The Action Movie Story Structure

Action Movies, Screenplay, Scripts -

The Action Movie Story Structure

The Action Movie Story Structure

OK so first up if you are the kind of person who skims the first bit of an article then I will lay it out for you in seven easy steps.

1 - The Back Story haunts the central character.

2 - The Catalyst gets the character moving. It’s part of the story’s setup.

3 - The Big Event changes the character’s life.   

4 - The Midpoint is the point of no return or a moment of deep motivation.

5 - The Crisis is the low point, or an event that forces the key decision that leads to your story’s end.

6 - The Climax or Showdown is the final face-off between your central character and the opposition.

7 - The Realisation occurs when your character and/or the audience sees that the character has changed or has realised something.

That is basic structure of all stories and this can be the main story, character arch and smaller connecting stories. They all follow this basic structure and you can add and subtract to that. Then you place that structure in the genre of your choice, which for us is always action and the many forms of it including, romance, slap stick and comedy to name a few.

When you have a good idea for a movie and you sit down and start writing you will often find one thing happens. You will get so far and then you will be stuck. The reason you are stuck is not because you may not know how to end it but that the structure wasn't in place. If this film gets made it may not be a bad film but it takes effort to watch it. It doesn't have the natural flow that humans are used to and humans are natural story tellers. People have been telling each other stories since forever and we are great at hearing them. A good film structure helps the writing and the viewing process.

Think about the basic structure of the film as the spine or the back bone or the trunk of the tree and all the sub stories and spin off shows and movies come our of the various branches.

The structure of every good story is the basic three act structure. There are other act structures but that tends to be more of a stylised thing or experimental story process. We will only be talking about the three act structure at the moment.

The First Act is typically about 18 to 25 minutes long. It is followed by the Second Act, which is usually considerably longer than the First Act - which itself is followed by the Third Act (similar in length to the the First Act, but typically at least 5 minutes longer).


The First Act in your screenplay is where we get to know everyone and get to connect with our main character.

It typically opens with the inciting incident, often without the protagonist present, it captures the audience and sets the mood for the kind of story we are in.

This scene or sequence should be exciting for the audience and distributor. It should reinforce the screenplay’s theme, and maybe introduce the antagonist or some other important characters.

1. Back Story/Hook.

The hook is the first scene of act one. This is your starting point. In this first section, you establish the setting and introduce your main character. In every story, the main character goes through a transformation. In this first section, the writer must give readers a solid feeling of who the main character is and what their life is like before they embark on their mission.

Now introduce the protagonist. Your protagonist’s introduction should be interesting and memorable. Find a great introduction, you only get one chance at a first impression.

The next thing that is often missing in modern films is a connection scene between the protagonist or main character and the audience. We want to create something between the two. We show them having a bad day or going through the motions at work or they get bullied or they hap someone else. It creates the I see myself in the hero moment for the audience but it also gives you a character arch change for the movie. If they are a coward in this scene they may become a hero later and over come this fear, or something like that.

Make the audience want to support him or her. Give the audience a reason to care, to want the protagonist to win. One short scene near the beginning where the protagonist does something that makes the audience care about them and support them is all you need.

The first act is known for exposition. You have to convey a lot of information and backstory, and you’ve got to give it to them quickly. The typical first act is only about 20 minutes long, so that doesn’t give you much time.

Time to introduce a lot of your supporting characters. The first 10 minutes of movies involves the characters walking around using each others first names.

The audience needs to know everyone’s name, and they can’t learn that information unless it's said or you have a close-up of a name-tag etc. There’s a famous rule-of-thumb that it takes three repetitions for information to stick with people - so, if you want to get any important information across to the audience, you want to mention that information in at least three different places in your script.

Once you’ve introduced the characters, you should get the plot moving along. Luckily, the inciting-incident probably started you off.

The First Act ends with what is known as the First Turning-Point.

This is when your protagonist gets his quest or mission. It’s when the audience finds out what’s going on, what the movie’s really about. When someone asks you what your screenplay’s about and you say ‘it’s about a guy who has to do…’ - what he has to do is the first turning point.

2. Catalyst/Plot Point 1.

After you’ve introduced readers to the people and places of your story, next comes the inciting incident. This is the event that fuels the plot and sets the protagonist off on their journey, forcing them out of their comfortable existence. There must be a strong reason that compels them to reluctantly accept this challenge. It’s a point of no return and roughly where the traditional second act begins.


The Second Act is where the vast majority of your plot plays out. It's the body of the story, so all the stuff that happens in the movie, most of the twists and turns happen in this part.

The end of the first act gave your protagonist his or her quest.

The Second Act usually starts with the protagonist overwhelmed by his new quest. At a low-point, they have lots of doubts, the old reluctant hero called to do something.

3. Big Event /Pinch Point 1.

As act two gets underway, your character sets out on their journey and reacts to their new surroundings and challenges. External conflicts begin to apply pressure on them. This is where antagonists, or bad guys, are often introduced.

Make life miserable for your protagonist - then, give them a (small) victory - then take it all away again. Constantly up and down, up and down. Put them on the verge of victory - only to make the agony of near-certain defeat feel that much worse. Keep the audience on their toes.

4. Midpoint.

About halfway through a story, there needs to be a major event. As a result, the protagonist sets their eyes on the prize and pivots their strategy from reaction to action. As the story begins its upward climb to the climax, the intensity and tension kick into high gear.

NOTE: keep changing when the audience knows the information. Let them know things before the character knows something or at the same time as the character and even after the character, like the super spy knew something all along and they set it up. This perspective change is good to help with keeping the audience engaged.

The first and second turning points typically come with a raise in stakes (for the protagonist) and a change in scenery. Your Second Act should have higher stakes for the protagonist than the First Act and come with a new setting.

Many movies have a false-victory or a false-defeat at roughly half-way through the Second Act. If they do, it’s usually the opposite of what happens at the Second Turning-Point (if the second turning-point is a false-defeat, the second act would have a false-victory and vice versa).

The Second Act ends with the Second Turning Point. This is when your protagonist’s quest now seems impossible to accomplish.

5. Crisis /Pinch Point 2.

As the protagonist moves full steam ahead, something goes wrong. The protagonist hits an obstacle. It’s a turning point and creates suspense by making the reader question whether the protagonist will be victorious at the end. The protagonist doubts their own abilities as they gather the energy to face the enemy and complete the journey. As this section builds towards the big climactic showdown, the protagonist gains a new perspective, and they find the confidence to persevere as the end of a traditional act two draws to a close.


The Third Act is where you wrap everything up. It culminates with the climax and ends with the denouement, right before the end credits roll.

Your protagonist should overcome his or her character-flaw, thereby satisfying their character-arc and finally allowing them the chance to succeed in their goal.

Sub-plots should all be wound up by now.

The protagonist has an epic, drawn-out final-battle with the Antagonist, stopping for multiple long speeches that explain the antagonist’s motivation in greater detail.

6. Climax/Plot Point 2.

It’s here that the story approaches the climax. This is where the protagonist finally meets their nemesis face to face. This is the peak of a story’s dramatic and emotional intensity and must provide a big payoff for readers.

Now that the main-character has overcome his flaw, he’s finally able to defeat the antagonist and claim victory for his people. If he hadn’t overcome that flaw, the climax would have gone very different!

The crowd cheers, finally accepting the main-character as one of them. He kisses the girl and they live happily ever after (denouement).

7. Realisation/Resolution/Denouement.

This final scene (the conclusion of act three in a traditional structure) is where the protagonist returns to some semblance of normalcy or accepts their new normal. By the end of this act, character arcs conclude and the protagonist has undergone a transformation that leaves them in the opposite state they were in when the reader first met them.

Types of Conflicts Include:

  • Human vs. self

  • Human vs. human

  • Human vs. nature

  • Human vs. environment

  • Human vs. technology (machine)

  • Human vs. supernatural

  • Human vs. god

Usually there's a human involved, but conflict can certainly be animal vs. animal, etc.

In Christopher Booker's, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, the 7 story plots are:

  1. Overcoming the monster

  2. Rags to Riches

  3. The Quest

  4. Voyage and Return

  5. Comedy

  6. Tragedy

  7. Rebirth

Blake Snyder shoots for 10 basic plot types in his, Save the Cat! The last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need:

  1. Monster in the House

  2. Out of the Bottle (Wishes and curses)

  3. Whydunit

  4. Golden Fleece (Quest; Journey)

  5. Rites of Passage

  6. Institutionalised

  7. Buddy Love

  8. Superhero

  9. Dude with a Problem

  10. The Fool Triumphant (Underdog)

Ronald Tobias doubles 10 to 20 in, 20 Master Plots: And How to Build Them:

  1. Quest

  2. Adventure

  3. Pursuit

  4. Rescue

  5. Escape

  6. Revenge

  7. The Riddle

  8. Rivalry

  9. Underdog

  10. Temptation

  11. Metamorphosis

  12. Transformation

  13. Maturation

  14. Love

  15. Forbidden Love

  16. Sacrifice

  17. Discovery

  18. Wretched Excess

  19. Ascension & Descension

Georges Polti ups the ante, The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations:

  1. Supplication

  2. Deliverance

  3. Crime Pursued by Vengeance

  4. Vengeance taken for kindred upon kindred

  5. Pursuit

  6. Disaster

  7. Falling Prey to Cruelty of Misfortune

  8. Revolt

  9. Daring Enterprise

  10. Abduction

  11. The Enigma (temptation; riddle)

  12. Obtaining

  13. Enmity of Kinsmen

  14. Rivalry of Kinsmen

  15. Murderous Adultery

  16. Madness

  17. Fatal Imprudence

  18. Involuntary Crimes of Love (Incest)

  19. Slaying of a Kinsman Unrecognized

  20. Self-Sacrificing for an Ideal

  21. Self-Sacrifice for Kindred

  22. All Sacrificed for Passion

  23. Necessity of Sacrificing Loved Ones

  24. Rivalry of Superior and Inferior

  25. Adultery

  26. Crimes of Love

  27. Discovery of the Dishonor of a Loved One

  28. Obstacles to Love

  29. An Enemy Loved

  30. Ambition

  31. Conflict with a God

  32. Mistaken Jealousy

  33. Erroneous Judgement

  34. Remorse

  35. Recovery of a Lost One

  36. Loss of Loved Ones

Want More Types of Stories, Plots, Genres, and Themes?:

  • Anecdote

  • Apologue

  • Bedtime Story

  • Captivity

  • Chivalric romance

  • Creation myth

  • Etiological myth

  • Fable

  • Factoid

  • Fairy tale

  • Farce

  • Fish-Out-Of-Water

  • Folklore

  • Folkloristics

  • Ghost story

  • Joke

  • Legend

  • Myths

  • Oral tradition

  • Parable

  • Political myth

  • Popular belief

  • Popular misconception

  • Satire

  • Short Story

  • Tall tale

  • Tales around the campfire

  • Urban legend

Themes are equally numerous. The more common types of themes include:

  • Redemption

  • Resurrection

  • Prodigal Son

  • Transformation

  • Vengeance

  • Innocence

  • Justice

  • Sacrifice

  • Jealousy

  • Friendship

  • Fate

  • Love

5 Tips for Writing a Seven-Point Plot Structure

Whether you’re starting a story from scratch or trying to map out a work in progress, use the seven points to help structure your story. Not only will they make it easier for you to write, they will help create a readable, coherent story line for your audience to follow. These five writing tips will help you apply the seven point structure to your story:

  1. Work backwards. With the seven-point story structure, start at the end. Determine how the climax plays out and where your character ends up. Mapping out your destination first allows you to navigate the rest of the story as you write.

  2. Create your hook. With your ending established, go back and start at the beginning.

  3. Write the midpoint of your story. With the beginning and ending anchors of your story in place, tackle the midpoint. Figure out what events will serve as the turning point for your protagonist.

  4. Flesh out all the details in between. With your three main events mapped out, begin to connect the dots of your story by writing the details of your pinch points. Use these moments to create deeper characters and visit your subplots.

  5. Apply this structure to all of your writing. From sci-fi to suspense, novels to short stories, the seven point structure can apply to any story you write. To really get a grasp of how these seven pivotal events propel a story, read books and watch movies with a pen and paper in hand. Write down the seven points in each to study how writers use this structure to tell a story.


1 comment

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