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Story Structure in a Movie: When Trumpets Fade

February 25 2018
February 25 2018



One great place to study story structure is by watching and analyzing movies. Although novels don’t need to follow the structure as closely as screenplays do, it’s still instructive, and the closer your novel does follow this structure, the better off you’ll be. It’s also a good idea to try to achieve the same structure in your novel as you see in movies.

For this analysis, I’m doing one you can presently see in its entirety on YouTube. I will provide an Amazon link to it in the event it’s taken down.

All stories must follow this structure. You’ll find in every movie at specific points almost to the second.

One caveat is that you also have to pay attention to genre. Some genres, particularly romance and mystery, must contain certain elements, which some people call “beats.” If you write in those genres, do your homework. Outside of that, even in those genres, you will find the same structure. In simple terms, it’s this:

Setup/Ordinary world
Inciting incident at the 10% point
First plot point at 25%
First pinch point at 38%
Second pinch point at 60%
Second plot point at 75%
Climax between 90 and 99%

These number are approximate, and in any movie, there may be some debate as to where they fall. But it’s usually quite clear, and very close to the places listed.

Let’s get to it.

The Ordinary World: First 6 minutes
In When Trumpets Fade, we start with the hero (Manning) carrying a wounded comrade through the forest trying to get him to a hospital. This is the hero in his ordinary world. He’s a private in the battle of Hürtgen Forest. He and the man he’s carrying are the sole survivors from his platoon. The wounded man dies (the hero shoots him to put him out of his misery), and Manning shows up at camp as the only survivor.

Inciting Incident 6-8 min. (10%)
When Manning gets back to the base he finds carnage everywhere. A medic gives him a ride to HQ, and tells him that they are going to keep sending them in until they’re all dead. Manning says, “Not me.” This is the point, coupled with what has gone before, where he has decided to try to get out with a Section 8.

First Plot Point/crossing the threshold 16 min(19%) (Manning)
This is early for the first plot point, but it is, at least for Manning. He meets with his platoon and they go on a patrol toward enemy lines.

First Plot point (25%) (Warren)
There are really two character arcs in this movie. One is Manning, the other is Warren (Sanderson or “Sandy”). Warren shows up the first time after getting lost. He finally finds his squad just before Manning arrives to take over. He’s a fresh-faced country boy who has no concept what he’s doing. He’s goofy, pudgy, and wears round, wire-rimmed glasses. When he first appeared I would have bet my bottom dollar that he was a dead man.

While I think the first plot point for Manning is when he first takes his men out on patrol, it comes too early. It should be around 25%. The 25% mark, however, is when Manning drops Warren off in the fox hole and the medic tells him what he’s supposed to do. All he’s done so far in his military career is walk from the base camp, through the woods, and then to the fox hole. When he enters the fox hole, he has crossed the first threshold as far as his character is concerned.

First Pinch Point (36%)
I hate the term “pinch point,” because it’s meaningless jargon, but it’s the term used in the industry, and you need to know what it is. You need to have one in your book. It’s the point where we get reminded how bad the antagonist is.

The first pinch point is the scene where the officers are discussing the second push. They were torn to pieces the first time by German artillery. The captain expresses his displeasure because there’s still artillery and tanks. So we know that it’s going to be a fiasco.

Midpoint/Look in the Mirror (Warren): 42 min (50%)
The true 50% point is when they are marching through the forest on the first push. The focus of this section is Warren, who is shown at this point near someone who stepped on a mine. We see pieces of someone that have been blown up into a tree. We’re not sure at first whether it’s Warren. We’re supposed to think it is because we’re sure that he’s going to die. He’s the quintessential character in every movie you know doesn’t make it out.

Turns out, though, it wasn’t him. He’s unharmed. While he’s laying there taking stock of his parts, a dead body falls on him. He throws it off, gets up, and runs forward screaming, not out of fear, but because of becoming a soldier.

Midpoint/Look in the Mirror (Manning): 44 min(53%)
For Manning, the midpoint comes a few minutes later when the lieutenant offers him the Section 8 he asked for if he volunteers his squad for a mission to take out the big guns with which the Germans have been tearing them up.

Second Pinch Point: 55 min. (67%)
The second pinch point is when the tanks show up after everything seems to be under control. Manning and his squad have taken out the guns and all is quiet. Then the tanks appear over the ridge and all hell breaks loose. We see how powerful the antagonist is

Second Plot Point: 62 Min (75%)
The second plot point is when the sergeant who has accused Manning of being a coward informs him that the Lt. Who promised him his Section 8 has been relieved. For Manning, all is lost. He’s in the belly of the whale. His ticket out of there, which he was promised and has earned, is gone.

Climax: 1:20 (96%)
They are successful in taking out the tanks, but Manning is mortally wounded.

The rest of the company moves from the dragon’s teeth with no tank fire. Warren’s character arc is complete because he has gone from a green recruit with no idea what to do, to a brave soldier. He ends the movie by carrying Manning on his back exactly like Manning carried the man at the beginning. Manning’s arc is complete because he has moved from someone trying only to keep alive to someone willing to risk his skin for an extremely dangerous mission, which he devised himself, and which leads to his death.

Have a different idea of where these points are? Let me know what you think and why.


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