Home Services Story ScripThink Joe Gilford

Your “Action Structure”

Pitching the story to yourself


“Write only what the story demands…”  – Aristotle

This can be an important tool in generating the “story value” of your script.

“Story Value” is simply the meaning of your story. Why are you putting this character through this ordeal? In mythology we understand that each story is supposed to carry a certain lesson. In “Pandora’s Box” the lesson is very clear: “Don’t open the box–or there will be a penalty.” And so the experience for the audience is “Best to obey the basic rules and restrictions in life. Don’t succumb to petty temptation–it’ll cost you!”

Every story must have a story value. Even “Fast & Furious” or basic action flicks superimpose a minimum story value. Why? An audience has a better experience when they care about the characters, their fates, and HOW THE CHARACTER FEELS ABOUT HIS or HER STRUGGLE.

Simply put, the story value is what your story is ABOUT. “Chinatown” is about “not taking on powers that will certainly crush you.” “Erin Brokovich” proposes the same value, but does something different “If you show undying courage in the face of monolithic power–YOU CAN WIN!” Same with “Star Wars.”

So knowing what your story is about is very important. There is no film you admire that’s not about something, so you must do the same with your script.

You can go through whatever writing process you’re comfortable with–writing random scenes, bits of dialogue, pieces of ideas–but knowing where it is all headed must be clear if you’re going to create a story with real dramatic impact. This includes comedy.

First, you start with a SINGLE MAIN CHARACTER. Yes, I know–-you want tell a story about a rock band. What about this “group of friends”(they made a hit TV series from that idea, didn’t they?) Or “I want to tell this story about a family.” And how about “The Big Chill”, “Diner” or “I Vitelloni”? Well, actually, if you see these movies you’ll see that although there was a “group” it settled down on no more than ONE character to really focus its point-of-view(POV)

There’s nothing that says you can’t to do the story you want.  However, the best stories are told from a single main character’s POV.

Starting with this main character, you project some type of trait; some kind of problem that keeps them from being “whole.” If you do things right as a screenwriter, you’re going to “heal” your main character, almost like putting them through recovery.  In “Chinatown,” Jake Gittes is a guy who has all the confidence it takes for him to lead a fairly isolated sleezy life. He also has a history of putting loved ones into harm’s way. So that’s his problem. But why put him through all this struggle??

Here’s the tricky part…

Your character wants one thing: SATISFACTION.  In Michael Corleone’s case(“The Godfather”) it’s staying OUT of the family business. But what happens to make one of the greatest films ever made? Your job as a writer is TO TEACH YOUR CHARACTER A LESSON THAT WILL LAST. In Michael’s case the lesson is “Think again…there is NO GETTING OUT OF THIS FAMILY.”

Once you’ve established your character and their problem, you will create an incident that brings your character into the track of the story.  This is the “INCITING INCIDENT.” It’s something as simple as applying for a job(“Being John Malkovich”) or it’s his turn to go get lunch(“Three Days of the Condor”) or being set up by a phony actress to tail an innocent man(“Chinatown”).

The next item will be the “CALL TO ACTION.” This is the inexorable, non-refundable, “gotta do it” moment when the character MUST GO or TAKE ACTION. A point-of-no-return that launches your guy or gal on their journey–an ordeal that will test their will and ultimately change this character for good(the “lesson” or the RESOLUTION).

In Condor it’s when he returns and sees that EVERYBODY IS DEAD. He’s pulled–against his will, but because of his need to a)survive b)understand what happened–into the intrigue and danger of the CIA.

This ends Act I.

Act II is “The Journey: Further complications.” In this early stage of your work, this segment of your action is filled with random ideas and placeholders. You’ll figure it out later in your “beat sheet.” But for now a paragraph will suffice. “Our hero finds himself on a journey where he experiences “x, y, z” meets this girl, is hounded, gets out of jams, gets into jams, etc…”

Then you’ve got the CLIMAX(he ceases to deal with the initial problem) And then you put in your RESOLUTION: how has this changed him? What has he learned?

Finally, in about a half-page you should be able to see something vitally important to your story: Does your ending have anything to do with your beginning? And–does your resolution ANSWER A QUESTION THAT WAS ASKED AT THE BEGINNING.

I call this “The Essential Question”. While there is an “Active Question”–will Jake solve the murder of Hollis Mulwray? The Essential Question is “Will Jake finally understand his problem?” This question is generic to EVERY FILM EVER MADE.

So here’s the scheme of an Action Structure:


1. MAIN CHARACTER…Their Problem…

2. SOMETHING HAPPENS in their every-day life that pushes them closer to your story…AND BOOM–they MUST DO SOMETHING or GO SOMEWHERE in order to resolve something–-this “something” will also show them a quality in their character that they MUST CHANGE.


3. The Journey. This journey may be in their familiar world, now turned unfamiliar. (“Condor:” New York City, at first Turner’s easy-going big city, is now a labyrinth of danger). New characters and relationships, added complications.

4. Finally, faced with the ultimate choice, your character is DOWN TO NOTHING; “On the Ropes”–WHAT WILL THEY DO???


5. The character, using all of their resources, ends the ordeal/journey. THE CLIMAX! (…and then everything’s over, right?) No…


NOW–what’s the “ACTIVE QUESTION”? (Will Michael Corleone become the Godfather?) And what’s the “ESSENTIAL QUESTION”(Has Michael come to understand the power of his “family”?)

This short document(no more than ½ page to 1 page long) will define the emotional value of your story–the STORY VALUE.

From here, you will move on to your “Beat Sheet”–a list of all the scenes and incidents in the story. With these documents you can’t avoid creating a solid story with real character values that will have a clear impact on your audience.