Jule Selbo, a colleague of mine and fantastic screenwriter, has designed an amazing story structure model which I’ve been using in my classes and loving. It’s simple and focuses on the protagonist’s goal as the primary structural engine to drive the plot.
These Eleven Steps will work for any genre of film, and are elaborated in Selbo’s book, “Gardner’s Guide to Screenplay: From Idea to Successful Script.” (available through Amazon)
So you can see how it works, I’ve described the 11 Steps for the classic film noir DOUBLE INDEMNITY.
For those of you who love the film, you know the main character is Walter Neff (played by the excellent Fred MacMurray) and the femme fatale is Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck, in all her black widow glory) For those of you who don’t know the film, watch it—it’s amazing. One of Billy Wilder’s best.
1) Character’s Overall Want: Walter Neff is a cocky insurance salesman. He meets Phyllis Dietrichson and falls in lust. He wants her.
2) Character Logically Goes for his/her want: He flirts with her and shows up at her house when he knows her husband won’t be home.
3) Character is Denied: He discovers the reason she wants to buy life insurance is so she can kill her husband. Walter says, “You can’t get away with it.” Phyllis says, “I think you’re rotten.” He says, “I think you’re swell, as long as I’m not your husband.” He walks out.
4) Character Gets a Second Opportunity to Achieve the Overall Want: Phyllis comes to his apartment, complains that her husband is abusive. Walter is super attracted to her (it’s Barbara Stanwyck, of COURSE he’s attracted!) and he’s always had this dream of pulling off the perfect insurance scam. He figures out a way to outwit his boss at the insurance company and be with her. He decides to help her kill her husband.
5) There are Conflicts About Going after the Second Opportunity: They could get the death penalty.
6) The Character Goes for it Anyway: Neff tricks Mr. Dietrichson into signing the insurance policy.
7) All Goes Well: They plan the murder, and it goes off without a hitch (aside from a minor witness who tries to talk with Walter on the train.) They kill Dietrichson and leave his body on the tracks. Still, as they walk away from the body, Neff says in classic noir voiceover, “I couldn’t hear my own footsteps, I was a dead man.” (this is 59 MINUTES in, the MIDPOINT of the screenplay.)
8) All Falls Apart: Walter’s boss, Keyes, gets a hinky feeling and decides there’s something fishy with the case. At first he thought it was an accident, but now suspects it’s homicide. Walter tells Phyllis she should NOT file the claim. Being a femme fatale, she files anyway. Neff befriends Phyllis’s stepdaughter Lola and discovers that Phyllis probably killed Lola’s mother so she could marry Dietrichson. And to make things worse, Phyllis is sleeping with Nino Zachetti (Lola’s boyfriend.) Neff now knows that Phyllis is a total snake and will destroy him.
9) Crisis: (Note, this step is always a DECISION made by the main character) Neff decides to kill Phyllis.
10) Climax: Neff goes to Phyllis’s house. She shoots him first. She’s about to finish him off, but realizes she really loves him and stops. He shoots and kills her. Neff tells Zachetti to go away, be with Lola (He redeems himself.)
11) The Truth Comes Out to Make Things Right: Neff has confessed everything on a tape recorder. Keyes discovers Walter, wounded and says he’s all washed up. Neff’s going to the gas chamber.
What I love most about this structural model is that the 11 steps focus on your main character’s “want.” This creates lots of forward momentum in the story– the protagonist is always trying to get something and facing obstacles. Plus, your main character’s goal can change. Notice how in DOUBLE INDEMNITY, Neff’s goal switches from wanting to be with Phyllis, to wanting to destroy her and save himself? This also supports his character arc from “cocky ladies man” to “vulnerable, desperate dupe.”
The story is told in flashback (we start with Neff racing away from Phyllis’s house after being shot) and as he tells us what happened, we see it onscreen through the 11 Steps.
If you are just starting to outline your movie, or if you are stuck in your pages and can’t see the forest for the trees, try using this structural model.
Take Action! Set a timer for 10 minutes, and dash down what the 11 steps might be for your main character. I guarantee you will find a spine for your protagonist that will carry him/her through to a big finish.
And if you want to throw in a dash of Joseph Campbell, make sure that in the climax, the hero has to face the darkness in him/her self.