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Why Story Structure Formulas Don’t Work

Why Story Structure Formulas Don't Work

This blog post originally appeared on Film Independent’s blog and appears here with the permission of the author.

The following is a true story.

I did a script coaching session for someone I’ll call Lisa. Lisa had spent the past four years pursuing her dream of becoming a professional screenwriter. She had written six scripts with nothing to show for it. No agent, no manager, no meetings, no nothing. Lisa was obviously discouraged. Her husband was obviously discouraged. They decided she’d write one last screenplay, and if it didn’t sell, that was it, she would quit. She wrote the script then hired me to help her with it.

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Lisa’s script started out great. It had an interesting premise with unique multi-dimensional characters. The dialogue was sharp. It had strong pacing. But then it hit page 17 and started to fall apart. The characters started saying and doing things that didn’t seem consistent with who they were. The plotting felt forced. The more I read, the worse it got. It literally felt like there had been two writers: the one who did such a graceful and masterful job with the first 16 pages, and the clumsy amateur who took over from there and destroyed the script.
I told Lisa all of this.
She nodded. She wrote down page 17 in her notebook. She looked out the window. Then she looked back at me. Then she looked down at her notebook. She underlined page 17. She gazed back out the window. And with a heavy sadness she said, “I know.” Then she started to cry.
She told me she knew the script went bad. She knew it when she wrote it. She could feel it. She said she was going to quit.
I asked her to tell me what happened. What was it like writing the first 16 pages, and what had happened at page 17?
She told me she was having fun writing the beginning but then she had to create the page 17 inciting incident and couldn’t figure out a way to make it work, to make it feel organic and truthful. She rewrote it a million times and it just kept getting worse. She knew it was terrible but didn’t know what to do about it.
I asked her why she felt she felt so compelled to have an inciting incident on page 17.
She told me a story I hear a lot. When people read her scripts they always compliment her characters and dialogue. This is what she’s good at, what she’s always been good at. But the structure isn’t there. People tell her she needs to learn how to funnel all her good writing into a properly structured script. So she took the seminars. She read the books. She took classes. And they all said the same thing. In order to succeed, a writer needs to write screenplays in the classic three-act structure. Which is as follows:
Start by introducing the characters, world and tone, followed by the inciting incident—also known as the catalyst or call to action the protagonist must answer. This is the event which turns the protagonist’s world upside-down and introduces the crisis they will spend the rest of the movie trying to solve. It is what launches the main story.
In “The Wizard of Oz,” it’s the tornado. This is what propels Dorothy to Oz, turning her life upside-down, thus launching the main story of her quest to find a way home.
The seminars and books tell you that not only do you need a strong inciting incident, it needs to be properly located.
When I was in film school, we were told it should come between page 15 and 20 (“The Wizard of Oz” tornado blows in on page 19).

Nowadays, probably due to shorter attention spans, writers are told it needs to come between pages 10 and 17. Lisa had been told page 17.

I asked Lisa to make a list of her all-time favorite movies. She scribbled down titles. I asked her to pick the best structured film from her list. She chose “The Godfather.” I asked her which of the movies she most wished she had written. She picked “When Harry Met Sally.” I asked which was closest in tone and feel to her current script and she answered “Juno.” To round out the genres I asked her to pick a broad comedy. She went with “The Hangover.” For a big-budget action movie it was “The Fugitive.”
I asked her what the inciting incidents were in each of these movies.
“The Godfather”
Lisa said the inciting incident is when Michael Corleone’s father is shot. She’s not alone. This is the most common answer I get. But I would respectfully disagree with it.
Michael is certainly upset to hear his father was almost killed, but it doesn’t throw his life out of balance. It’s not yet a call to action he must answer. Nor does it launch the main story, which is his journey to become head of the family.
It’s only after Michael visits his father in the hospital and ends up thwarting the second assassination attempt that he realizes Sollozzo (rival mob boss who ordered the hits) won’t stop until his father is dead. In the next scene, Michael concludes the way to keep his father alive is to kill Sollozzo and his police captain bodyguard, McCluskey.
This is a textbook inciting incident. It’s the call to action Michael must answer. The event that dramatically turns his world upside-down as he’s forced to leave his non-mafia life forever. It’s what launches Michael down the path to becoming godfather.
If I’m right, the inciting incident is on page 62. If Lisa (and others) is right, it happens on page 32. Either way, it sure isn’t anywhere close to page 17.

“When Harry Met Sally”
Harry and Sally drive from Chicago to New York then go their separate ways. They meet up again five years later on a plane and talk, then once more go their separate ways. No life thrown out of balance, call to action, major crisis to be solved stuff yet.
Five years later, Sally tells her friend that she and her boyfriend have broken up. And Harry tells his friend that his wife left him (page 34). This could be the inciting incident as their lives are (sorta) thrown out of balance, although Harry and Sally aren’t really that distraught about it and there is still no real call to action for either of them.
Then Sally and Harry become friends. This begins the main part of the movie but still doesn’t truly fit the parameters of an inciting incident. Later on Sally discovers her ex-boyfriend is getting married and is thrown for a loop. It’s the first time we see her carefully constructed ‘in control’ demeanor crumble. She calls Harry and he rushes over to comfort her and they end up having sex (page 92), which definitely throws their lives dramatically out of balance. This could certainly be the inciting incident.
Or perhaps part of the movie’s charm is that it doesn’t fit the traditional three act structure model, and so there really isn’t an inciting incident.
So it’s either page 34, page 92, or there isn’t one. Lisa decided it was page 92.

The inciting incident is when Juno gets pregnant. This radically upsets the balance of her life and is the call to action she must answer. It happens before the movie starts. Which means there is no inciting incident in the script. Although some people argue it’s when Juno confirms she’s pregnant, which is on page 3. So it’s page 3 or there isn’t one.
“The Hangover”
The inciting incident is when groomsmen Phil, Stu and Alan lose the groom after a wild night of Vegas bachelor party celebrating. Page 29.
“The Fugitive”
The inciting incident is when Dr. Richard Kimble’s wife is brutally murdered and he’s wrongfully convicted of the heinous crime. This certainly turns his life upside-down and launches the main story. And it occurs before the movie starts, although the first eight pages show us snippets of this in flashback. So either the script has no inciting incident (since the event’s already happened) or it occurs somewhere in the first eight pages.
The must-follow page 17 rule
Not one of these movies has an inciting incident on page 17. In fact, none of them have an inciting incident anywhere in the neighborhood of page 17.
And it’s not just these movies. You can play this game with any successful movie. If you look through the AFI’s 100 Best Films of all time or the WGA’s 101 Greatest Screenplays, here’s what you’ll find:
A successfully structured screenplay absolutely must have the inciting incident occur on page 17—unless it comes on page three, page 29, page 62, page 84, or it doesn’t have an inciting incident at all.
So trying to write a screenplay where you believe you have to have an inciting incident occur on page 17—or any specific page—is insane.
And it’s not just the inciting incident. This applies to all the structure and character edicts taught in books and seminars. Professional writers don’t use these formulas because these formulas don’t work. And it’s heartbreaking how many writers don’t realize this and destroy their chances by following what they are told are universal must-follow rules.
Corey Mandell is an award-winning playwright and screenwriter who has written projects for Ridley Scott, Wolfgang Petersen, Harrison Ford, John Travolta, Julia Roberts, Warner Brothers, Universal, 20th Century Fox, Fox 2000, Fox Family, Working Title, Paramount, Live Planet, Beacon Films, Touchstone, Trilogy, Radiant and Walt Disney Pictures. Mandell teaches screenwriting at UCLA and offers private online classes using real time video conferencing. Visit his web site here.

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Actually, Juno’s may be when she decides not to get an abortion


Also I think Juno’s inciting incident would be the idea to put the kid up for adoption.

Either way I agree with the premise of this article… Stories are not socks, there is no one size fits all.


I would argue that The Fugitive’s ‘inciting incident’ would be the train crash. How far into the script that is, I’m not sure…


This article is more than a little upsetting. While I totally agree that the traditional five point structure creates movies that are two formulaic, it’s really important to understand that structure before you veer away from it. Trying to write a script without at least understanding the structure is akin to trying to figure out trigonometry without understanding algebra. And your assessment of all these movies structures is way off. The inciting incident in the Hangover is them going to Vegas. Doesn’t matter the page, that’s the inciting incident. Losing Phil is the Big Event. The scene on page 92 in When Harry Met Sally that you’re talking about is the crisis moment right before the All is Lost moment. You seem to be assuming that the inciting incident has to be something that throws the character out of their normal world, and so whenever that happens in the script it must be the inciting incident; even on page 92. I’m sorry, but it worries me that people are paying you for advice on moving away from a system that you clearly don’t understand. On another note, and this is my own opinion, most of the greatest comedies throughout history are rigidly formulaic, and I think The Hangover is the prime example. So to say that movie shirks the rules… I don’t know, man. I don’t mean to rant, but this kind of gets me going.


The first thing my manager told me was there are two types of writers. Those who follow formulas and those who work. So funny to read all the comments from all the failed writers trying to defend their paradigms.


The reason, Laurie, is a lot of folks don’t want the truth. They want to feel right. Instead of learning and growing, they keep writing to a paradigm and getting their scripts rejected. Which is good. Means less competition for the rest of us.


Great article! I’m a reader for a production company and everything this guys says is exactly right. What I don’t understand is why anyone disagrees? Following a formula almost always leads to getting your script rejected.


I believe the thing that incited Richard Kimble to action was nearly getting killed by the train. Before that, he was just an automaton being led hither and yon.


I agree … to an extent. You can go through most screenplays and find any number of things that could be deemed an ‘inciting incident’. I think there are some incidents that are stronger than others, but a good script should be full of incidents that move the story forward. If it’s visual and a good read from beginning to very satisfying end, that’s all that matters. I’ve yet to read a How-To that could’ve been trimmed down to a pamphlet of bullet points. Too many rules is like Paint By Number.

BoB Monkhouse

This guy wrote "Battlefield Earth" Enough said.


Structure is important if you have no foundation in writing or writing a novel or a screenplay. The mastery comes when to know it’s okay to step away from the structure and still make it work.


The trouble isn’t with structure. It’s with how the story is defined in the first place. It’s so tempting to just look at the narrative events as the specific tangible things that cause the story to happen. But story also has the emotional component to it. Yes, Juno is about a teen pregnancy. Really, though, it’s about Juno searching for the perfect family and ultimately realizes there is no such thing. SO if you focus on that rather than the pregnancy, how does THAT break down structurally? I don’t care if the event is on p.17 or what have you. What matters most is the focus of the story, and how we can be taken through that story one moment at a time. Structuring that story helps to maintain the focus. But it’s not always the tangible narrative; it’s more often the emotional turns in the character’s journey that determine the structure.


I was going to say exactly what Parkino said and agree wholeheartedly with Romanbrun – I think the structure of a screenplay is a blueprint – it’s not an exact science – but Mr. Mandell, you’ve confused the inciting incident with the first act turning point/plot point which sends a hero on their journey – usually before that they fight it a bit – like Dorothy’s reaction to Ms. Gulch by running away to protect Toto, and it doesn’t work, in fact, it makes things worse for her because when she decides to go home and face the music, complications arise. I think the issue here is that happens with these gurus and inexperienced writers is that they come up with the plot (yes you need a good premise) but they need a good story and characters that drive that story – which then becomes plot – not forced situations. Character is everything – and stories that fail usually do so due to contrived plots and weak character development. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t place your characters in unique situations but knowing who they are and how they will react, knowing their flaws and how those flaws play into who they are and how they will react will help in the way your plot moves forward. Story is what your film is about, plot is the chronological way it achieves the story and the character drives the plot. It’s been that way since Aristotle. But within any kind of structure is flexibility. It’s true there are way too many writing books out ther – I prefer the basic concept and within that concept comes the wild card – execution.

corey mandell

Thanks Writergirl. And it sounds like you’re thinking about it the right way. When you think you’re ready to hit the marketplace, I’d suggest hiring some actual studio/network readers under the table to see what coverage report they’d write if your script had been submitted to them. That way you’ll have a better idea if you’re truly ready or not. Best of luck with it!


Thanks for responding – I will have to check that out. I remember in the podcast you saying to have a real reader look over your script, which I plan on doing still, because as I write more and more I feel my true voice starts to come out more. I don’t want to enter the marketplace too early but also don’t want to always hold myself back with a "you only have one chance" mentality, so it’s just finding that middle point. Always enjoy you on Pilar’s podcast!

corey mandell

Hi Writergirl, most of the agents I know will only read one sample from a new writer. If that script isn’t good enough, they won’t read another. And managers always say the single biggest mistake writers make is going out to the marketplace with material that isn’t good enough. The competition out there is fierce. All the more reason to eschew formula. I wrote about this in detail in my Second Golden Age of TV article. The buyers are increasingly wanting something new that we haven’t seen before. Those who can write pitch-perfect authentic have a real leg up. Those who remain shackled to paradigms are at a disadvantage. As for the folks getting deals off youtube and such. That grabs a lot of headlines, but is still fairly rare. It still usually comes down to a writing sample that can truly stand out and excite people. Best of luck with it!


Look at the screenplays (versus the finished film) for the examples, and you find inciting incidents around p15-17. Godfather: "The action is narcotics" – Hagen. The drug war sparks the conflict in the film

When Harry Met Sally – Harry acknowledges he finds Sally attractive, she claims that because he is dating her friend, they should just be friends. The entire film – obstacles to love – is set up in one conversation.

Juno – At about p15, Juno schedules an abortion (the conflict of the film) and remarks that her own mother’s abandonment stings. Her journey of pregnancy is second to her journey of accepting her step-mother as family, and embracing her own youth.

In The Hangover, by about p15, the friends awaken to find the hotel room is trashed, unaware of the previous night’s events.

In The Fugitive, it’s established that Richard didn’t kill his wife, that this is a major trial, and the only true evidence is the 911 call seemingly proving Richard’s guilt.

Likely, if the storyline or emotional through line you enjoy following isn’t the A-story, you won’t find the structure therein. That being said, most all popular and successful films have structure. Watch a film on television. The commercial breaks are at predictable intervals, and the story beats match; commercial breaks are cliffhangers and punctuation for story.


Corey – do you still stand by your statements on Pilar’s "On the Page" podcast from like a year ago that once your first script hits the marketplace, that’s the only impression you will really get with agents/managers? That really stuck out to me (haven’t submitted any scripts to agencies) but was wondering if your position is the same now that a lot of people create their own content and are getting show offers off of personalities sometimes (like YouTubers). Totally out of the scope of this article, but always something I’ve thought about since hearing that.

Matthew howden

Actually, the exact opposite is true. When you’re an unknown writer you need to write something amazing and original to get noticed. Derivative formula gets you ignored.

Art B

This is naieve. Try to get a script past a Hollywood reader that does not have a rigid formula. Won’t happen. You can depart from the paradigm when you’re established and on the "radar" Until then, the unknown writer must coform to get past the gatekeeper.

Matthew Howden

weird that anyone would disagree with this article. I was at a WGA panel a couple of months ago where the agents and managers said the exact same thing… I guess writing to a paradigm is more important to some folks than writing something that can actually stand out and get you noticed.

Patrick C. Taylor

The author makes a valid point about not being too rigid to screenplay formulas. However, I believe the author has made some specious arguments regarding his examples of the "inciting incidents," or the lack thereof, in the screenplays he cites. (I won’t speak to "The Godfather" simply because I haven’t watched the film or read the screenplay for a long while.)

In "When Harry Met Sally," it’s their decision to challenge the notion that men and women cannot be friends (page 25). In "Juno," it’s her decision to rule out abortion as a solution (page 20). In "The Fugitive," it’s his decision to go on the run after the train crash (page 25). Cut those plot turns out, and you have two people who remained virtual strangers, a girl who got an abortion, and a wrongly convicted man who went to prison (perhaps to live out "The Shawshank Redemption" instead?).

From each of those inciting incidents came the central conflict on which each film is focused. Does it need to happen on page 17? Nope. But if you’re having problems developing a screenplay, perhaps it’s because something like that should happen somewhere thereabouts.

Also, the search for the missing bachelor in "The Hangover?" That starts on page 17.

Jared M. Gordon

In a grad school class, I was told that the inciting incident is on page 10. Blake Snyder puts it at page 12. This article mentions a screenwriter who put it at page 17. I think that if we redefine "structure" into the phrase, "plot-advancing character action," then it’ll fall into place much easier. Regarding structure, too much time is spent building up events or circumstances ("they have to experience an inciting incident by such-and-such page") and not enough on WHO the character is and not only what but WHY they do what they do. The inciting incident must happen. A page number is far less relevant to determining the WHEN as what the character wants to do at that specific moment. For some characters, a page 10 such moment is appropriate. For others, perhaps a page 17. The structure should not dictate when a character does something: the character is in charge, and it’s up to him/her to show you when he/she is ready. It’s therefore the character’s actions that CREATE the structure. Never the other way around.


Industry execs don’t read. They listen to readers tell them loglines. Then they ask about inciting incidents, arcs, and so on to sound as if they’re knowledgeable. They only thing they know is how to count money.

Readers only recommend stuff they can understand, which is why everything recommended is on a 5th grade level.

Obviously there’s controversy on what an inciting incident is, and if it even exists. If there is one, it is the point at which a writer begins to write.

Three act structure is a meaningless concept. It dimply states there is a beginning, a middle, and an end, which is the scientific equivalent of saying that matter has to exist before it can be called matter. Circular reference.

The whole premise of this discussion is absurd, circular, and meaningless. Any analysis of these things is a futile attempt to mimic successful writing. But even the definition of successful is up for debate. Is it about money or quality, and what is quality?

The only thing we can all agree on is that Hollywood is freakin’ whacked.


Hmmm… the article does NOT end with, "So Lisa threw structure out the window, wrote from her instincts and heart and her next screenplay sold for seven figures."
Soft article that attacks the idea of ‘screenplay structure’ at its weakest point: those who teach a slavish adherence to formula, not a malleable template.


Industryslave, I’m bringing in some industry folks to come talk to one of my classes. Help explain the realities and effective strategies of breaking into the biz. Email me if you want to participate. Thnx


I’ve worked for three managers and that’s simply not true. You’re delusional if you think people are actually reading to page 15 to see if there’s an inciting incident. If your first scene isn’t amazingly well written with compelling characters and dialogue (most aspiring writers can’t do this), that’s as far as anyone will read. If your second scene isn’t even more amazing, that’s as far as anyone will read. Ditto for the third scene. And if your script reeks of formula, that’s as far as anyone will read. It’s brutally competitive out there, and if you can’t stand out with something worth reading, you will be ignored.

Jim Cirile

Listen to this article if you don’t like money and have no interest in ever actually breaking in. These are the metrics industry pros use to judge your work and see if you have the goods. if there is no inciting by p. 15, that’s as far as anyone will read. Sigh.


I’m an assistant to a manager and roll calls all day. I think anyone who disagrees with this guy is writing to a marketplace that hasn’t existed in 5 years. Non-formula and Authentic are the buzz words.


My manager sent me this to read today. Great article. I’m one of those MFA’s who needed someone to tell me I was never going to make it by writing to that paradigm. More articles by this guy, please. Spot on.


Another voice speaks out against the B.S. tossed about in favour of formula.

Makes me think of the "How to Write Books About Screenwriting" satirical post.

Nathaniel Poe

Methinks some commenters doth protest too much. Have something to protect, do you? Such as a shit script that follows some asinine story structure conventions that you read once on the ‘net? You really should be ashamed and embarrassed for yourselves. Mandell is absolutely right. Take the "rulebook" and throw it out, stomp on it, piss on it, burn it, load the ashes into a cannon and fire them into another state. No worthwhile film follows a damn formula. If it feels like a formula, it’s coincidence. I know Hollywood is filled with nothing but disrespect, hatred, bile and ill will, but at least TRY to be a creator first and a soulless money-grubbing drone second.


For God’s sake, what happened to Lisa???

The Bad Screen Writer

First you need to define your terms.

That’s a rule.

Snowflakes have rules. Screenwriting has rules.

The Inciting Incident is something that HAPPENS to the main character. It’s not an active choice the main character makes.

Therefore throughout the first Act the Inciting Incident is something the main character must wrestle with until they make and ACTIVE choice.

The Inciting Incident doesn’t take your character to a new place, but it does complicate the World in which they live and throws it off balance. This is Act One.

Your main Character then will seek a solution to their dilemma and make an active choice. That active choice sets in motion the sequence of events that leads into Act II.

So yes there are rules, or recipes if you like, in both Plots (logical sequence of events) or Stories (events placed in a sequence). Movies tend to be Plot driven while the big five year long epic television shows (Breaking Bad, Sopranos, Sons of Anarchy, Game of Thrones) are Stories.

The genius in writing a Professional Screenplay is the hard work of rewriting until you have created the perfect logical sequence of events that compels someone to read and buy your screenplay or Television Bible. Of course a killer concept never hurts.

If you want to become a Master Shaolin Monk you must first learn how to be humble and sweep the floor.

ron thompson

This article is wrong. All these films have an event that triggers the action in the 10-20 page range. Even if it’s not the inciting incident that began EVERYTHING, the trigger, the catalyst, the thing that kicks off the primary plot and hero’s goal – call it whatever you want – it’s there. Mr. Mandell makes a huge mistake by not considering what DOES HAPPEN in pages 10-20 of each of these films.
Here’s an example: Yes, Dr. Richard Kimble’s wife is murdered before the film begins, but this doesn’t mean the film has no inciting incident. In pages 10-20, what happens? Kimble’s fellow prisoners attempt an escape, causing the prison bus to fall into the path of an oncoming train. Kimble flees. In other words, Kimble literally BECOMES A FUGITIVE in the page range Mr. Mandell ignores. That’s the inciting incident of the movie. Not the death of his wife.
Lisa’s script may not have worked because she chose the wrong inciting incident for the story she wanted to tell. This is much different than not needing one. Unfortunately, Mr, Mandell doesn’t seem to have the ability to identify the inciiting incident at all, let alone to offer a suggestion as to what might be appropriate for narrative.

Paul Rose

Andy, it’s a shame you didn’t read the whole article. The irony is, Corey was using the technical approach to point out that it doesn’t work, and was clever enough to couch it in the vernacular and philosophical style of these self-proclaimed gurus of structure. If you read the article or talked to Corey for a few minutes, you’d realize he agrees with you. And he isn’t an analyst. Not the way you suggest.


This guy’s only IMDB credit in Feature Films is BATTLEFIELD EARTH. I guess it is true that "thise that can’t do, teach."

corey mandell

The comments certainly show that folks feel strongly about their views of story structure. And again, every writer has to follow their own path and do what they feel is best. I’m simply sharing what agents and managers tell my UCLA classes and what I’ve observed from the scripts that are launching careers in the current marketplace. I’m going to bow out now from the comments thread. Best of luck everyone with your scripts!


Apologies on Juno, I meant keep the baby alive and bring it to term, even if she was giving it away. And seriously, anyone interested should just google this stuff. I know you have to say something different cause you’re shilling your services – I see the same article on your website – but the breakdown for all these films are available online and they all are said to follow a three act structure with defined catalysts. I can’t add weblinks cause Indiewire doesn’t allow it, but would if I could.

corey mandell

Hi Doug, we’ll have to agree to disagree. The agents and managers I bring to my UCLA classes tell my students point blank they generally won’t read scripts written to the standard paradigm. It’s just so hard to break into the business that way. Because those writers are a dime a dozen. The way to break in is to write something truly original. I also have my students read the scripts that got writers signed for the first time by agents. And, again, you just don’t tend to see formula. That said, every writer has to follow their own path and do what they feel is best.


As Mr. Mandel says, in "Juno" the character is already pregnant, so the beat that puts this story in motion is when she decides she’s going to give the baby away.
Though you can always find exceptions, the vast majority of studio films being made follow the basic three act structure. For me, the best books about screenplay structure are the "Save the Cat" series, especially the first one.
In my experience, if you have a good story you don’t need to twist it into knots to get it to fit the basic three act structure. Most of them seem to organically lay out that way.
It would be interesting to hear if Mr. Mandell ever read a new version of the screenplay with the promising 16 pages – and whether the story held up for 100 more.

corey mandell

I totally agree, Chas. I was fortunate. I broke into the business by selling a pitch to Ridley Scott. I worked with Ridley and his team in structuring the project. They taught me how silly the rules were, and the tools required to organically structure an authentic story. If not for that experience, I could easily have wasted years following the paradigm and rules I was taught in my MFA program.

corey mandell

But she doesn’t decide to keep the baby. She decides to find a family to adopt it to, which is the solution to the catalyst crisis of getting pregnant. The crisis moment in The Fugitive is when his wife is killed. That’s the crisis he spends the rest of the movie trying to resolve (find the killer, clear his name). The accident isn’t a crisis. It’s the exact opposite. It’s a good thing. It’s what frees him, allowing him to go solve the crisis. Plus, I don’t understand your point about the title. Juno isn’t the catalyst moment, it’s the name of the lead character. Just like The Fugitive. The title refers to the lead character. And if you’re defining the catalyst of WHMS as setting up the theme, than your definition of a catalyst moment is in complete disaccord with what everyone is teaching out there.


Juno isn’t about her getting pregnant – it’s about her deciding to keep the baby, which probably happens about 15 minutes in during her trip to the abortion clinic. The catalyst in the Fugitive is the accident that gives him the choice to run (OMG! He becomes a fugitive – like the name of the movie!). When Harry Met Sally I would say has a catalyst when Harry makes a pass at Sally and it sets up the theme of the movie about women and men being (or not being able to be) friends – the sex is the midpoint. I’ll agree not every catalyst has to happen on the same page – particularly when a movie like the Godfather is 3 hours long – but it does always have to happen somewhere, otherwise there’s no story.

Chas Halpern

I love this article. Please, Hollywood readers and writers, throw out the formulas and the rule books! This is why Hollywood has such a hard time making movies that feel true to the human experience.

corey mandell

I hear you, Nat. But as someone who works with writers at UCLA and Film Independent, I found it heart breaking how many talented, passionate folks have wasted years destroying their scripts by forcing them to follow ridiculous rules that working writers routinely ignore. Especially given the recent trends in what the marketplace is buying.

corey mandell

Interesting take, Parkino. And if you’re right, Wizard of Oz is yet another script that doesn’t adhere to the so-called must follow rules.

Matthew Richards

@Andy Halmay, it’s quite alright brother, I skipped your whole comment after the first line.


I usually skip anything written by ANDY HALMAY because it tends to be dull and self-aggrandizing. See? I just made a public judgement on something I didn’t read either!


this is an old misconception: structure versus outer skin… all people have similar almost equal bone structure but very different skin tones and muscular sistems. besides, comparing ‘godfather’ with ‘juno’ seems like a stretch cheating technique to get attention…


I agree with Mr Mandell.

(Having said that, I think his critique conflates the so-called inciting incident with the first act turning point. Also, in the Wizard of Oz, the inciting incident is Miss Gulch’s threat to have Toto taken away, in response to which Dorothy runs away from home.)

Nat Segaloff

The problem with script gurus and how-to books isn’t that writers follow them, it’s that development executives and producers do. A producer and D-person must be able to read a script and know if it works or, if not, how to fix it. If they don’t, then what are they doing in that job?

Andy Halmay

I had to skip more than half of this article because to me the most boring thing in life is a technical analysis of a script or book. When I meet people I don’t analyze what it is about them that interests me, that I like or dislike. When I read a book I either get into it or get out of it quickly. A written anything needs to be a natural expression from an individual and I am quickly turned off when I sense that they are unnaturally trying to fool me or impress me or manipulate my reaction to them in some technical manner. This is the problem with too many films and books today. There is too much so-called EDUCATION which tries to set up rules. ORIGINALITY IS ACHIEVED WHEN ALL RULES ARE THROWN OUT. This article promised that sort of stance but then got into so much effing analysis it lost me. Let’s shoot all the analysts.

George Muffintops

I’m not saying you’re wrong, but if you’re so knowledgeable, how could you write such an abomination as BATTLEFIELD EARTH?

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