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 RED

The plot of RED

Today’s plot points are from the action-comedy RED, starring Bruce Willis and written by Jon and Erich Hoeber. This is a EXCELLENT movie to study for screenwriting structure lessons. (If you want a link to the RED screenplay, you can find it, along with other screenwriting tips learned from the movie, at Screenplay vs Film: 10 Screenwriting Tips from RED.) Here are just a sampling of screenplay structure lessons you can learn by studying RED:

Goals & Obstacles: The spine of any movie, whether it’s action-adventure, a thriller, mystery, comedy or drama is derived by the hero overcoming obstacles in pursuit of his goal. Obstacles are necessary to generate conflict. Without conflict there is no story. Your movie is just a fairy tale.

While you want to avoid conflict in real life, in your screenplay, you must EMBRACE conflict.

You need to love it the way George W loves weapons of mass destruction. Without a steady stream of goals (and obstacles), your story will drag in the second act. Comedies, especially, are prone to this amateur screenwriting mistake because aspiring screenwriters tend to sacrifice the plot of the screenplay for comedy gags.

If your screenplay suffers from this kind of problem, there’s an easy solution: study RED. Study it thoroughly because its second act is goal-obstacle perfection. If you look at the plot points below, you’ll see what I mean:

  • Problem: Frank is attacked by an unknown group of assassins. Goal: He asks Joe to identify the culprit by their fingers.
  • Joe IDs the the attackers as a South African hit group who also assassinated a Chinese NY Times reporter. New Goal: to find out more about this reporter.
  • Frank & Sarah find a postcard send by the reporter to her mother. It has a set of numbers on it, which form the library call number of a book. New Goal: to find the book.
  • When Frank and Sarah locate the book, they find a hit list inside. Everyone on the list is dead: Gabriel Singer, a pilot, and Marvin Boggs, a former CIA agent who’s been known to fake his death for his own protection. New goal: to extract information from both Marvin & Gabriel…

And so on and so forth…the whole second act is a tight sequence of a goal, overcoming obstacles in pursuit of that goal…only to find that success leads to a new goal.

Everything is essential: This is a beauty of a screenplay (and movie) because NOTHING is extraneous. Every scene is there for a reason, and most of the time advance both plot AND character. The thrills and the humor of this action-comedy don’t exist separate from the plot, they evolve naturally from the story.

A lot of screenwriting guides tell you to get rid of unnecessary scenes and characters. Keep only those scenes and subplots that drive your story forward…but those same guides don’t always provide an example for you to follow. Well here is a lovely 121 page screenplay and 111 minute movie that is a perfect model of that screenwriting maxim, “keep only what you need.”

Your screenplay may have a lot of minor characters whom you think are absolutely necessary. Someone, maybe another amateur screenwriter or perhaps a script consultant, may have told you that they were confused by these extra characters. If you don’t see a way to get rid of these extraneous characters while maintaining the screenplay’s coherence, take a look at the RED screenplay.

In there, you’ll find two minor characters, Jackson and Thomas–but you don’t see them in the movie. Their lines and whatever purpose they fulfilled in their scenes were re-assigned to other characters like the Record Keeper or Cooper’s boss. It was done in such a way that Jackson and Thomas’s absence wasn’t missed at all. If you compare the screenplay and movie, you can also master this screenwriting technique.

Character Introductions: I’ve already written a a post dedicated to how to introduce your hero. A clip of RED could’ve been included, because the character introductions for EVERY major character are done so skillfully. Look at Cooper: the first time you see him, he’s on his cell phone talking to his family while he’s in the middle of killing someone. That’s quite the intro, don’t you think?

Not only does it SHOW that he’s an adversary worthy of Frank, it also sets up his family as his Achilles heel…which will pay off much later. But Cooper isn’t the only one who’s introduced so perfectly. Take Victoria. Injured, Frank visits her B&B-style home to find her fussing with floral arrangements…but underneath the flowers and silk napkins, she holds a high-tech machine gun, just in case…

Creating a Hybrid: Hybrid movies like action-comedies are tricky beasts to pull off. And while the action-thriller Killers didn’t do so hot, RED masters the hybrid genre. There’s a balance of both action and humor, and when the humor takes place in the middle of an action scene, it doesn’t come across as too campy, the way it did in another action-comedy, Knight & Day. If your screenplay is a hybrid of two or three genres, it would definitely pay off to study RED and analyze how it combined both action and comedy elements.

Now that I’ve got you all stoked about RED, here are its plot points:

Plot Points from RED

  1. Meet Frank Moses. He rises from his bed at 5:59 AM before the alarm even goes off, takes vitamins, works out.
  2. He calls his pension representative, Sarah, and claims his check didn’t arrive. But he’s lying–it did arrive. This is just a ruse so they can chat.
  3. He’s the only one without Christmas decor in front of his house, so he puts some outside. (I’m not sure if that’s a Die Hard reference or if the Christmas snowman houses some security signal…)
  4. Frank and Sarah chat again. She reads trashy romance spy books for “adventure.” He’s going to be in her city in a week and they talk about meeting in person although Sarah is apprehensive about the idea.
  5. 2 assassins try to kill Frank, but he tackles them with ease and initiates an exit plan.
  6. More assassins shred his house with bullets, then enter. He takes care of them with efficient ease.
  7. Sarah returns home (in Kansas City) after a bad date–to find Frank there. She thinks he’s gonna kill her. He explains that she has to go with him because he’s been under surveillance. Whoever’s observing them knows she’s important to him from their phone calls.
  8. He sees a CIA tac team arriving, so he abducts her.
  9. Cooper, a young CIA agent, talks to his wife while permanently dispatching a rich dude. He’s told that his next mission is black op and off the books. It’s to kill Frank, “a retired CIA analyst.”
  10. Frank dumps Sarah in a New Orleans motel, and handcuffs her to the bed board.
  11. Frank visits Joe, an old member of his CIA team, who’s now in a nursing home. Frank gives Joe a bag of fingers to use to ID the people who came after him. Joe learns they were a professional hit team from South Africa–and that the group also killed a Chinese NY Times reporter.
  12. Cooper learns about Frank’s relationship with Sarah and sends his guy to intercept the police and bring her in. (She managed to wriggle free from the bed board and called for help.) Cooper’s agent is about to drug Sarah when Frank rescues her and whisks them away in a cop car.
  13. Cooper chases them, but Frank radios to the police that an officer is down–and Coop is the culprit. Cooper’s taken down by a bunch of New Orleans cops.
  14. Someone comes to assassinate Joe.
  15. As they drive to Chinatown to investigate the Chinese reporter’s death, Frank and Sarah bond.
  16. Sarah asks Frank to let her talk to the the mother of the reporter. Sarah’s good at eliciting info and they learn that the reporter sent her mother a postcard with numbers on it. Frank recognizes the numbers. They are part of a library call number for Asian books.
  17. At the library, they find a hit list inside the designated book. All are dead on the list except for Gabriel Singer. (Former CIA agent Marvin Boggs is also on the list and is marked dead…but he’s “died” several times.)
  18. Frank calls Joe to tell them what they learned only to discover that Joe is dead.
  19. Cooper visits the Record Keeper. Frank has a nice, thick file with mostly everything renditioned out. He’s been given the RED label: Retired, Extremely Dangerous.
  20. In Pensacola, Frank and Sarah visit the highly paranoid Marvin Boggs who almost kills them.
  21. He takes them to his home–an underground bunker (the large house above ground is just a decoy)–and goes through his mad hatter filing system. From his records, he concludes that several people on the hit list were in Guatemala at the same time when they were called in to “clean up” a massacre.
  22. Sarah learns that Singer will be in Mobile, AL the next day. They go to the airport, and as they exit the terminal, Marvin almost kills a realtor whom he thinks is following them.
  23. At the ATC tower, Singer tells them that someone smuggled a package into the country after the massacre–and it wasn’t a what, but a who. Before he can say more, he’s shot.
  24. There’s a massive shootout between Frank & Marvin and a bunch of younger CIA agents with high-tech weapons. And that realtor? Yeah, she really was following them. The baby CIA agents get schooled by the retirees.
  25. Frank wonders if Sarah likes him and has a “how do you know” talk with Marvin before entering the Russian Embassy where he’ll most likely get shot.
  26. He meets Ivan, a Russian former nemesis, and they drink to Igor whom Ivan thinks Frank killed–but Frank didn’t. He flipped him. Frank says he’s going to break into the CIA and he needs Ivan’s Langley layout.
  27. Undercover, Frank and Sarah enter Langley. She drops his contact lens that has a retina imprinted on it, but finds it just in time to get authentication from the eye scanner. He breaks open the door to the Record Keeper’s office and retrieves the Guatamala file. One guy is named in the file who wasn’t on the hit list: Dunning, an international weapons dealer.
  28. Frank learns that Cooper is the one who tried to kill him and storms Cooper’s office. They wrestle. Frank holds his own until Cooper finds a gun and starts shooting.
  29. Frank starts a fire and then exits in a fireman’s uniform and into a waiting ambulance manned by Marvin–and Joe! Surprise, he’s still alive.
  30. Because Frank’s injured, they decide to take him to Victoria’s very British manse. She removes his bullet and claims to love her Martha Stewart lifestyle…but admits to taking contracts on the side.
  31. Together, they enter Dunning’s compound. Joe pretends to be a foreign African leader interested in purchasing illegal weapons while Victoria and Sarah wait outside with a big machine gun and have a “girl chat.”
  32. The men interrogate Dunning. The “who” smuggled back into the US, the one who committed the massacre, was the son of a former senator and is currently the United States vice-president.
  33. The FBI realizes that Frank’s team is at Dunning’s compound and block all the exits. Cooper calls the house and tells Frank to come out with his hands up.
  34. Joe, suffering from cancer, volunteers to be a distraction. He’s shot, even though Cooper said to hold fire…which is when it begins to dawn on him that everything isn’t what it seems.
  35. Frank and Marvin escape safely thanks to Victoria’s cover, but Sarah is captured.
  36. Ivan pulls up at just the right moment and takes them to his hideout. They toast Joe and plan to rescue Sarah.
  37. Frank calls Cooper. As he interrogates Sarah, Cooper keeps Frank on the line so the CIA can trace it–it’s traced back to Cooper’s house. Frank says he’s going after the VP, then hangs up.
  38. Cops swarm Cooper’s house. His family is safe. Frank has left, only leaving behind the file on Guatemala.
  39. Cooper asks to be plugged into Vice President Stanton’s Secret Service detail and is determined to keep Sarah close and off the grid.
  40. The RED team crashes Stanton’s fundraiser, where the veep announces he’s forming a presidential exploratory committee.
  41. Ivan dances and flirts with Victoria.
  42. She gives him a device that squirts a substance with a funny smell. She leaves the ballroom, locking its exit doors with her choker necklace. Ivan yells “gas, gas” and everyone panics. Since the primary exit is blocked, the Secret Service uses a secondary exit.
  43. There’s a shoot out in the hotel’s parking garage. Ivan blows up the back up limo.
  44. The Secret Service usher the VP through the hotel kitchen. There’s more shooting. Victoria gets shot. Marvin leaves her behind, but she is rescued by Ivan.
  45. Wearing a bomb, Marvin chases after the VP and his agents. They’re relieved to see a Secret Service limo pull up, and rush inside, despite Cooper’s warning not to.
  46. Frank tasers the Secret Service agents and chucks them out of the limo.
  47. He calls Cooper to make an exchange: the VP for Sarah.
  48. At the dropoff location, Dunning arrives in a white limo–Sarah in tow. He kills vice president Stanton. Frank demands that Sarah is let go, and Dunning says he must have Frank’s life instead.
  49. Cooper cuffs Frank–but also slips him the key. All the bad guys are killed. Frank thanks Cooper for believing in him.
  50. The RED team, plus their new inductee, Sarah, drive off…for pancakes.

Typewriter (with modifications) by Xlibber

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