A story structure checklist helps us focus on important aspects of story construction. Here is one such list on story structure from Michael Hauge’s book, Writing Screenplays that Sell.
1. Does each scene, event and character contribute to the protagonist’s outer motivation. The beginning of the story poses an overall question in the viewer’s/reader’s mind that will be answered by the end of the story. In The Matrix, for example, the overall story question is; Is Neo The One?
2. Is each hurdle and obstacle in the protagonist’s path to his goal, greater than the last one?
In The Matrix, the structure checklist receives a tick — Neo’s journey is strewn with obstacles, from not knowing how to fight, from a lack of self-belief, to finally being shot in the chest by agent Smith.
3. Does the pace of your story accelerate to the climax? In the third act of the The Karate Kid, the scenes are spaced closer and closer together—reconciling with Ali, being admitted to the tournament, participating in the initial matches, suffering a broken knee, and taking part in the final match.
4. Is the emotional through line made up of peaks and valleys? In The Karate Kid, the tournament scenes are interspersed with quieter scenes of plotting by the Cobras, coaching, and fixing Daniel’s leg.
5. Is your story chock-full of anticipation? The karate tournament, which we know about from the start, the fights with Johnny, the anticipated attacks after the party, all add to the overall sense of anticipation in The Karate Kid.
6. Are there surprises and reversals to our anticipation? In The Matrix, our expectation that Neo is indeed, The One, undergoes several reversals when he fails to jump across buildings, or when his meeting with the Oracle seems to indicate the contrary.
7. Does the story create curiosity? In The Karate Kid, we wonder how on earth Mr. Miyagi will manage to teach Daniel the requisite skills to stand up to his brutal opponent.
8. Are your characters, timing, and situation credible? The three month period provides enough time for Daniel to acquire fighting skills under the expert tutelage of Mr. Miyagi, but the time is adroitly condensed by the screenwriter so that the audience can stay involved.
9. Are the events in the story sufficiently foreshadowed? Q. How can we possibly believe that a boy with a broken knee and three months training can win a tough tournament? A. By introducing a secret weapon in the form of the Crane Stance and Mr. Miyagi’s healing abilities.
10. Does your story have an effective opening and ending? The Karate Kid uses a new arrival opening from New Jersey to Van Nuys to introduce Daniel, which is appropriate to the slow build up of the story. The final match, a do-or-die confrontation between the protagonist and antagonist, is an appropriate climax which settles the overall question established early in the story: Can Daniel win against all odds?
The story structure checklist focuses the writer’s attention on important aspects of story construction. Familiarity with such a list makes the task of troubleshooting one’s tale that much easier.