Smarter Story Structure (online course)

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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 Salt

Plot Points from Action Thriller Salt

Our first Plot Point Thursday! Plot Point Thursdays are designed to help you master screenwriting structure. Today’s plot points are from the summer blockbuster Salt (the theatrical version). Here’s how to use this screenwriting tool:

  • 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.

This list of plot points is not just meant to help you master screenplay structure. You can also advance your repertoire of screenwriting techniques if you use these plot points along with the Script vs Film analysis of Salt I posted on Tuesday and Wednesday.

For quick access here are the links:
Script vs Film: 11 Screenwriting Tips from Salt (Part 1)
Script vs Film: 11 Screenwriting Tips from Salt (Part 2)

Screenwriting Structure & Salt

I learned a lot of things from comparing Salt’s screenplay to its theatrical version. One big different between the two is structure. The movie edition of Salt is a textbook example of solid screenplay structure…while oddly enough, the screenplay was not. So if you analyze the plot points below, you will hone your “plotting intuition” and internalize a writing template that will work for any screenplay.

If you’re writing a thriller, this list is especially valuable. Examine the plot points below to learn how this movie balanced action sequences with more emotional scenes. This can help you achieve balance in your own screenplay.

Plot Points from the Blockbuster Movie Salt

  1. 2 years ago, in North Korea, Evelyn Salt is tortured by the Koreans. Throughout her ordeal, she repeats “I’m not a spy.”
  2. During a military prisoner exchange, she’s greeted by her boss at the CIA, Winter, who tells her it was her husband, Michael, not the CIA, who negotiated for her release.
  3. In the present, Salt and her husband are a picture of domestic bliss on their anniversary.
  4. At work, Salt makes small talk with Winter before being interrupted by the entrance of a former FSB agent and now Russian defector, Orlov.
  5. Salt interviews Orlov. He tells her about a Russian baby named Chenkov who was trained to be like an American — and was sent to America to strike from within. On a certain day, Chenkov will be “activated” and will kill the Russian president at the funeral of the US vice-president. The spy’s American name is Evelyn Salt.
  6. An FMRI scan says Orlov is truthful. Salt calls her husband. Counter-intelligence officer, Peabody, argues with Winter over Salt’s innocence as Orlov kills two CIA officials in an elevator.
  7. Salt uses this distraction to exit the interrogation room. She races through the CIA, finally barricaded inside a small section of a storage level.
  8. A tactical team corners her — but with a homemade bomb, she escapes the CIA HQ.
  9. She takes a taxi home, and calls her husband again. In a flashback, we learn that Winter instructed her to get to know Michael since he could be an asset to the CIA.
  10. At home, she grabs supplies just as the CIA storms in. She escapes by scaling the exterior of her apartment building.
  11. She hands over her dog to a neighbor’s child, and we have another flashback about the first time she met Michael.
  12. Winter chases Salt into a subway station. She evades him, but not Peabody.
  13. She begs Peabody not to shoot her because she has to find Mike. To escape, she jumps onto a semi truck and then onto an oil tanker.
  14. She jumps onto another truck as Peabody shoots. She rolls off of the truck, runs down the highway, and appropriates a motorbike. The CIA is in hot pursuit, but is stymied by a traffic jam.
  15. She tends to her bullet wound and takes bus to NYC. In a flashback, we see Salt confiding to Michael that she’s a CIA agent, and he accepts her anyway.
  16. She checks into a fancy hotel suite across from an old church and preps by: extracting spider venom, dyeing her hair, and studying subway plans.
  17. It’s the vice-president’s funeral and Salt, Winter & Peabody are all there.
  18. Salt jumps onto the 51st station platform and takes out several police officers. Peabody investigates.

  19. During the Russian president’s eulogy, she shoots the church organ, and he falls into the church crypt. She shoots him.
  20. Peabody arrests her; she doesn’t resist. He realizes she had a clear shot at him — but she didn’t take it.
  21. In a police squad car, she tasers the driver and controls his steering — all while handcuffed.
  22. A massive squad car crash. Salt’s car slides over an overpass, and she escapes again.
  23. Salt has another flashback, this time back to when she was a little girl mentored by Orlov. She adoringly kisses his ring as he warns her, “there are others like you.”
  24. In the present, she embraces Orlov and kisses his ring. News reports declare anti-American protests are on the rise in Russia. She asks him if they have Michael — they do —
  25. — and shoot him in front of her. She doesn’t cry. Now, Orlov says he trusts her and shares his plan to takeover the United States’ atomic weapons. She gets the details, then kills Orlov and everyone else present.
  26. She takes one moment to mourn Mike before she meets her NATO/Russian spy contact, who has architectural plans of the White House bunker. Her role: to kill the American president.
  27. They clear the White House gates/security with Salt in prosthetics that make her look like a man.
  28. Winter briefs the US president about Salt.
  29. Salt’s contact shoots and blows himself up, a catalyst for ushering the president to the underground bunker. En route, Winter tells the president he saw Salt on the premises.
  30. Salt scales the bunker elevator shaft and manages to clear the bunker door. Inside, she battles Secret Service agents.
  31. The president authenticates the nuke code, arming them.
  32. Winter shoots everyone in the bunker except for the president, revealing himself to be a Russian spy.
  33. Winter sets up Mecca & Tehran as missile targets to start a war between Muslims and America.
  34. Salt begs Winter to let her join him. He is about to — when a news report reveals the Russian president DIDN’T die. He was merely temporarily paralyzed by a bullet of spider venom.
  35. Winter reveals that he got Orlov to pick up Michael and also to blow Salt’s cover so that she would be a patsy. Salt shoots at Winter, but the bunker’s glass is bulletproof.
  36. She exploits a security panel weakness and gets inside. She fights Winter and reverses the nukes as Secret Service storm the bunker.
  37. They shackle Salt, who manages to strangle Winter with her chains.
  38. In a helicopter, Peabody interrogates Salt. She vows to kill the other Russian spies because they took everything from her. Peabody frees her and she jumps from helicopter into the Potomac River…

Final thoughts

Just from skimming this list, can you see how Salt delivers on action thrills? Whatever genre your own screenplay falls into, make sure it fulfills the promises that are particular to each one! This is especially important to remember if your idea underwent dramatic changes through each of your screenplay drafts.

On the other hand, your entire screenplay can’t be a giant string of high-speed chases. One of Salt’s strengths is the way it weaves the emotional subplot of Salt and her husband’s relationship with impressive stunts and action sequences. The reprieve from action makes those sequences more entertaining when they do occur. Plus, the heart of the movie elevates Salt above your average action flick. (The Bourne Identity does this excellently as well.)

Now it’s time for you to break out those index cards. When you arrange them into columns, do you see how solid Salt’s structure is? It hits all the 8 major plot points you should have in your script outline right on the button. If you do this exercise regularly, your own grasp of screenwriting structure should improve tremendously!

Typewriter (with modifications) by Xlibber

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