NOTE: This structure is primarily based off Blake Snyder's SAVE THE CAT! beat sheet. It's just one of many ways to approach story structure, so don't worry if your method is different.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
SETUP/SLICE OF LIFE
Who is your main character? What does their life look like? Make this imagery clear, because you’ll deliberately mirror some aspect of this at the end of the story.
PRO TIP: The most common mistake I see here is making this section ONLY about setup. You still need to tell a story. So give your character something to do. Show us who they are and what their world is like as they do something that moves the story forward.
What is your story’s unifying message? What theme do your characters buck up against until they finally choose to face their fear? For example:
True love isn’t possible without trust.
Emotional security means embracing the good times and the bad.
You can’t love someone else until you love yourself.
CATALYST/ALL IS LOST #1
This is your first All is Lost moment. An obstacle the characters face that requires them to step into the promise of the premise in order for them to pursue something vital. You will often deliberately mirror this moment in each subsequent All is Lost moment.
Just as the Catalyst is a deliberately lower scale version of what will later be your biggest All is Lost moment, the Debate is a lower scale version of the Dark Night of the Soul. The catch? At this point, the characters decide to move forward with the premise of the story, but they DON'T yet choose to face their fear and overcome their flaw.
BREAK INTO ACT II
Transition into Act II by clearly restating the theme. Show your readers what waits for your characters if they’ll just overcome their flaw. The tension comes from us knowing they absolutely are not going to face their flaw yet. And that means that no matter how well anything seems to be going, this is eventually going to blow up in their faces.
This is a complementary side story. It pushes the A-Story forward and further explores the theme.
EXAMPLE: Imagine you're ALWAYS LATE, but today you have a chance at redemption if you can just get to a first date on time.
The A-story is you trying to get to the date on time.
The B-story is you running into a friend on the way.
FUN & GAMES
This is the promise of the premise. The entire reason people are reading your story. It is the premise fully in action. Imagine the trailer moments. What are we excited to see happen?
When you write your logline, you’re usually condensing the Promise of the Premise into a single sentence.
ALL IS LOST #2
Remember The Debate? This is the next time you mirror that moment. Make it bigger. Show the escalation. Give your characters something big to overcome…
MIDPOINT FALSE VICTORY
...so that we can feel like they earned the midpoint false victory.
This needs to FEEL like a true victory, even though your readers know it isn’t. How? Your characters overcome this mini-All is Lostmoment by using the same strategy they’ve always used. And we KNOW that won’t work. They can’t have a true victory until they finally face their true fears.
ALL IS LOST #3
This is just like the previous mini-black moment, but with two key differences.
1) Often, this moment is much smaller in scale. It has lower energy.
2) Whereas before the characters mistakenly felt increasingly confident, now they face a consequence they can’t ignore. Doing things the way they’ve always done them is going to blow up in their faces.
BAD GUYS CLOSING IN
This is your characters’ last ditch effort to make this work. Think of it like being at a casino. You suddenly lose a big bet. You should probably walk away. But what do you instead? You double down! Your characters still have hope, but if this doesn’t work out, they will lose EVERYTHING.
ALL IS LOST #4
Remember The Debate? The Midpoint False Victory? This is like the final chorus in your favorite radio hit. It’s the biggest possible version of those previous scenes. Except now, your characters lose everything.
DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL
Just like The Debate, your characters consider what’s necessary in order for them to keep going. Often, this is where the A and B-Story come together. A character from the B-Story gives a character from the A-Story the swift kick in the butt necessary for them to finally try something new.
ALL IS LOST #5
WOOHOO! Now the characters finally know what to do to win. Will it work out? Probably…but maybe not. Show your characters finally preparing to take the right actions. Create anticipation for what will happen when they do.
This is it. The moment we’ve been waiting for. Your characters enter the most vulnerable situation possible. And because they’re finally willing to face their fears and sacrifice what they thought they always wanted, THEY WIN!
Note: In a romance, this is called the Grand Gesture.
This is the Happily Ever After (HEA) of a romance. A vision of the world saved in a thriller. It is the reverse image of something iconic and thematic that happens in Act I. Easy example? Your story opens with a sunrise. It ends with a sundown.