August 28, 2014

The Mini-Movie Method

I recently listened to this really interesting podcast provided by ScreenwritingU where screenwriter Chris Soth explains what the mini-movie method is, and how it was applied when putting together this “it” movie of this summer: Guardians of the Galaxy.

Most people are already familiar with the Three Act structure in storytelling (whether via a book, play, or movie). However, many stories tend to have a “saggy middle” when writing their stories, where things seem to slow down quite a bit, and tension is lost.

And here is where the shoe pinches, because the #1 key to a great screenplay is tension.
So what is tension? It is the battle between hope and fear. Each event in the movie should change the needle in this hope/fear spectrum, and if it doesn’t, said event should be cut out.

Each beat/scene of a movie should have its own tension, which plays into the movie’s over-arching tension as well, and which are supported by these mini-movie tensions as well. As Soth puts it: “story structure is a ladder of dependent tensions.”

So what are these mini-movies? They’re another way to break down the Three Act structure into eight smaller, more manageable pieces, each lasting about 15 minutes long (or about 15 pages of a script), and most oftentimes involve a shift in location as well.

To help you visualize it better, I’ve created a little chart to describe each of these mini-movies (MM):

This is supposed to be seen not as a formula, but rather as the transformational journey of your hero.
If you wish to see how this structure was applied to the Guardians of the Galaxy movie, please listen to the podcast here.


  1. This is again a fascinating post and your MM example is perfect.

    In fact, in late Seventies I tried to write a program that would write stories based on permutations of various factors - protagonists' names, their hair color, the type of situation they are in, the method of resolution, etc. Of course I failed, had to work for living and computers were quite limited in their capabilities (the machine I was the manager of had 24 k memory and a 5Mb disk was a real rarity). Still, I am positive there are writers who use this method nowadays.

    That's precisely why I generally do not like series - they seem to be the same book with minor permutations. I am not sure if you are familiar with Jonathan Kellerman - one of the world's top mystery writers. He actually writes very well (and has a PhD in clinical psychology), but he is now at the 28th book in the series and even if I really like his style, I can't stand the sameness any more. Maybe it is not exactly the template you show, but awfully close to it.

    But again, I do not read books for the plot. I love books that are not based on templates. So what do I know.

    1. Aaah, does that mean you're also more into indie movies? I like both genres, depending on my mood. As long as they distract me from my regular ho-hum days :)

      I think sometimes it's good to have direction in terms of structure, that way people avoid stories that ramble on and on and on, completely off the initial subject, which can easily happen in a series, especially one that wasn't planned from book 1. I don't think this is your genre at all, but I like to bring the Harry Potter series to show an example of a series done well--every character grows, every book mystery manages to solve a small part of the overarching theme and story line as well. Even though the details of how each piece worked together weren't thought out from the get go, she had enough of a clear vision to put together a coherent series that remained strong (if not got better) over the course of her 7 books.

      Otherwise, I'm like you: I get tired of the series and I stop reading it.

  2. Of course, I forgot the most important sentence: But it seems to be a fact that only template-based books sell.

    1. Of course!

      I must say, I enjoy those types of books as well.

      As mentioned above, I feel like structures help the writer stay on target, which is very helpful for a lot of non-literary novels: that way their action doesn't get diluted and the tension gets the readers to keep turning the pages (because unlike you they prefer story to poetical writing).

      More literary books sell as well, but definitely not in the same numbers as more commercial novels :)

  3. Not a reply to your post with which I agree (as usual), but a suggestion for your future post. I have just read an article in a very serious Polish magazine ("Polityka", the best Polish weekly) about how e-books track their readers' behaviors and preferences. For instance, where they drop the book, how many times they return to sex scenes, what time of day do they read, etc. I have found it fascinating. I don't think I will get an e-reader.

    Yet another tidbit: some scientists measured the readers' understanding based on the type of the medium. The best understanding comes with reading the paper book while making notes (that's what I almost always do), then just reading the paper book, and reading an e-book at the end.

    1. It doesn't surprise me at all. Everything in our day and age is about information. So they can sell things more targeted to our desires (whether acknowledged to the public or not). All those people who bought 50 shades of grey thinking it would be "anonymous reading" are now tagged as soft porn readers... (found a similar article on the Wall Street Journal:

      As for the other tidbit, I totally agree. I always prefer "real" books to e-books. Except when traveling. What converted me was the time I flew to London lugging a 3 lb, 1300 page book with me just so I could finish the last few chapters... Never. Again.
      Also, I've read this article about how surfing the internet (as opposed to reading textbooks) rewires your brain, even when done just for a little bit:
      Scary stuff, huh?