Story Structure in a Movie: "Barfly"

I love to beat on story structure, partially because it fascinates me, and partially because I think it’s one of the most important things a writer must get right. Whether you plan your story in every detail or write by the seat of your pants, in the end, the story must have this structure. Movies are a great way to see it in action because they follow it religiously, and it’s quicker than a novel. It’s true that a novel does not have to follow the structure as precisely as a movie does, but the closer it is to it, the better.

The structure I follow is a combination of that of Larry Brooks in his book Story Engineering, and that of James Scott Bell in his book Write Your Novel from the Middle. The best part of these two books is that they explain the structure more clearly than others.

A story has the following plot points:

  1. We start with the protagonist in his ordinary world
  2. Inciting incident 10%
  3. First plot point (first threshold) at 25%
  4. First pinch point at about 37.5%
  5. Mid point (look in the mirror point) 50%
  6. Second pinch point at 67.5%
  7. Second plot point at 75%
  8. Climax at 90-99%
  9. Denouement

Barfly is a 1987 flick staring Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway, directed by Barbet Schroeder and written by Charles Bukowski. It’s based on Bukowski’s time in LA.

Mickey Rourke plays Henry Chinaski, a boozer who spends his days and nights drinking, and often fights with one of the bartenders at his local hangout. He befriends Wanda, another boozer/hooker played by Faye Dunaway. In the meantime, there are a couple of people looking for him. Turns out one is a private eye hired to find him, and the other is the editor of a magazine to which he has submitted numerous short stories. She has decided to accept one, and wants to find him to give him a check, and to save him from his wretched circumstances. Let’s leave the storyline there and get to the analysis.

Ordinary World
The movie starts with Henry and the bartender in a brutal brawl in the alley behind the bar. The bartender beats Henry unconscious. This fight seems to be a tradition between these two, but we are never told why.

Inciting Incident

There is a lot of confusion as to the difference between an inciting incident (10%) and the first plot point (25%). Some pundits seem to use them interchangeably. Larry Brooks says that the inciting indent is the first plot point. Others make a distinction between the two and preach that you have to have both. As to writing your novel, I believe there should be both. 
The inciting incident is the point when something disturbs the protagonist’s status quo. Everything before this point is backstory and setup. I don’t think this movie has an inciting incident, or it’s obscure.

As this movie is about 96 minutes long, the inciting incident should come at about ten minutes in (or before). At the ten minute point the PI and the publisher are sitting in a car outside Henry’s building. Henry is in his seedy room listening to classical music and writing with a pencil on small pieces of paper. The scene fades to black, and then comes back with Henry laying on his bed listening to the radio. When Henry goes down the hall to the bathroom, the PI goes into his room and takes pictures of the papers on which Henry has been writing. The PI leaves just before Henry gets back. Henry never knows that the PI was there. 

This part ends at the 13 minute point, or about 13.5% of the way into the story. As it ends, he walks out of his building and the landlady bitches at him for being a young man who is drunk every day by noon. She tells him to get a job.

It’s possible that the inciting incident is the fact that he has been found and the PI proves it with the writing. But can an inciting incident be something unknown to the protagonist? I don’t think so, because it’s supposed to be an event that disrupts the protagonist’s life. It’s not the first plot point or turning point, it’s just something that happens.

I’ve seen some sources who say that the inciting incident could have happened before the story starts. He is a good enough writer to get published at a literary magazine, which means he has some education. He likes classical music, which also is evidence of education. He has submitted stories, which means he at some point had a typewriter (this is 1987) or access to one. You can’t submit hand-written work to a publisher. We are never told what led him to live like he does. Maybe he’s insane. At one point Tully asks him if he’s crazy. He says yes.

On the other hand, whatever happened before the story starts may explain how or why he’s where he is, but when the story opens this is his normal, everyday life. Therefore, there has to be an inciting incident. But I don’t see one.

He fights, returns to the bar the next day, goes home, goes back to the bar, and fights again. This is his world. Not until around the 20 minute mark does anything out of the ordinary happen. But we are now in the territory of the first plot point. My verdict: there is no separate inciting incident.

First Plot Point

This is the point at which the story really gets going. In the Hero’s Journey, this is the crossing of the first threshold. In this movie, it’s the point at just past the 20 minute mark when, after the most recent fight, the bartender in his regular place refuses to serve him. He leaves and heads for the bar across the street. One of the bartenders, Jim, follows him and gives him a cut of the cash he won betting on Henry in the fight. Henry then enters the other bar, thereby crossing the first threshold at about the 22.4% point.

The new bar is much nicer than the one in which he usually hangs out. He’s in a different world. By the way, crossing the first threshold often involves a bar. For example, in the first “Star Wars,” it’s when Luke and Obi Wan walk into the bar full of strange characters.
In this scene, Henry meets Wanda and they strike off together.

First Pinch Point

“Pinch Point” is an unfortunate term because it doesn’t mean anything by itself. It’s meaningless without further explanation. The best explanation I’ve seen is by Larry Brooks, who defines it in “Story Engineering” as an example or reminder of the nature and implications of the antagonistic force.

That brings us to the question of who or what is the antagonistic force. There are a few candidates. Booze; his own personality; the bartender he fights; even Wanda. I firmly believe that the antagonist can’t just be society in general, or the government, or something like that. It may be the government, for example, but there has to be a person who embodies the antagonist. I suppose that a person can be their own antagonist, and there’s a good argument here that Henry is both the antagonist and the protagonist. In my opinion, it’s Wanda.

In the first instance, we meet her at the first turning point, which is when we should meet the antagonist, or at least when the protagonist should meet the antagonist. It’s possible we already have met the antagonist, as is the case in the first Star Wars, but it’s not the case here.

The first pinch point should come at about 37.5% of the way through the story. In Barfly, that point is the scene where Henry and Wanda wake up in the morning after going to bed for the first time. She gives him an extra set of keys to her apartment. He says he’s not too good at this sort of thing, and she tells him it’s easier for two to pay the rent. Ultimately, they head off to get his few belongings.

Midpoint/Look in the Mirror Point

One thing I like about Larry Brooks’ approach is that he divides the story into four parts, rather than three. Other people do this, such as by having Act IIA and IIB, but he explains it best. James Scott Bell calls it the “look in the mirror point.” Many times the protagonist at this point is looking in the mirror considering what to do. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Chief, who is the protagonist in the novel, is in the bathroom looking in the mirror. In Barfly, exactly at the 50% point, Henry has been hit in the head by Wanda and has bled all over the place. He’s in the bathroom staring into the mirror reciting poetry.

Second Pinch Point

Halfway through the third section comes another pinch point (about 67.5%). In Barfly, it comes at about 60 minutes, where Wanda is pretending to be sick and about to die. She tells Henry to call an ambulance. The EMTs show up and say that she’s just drunk. When they leave, she immediately snaps out of it and complains because one of the EMTs said she was fat. There was absolutely nothing wrong with her. It just highlights how manipulative she is.

Second Plot Point

The second plot point is the all is lost moment. All information has been provided and the final chase is on. This marks the point between Act III (or the second half of Act II) and Act IV (or Act III if you stick to pure three-act structure). That means it should come at about 75% of the way through.

In Barfly, it comes at about 70% when Tully shows up and reveals who she is and what she wants. We’ve seen her before, and we knew she was looking for Henry, but we didn’t know why. She has decided to publish one of his stories and needed to track him down to tell him that they had discovered him. She gives him a $500 check and we get into the final act.


Between 90 and 99% of the way through the story, the final battle between the antagonist and the protagonist takes place. Henry and Wanda are in the bar pissing away his new-found wealth by buying everyone round after round of drinks. Wanda does not know who Tully is. In a previous scene, Wanda smelled Tully’s perfume on Henry (he had spent the night with Tully). In the bar, leading up to the climax, Wanda says she’ll tear whoever he was he was with apart, if she finds her.

In walks Tully. Wanda smells her perfume and realizes who she is. At about the 95% point, the women fight over Henry. Wanda prevails and Tully leaves.

I find this very interesting because the protagonist is not involved directly in the final battle. The antagonist has it out with what I think is the temptress archetype. The antagonist wins.


After the climax, we see the world of the hero as it is now. Normally, one would expect the hero to be in a state opposite that of the beginning. The movie ends, however, with Henry going off to fight the same bartender he fought at the beginning. He’s been offered a chance at a better life and turned it down. It’s one of the few stories you’ll see where the protagonist does not change.

What do you think? Agree or disagree with my thinking on this? Do you try to follow this structure?

My Experience with Amazon Giveaways

Amazon makes it very easy to setup a giveaway for any product (so far as I know). You go to that product’s page, scroll down, and you’ll see a link to “Setup a Giveaway.” Follow the simple instructions, pay for the item and, after a short time, your giveaway will be active. Amazon does not market it for you, but they provide a link that you can use to market it yourself. There are even social links whereby they automatically insert the link and the hashtag #AmazonGiveaway.

As an author, I’m always interested in finding new ways to market and this looked pretty good. They allow you to do a giveaway for your Kindle book, as well as your print book. I tried both.

The first giveaway I did for the Kindle version of “A Beast in Venice.” I had the price set at $3.99, and I wanted to give away five copies. I had to pay 5 x 3.99, or $19.95. On the upside, you still get your commission for the sale, so I only ended up paying 30% of that (net). The lesson there is to set your book to 99 cents before the giveaway. I set it for one in every 25 people to win. (In other words, I still didn’t what the hell I was doing), and required them to follow me on Amazon in order to enter.

As an aside, the real goal of marketing for an author, outside of selling books, is to get followers interested in your type of book, and preferably on a mailing list. You want to be able to contact these people at will.

Amazon allows you to require the entrants to follow you on Amazon (a list over which you have no control and don’t even know who’s on it), follow you on Twitter (which is better), watch videos, or do nothing else (more about this one later). I decided for my first one I would go with Amazon followers, as Amazon will email them when you make a new release. Not an ideal situation, but better than nothing.

I Tweeted the thing with their hashtag, and within a few hours all the books were gone, giveaway over. Ok, I thought, I got 111 new followers on Twitter who are interested in my book. Wrong.

Amazon gives a list of the winners. I checked them out. The only place I had done any marketing was on Twitter, so these people must have Twitter accounts. All five of them were either “goose eggs,” or had a picture with no profile. That is, they are spammy accounts that enter Amazon giveaways in order to get the thing and sell it, or return it for a credit. As to Kindle books, I understand they can trade it in for something else, or for credit.

So, for my $6.00, I figure I got nothing. Maybe some of the followers were good followers who will not unfollow me, and who may consider buying my new books. But I doubt it.

The next giveaway was the Kindle version of “Self-Portrait of a Dying Man.” On this one, I set the price at 99 cents before the giveaway, and I wanted to give away ten copies. I still had not figured out what was going on, and I thought I could get me a thousand followers. (Yes, I’m slow). 

I set the giveaway to 1 in 100 and required them to follow me on Twitter. At least I’d be able to see all entrants, whereas in the version where they follow you on Amazon, you only know who won. I Tweeted the link with #AmazonGiveaway (duh). Right off the bat I got about 300 followers and 3 winners. Guess what? They were all shit. No real people actually interested in my book.

At this point I finally realized what was happening. People (bots) automatically look for the hashtag and enter the giveaway. There are websites where they list the active giveaways, what it is, and what it’s worth.

I set up another giveaway of two copies of the print version of “A Beast in Venice.” This time I would require people to sign up for my mailing list before they could enter. That’s where the “do nothing else” comes in. One of the options when you set up a giveaway is not to require the entrants to do anything additional. That way you can set up whatever conditions you want, and then give them the link.

The form to sign up (through Mail Chimp) has reCaptcha. The entrant must click a box that they are human. Result: no takers.

The bottom line is that no one wants to be on a mailing list, even if they get a chance to win a bona fide print book. 

I tried something else with my giveaway for the Kindle version of “Self-Portrait of a Dying Man.” All they have to do is enter a password (which I give them) to click through to the link. No takers.

The bottom line is that Amazon giveaways are useless for authors.

There has sprung up an industry around these giveaways that make it impossible for an author to accomplish what they really need to accomplish, which is to build a mailing list of people interested in the kind of books you write.

What if you gave away a Kindle, instead? Even if you were able to keep the bots out of it, you have a list of people who want to have a free Kindle, not a list of potential readers.

What would be a good strategy to use this method to gain real, meaningful followers, or to build your mailing list? Give away copies of books by well-known authors in your genre?

What do you think?

I’m thinking I may try that, but I am of the mind that the best thing to do is to give books away on Goodreads. At least you know that the people there are interested in books, and they’re not likely to be scamming on a book in a genre they don’t read. If they are, and they are doing it to sell on ebay, they will find out what every author already knows: it’s easier to write a book than it is to sell one.

OpenOffice Text Selection Slow: Solved

OpenOffice Writer Text Selection Running Slow


I’d used OpenOffice Writer for years with no problem, then one day the text selection feature was so slow that it would take twenty minutes to select all the text in a novel (80,000 words). It hadn’t done that before, and I couldn’t figure it out. That made it useless.

I went online and read all sorts of complicated responses to people who had the same. Here’s the thing: solutions to this type of issue are rarely complicated. The more complex the solution suggested, the less likely it is to work, and the more likely you are to screw up your computer.

Here’s the solution: Mine was caused by an extension. Specifically, Word Count Status Bar.

To fix it, go to “Tools” on the menu bar, select “Extension Manager” from the drop down menu, and then disable the extensions. Ordinary ones, such as spelling and grammar are ok, but any others, disable.

Then close the program and restart it. Selecting text should work again. If you really want the extensions you disabled, enable them one at a time, close the program and restart, and test the selection feature. If it works, repeat the process for the rest, one at a time. That’s how you find the offending extension. When you find it, remove it.

That’s it. The simplest solution is always the best.

Good luck.

How Not to Start Your Novel, Part 1

This is the first in a series of posts about how not to start your novel. One of the most common questions I see from new writers is how to start. I can't necessarily tell you how to start your novel, but I can tell you how not to, particularly if you want to find an agent or a publisher.

I follow a couple of thousand people on Twitter, largely other authors, many of whom are self-published. The self-published people love to hawk their books, and I like to go to Amazon to “Look Inside,” which I do mainly out of curiosity. It interests me how people start their books. 

There are two very popular ways of beginning a novel among the self-published crowd: by someone waking up, or by someone (usually a woman) being chased.

The main character waking up

If you Google “how not to start a novel,” you will find many articles on the subject. One thing all these articles have in common is that they tell you not to start with a character waking up (or any of its variants, such as coming to in a dark room).

Consider this, aspiring writer: I want you to tell me a story. I don’t want to spend five pages with the main character struggling to get out of bed because they’re tired and sleepy. 

It’s cliché. The character’s alarm goes off, they hit snooze, their mom calls up that they’ll be late for school, or for work, they groan and roll over, pulling the covers over their head. This exciting action repeats at least once, and then they finally get up, stretch, yawn, rub the sleep out of their eyes, blah, blah, fucking blah… Sound familiar?

By this point I’m three pages in (actually, I quit reading when the alarm went off) and all I want to do is kick the character’s ass. As an author, that is not what you want.

Of course, you can find plenty of traditionally published novels that start with people waking up, or getting out of a car, or with the weather, etc. But they are not you. Unless there is some mighty compelling artistic reason for needing to start your novel with a character waking up, don’t do it.

Someone being chased

“Start with action,” or “start in the middle of things.” Every book and every blog on the subject of writing gives you this advice. And it’s good advice. But what does it mean?

To me it means to start with the character doing something, rather than with pages and pages describing the world and its history.
In my novel, “A Beast in Venice,” I start with the main character walking in Venice at night looking for a martini. In “Self-Portrait of a Dying Man,” the main character, who is a lawyer, is in court.

In both cases there is no description of the place and time, other than what’s woven into the narrative, and then only to the extent necessary for the reader to understand what’s happening. We start to learn about the characters from what they say, do, and think. 

It gives the reader a chance to get to know the character, and hopefully begin to care what happens to them, before anything bad happens.

I have seen a number of self-published novels where the author has interpreted “start with action” to mean start with the character being chased by someone (or something) intent on causing them serious bodily harm. Often this chase is taking place in a dark forest, or in the alleys of a city at night.

What’s wrong with that? I don’t know the character, and I don’t care what happens to him or her. How do I know the person being chased is the good guy? Maybe they’re running from the father of a little boy they just raped. I don’t have anything invested in the character.

The other thing is that a novel has to have rising action. If you start your novel with a big, violent scene, you’d better ramp it up from there. The reader expects things to get much worse for your character before they get better.

You’re thinking, “But I just watched ‘Casino Royale,’ and it started with a big chase, and shooting, and things blowing up.” Yes. That’s because it’s James Bond. You already know everything there is about him (did you know he’s an orphan?). From the time he appears on screen you’re invested in his character.

Not so with yours, unless it’s part of a series, I suppose.

The Hero’s Journey, as described in “The Writer’s Journey,” by Christopher Vogler, starts with the character in her ordinary world. This is our chance to see who the character is, and what her problem is. We (hopefully) develop an interest in what happens to her. Then, when the monster is chasing her through the woods, we know who to root for.

There are few rules in writing. It is a rule that a proper name is capitalized, or that a sentence ends with a period. Not start with someone waking up is not a rule, and neither is not starting with someone being chased. They are guidelines, or suggestions, or maybe even best practices. You should, however, think long and hard before you ignore them.