How to Structure Your Plot: Exploring Different Film Plot Structures

Apr 29, 2024

Plot, plot, plot! It’s always about the plot! Without a plot, there’s no story and no story means no film. Even character-driven tales require structure, and that structure is what we will be talking about today.


What is Plot?

Plot is the structure your story employs. Think of it as the skeleton, holding everything in your story up and in place. Without it, everything falls apart and no one knows what they’re looking at when faced with your film. If you need a checklist, there are three main things your plot needs to attend to:

1. The Story

The sequence of events and how you present them to your audience. Hitting the golden beats – exposition, inciting incident, climax, etc – and making sure you’re hitting them HARD. You want to keep your audience either on their toes, or in their feelings for the entire duration of your film, and so your plot needs to make sure your sequence of events has that solid structure that the plot provides.

2. Character Development

This is where “show, don’t tell” really comes into play. Plot helps us learn of your characters through their actions and decisions rather than just too much dialogue with little substance. If you’ve got a line that reveals a crucial backstory, where in the story can you place it for the best effect? If your character is a smoker, how are you showing that in their behaviour within the story, and how frequently? Everything about the character can be laced into your plot structure, and it should all feed into the main themes or lessons of your story.

3. Themes

These are the lessons, ideas, or points a writer is trying to get across with their story. Every story has reasons for being written, and those reasons are normally the themes. However, you again want to show those reasons, and not just point blank tell them. This is where metaphors and storytelling elements such as editing, colour theory, character development, etc come into play. How you structure your character’s arcs must speak to your themes. Where you place certain events in your story must build towards its grand lesson. Plot structure does that, it gives you, the writer, those opportunities that take a concept and turn it into a fully-fledged script!


Different Plot Structures to Consider

Now that we know what a plot is and what it focuses on, it’s time to see some popular structures writers around the world employ when writing their scripts.

The Z – Andy Guerdat

THE Z plot structure by Andy Guerdat

THE Z plot structure by Andy Guerdat


Simple, but it gets more complex the more time you spend on it. Emmy-nominated writer/producer and former UCLA Extension instructor Andy Guerdat believes in a simple philosophy with this structure: A boring story is the worst of its kind. You have to keep the audience always asking “What happens next?” One of the main driving forces behind it is conflict, which he believes allows characters to reveal their true nature in emotional and dramatised ways. Your story has to elicit emotional responses from your audience, otherwise, what’s stopping them from changing the channel!


The Story Circle – Dan Harmon

The Story Circle plot structure by Dan Harmon

The Story Circle plot structure by Dan Harmon


One day, writer/producer Dan Harmon made a series of blog posts that would later become a plot structure nearly every writer would consider one of the best plot structures to come out of the postmodern era. Taking the influences from story theory and Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, Dan focuses on how we learn of the plot through the character, rather than the other way around. Character-driven storytelling has never looked so simple, as it can assist you in making sure your character is as much a part of your story as every other element. It’s a structure that focuses on two concepts: order and chaos. Taking your character from order to chaos, and back up to order having learned the lesson they needed along the way to make it back. Story theory, but radically simplified. If you let your character tell your story, you’ll have a structure that can be more relatable, emotional, and hey, not boring.


In Conclusion

There are so many structures your story can use and thus shape your film into. These examples are only the tip of the iceberg, and many more can be found and sourced, such as Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat or Chris Volger’s The Writer’s Journey. These aren’t rules, however; nothing in art is a strict rule. They are guidelines to make sure your story has a flow your audience – at least in terms of mainstream media – can recognize and settle into. They are there to guide, and they are also there to play around with. So, allow yourself to be guided, but don’t be afraid to play too!

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