The past few weeks I have been doing a self-imposed crash course in story structure. I have read Story Engineering by Larry Brooks and The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne, and I’ve been desperate for a way to apply all that I’ve learned.
Since the first draft of my novel isn’t
quite at all ready to face up to this level of scrutiny, I decided to see how one of my favorite films would stack up. I hope that I am able to use this analysis to help both my general understanding of story structure and glean some lessons I can apply to my own story.
If you are a nerd for story or analytics, please read on! If not, feel free to skip to the nuggets of “wisdom” at the end.
So without further ado, Guardians of the Galaxy by the (approximate) numbers.
Brooks poses a version of storytelling that is broken up into four equal parts. These parts are different from one another in the protagonist’s actions.
Part I – The Setup, where the protagonist is in the “orphan” stage. In Guardians, this takes place from the start of the film until the team is arrested on Xandar about 20 minutes into the film.
Part II – The Response, the protagonist is in the “wanderer” stage. This section ends when they first see the infinity stone in action at the Collector’s shop in Knowhere. This happens almost exactly halfway through the movie at around 58 minutes in.
Part III – The Attack, the protagonist is in the “warrior” phase. I had a tough time finding just where this ended and the next phase kicked in, but I settled on when the team is actually inside of the Dark Aster (scary dog-bone ship) going after Ronan at about 1:28.
Part IV – The Resolution, the protagonist is in the “martyr” phase. Which takes us through to the end of the movie which clocks in about 1:53.
Guardians did well, staying close to the form:
Brooks also explains in great detail several key scenes in every story. He suggests that a good story cannot exist without all of these key scenes, and at particular places within the story.
The scenes are (in order):
The Hook. This happens early in the story to drum up interest fast. In Guardians, I suggest the hook is Peter’s abduction at the 3-minute mark.
The First Plot Point, sometimes the same as the inciting incident. This is when the story really kicks off, there is now no turning back for the main character(s). This is the dividing point between Parts I and II. As I said before I think this point of no return is when Peter and Friends are arrested on Xandar.
1st Pinch Point. This is where the author reminds us of the powerful antagonistic force. This key scene is actually two scenes in the film. The first in the prison where Ronan tortures to guards to try to get information from them, the second is in the shop where Yondu questions the broker to try to get information. These two antagonists are hot on our heroes trail!
Midpoint. This is normally a new piece of information that shifts the perspective of the hero. This is the transition between Part II and Part III. This was the clearest key scene for me to identify. It is the scene with the collector where the power of the Orb/ Infinity Stone is revealed.
2nd Pinch Point. Check in again with those scary antagonistic forces. Ronan has the infinity stone, tells Thanos to shove it, and merges the stone with his war hammer. He is on his way to destroy a planet.
2nd Plot Point. This is where the hero gets the final pieces of information he needs to be able to defeat the antagonist. This is the border between Part III and Part IV. I had a hard time with this one. I first thought this transition was the crash landing of the Dark Aster. However, on second thought, the final chase really takes off after we see Groot’s fireflies after the team has broken into the ship. The clue to Groot’s powers is the final piece of the puzzle.
Final Resolution. This is the most open-ended key scene, but it is when the major conflict of the story is resolved. When Peter grabs the infinity stone, and his fellow guardians come to his aid.
The following graph shows how much these key scenes deviated from their prescribed placement… they stayed pretty close to the fold.
The elements of Coyne’s Story Grid that I chose to track while re-watching were: value shift, polarity shift, and the turning point.
In The Story Grid, Coyne proposes that each scene should center around a reversal of a major value, such as life/death, love/hate, or success/failure. He calls this element the Value Shift.
The most used values at play were:
success (+) / failure (-)
life (+) / death (-)
mistrust (- -) / wariness (-) / trust (+) / friendship & family (+ +)
This absolutely speaks to what this story is about: found family and friendship. It also speaks to the action-adventure stakes of life and death.
As you can see above, the value shift comes with a polarity attached to that value. Does the scene go from love to hate? That would go from positive to negative. (He leaves room for things going from positive to double-positive or negative to double negative too… but these are less common.)
I’ve broken down for you the number of scenes that I assigned to each polarity shift:
A pretty respectable variety!
Coyne advises that too many of the same polarity shift in a row can become monotonous for the audience. Going from good to bad, scene after scene can feel exhausting. He recommends changing up the polarity shifts as much as possible.
I was honestly surprised at how often the polarity was changed up. It shows that things can go well without losing tension and that things can go bad without losing hope.
And finally, as part of the diagnostic power of The Story Grid, Coyne suggests pin pointing the action or moment where the value and polarity shift takes place. I noticed that often the turn happens right at the start of the scene or right at the end of it. Often the turn from good to bad happens early in the scene and the characters spend the scene dealing with the problems the turn has caused. The scenes that go from bad to good, the majority of the scene is spent working towards making that positive change.
Also, I noticed that the turning point in each scene was always a piece of dialogue or action. This is probably blindingly obvious to everyone else (I mean, what else could it be?), but this trend was a revelation to me. It means I should be able to point to something that actually happens in the scene to cause the turn.
Well, that’s all the number crunching I’m going to do for now. I think I’ve found some valuable takeaways here, including…
- Brooks is onto something with the structure of the parts of the story and the key scenes. Clarity makes for strong storytelling, and vagueness can cause audiences to disengage.
- Theme and Genre are revealed in the kinds of value shifts that occur regularly in your story.
- Changing up the polarity shifts keeps things interesting. (The different values between scenes keep it from feeling like one step forward one step back.)
- Scenes turn on dialogue and action.
- It is always fun to re-watch Guardians of the Galaxy!