Smarter Story Structure (online course)

Write Addictively Entertaining Stories—Faster

With my online course, Smarter Story Structure, you’ll learn practical tips for overcoming plot problems like these in your screenplay or novel:

  • the story starts too slowly (according to a Goodreads survey, 46.4% of readers abandon novels for this reason)
  • the story doesn’t get going until halfway through (this happened in almost a quarter of scripts read by a studio reader in a year)
  • the middle “runs out of gas” (even John Grisham admits this is a tricky issue)
  • the climax doesn’t deliver fireworks, merely sparklers
  • the story is the right length…but isn’t a good read (uh-oh)

Enroll today and learn how to use story structure to get on audiences’ good side. Click on the button below to learn more:

Screenwriting Structure: Lessons from The Hangover

The plot of The Hangover

Today’s plot point selection is The Hangover.

It’s an interesting movie to analyze because it’s one of those “don’t try this at home” circumstances. Although Hollywood is glutted with Hangover imitations, I don’t think trying to write “in the vein of” the Hangover will yield the same kind of success.

Still, there’s still lots to learn from the movie. Yesterday, I wrote about how you can use The Hangover to learn how to write a comedy script.

Well, the structure of The Hangover is also chock full of screenwriting structure techniques to learn from. After you’ve put The Hangover’s plot points onto index cards and arranged them into columns, look for patterns in the following arenas:

Solid Three Act Structure: The Hangover has a solid three act structure. The first act ends with the sun setting on the boys’ crazy night in Vegas, while the second act begins with them waking up to find complete mayhem. The second act ends with the crew in their all is lost moment–having exhausted their intellectual and financial resources, they still haven’t found Doug. It’s a good lesson to learn early. You can have all the crazy hijinks you want…but make sure a solid structural foundation is underneath them.

The magic of mystery: The Hangover starts with the all is lost moment…and then uses the rest of the first act and all of the second act to show how our characters ended up there. A LOT of movies do this, and for the most part, I don’t find it very appealing. Maybe because it seems too contrived. A lot of aspiring screenwriters try to mess around with structure and chronology because they think they’re the next Tarantino or something.

Most of the time, it’s better story-wise to tell your story in the order that the events happened. If you have a major flashback in your screenplay, try starting with the flashback, and then telling everything else that follows in order–that might solve some screenplay kinks.

However, presenting scenes out of order can heighten the mystery…and keep your reader flipping pages to see what happens next. Just don’t go overboard with this technique. The Hangover also increased the mystery by having the guys wake up to find lots of little mysteries to solve along with the major one: where’s Doug? They had to figure out how they ended up with a baby, a tiger…and a missing tooth. Because it seemed like just as they solved one little mystery, they were onto another one, there was a lot of energy to the screenplay and to the film.

Keep this in mind when you’re writing your screenplay because most amateur screenplays run out of steam by the midpoint. If that has happened to you, think about adding some smaller mysteries/puzzles for the characters to solve, in addition to the larger ones. It’ll work, as long as these little mysteries are connected to the overall plot.

Setup and Payoffs: I chose to do a couple of posts on Setups and Payoffs in Mean Girls, but I just as easily could’ve done them using The Hangover. Alan’s character is walking study in setups–the baby issues, the man purse, counting cards, and roofies…all of which which yielded major payoffs, both in humor and plot.

A lot of these set ups occur in the first act, when the guys are driving to Vegas. Jon Lucas and Scott Moore exploited this opportunity without making Alan a one dimensional character that solely existed as a set up machine.

Cause and Effect: there’s a lot of craziness in this script, but it doesn’t seem incoherent. One reason has to do with the whole Vegas vibe…another reason has to do with cause and effect. Sure, the boys end up going to Mike Tyson’s house, but it’s not random: they were seen on his security footage stealing his tiger, he tracked them down, and demanded they return the majestic beast, and so…the boys arrive Chez Mike.

Other comedy writers might have thought it’d be funny for the guys to end up at Tyson’s house, but wouldn’t have provided any causes or reasons for that to happen. The guys are suddenly there because it’s a funny situation. This is just one of many examples of cause and effect in the movie, so without further ado, let’s get to the plot points.

Plot Points from The Hangover

  1. Over preparations for an expensive, elegant wedding, we hear voicemail messages of Doug, Stuart & Phil. Tracy, the bride, is calling each one in vain. Her dad tells her to relax–it’s easy to lose track of time in Vegas.
  2. Phil calls Tracy and tells her the wedding in five hours–not gonna happen.
  3. Credits roll over scenes from Vegas.
  4. Flashback to two days prior: Alan, Tracy’s brother, tells Doug that he doesn’t have to come with them to Vegas. But Doug insists–Alan is his bro’ too.
  5. Tracy’s dad gives the key to his prized 1969 Mercedes convertible to Doug. It’s his for the weekend.
  6. Phil, a teacher, steals his students’ field trip money to use in Vegas.
  7. Stu’s girlfriend, Melissa, nags him about his trip. He assures her they won’t be going to any strip clubs, cause there are no strip clubs in Napa.
  8. As they drive to Vegas, Phil maligns the institution of marriage and Alan almost gets them killed.
  9. At a gas station, Doug and Phil analyze Alan’s mental state, make fun of Stu’s girlfriend–and make him pay for everything.
  10. Alan plots to win blackjack by counting cards.
  11. The guys arrive in Sin City.
  12. Phil wants to upgrade their room to a $4200/night suite at Caesar’s Palace. Stu balks at putting down his credit card because Melissa will check his credit card statements and know he lied about Napa. But in the end, he gives in.
  13. Their suite is seriously awesome. Stu calls Melissa and tells her “quaint” lies about their hotel. He also shows the guys the engagement ring he’ll use to propose to his g.f. after Doug’s ceremony.
  14. After Phil makes fun of Alan’s man purse, the go up to the roof of the Palace and do shots. Alan gives a speech about a 4-wolf pack and wants to do a blood brother vow, but they settle on toasting to a night they’ll never forget. Ah, the irony.
  15. The guys wake up the next morning. Their suite is a MESS. A rooster struts around the debris, while a barefoot girl pads out. Stu and Alan wake up. Stu discovers he’s missing his lateral incisor (that’s one of my favorite lines) while Alan discovers a tiger in the bathroom. Doug’s nowhere to be found–and there’s a crying baby in the closet.
  16. They have breakfast by the pool. Phil tries to retrace their steps. They have several leads: Phil has a hospital ID bracelet, while the pockets of the others yields Stu’s tooth, a valet ticket, and an $800 receipt from the Bellagio.
  17. While waiting for the valet, they see Doug’s mattress speared on a statue on the roof. The valet arrives with their car–only it’s not the Mercedes but a LVPD cruiser. They accept it. Phil uses police authority to bypass traffic and drive on the sidewalk.
  18. They talk to the doctor (a real MD unlike Stu) who treated them last night. They were there at 2:45 AM. So was Doug, but there was no baby. The Dr also tells them Phil was drugged with roofies, and they had come there after attending a wedding at the Best Little Chapel in Vegas.
  19. At the chapel, the proprietor tells Stu he’s the craziest guy he knows and shows them an album from the wedding. Stu got married to a blonde named Jade, who had given birth recently. They can’t get an annulment unless she’s present.
  20. As Stu lies to Melissa, crazy Asian dudes assault the police car. There’s a minor shootout before they speed away.
  21. They find the happy go lucky stripper, Jade, at a hotel. She’s overjoyed to see Stu. She acts like their marriage is the real deal, although he’s shocked to see his engagement ring on her finger.
  22. The police storm the hotel and take our hapless gang into custody. Phil uses his one phone call to tell Tracy they’ll be spending another night in Vegas. The cops tell them they found the Mercedes; it’s in an impound lot. After mocking them, the police use the guys in a demo on how a taser subdues a suspect.
  23. Stu yells about police brutality at the impound lot (in real life, it’s a serious abuse of constitutional rights), while Alan worries that Doug is dead. A good surprise greets the gang: the car is in pristine condition.
  24. They hear sounds coming from the trunk. Thinking it’s Doug, they excitedly open the trunk…but a naked Asian dude pops out and beats them with a crowbar.
  25. Alan confesses he drugged them with what he thought was ecstasy. Stu has a mini-meltdown.
  26. They go back to their suite and find Mike Tyson there. They sing a capella together before Tyson slugs Alan for stealing his tiger. (He tracked them down because Doug’s wallet and key was left in the tiger’s cage.) Stu says he doesn’t care if they kill him, but Tyson doesn’t want their death just yet. He only wants his tiger to be returned to him.
  27. Stu feeds the tiger a steak stuffed with roofies and composes the song, “what do tigers dream of?” They stuff the drugged tiger into the backseat of the Mercedes.
  28. It wakes up (!), claws Phil, and mauls the Mercedes interior, before they all jump out and push the car to Tyson’s mansion.
  29. Security tapes show Doug was there in Tyson’s home with them–and that contrary to his words, Phil didn’t treat the tiger like a majestic beast.
  30. An Escalade blind sides their car, forcibly expelling them. It’s the naked Asian guy, now clothed and with his muscle-y henchmen. Apparently, his man purse with $80K in it got switched with Alan’s. When he chased them, Phil put him in the trunk and called him his lucky charm. A hooded man is imprisoned in the Escalade. If the gang wants their friend back, they need to return the $80,000.
  31. They search their wrecked suite, but they can’t find the chips…so they play blackjack to win the money. Jade is used as a distraction while Alan counts cards to win.
  32. In the Mojave desert, they exchange their winnings for Doug–only the guy inside the hood isn’t their Doug, but a black Doug who sold Alan the roofies.
  33. Phil calls Tracy to tell her they’re not going to make it (the phone call we saw in the beginning). As he does so, Stu has a conversation with the drug dealer about the etymology of roofies…which helps him remember they put Doug on the roof as a prank.
  34. They rush to the roof. Doug is there–so sunburnt, he exits in a wheelchair.
  35. Jade returns Stu’s ring and tells him he pulled out his tooth in a bet. He asks her out on a real date.
  36. They speed back to California…richer for wear because Doug has the $80K in chips. Tuxedos are dropped off by a speeding van, and they change by the side of the road.
  37. They burst into the wedding at the last possible moment. Tracy forgives Doug before they say their vows.
  38. At the reception, a pervy singer provides questionable live entertainment. Phil greets his family with surprising enthusiasm. Stu breaks up with Melissa.
  39. After the wedding, they find the camera with photos from their crazy night…

Typewriter (with modifications) by Xlibber

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