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 Mean Girls

The plot of Mean Girls

Today’s Plot Point Thursday features Mean Girls, the snarky teen comedy written by Tina Fey and starring Lindsay Lohan. If you’re already familiar with this screenwriting tool, head on straight to the plot points. If you aren’t, here’s how to use it:

  • First, write down each plot beat onto an index card
  • Second, arrange the cards into columns so that the card at the bottom of each column is either a major turning point or an act break
  • Finally, evaluate the (sub)plotting & pacing of the story: how did this movie weave together the A story with the B story? How did it alternate action sequences with slower ones? Comedic set pieces and sentimentality? Etc, etc.

Screenwriting Structure & Mean Girls

As I already noted, Back to the Future really sets the bar for executing perfect setups and payoffs, but Mean Girls is also a great movie to study to develop your understanding of this screenwriting tool. If you’re interested, here are the links:

Setup and Payoffs in Mean Girls (Part 1)
Setup and Payoffs in Mean Girls (Part 2)

If your screenplay draft is payoff-heavy and you’re wondering how many lines of dialogue or scenes you have to devote to setup, or how much time should elapse between the setup and the payoff, or how subtle the setup should be, it would behoove you to take the following list of plot points, write them onto index cards–using one color card for the setup scenes and a different color for the payoff scenes.

Mean Girls is also a great movie to study if you’re having trouble with your second act. Act One ends with Cady vowing revenge on Regina. In order to accomplish this, Cady has to integrate herself into the Plastics–which she accomplishes by the middle of Act Two.

This victory takes our story in a new direction, as Cady overthrows Regina and takes her place as the Queen Bee–and becomes an even worse despot than the one she replaced. (This also makes Mean Girls a great template for anyone writing a screenplay in which an idealistic leader becomes corrupt once they gain power.)

This last note doesn’t have anything to do with structure, but it’s worth mentioning. Mean Girls was super successful because it was full of authenticity. Underneath the hijinks and exaggerations, Mean Girls shows us that despite the reputation of being full of sugar and spice, girls are downright mean, manipulative, and vicious to one another.

In a psychology class taken a long time ago, we learned that while males exert their dominance in social hierarchies with physical feats, girls maintained their dominance through backstabbing and manipulation, which was given the term “relational aggression.”

Although I never did any research on this, I suspect that Rosalind Wiseman did an analysis of relational aggression in her nonfiction book, Queen Bees & Wannabes, which was the basis of Mean Girls.

Plot Points from Mean Girls

  1. It’s Cady’s first day of public high school. She almost gets hit by a bus, spills coffee all over her math teacher, Ms Norbury, and eats lunch by herself in a toilet stall.
  2. Cady makes friends with Janice and Damian–they give her the 411 on the Plastics and their ruler, Regina, who always wins Spring Fling Queen.
  3. The Plastics invite Cady to sit at their lunch table. They give her some of the rules of Girl World (they wear pink on Wednesdays) and extend an invitation to sit with them…for the rest of the week.
  4. Janice hatches a plan for Cady to spend time with the Plastics and report back the stupid stuff they say.
  5. Cady falls for a boy in her math class, Aaron Samuels.
  6. The Plastics (Gretchen and Karen) tell Cady more rules about sitting with them (no sweats on Monday) and that she can’t date Aaron because he’s Regina’s ex-boyfriend.
  7. Kevin Gnapoor and Ms Norbury ask Cady to join the Mathletes.
  8. When shopping with the Plastics, Cady observes that students lounging around a water fountain look like animals gathering around a watering hole. Regina plays a mean prank on a boy who used to date Gretchen.
  9. Cady visits Regina’s mansion. Regina’s mom is a “cool mom.” The Plastics show Cady their Burn Book.
  10. Cady reports everything to Janice, and is again invited to join the Mathletes by Ms Norbury.
  11. Regina launches a three-way calling attack on Cady.
  12. Cady pretends to be bad at math (even though she’s really good at it) to talk to Aaron; he invites her to his Halloween party.
  13. While the other girls dress up in slutty costumes (and animal ears), Cady arrives as a zombie ex-wife. Regina intercepts Aaron, on his way to bring Cady a drink, tells lies about Cady to him, and then kisses him.
  14. Devastated, Cady vows revenge. Janice formulates a three-pronged attack: get rid of Regina’s older boyfriend, hot body, and army of skanks…
  15. …but their low-key efforts bear no fruit. In the jungle, Cady would’ve pounced on Regina, but in Girl World, she only ends up making Regina’s face smell like peppermint foot cream.
  16. Regina tells Cady that she used to be BFFs with Janice, but then she accused Janice of being a lesbian, and basically ruined Janice’s social life.
  17. Gretchen doesn’t get a candy cane gram from Regina (while Cady faked one for herself)…and Gretchen spills all of Regina’s secrets, like the fact that Regina cheats on Aaron in the projector room above the gym.
  18. Various students perform at the talent show. The Plastics perform an over-sexed dance to the Jingle Bell Rock. When Gretchen breaks the CD player, Cady comes to the rescue and starts singing the song a capella. The rest of the crowd joins in, preventing a social catastrophe for the Plastics.
  19. Cady, Janice, and Damian scheme to get Aaron to witness Regina’s infidelities–to no avail.
  20. Cady cons Regina into eating Kalteen bars which will make her gain–not lose–weight.
  21. Cady is an official Plastic–but she’s way too obsessed with Regina and can’t stop talking about her.
  22. Cady pretends to fail math to get Aaron to tutor her. At their tutoring session, Aaron kisses Cady, but pulls away, saying it isn’t fair to Regina.
  23. Cady tells Aaron that Regina’s cheating on him, and Regina is crushed when he dumps her.
  24. Cady, Regina, Gretchen, and Janice are all nominated for Spring Fling Queen.
  25. Because of the Kalteen bars, Regina doesn’t fit into the Spring Fling dress she put on hold months ago.
  26. When Cady really does fail a math test, she blames Ms Norbury, and claims that her teacher is a “drug pusher” in the Burn Book.
  27. Cady executes a three-way calling attack all on her own, setting Gretchen and Karen against Regina.
  28. When Regina wears sweats on Monday, the Plastics kick her out of their lunch table, and look to Cady as their new Queen.
  29. Cady throws a party at her house when her parents are out of town. Aaron bonds with Cady, but then he accuses her of being a Regina clone. Regina stumbles into Cady’s room just in time to witness Cady vomit on Aaron.
  30. He runs out. Janice discovers that Cady lied to her about being out of town and accuses her of being made of real Plastic.
  31. Regina learns the truth about the Kalteen bars. As part of her revenge against Cady, she writes nasty stuff about herself in the Burn Book.
  32. When Regina turns the book into the principal, he thinks that Cady, Gretchen, or Karen are its author since there’s nothing about them in the book.
  33. Regina makes copies of the Burn Book and distributes them throughout the school, causing full mayhem as the students turn into jungle animals.
  34. Girls in the junior class have to report to the gym for an attitude makeover conducted by the principal and Ms Norbury. At the session, Cady doesn’t confess to writing the drug rumor about Ms Norbury. But Janice reveals her and Cady’s plot to overthrow Regina.
  35. When Regina storms out, she gets hit by a bus. Some of the students think Cady deliberately pushed her.
  36. Cady gets a pep talk from her dad, then is grounded. It’s back to eating alone in the toilet stall at lunch.
  37. Cady confesses she wrote the drug pusher rumor so Ms Norbury won’t be investigated by the police. This turnaround marks Cady’s cycle of amends.
  38. The girls prep for the dance…while Cady has to go the Mathlete State Championships.
  39. In a sudden death round, Cady provides the correct answer. They’re the state champs! Cady also realizes that tearing down another girl won’t make her any prettier or smarter.
  40. At Spring Fling, Cady is crowned Spring Fling Queen. She shares her realization–and her tiara–with the other girls.
  41. She patches up with Janice and Damian…and finally kisses Aaron for real.
  42. It’s a new school year…and Girl World is at peace.

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