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Comparing Seven Plot Structures

Learn about animation from the pros

Comparing Seven Plot Structures

Postby Charles » Sat Apr 09, 2011 1:04 pm

Story is essential to the animation narrative. Here's some tips about how to approach it that artists may find helpful. They're from

Plot Paradigms

The Syd Field Paradigm.

Field’s Paradigm is a four-act structure masquerading as a three-act structure. It starts with a setup and inciting incident, has regular turning points in the plot called “plot points” and “pinches” in the middles, and ends with a climax and resolution. Though not apparent in the illustration, the Paradigm describes both the external journey involving the attempt to achieve the story goal and the internal journey of the Main Character.

Robert McKee's Central Plot and The Quest

McKee’s Central Plot is a modified three-act structure. It begins with an inciting incident, proceeds with progressive complications, and ends with a crisis, climax, and resolution. What is not shown is McKee’s system of using beats to build scenes, scenes to build sequences, and sequences to build acts. His third act is slightly shorter than the last act in the four-act structure examples. The McKee second act picks up the extra time and is slightly longer than the combined middle acts of a four-act structure.


The Quest describes the flow of conflict in a story. The + and — represent the positive and negative tug-of-war of conflict in the backstory before the inciting incident. The “spine” represents the “through-line” / timeline in the story. The conscious and unconscious desires describe the drive behind the external and internal journeys. The inner, personal, and extra-personal conflicts represent the types of pressure put to bear on the protagonist/main character as the story progresses. The conscious and unconscious objects of desire represent the journeys’ goals.

The Linda Seger Paradigm.

Seger’s Story Spine (or 'A Story') is a straightforward three-act structure. It has a setup, which starts with an image, establishes the story catalyst (inciting incident), and raises the central question (goal). It has two major turning points in the plot that separate Act One from Act Two and Act Two from Act Three, and ends with a climax and resolution. Seger’s three-act structure allows for subplots which can accommodate a relationship “B Story” and more.

John Truby's Twenty-Two Building Blocks

A combination of Joseph Campbell’s mythic structure and original work, Truby’s Twenty-Two Building Blocks plot structure loosely conforms to a three-act structure. Truby is a proponent of the idea that Plot is what Character does, and Character is defined by actions. As such, his plotline is a combination of a Hero’s actions motivated by his internal Need and an external Desire (goal). The actions of various Opponents and Allies counterpoint the Hero’s efforts. The plot has an inciting incident, ends with a new equilibrium, and has several revelations and reversals along the way.

Christopher Vogler's Hero's Journey

Like Syd Field’s Paradigm, Vogler’s Hero’s Journey is a four-act structure camouflaged as a three-act structure. That’s where the similarity ends. Based on Joseph Campbell’s work on mythic story structure, Vogler has relabeled the plot points to describe the external journey of the Hero, and the internal journey of the main character (The Character Arc). Vogler’s setup and inciting event take the form of Ordinary World and Call to Adventure. Like Field and other paradigms to come, major events function as turning points for the acts, such as Crossing the Threshold into the Special World, Ordeal, and The Road Back to the Ordinary World. Crisis and climax show up as Resurrection and Final Attempt. Return with the Elixir and Mastery approximate the story’s resolution.

Michael Hauge's Six Stage Plot Structure

Despite its name, Hauge’s Six Stage Plot Structure has its roots in a four-act structure as you can tell by the illustration. It starts with a setup followed by an inciting incident called Turning Point #1: Opportunity. It has regular turning points in the plot to indicate act breaks (Turning Points #2, #3, & #4), and ends with a climax (Turning Point #5) and resolution (Aftermath). As shown, Hauge’s paradigm describes the Outer Journey as the attempt to achieve the story goal. The Inner Journey describes how the Hero (Main Character) goes from living fully within his Identity (a mask that hides his inner trauma and desires) to a life free of the Identity and fulfilling his Destiny.

Dramatica's “Act Structure”

Dramatica clearly uses a four-act structure. It starts with a setup of plot points and story dynamics and an inciting incident. It has regular turning points in the plot to indicate act breaks driven by the Story Driver, and ends with a crisis, climax, and resolution of plot points and story dynamics. It also explores four throughlines; two more than the other story paradigms. The Overall Story throughline is the rough equivalent of the outer journey found in other paradigms. The Main Character throughline is the counterpart to the inner journey. Dramatica counterpoints the Main Character throughline with the Impact Character throughline. Exploring the relationship between the Main and Impact Characters is done in the MC/IC Relationship throughline.

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