Jule Selbo's 11 Step Story Structure


Still from the 1992 movie Unforgiven
Unforgiven

The screenwriter and novelist Jule Selbo has developed an 11 Step Story Structure that provides a fresh way of looking at the traditional three-act story structure. Rather than trying to capture the whole of the plot in its entirety, Jule's story outline focuses on the path taken by the principal character, each of her steps marking an important character-driven turning point in the plot's progression. The following is my interpretation of Jule's 11 steps:


Act I

Step 1) In which we discover our protagonist’s overall aim - what they want out of life.

Step 2) Where our protagonist seizes an opportunity to achieve their goal. They go for it!

Step 3) Our protagonist is shot down. Failure. No soup for you!

Step 4) A second opportunity presents itself. This could be it.

Leading to...

Act II

Step 5) But is this the right thing to do? The protagonist is conflicted. What if it goes wrong?

Step 6) Nah. It'll be fine. Let's do this!

Step 7) This is easy. We knew it would work out.

Step 8) Oops. It all falls apart. Everything is hitting the fan.

Step 9) Crisis. What can the protagonist do? Is there a way out?

Leading to...

Act III

Step 10) The climax. The protagonist pulls it off...don't they?

Step 11) 'The Truth Comes Out'.

The End.

Looking at a story in this way highlights the importance of character motivation in propelling a story forward. There's no room for randomness. Things don't 'just happen' to the protagonist, they happen either because the protagonist wants them to happen, or the protagonist is driven by events beyond their control (though these events are often consequences of the protagonist's previous decisions).


Jule details this story structure concept in her book Screenplay - Building Story Through Character (Routledge 2015) and gives the reader a few examples of the steps in action. One of these is the 1992 movie Unforgiven in which a group of Wild West prostitutes comes under attack and, unable to get help from the unsympathetic local sheriff, hire a gunslinger (Will Munny, played by Clint Eastwood) to come to their aid. Munny's path through the story unfolds as follows:


Step 1) Munny, a gunslinger, needs to provide a stable home for his family.

Step 2) Munny gives up his violent, dissolute ways and becomes a farmer.

Step 3) Munny's farming venture is wiped out by disease.

Step 4) Hearing about the prostitutes' bounty, Munny decides to take on the job.

Step 5) Munny has second thoughts. There are many reasons not to take on the job, least of which is the fact he's getting old and his reflexes have been addled by strong drink.

Step 6) Munny decides he's out of options. What else can he do? Not much it seems.

Step 7) Munny collects a crew and manages to straighten himself out. He takes on a more positive approach to the task.

Step 8) It all goes to hell. Munny can't bring himself to avenge the prostitutes and instead fights with the sheriff who also murders one of his partners. Munny is now a wanted man.

Step 9) Munny decides to take revenge on the sheriff.

Step 10) Munny defeats the sheriff. He still has what it takes.

Step 11) Having proven himself Munny sells up and takes his family to a new life in the city.


Note that there's a great deal in the story that happens outside of this outline, for example it doesn't cover the inciting incident - the attack on the prostitutes and their reactions - at all. This is because each of the prostitutes, the sheriff, and Munny's friends all have their own 11 steps, only some of which they share with Munny. We might not be aware of the fine detail of all their steps, but they are there. Rather than looking at a plot as a single entity that exists in its own right, Jule's approach is to view a plot as the sum of its parts - the intertwining story paths of the protagonist and their supporting characters. It's a useful tool for analysis that can help ensure you create rounded, believable characters and lead you to identify potential weaknesses in your plot.


If you'd like to learn more you can find Screenplay - Building Story Through Character on Amazon (this is an affiliate link). And don't forget to check out The Writers Guide for tips on storytelling and character development.