A story is comprised of six to eight non-submersible plot units. This is what Stanley Kubrick told writer Brian Aldiss when they were adapting together his short story, Super-Toys Last All Summer Long, into film format.
That advice hung over my head for a long time, I tried to write stories that way with no success. At times it felt like nonsense, maybe just something else Kubrick threw out there to fuck up with us. So I forgot about it, went about writing my own way, then it hit, after much practice and study, I finally understood what it meant. Today I am here to tell you how that impacted my own writing.
You should focus on moments, not one event followed by another, and another, and another; doing that to a story is akin to trying to build a skyscraper all on your own, with no experience, by just putting one brick on top of the other and hoping it works.
Kubrick’s theory tells all this bullshit to go to hell. His approach is to look at a long story as a group of short stories, which come together to create something far greater than a long narrative ever could, Kubrick’s method focuses on scenes, each with its own mood. These are the non-submersible units your story should have:
(1) The status quo, introduction to the character and his current life, some foreshadowing of events that will take place later on; but most importantly, it is here we find out what the character wants, and this desire is the main reason why we will care about him throughout the story and be invested in the character (when the Little Mermaid sings about how much she wants to be human). This unit ends with an event that disrupts the status quo, but doesn’t launch the character on the main adventure (on Toy Story, this is when Buzz arrives).
(2) Here the character is dealing with the changes on his life, some more foreshadowing, and a major event that takes us to the middle of the story, the second act.
(3) Trials and tribulations, the character grows. This is where you have the most creative freedom.
(4) The character goes on some sort of mission, but doesn’t accomplish much, if anything at all; this is when we realize what will have to be done in order to accomplish the final goal, we really understand the mission that lies ahead of us, but this newfound realization weights on our character.
(5) This is the lowest point of the story, the saddest non-submersible plot unit. The character feels he could never possibly win, even thinks about giving up, all the events taking place around him support this feeling. But the character somehow finds a new conviction, draws a plan, finally realizes what needs to be done.
(6) This is what you would say is the beginning of the third act. The character will have success of some kind, but not truly accomplish the mission (in Toy Story, Woody and Sid’s toys manage to save Buzz, but not really get back to Andy; in The Matrix, Neo and Trinity save Morpheus, but still haven’t really gone up against Smith). This is why so many movies have a damsel in distress, it gives the main character motivation to move out of the low point, as well as a mission for this unit, before really going up against the main antagonist. Also, this unit normally doesn’t have a very cheerful end, don’t make it feel as if you are giving the audience any real realization.
(7) This is the tricky one, what you actually have here is a split ending, these are almost two different units. At first, the hero will face the enemy, or maybe just his minions, but still not get everything done. The second part is when Stallone dares the antagonist to “fight him like a man,” they drop their guns and really get everything done. The best way to understand this is to look once again at The Matrix: Neo fights Smith in the subway, it’s awesome, beautiful, what audiences paid money to see, but think about, what did they really accomplish? Not much. After that confrontation, they go outside, Neo goes up against Smith for real now, and he realizes he is the one.
And after everything is done, your story needs an epilogue, where we learn what the character’s new status quo is.
But how about stories with six or eight plot units? For stories with only six units, four and five merge together. And for stories with eight units, you actually split unit seven in two. By the way, you can also have a prologue, like the bank robbery in the beginning of the The Dark Knight.
It would be too obvious for me to use a Stanley Kubrick movie as a unit by unit example, so instead I will use one of my favorites, Finding Nemo:
(prologue) Marlin and his wife are happy with their new ‘house’ and the children they will have, but they are attacked, only Nemo and Marlin survive.
(1) Marlin is an overprotective father, today is Nemo’s first day of class, Marlin’s worst nightmare comes to life when Nemo goes to the void and is captured.
(2) Marlin tries to follow the boat, all he manages to acquire is a mask with an address he can’t read; meets Dory, they almost get eaten by sharks, he finds out she can read and brings her along to go try to find Nemo.
(3) Nemo wakes up in the fish tank, meets the other fish, gets caught in a tube, but manages to escape on his own. Meanwhile, Marlin and Dory are not really getting along, the mask with the address falls into an abyss, they go after it, fight an evil fish, and under all this pressure Dory reads the address.
(4) Nemo gets initiated into the aquarium community, plays a part on their plan to escape, but things don’t go as expected, he almost dies, doesn’t really accomplish anything. Over in the ocean, Marlin and Dory are getting along better, but she gets seriously injured while passing through the jellyfish. (Notice how everything starts apparently fine, but ends in tragedy or some sort of setback.)
(5) It appears Nemo will be a gift to Darla after all, he is as good as dead; but all on his own, he tries the plan again, this time he succeeds, the aquarium starts to get filth. Marlin and Dory are rescued by turtles, he sees how some parents give their children space and allow them to live their lives, just know they will find the way; but when he and Dory go off on their own, they almost get eaten by a whale, and in order to save themselves, Marlin needs to actually let go of Dory, have some blind trust.
(6) When the fish in the tank wake up, they realize the dentist cleaned it up during the night and installed a new device to clean up the aquarium; the new plan now is for Nemo to pretend to be dead and be flushed down the toilet, eventually getting to the sea. Marlin and Dory escape the pelicans and eventually get to the dentist’s office, it’s complete chaos there for a few moments, they cannot save Nemo, but he does get flushed away.
(7) Marlin and Dory go back to the ocean, he now thinks it’s hopeless, never going to get Nemo back, tells Dory to get lost; but Nemo does show up, right there in the ocean, comes in contact with Dory, goes after Marlin with her. But just as they are about to find him, they get caught on a fishing net, Nemo uses the skills he learned at the aquarium to escape.
(epilogue) Nemo, Marlin and Dory are happy, going back to school, the characters have grown.
Finding Nemo is one of the most beloved movies in history by both adults and children, it has accomplished that not only with its creativity, but mostly because of how it sticks with the formula.
You can see these non-submersible units even more clearly in serialized stories, take Harry Potter for example, it’s no coincidence there are seven books, and that when they wanted to extend the movie series, they split the last book.
Here is how that one goes:
(1) The Philosopher’s Stone: Harry is introduced to the world of wizardry, finds out more about his own family, faces Voldemort, saves the stone.
(2) The Chamber of Secrets: everything is different now, it’s not as much of a light-hearted mystery Harry and his friends are trying to solve like in the first one; it’s in this movie Harry destroys his first horcrux (which eventually become the whole point of the series).
(3) The Prisoner of Azkaban: the first “dark” movie of the series, it doesn’t do much to progress the main story (Harry v. Voldemort), it’s mostly about Harry in a personal level, his trials and tribulations.
(4) The Goblet of Fire: this is when Harry is put through a very hard time while trying to win the tournament, but all that gets thrown away when he is transported to a cemetery where he witnesses Voldemort’s rebirth, this is when it becomes clear to him he will need to fight Voldemort, that is his mission now and it is made clear to all of us.
(5) The Order of the Phoenix: nobody believes Harry, except for his friends, the whole world is against him, Dumbledore eventually needs to go on the run, the school is under “martial law.” Things couldn’t be worse, it’s the lowest point in the whole series.
(6) The Half-blood prince: Harry has a clear mission, Dumbledore and him manage to destroy a horcrux, but when they het back to the school, Dumbledore is murdered.
(7) The Deathly Hallows: Harry and his friends continue their mission to find the horcruxes, this time out of the school, but they get captured by the Malfoys, manage to escape at great cost (Dobby’s death). They make their way back to the school, after much fighting, Harry comes face to face with Voldemort, fights him and wins.
When HBO confirmed Game of Thrones would end after season 8, which along with season 7 will be shorter than usual, the whole world was surprised. In fact, it makes perfect sense and it would be prejudicial to the show if it were to continue beyond that point. Game of Thrones is not like Star Trek, where each episode tells a different story, like Harry Potter, Game of Thrones is one, long story.
House of Cards is probably going the same way, don’t be surprised if the show ends sooner than you might expect, season 4 ended with everything collapsing around the Underwoods, season 5 will be devastatingly sad. Also, look at the structure of the show: season 1 ends with Frank becoming vice-president, season 2 ends with him becoming president, season 3 shows him on the job. It should also be noted how sticking to the formula and having a character with clear goals made clear early on can make us empathize with anyone, even Frank Underwood.
Talking about presidents, another great show is HBO’s Veep. Selina Meyer’s first major setback comes at the very end of season 4 when the elections end on a tie, season 5 is catastrophic for her, and by the end of it, we know what her next, big fight will be. Don’t expect this show to last for much longer, either.
This is how I look at storytelling, it won’t work for you exactly the way I presented it. Use this as advice, but eventually make your own decisions, you will only know the best way for you to write a story until you work your ass off.
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