options. Spend some time building up the importance of the decision and create a conflict where there is no easy choice. The path they choose should be the irregular one – this is what sets your hero apart. For this decision to pay off you must keep in mind your intended audience. They should be the subset of individuals supporting this controversial decision.

I don’t watch the Super Bowl. I never have. I enjoy the parties for friends and food, but this Sunday I drank Jameson and watched movies with my girlfriend instead. This is an example of an irregular decision that distinguishes me from others. If I was the character in a story than my bizarre behavior would be found captivating to viewers who also don’t enjoy jubilant gatherings as much as they’re supposed to.

Stories serve a primitive purpose for us. We use them for survival. There was a time where we relied on stories of tribesmen who died from eating the wrong colored berries. The stories were given a deeper meaning by applying character traits such as arrogance and disobedience to those who perished. From hearing these stories we learned to value qualities such as listening to our teachers and using caution when approaching unknown things.

Always think of your stories as being an instruction manual for life. As the viewer browses through Netflix they are choosing which thematic elements they would like to engage with by subconsciously searching for an answer to their own problems. Give them a hero that wrestles internally with similar conflicts. As the hero evolves to accomplish their goal your viewer should gain insight into how they can overcome parallel obstacles in the real world.

Enjoy your journey today and may all your roadblocks be left sideways and marked with your footprint.