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A Step-by-Step Guide To Build Your Story’s Plot

A Step-by-Step Guide To Build Your Story’s Plot

18 min read

We recently explored some deadly filmmaking myths and today we’ll combat those with a breakthrough way to build the plot of your story, step by step. This is HUGE in getting to that place where we can make video after video that moves people.


After all, creating a story that our audience really connects with is what it’s all about for so, so many of us.

We explored in the last post the idea of the Woeful Gear Bias, a term that represents how so many of us, as filmmakers, look to our gear, the conditions, and the external world as the reason that our stories don’t click.

And hey, if you’ve caught yourself doing it, remember that it’s natural. I spent many, many years falling into the trap of getting the biggest, baddest camera gear I could. As Ron Dawson (founder of Crossing the 180) aptly pointed out in the comments on the last post,

Ron_Headshot“You all have come such a long way. Not only in your skill set, which is obvious. But in your philosophical approach. I remember quite the animated discussion we had on my Crossing the 180 podcast a few years back related directly to this topic. :)

“I’m not saying you’ve done a 180 (pun intended); many of the points you made back then regarding gear were dead on. You talked about picking the right gear for the story you want to tell. But I think you all had a more evangelical approach to using ‘the best’ gear. It felt very much like SM was about always using the best and most expensive gear on the planet (steadicam flyers, L-lenses, REDs, etc.).

“Today while you still use great equipment, it definitely feels more like you all are MORE about the story, and whatever equipment you can use. I guess what I’m saying is that while I feel you’ve preached story vs. equipment for a long time, nowadays it feels more like you’re actually practicing what you preach now. I hope that doesn’t sound bad. It’s not meant to be. It’s absolutely a compliment.”

And it’s true. We have come a long way. Because we too were TOTALLY guilty of the Woeful Gear Bias.

We thought it was doing way more for us than it really was. And we too blamed it for many failings over the years.

Then we realized that filmmaking is about connection, about moving the viewer, hoping they’ll excitedly ask to watch it again. And gear is far from the best way to make that connection.

That’s when it truly hit us.

Truly and deeply understanding story is the sure-fire way to create a connection with your audience, have them stay with your story, and even have it be remembered long after.

All this gear was how we covered up (albeit unknowingly) for not really understanding story. We were getting lucky more than most and the work we were creating was getting shared, so we took that as some sign that we were storytellers.

The truth is, we were far from it. We didn’t understand characters, and what made a good one. I couldn’t have told you how to sit down and build an airtight plot that will leave the audience glued to their seat.

So we set off to better understand story. And since we’ve always shared everything we’ve learned, and education is in our DNA, we wanted to build something that we could not only use, but would make story dead simple, demystified, and accessible like never before.

And so we’ve spent years trying to take this universal structure—story—and make it understandable and effective without needing a film school degree.

What we’ve come to after years of testing and refining is a dead simple, step-by-step way to build your plot, your story’s structure, and we call it the Core Question.

In using this principle, we never have to worry that our audience will stay engaged, we don’t have to try and ‘find the story in post,’ and we can be confident that we can deliver powerful results for our clients.

Now of course, not everybody will love every story we do. That’s impossible. But by creating this Core Question in our videos we do know that the right people—the ones who the film is made for—will stay engaged and they’ll really FEEL it.

Once we saw the results we were getting, we started sharing the idea and seeing how it would work for other filmmakers.

The results blew us away.

In The Final Stitch, a piece we shot for CBS that aired right before the Super Bowl, we developed the Core Question and it made such a huge difference from our first version to the one that aired. And that film went on to be nominated for an Emmy! It was our first time producing and directing our short feature for CBS.

A003_C014_0118B9

In Melbourne, I spent a day with Dave Jacka, a quadriplegic pilot who, with only 6% of his body function, went on to modify an airplane and fly solo. I shot this as a passion project and had just one day with Dave and so little crew (myself and a couple volunteers). But because I developed a strong Core Question that piece went on to get a Vimeo Staff Pick, was featured on television, and picked up by a bunch of other sources.

And in applying it to a corporate video, we did one small project at a reduced budget with the potential of a larger contract—I’m sure you’ve heard of this idea before—and, well, they loved it so much we’ve done several films for the same client, we’ve flown around the world for one of their pieces, and we are discussing a $200,000-plus budget for more videos.

Okay, so what is this Core Question and how can you use it to build an airtight plot for all of your stories? Take a look at this video we made that breaks down each part of the Core Question so that you can use it to maximum effect. And because the concept is just so, so important we’ve also broken it down in the post below to aid you understanding of each vital step.

Now that you’ve watched the video, take a moment to read the break down to make sure you really, really get story structure and how to make your audience really FEEL your story.

We have a downloadable PDF, totally free, that helps you build the Core Question for your stories.

buildplot

And yes, this applies to wedding films, documentaries, corporate videos—IN ANY MEDIUM you wish to tell a story (heck, it works for speeches and casual conversation too).

Okay, so before we dive into the Core Question, let’s get some background on Plot.

Plot is your story’s structure. It’s what keeps the audience engaged. And it’s your vehicle to bring them through your story.

Without a strong plot the audience will look away, become disinterested, and most often not even finish the story.

And here is why plot is critical:

Plot serves the simple purpose of asking a question. 

In Interstellar, the question is, Will they be able to save the earth?

In Pitch Perfect 2, it’s Will the Bellas get reinstated, or is this the end for them? (Yes, I watched it.)

And in almost every single romantic comedy ever, it’s Will they end up together?

That’s right, at its core, the Plot will create a question in the viewer’s mind.

And guess how they get the answer…?

THEY NEED TO WATCH THE REST OF YOUR STORY

A stronger question leads to more engagement with the audience. And so a weak question—or having no question—makes it easy to turn off. A stronger question means that the audience will feel the ending more—will impact the audience more.

So because Plot is about creating a question for the viewer, we build our 1 Core Question.

Now, if you’ve taken some film school, or you’ve dug into story structure in any medium, you may have come across the three-act structure.

We’ve learned from the best ideas out there and tried to make the concept of three-act structure easier to understand and much easier to apply.

We look at a story’s structure as a beginning, middle, and end (similar to three-act structure). Your Core Question is what will bring the viewer from the beginning, to the middle, to the ending.

And it will create an arc just like you see below.

Story_Arc

Okay, quick recap. The most common story structure is beginning, middle, end or what is formally called three-act structure. And we’ll build it, and take our viewers through this arc, by developing our Core Question.

Let’s get to building your Core Question.

1. Questions are born out of Conflict 

You’ve probably heard of the idea of Conflict in story several times before, and that’s because it’s essential. And no, it doesn’t have to be bad, but it does have to create a question.

We’ll show an example in just one second.

2. The three parts of a Core Question

A Core Question has three separate pieces that we’ll build; ASK, ACCEPTANCE, and ANSWER.

The ASK is your question itself, and again it’s born out of conflict. It’s the challenge (i.e. conflict) that your character comes up against.

And don’t worry if you’re concerned that all this character talk makes it hard to apply it to something like a Wedding, we’ll look at applications as soon as we explain the whole idea.

The ACCEPTANCE is your character making the decision to persist, to accept the challenge brought by the conflict.

And the ANSWER is, as you may have guessed it, the resolution to the question you set up.

Story_Arc2

Let’s look at a simple example. Joyce is walking down the street and somebody runs up and steals her new iPhone 6 right out of her hand. Boom. It’s gone. That’s the ASK.

Joyce then takes off down the road, determined to use her ninja skills to recover her phone (hey, she’s left many PAs lost wondering where she went). That’s the ACCEPTANCE.

Now, note what we did there. We have created a question in the viewers mind, Will she get her phone back? And in wanting to know the answer, you’ll stick with the story. You want to know the answer to this question whether Joyce tells you the scenario over coffee or if you’re watching it in a film.

After three blocks of narrowly dodging traffic in pursuit of the thief, she catches up to him, pulls a monopod out from behind her (like a ninja draws a sword) and firmly (yet rather quietly—you know Joyce) demands the phone back. Realizing you don’t mess with a ninja, he hands the phone back and takes off down the street. That’s the ANSWER. It’s the resolution to our ASK.

3. Conflict Leads to Journey

Once you have a conflict, that will create the direction for your story, the journey. A different conflict will lead you on a completely different journey.

Imagine that if once Joyce’s phone is stolen, she calls a the police chief of Portland since she met him a few weeks ago on a shoot. Now she’s trying to go through the system to get the phone back, and you can see a completely different journey of police reports. Perhaps she goes undercover for a few weeks to try and recover it. You get the point: the conflict leads to the journey.

4. The 25/50/25 Ratio

Now, as we consider the three-act structure and the idea of a beginning, middle, and ending, you can see we’ve added in where the ASK, ACCEPTANCE, and ANSWER fit into the story.

You may have also noticed that there is a set ratio of 25% beginning, 50% middle, and 25% ending.

This ISN’T arbitrary.

Story_Arc3

Whatever the length of your story, try to structure the beginning and end as about 25% each, and then the middle as roughly half your film. This isn’t exact, but it is important.

Note that the ACCEPTANCE is what transitions us from beginning to middle, and it’s the ANSWER that takes us from the middle to the ending.

Let’s revisit Joyce and explore why this ratio matters. Remember that Plot is about creating a question. And using this ratio helps us to maximize how much the audience will feel the ANSWER—the ending to our film. Imagine that Joyce’s phone had been stolen and two steps later, the thief trips, drops the phone, and runs away. That’s a weak story. We don’t really feel the ANSWER because the journey was too short. Now imagine that I start rambling for hours about what Joyce did next to try to get the phone. You wouldn’t care that much about the question and you’d give up, get bored, and so you’d either miss the ANSWER or not care as much.

So together, we are trying to make the middle of our story—the journey—just right, so that we maximize the impact of the ANSWER. And in general, in most stories, that means that the journey is half of your overall film.

5. Finding Your Conflict

Hopefully everything so far is making story so, so much clearer. But we have one big hole, how do we find the conflict in our story? Now, this is a big reason why we say that the strongest storytellers are the best listeners. To find the conflict, you really do need to try and understand your characters and listen for what conflicts naturally exist.

But more than that, there are 6 Universal Conflicts that make it MUCH easier to know what you’re looking for. Think of them as a lens, and each one will help you focus on a different conflict to look for.

The 6 Universal Conflicts are…

Man vs. Man. As it sounds, this is one character’s struggle against another character. Think of Face/Off, it’s the rivalry between John Travolta and Nic Cage’s characters.

Man vs. Self. This is when a character must overcome his own internal struggle. Think Fight Club.

Man vs. Society. This is one character’s struggle against societal ideals. The Pursuit of Happyness is a fine example of this. It’s one man’s struggle against society’s perception of his worth.

Man vs. Machine. This one character’s struggle against technology. Think the Terminator series.

Man vs. Nature. Man versus some weather situation or other elements. Twister is a perfect example of this.

Man vs. Spiritual. This is one character’s struggle against a religious higher power or supernatural being. Poltergeist.

So to apply the 6 Universal Conflicts we simply look at our character and consider what a conflict could be for each one. And we’ll research and ask questions that help us uncover whether there is a conflict there for each one. Now, in some cases, you just won’t have a conflict present for each one of the six. We always try to find at least three before we move on.

A003_C010_1103K9

For Dave Jacka, who became paralyzed at 19 and woke up with only 6% of his body function, there were 5 different conflicts that we found.

Man vs. Self. Could he accomplish what he set out to do despite his physical limitations?
Man vs. Man. Could he find a pilot willing to teach him to fly?
Man vs. Society. Could he prove to the rest of the world that he was more than his disability?
Man vs. Machine. Could he engineer a plane that could be adapted to his physical ability, allowing him to take flight
Man vs. Nature. The wind was terrible, would they be able to take flight that day?

6. Go Build Your Core Question

Okay, so to bring it all together we have a downloadable PDF that will walk you through the process, step-by-step, to build out your Core Question.

buildplot

  • Use the 6 Universal Conflicts to help you listen for the conflict present around your characters.
  • Take the top two that stand out to you and we’ll test out a Core Question for each.
  • Start with the ASK. That was when the conflict and your character came together. At this stage, don’t worry about whether it was in the past or not, you can deal with that when you think about how to bring the story to life.
  • Then build on the ACCEPTANCE. What was the moment that they decided to persist? Now this should be relevant to the type of conflict you chose. So if Dave becomes quadriplegic and wants to learn to fly, his Man vs. Man conflict was him trying to get a pilot to teach him. The ASK was his accident, and his ACCEPTANCE was the moment he picked up the phone or showed up and asked a pilot to help him. That’s when he accepted the challenge and decided to persist.
  • Add on the ANSWER. What will the resolution to the question be? It’s okay if you don’t know, but do try to predict it. A different answer than planned can still be a strong story since you’ve built the Core Question.
  • Remember to ask questions that you can answer. So in our documentary about Vivienne, the 9-year-old using lemonade to combat child slavery, we wouldn’t want to ask whether she can truly end child slavery. I’m sure you can imagine that we won’t have that answer for years to come. So instead, we asked the question, Can one person really have an impact on something much, much bigger than her? And that we did answer in the film.
  • Choose the Core Question. If you built out two options, and perhaps you even tried different Core Questions inside the same conflict, now you need to pick the one that will be your story. Trust your instincts and also consider why it is you’re doing this, and pick a Core Question that is relevant to that.

There you go, you’re the proud owner of a Plot that will hold your viewers and really make them feel the ending. Remember, the better the Core Question, the more they’ll be engaged and feel it.

As you’re begin building structure into your stories realize that it’s okay to ask simple questions. Any question is better than nothing, and as you do it more, you’ll start to see how to build out even stronger questions.

Please, please don’t just skip structure all together. That’s like an architect throwing a bunch of lines on a page and asking, Can’t you see how these could be rearranged to make a beautiful building?

You’re storytelling. So TELL the story. Add the structure and give the audience no choice but to lean in and hold their breathe for the ending.

Plot can unlock that for you.

Here are 3 ways to make the most of this free PDF.

  • Start EARLY in the process, well before you show up to shoot. Get to know your characters and be thinking about your Core Question as you do.
  • Ask questions that help unveil their conflict. What are you worried about? What could go wrong? What are some competitors you’re worried about? Why might this not work? Now, don’t ask the bride why her marriage might not work. After all, we’re looking for conflicts we can build a Core Question around. But that’s not the only conflict that may be present. Ask the bride what could possibly be missed or go wrong at her wedding.
  • Look to desire to find where conflict may be hiding. If you know what your character wants, what they truly desire, their big dream—then you just need to consider what could possibly get in the way of that.

Now, this does apply to weddings, or documentaries, or whatever other genre you’re working in.

Conflict is about a challenge, and it helps you build a strong Core Question and a strong story.

For a wedding, perhaps the bride REALLY wants to say her vows with no notes, paper, or anything. And she is super nervous. The ASK could be her uncertainty, a conversation she has in the morning about whether or not she can do it, and whether or not she should just have notes in case she forgets. Her Acceptance is the moment she decided to try and do it with no notes. Then the ANSWER is the actual vows.

Now, of course there is SO, SO much more you can learn about story. What makes a strong character in the first place? How do I pull people in from the second they start watching? How do I plan relevant b-roll and actually bring this Core Question to life in a strong way? And many, many more.

The good news is that everything we covered here is only a part of our MUSE storytelling process. The MUSE process is 8 steps and this isn’t even one full step in the process.

On June 1st we’ll be launching MUSE and it will be available for just one week as a Pilot Program. Now, you’ll get lifetime access, but we’ll only open registration to MUSE for one week. We’ll offer absolutely everything at one low cost so we can see what you love most and make those tools even better.

Head on over to Learnstory.org if you want to be one of the first to get notified about the Pilot Program. We’ll have a short window of registration and it all launches June 1st.

We want to change how the world builds their stories. We want to unlock the magic of story for those that don’t get, feel it’s too tough, or just don’t see how much it can help them. And on Monday, that journey starts with filmmakers and this Pilot Program.

About Patrick Moreau

I love stories that challenge the way we see things.

21 Comments

  • Mike Schreurs says:

    Okay, I love this! Thanks for sharing. My question is I am starting some planning on a documentary and does it need to focus on one character? I am doing a doc about veterans who have PTSD and how they cope with it in positive ways. I have a decent amount of interviewees, who is the character? Is it me trying to answer the question and what I learn?

    • David Beedy says:

      Mike: Just finished a five-minute mini-doc on PTSD Vets who work with shelter dogs, and how the VALOR program saves lives. interviewed 6 Vets, but chose to focus on the one who best fit the “Ask” Acceptance” and “Answer” model. In a true long-form doc, I’d have included most/all of the subjects.

      A long-time video producer/writer, this was the first project in which I also did all the shooting, and the first cut edit. VALOR attracted 25k views in it’s first week, and we’ve received plenty of comments like “moved to tears” and “inspired to action.” Very gratifying.

      https://vimeo.com/user10837448/review/122114098/50a8284ed3

      Glad Stillmotion is able to help teach an old dog new tricks! Thank you!

      Dave Beedy

    • Hey Mike,
      Here is where most of us get stuck – we lead with Purpose instead of People. So that means we make a doc on veterans and PTSD which is the Purpose, and is mostly engaging to people interested in one or both of those things.

      However, if you make a story that leads with People, well then you can transcend the audience and get people to fall in love with the character. If they fall in love with your character – then you hit them with the ASK – I’m along for the journey to see if this person I care about will get what they want (which then answers my question). It’s the journey you want to use to bring them to your purpose. Lead with People, bring them to your Purpose.

      So, look for a character that wants something (desire) and what gets in the way that is the PTSD, and the question then is can they overcome it and achieve their dream. That’s how you reach a bigger audience and pull them in. The key here is that the ASK is the PTSD, you need to find the bigger desire.

      As for multiple characters, yes and no. Of course stories have lots of characters but we strongly suggest you have one Heart. It is easier to connect to one person than a group. We call them the Heart and Helpers.

      We hope you check out MUSE on Monday. It will completely change your approach to this doc AND you’ll get a complete breakdown of #standwithme, our doc, where you can see how we used People to lead to Purpose AND how we used the Heart to connect to the Helpers.

      Hope that is a good start! And I hope to see you inside MUSE Monday :)

      P.

  • Todd LeVeck says:

    Rad instructional. I much appreciate stillmotion’s approach to projects, your desire to educate, and judging by my humanity authentication selections, an appreciation for good food and drink…looking forward to MUSE!

  • Michael Liu says:

    This is so good! You basically broke down my two years of film school in one video but didn’t charge $80k… amazing

    • This is what we are all about!! So amazing Michael. Happy this helped, and we hope it makes Plot even easier to move forward with than what you grabbed form film school

      P.

  • jill tobin says:

    Where do I sign up for the MUSE pilot program?

  • marco malaca says:

    where do we signup?

  • Hello Patrick,
    I’m just setting up in business doing online promos for local organisations in northern England (www.lintelfilm.uk). There’s a very good chance I’ll be throwing everything in my savings account and then some at you on Monday. However before I do so I’d appreciate it if you could answer a brief question?
    I joined the Story and Heart Academy when it was launched, but soon realised it wasn’t for me and Justin very kindly gave me a full refund. I think that (because it had only just started up) the tutorials were too basic for my level and the community (the main reason I’d signed up) hadn’t established yet. Could you give me an idea of what level Learnstory will be pitched at, and perhaps how you differentiate it from the Story & Heart Academy (obviously this is focused entirely on story, but it did seem like that was a major direction for the S&H Academy too)? I’m very in to what you’re doing here but obviously I’m hoping not to repeat what happened with me at S&H.

    Many thanks, Matt

    • Hey Matt,

      First off, we are a big part of the Academy and we LOVE what the S&H folks are doing. The community is quickly growing and it’s awesome all the new content that is getting added. And yes, both Stillmotion and S&H have a great appreciation for story.

      Learnstory.org and our MUSE process is about making something complex, much more approachable. So only if someone where only to get 20% of the course, I believe it would still have an amazing return on their storytelling. I’ve taught MUSE over 100 times now and I still get a deeper understanding for story and it’s inner working the more I go through the process.

      So while its approachable and step-wise, it’s certainly not beginner. The tutorial above on Plot is similar in content to part of the plot module, but we’ll go much deeper in the course, and that’s just 1 of 8 modules. Then when you add on quizzes that are smart, and case studies that look at Hollywood films and famous commercials, I certainly believe it can challenge you and improve your storytelling.

      I just look at you ‘bridging the gap’ spot and I believe the MUSE process would help you develop stronger characters (and have a better metric for what makes a remarkable character). It would help you understand the role of the hook and give you steps to make yours much stronger. It would certainly help you improve the structure and bring us on more of a journey. More than anything, your piece – while well done – is very Purpose heavy, and the MUSE process would help you create more of an emotional connection, one that brings the viewer on a journey, and then lands them at your Purpose in a way that is much deeper, more memorable, and one they are more receptive to.

      Happy to chat with you this week if you want to know more about the whole MUSE toolkit but I feel very good in looking at your films that it could really help you create more moving films with stronger structure and richer characters.

      Thanks for the questions.

      P.

      • Thanks Patrick,

        For your answer and for taking the trouble to look at my film. That was the first paid job I’ve ever done (in January this year) and as you can imagine it was a huge learning experience. I think the big issue with structure was as much to do with poor client management on my part (“the film needs to do X, Y, Z and also A, B and C. Oh and can you put this in too?”) as it was my lack of knowledge/understanding of structure (also very much to blame)!

        Thanks for the feedback too – quite an honour given your success in my chosen career path! I certainly agree I need to become more familiar with plot and structure and how it can be used – I look forward to learning more about the pilot program.

        Best,

        Matt

        • No problem Matt. It’s an awesome piece for your first paid job – absolutely. And the great news is that MUSE can help you with client management, it will give you the tools to get clarity around the overall vision and get them on board with it. After all, if you try to say too much, you end up saying nothing at all.

          P.

  • brian says:

    Hi Patrick,
    I just received the email about the Pilot for MUSE. I’m going for it, but want to tell you why.

    I only 70 years of age and have a great many stories to tell. I own a company called Brian’s Brackets that designs and sells brackets and rigs for smartphones, tablets and cameras. Over the last while I realized that the general public are not being served with all of this photography and video business. There is a large group of people who only have a phone or tablet and not a “real” camera. How do they communicate or promote their businesses? The people I have interviewed generally think that their equipment is inadequate for the job. What it comes down to is lack of confidence and knowledge. What it comes down to is GEAR FEAR.

    After my daughter told me to take down all of the equipment that was blocking me with my presentations and tell her my story, I sat some of these interviewees in front of my new phone-selfie rig, leave the room and let them talk. They are telling themselves the story. I have to say that the results are really, really amazing.

    I designed a Bracket to hold a computer on a wheelchair for a stroke victim. We decided to put a tablet on the chair and showed him how to turn on the video by pushing one button. He tells his wife how he feels; he tells his therapist how he feels……..he does all of this during his quiet time. Where else can I take this? What value is there in these stories (from the person in the chair) for the family and doctors? This blows me away!

    I record my wife’s time and my time with my three year old granddaughter. We are creating history for her to look back on when we are gone.

    I could spend the $500 on a lens or bag or light, but to what end? Investing the money to learn more about how to tell a story is a worthwhile investment. This will help me tell the story about my company that will help others tell their stories and remove their GEAR FEAR.

    I am looking forward to receiving the goods and starting the course.

    Best regards,
    Brian Steeves
    http://www.briansbrackets.ca

  • Demian says:

    Great article! Thanks for all your suggestions. I am about to start a journey throughout Europe with my parents in law. They never traveled for all their life and my wife and I will bring them across 6 countries. I want to document their experience building a story with the methods you suggested. But I am finding a hard time finding the right ASK question. Any suggestions?

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