Plot Busters – How To Train Your Dragon

I watched How To Train Your Dragon and the movie hit every aspect of a story I long for when I read a book. Everything. That’s what structure will do for a movie or a book. Maybe even for your story. Or for mine. (I hope.)  Scroll down for links to Act II and Act III.

High concept logline

A skinny Viking boy goes against the Viking way of killing dragons to befriend one in secret; and together, they must save the village.

  • Boom. Right away there is irony in the premise. A Viking boy who is skinny and snarky? And he chooses not to kill the dragon? And he’s the Chief’s son? Talk about immediate conflict. No explanations needed.
  • Boom. Right away I can see the potential scenes this movie holds.

I love screenwriting books. Save the Cat by Blake Snyder has been one of the best. I’ve never read a better explanation of high concept. Or a better description of the three-act structure and what each act contains. And the expectations that must be met.

Act I

Opening Image:  (Or for a book, the opening scene or scenes)

  • Dragons attack Hiccup’s village. We experience the setting, the people, and we see first hand the fact that Hiccup is a disappointment to his dad, the Chief.
  • We get a sense of the humor and tone as Hiccup narrates a bit about being a Viking. Excellent telling.
  • We see that all Hiccup wants is a chance: he just “knows” he’s a dragon killer.
  • We see a snapshot of Hiccup’s life before it changes.

Thematic Statement:

Can we be different and take a different road than others have planned for us? Does Hiccup need big muscles and a blood-thirsty spirit to be a real Viking? To earn his dad’s love? To have friends? To get a girl?

This was made very clear in the opening scene.

Set up

  • Hero – Hiccup
  • Outer goal – He wants to be a “real” Viking by killing a dragon.
  • Inner goal – Figure out what it means to be a Viking and maybe earn his dad’s approval and love.
  • Stakes – The safety of the village, Hiccups social life, and his relationship with his dad.

All the important characters were introduced.

Hiccup’s flaws were revealed:  not strong enough, accident-prone, impulsive, obsessed with killing a dragon, cares what others think.

Catalyst: (Inciting incident)

Impulsively and disobeying orders, Hiccup spots the never-seen dragon, Night Fury, and not only shoots a catapult at it, but he hits it.

Debate: (Honestly, I’d never heard of this before.)

After Hiccup takes the down the dragon, he has a choice. Does he kill the dragon? After all that is what he wants. Right? During the debate section, Hiccup finds Night Fury and he’s injured. Hiccup raises the knife… but can’t do it. He cuts the ropes and frees the dragon, who then turns on him and flies away. (The important part about this section is to show that, no, the main character is certainly not ready for the task before him. In a different book/movie it might show the character is ready.)

Break into Act II (The definitive disaster or turning point before the start of Act II)

Just when Hiccup finally decides that he does not want to kill dragons and be a “real” Viking, his dad sails off to find the dragon nest and grants Hiccup his greatest desire: Hiccup can start training to be a dragon killer.  Except Hiccup doesn’t want to. But he says yes.


“If you want to play with the big boys, these are the tasks you must accomplish.”  Save the Cat by Blake Snyder.

Inspiring? For me, yes. And this is just me, sharing one of my goals with you. To analyze structure in movies and books and learn!

What do you think? Does your Act I do all this?(I know, kind of a long post for me. Hey, a lot needs to happen in Act I! I’ll cover Act II and maybe Act III next time.)

Click on the breakdown of  Act II and Act III.

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38 Responses to Plot Busters – How To Train Your Dragon

  1. Heather Kelly January 10, 2011 at 11:54 am #

    I really enjoyed that movie–and it’s clear to see why from your dissection of it. I’m thinking I’ll have to pick up that book. Thanks for the insight.

    • Laura January 10, 2011 at 12:01 pm #

      I enjoyed the book, but they definitely changed a lot from book to movie. I’ve never analyzed that book for structure but things changed. 🙂 Just warning you.

  2. Andrea January 10, 2011 at 12:08 pm #

    Well this gives me a lot to think about! My novel has some of this but not everything. I like the “debate” section where your character is forced to make a choice. I noticed how effective that can be recently when revising my novel.

  3. Matthew Rush January 10, 2011 at 12:28 pm #

    Excellent breakdown Laura! I loved this movie, but I never realized what a great example of plot and story development it was.

    • Laura January 10, 2011 at 1:14 pm #

      Matthew – I’d heard great things about this movie, so I sat down to watch it with my kids with a pencil and paper!

      Andrea – I’ve already started applying what I’ve learned to my manuscript. They seem like small tweaks but I’m hoping they’ll add strength and emotion.

  4. Stina Lindenblatt January 10, 2011 at 1:18 pm #

    I love this breakdown of the movie. Can’t wait to see the rest of your analysis.

    My 17 yo self had a crush on Hiccup. It was one of the best family movies last year. 🙂

  5. Marisa January 10, 2011 at 1:58 pm #

    I only skimmed because I haven’t seen that movie yet, but that Save the Cat book looks fantastic!! I love breaking down movies in order to see things more clearly!

  6. christine danek January 10, 2011 at 2:05 pm #

    I have not seen this movie, but I apply this to the movie, Cars, too. I’ve learned most about plot structures through movies (screenwriting).
    I must get that book. I saw it on another blog last week. I’m a visual person, so some self help books put me to sleep.
    I definitely have to look at the beginning of my WiP again.

    • Laura January 10, 2011 at 2:11 pm #

      Stina – I loved Hiccup’s sense of humor. He was pretty cool.

      Marisa – That was the first movie I’ve broken down. I usually do books since I’m not planning on writing a screenplay. But with the way publishing is going – studying movies is not a bad thing to do.

      Christine – All those Pixar and Dreamworks movies get to me. And I’m pretty sure their structure would break down perfectly.

  7. Angela Felsted January 10, 2011 at 2:18 pm #

    I just love how you break things down.

  8. Quinn January 10, 2011 at 2:38 pm #

    I really need to see this movie now.

  9. SP Sipal January 10, 2011 at 2:48 pm #

    I haven’t seen this movie, but you make me want to. And even without having seen it, your analysis is very clear and insightful!

    I heard Blake Snyder talk years ago and need to re-read that book. Thanks for the reminder.

    Looking forward to parts 2 and 3!

  10. Lydia K January 10, 2011 at 3:00 pm #

    I still haven’t seen this movie–everyone in my family did but me.
    But I am working to make my act I have all these elements. It’s so hard!

  11. Creepy Query Girl January 10, 2011 at 3:06 pm #

    what a great example! I haven’t seen this movie but it sounds like middle grade perfection incarnate. It’s amazing how much you’ve learned and I love how you share it all here!

    • Laura January 10, 2011 at 3:33 pm #

      Angela – Thanks. Hard work but worth it when I’m writing.

      Quinn – Anyone will enjoy this movie, not just kids. Where as the book is more for kids.

      Sp Sipal – My kids wanted to see it but during the opening scene and Hiccup’s narration I knew I should be taking notes. 🙂

      Lydia – It is hard. Much harder than it looks!

      Katie – That’s one of my goals this year. Embrace structure and understand it as much as I can. 🙂

  12. Marcia January 10, 2011 at 7:16 pm #

    Super info, Laura. I’m going to get that book.

  13. Susan Kaye Quinn January 10, 2011 at 7:19 pm #

    After reading McKee’s screenwriting book, I should bump Save the Cat up on my list – it’s been on there for a while.

    And I LOVE How to Train Your Dragon (the book was something completely different, but the movie? Outstanding, on every level). I can’t wait to see your Act II and III! 🙂

  14. Patti January 10, 2011 at 7:28 pm #

    This is the second time I’ve heard mention of this book in a week, must be a sign. It’s great to break things down like that and I think I’ll try that with my own projects.


  15. Laura January 10, 2011 at 7:42 pm #

    Marcia – I enjoyed the book too. But the movie was structured very differently. Still a good read though.

    Susan – I love McKee’s too. But Save the Cat is a shorter read in less technical language.

    Patti – I’ve learned a lot from breaking down. I realized certain things and how to make certain key structural points more powerful.

  16. T. Anne January 10, 2011 at 8:47 pm #

    Epic analysis! I love this! Each time I go in to see a movie I carry a pen and paper just in case I want to take notes. This is such a great analysis. Thank you!

  17. Kristen Torres-Toro January 10, 2011 at 9:02 pm #

    I need to see this movie! I’ve heard it’s really good!

  18. BJ Markel January 10, 2011 at 9:55 pm #

    Just thought you’d like to know that Blake Snyder (author of “Save the Cat!”) consulted on the movie and receives a nice 3-D “thanks” in the end credits.

  19. terry lynn johnson January 10, 2011 at 11:42 pm #

    wow! what a post! i’ve both seen the movie and read Save the Cat. I did enjoy that book, but would not have thought to dissect this movie like this. great way to look at things.

  20. Laura January 11, 2011 at 2:36 am #

    Sadly, I just learned from BJ Markel’s comment that Blake Snyder passed away in the past year at a young age, which made me sad. And come to find out he worked on How To Train your Dragon. Pretty cool. Rest in Peace, Blake. And thanks for sharing your wisdom!

  21. Susan R. Mills January 11, 2011 at 5:04 am #

    I’ve been analyzing story structure a lot lately. This was a timely post.

  22. Kelly Polark January 11, 2011 at 2:24 pm #

    I didn’t read the whole post because I haven’t seen the movie yet. And I like surprises. 🙂 Though my daughter got the book for Christmas (that I assume the movie was based on). So maybe I’ll read then watch…Then go back to your post!

  23. Carolyn Abiad January 11, 2011 at 4:20 pm #

    And here I thought I was the only one watching movies with a notepad… great post!

  24. Jennifer Shirk January 11, 2011 at 6:51 pm #

    SAVE THE CAT is on my TBB list. But a lot of good writing books suggest watching movies in order to easily see GMC and plot.
    Great example!

  25. Julie Musil January 12, 2011 at 2:27 am #

    Wow, what an awesome post. I never used to think this way until I read Plot & Structure (the book I obsess over on my blog). After reading that book, now whenever I read books or watch movies, I’m breaking down the structure. It’s so helpful to view it this way.

  26. Laura Marcella January 14, 2011 at 3:29 pm #

    I haven’t seen this movie yet! It’s been in my Netflix queue for months now as a very long wait. Everyone wants to see it and no one is sending it back, haha. So I’ll come back to these posts whenever I finally get the movie!

  27. Sherrie Petersen January 16, 2011 at 12:06 am #

    Love this post. Save the Cat! is one of the best craft books I’ve ever read. I like how you applied it here.

  28. Leigh Moore January 21, 2011 at 8:46 pm #

    Hi, Laura! I have to come back and read these as plotting seems to be my weak area… “slow down” is my constant mantra. Thanks! :o) <3

  29. Laura Marcella February 3, 2011 at 1:07 am #

    I watched this movie last night! It was excellent. You broke it down very well.

    I analyze story structure in movies too. Sometimes it’s terrific, like with this film, and sometimes I wonder what the heck the screenwriters were doing, lol. I guess not everyone reads “Save the Cat”!

  30. Andrea Franco Cook March 29, 2011 at 9:37 pm #

    Interesting post. I recently watched “How To Train My Dragon” and really enjoyed it. Your examples were spot on and helpful to us novice writers.(: Thanks for taking the time to write such an informative post.


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