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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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Questions to ask to surprise your reader.


I love being surprised when I read. And it’s that surprise element that keeps me turning pages. The surprise could be in the form of tension, humor, character development, dialogue, plot points…you name it. As soon as a story turns predictable and dull to me – that’s when I put it down or skim.

  1. Is your story premise unique and fresh? As writers we hear those words all the time. Whether your story involves angels, vampires, ghosts or just a plain old 4th grade boy, push beyond the first idea. Change it up. Make it different. A unique story idea gets noticed.
  2. Are your plot points/turning points the first idea that came to mind?  Try listing 10-15 different ideas. Dig deep. Then decide if your first idea was really your best.
  3. Is your ending predictable?  Again, try listing ideas.You don’t want your ending predictable but you don’t want it so far out there that no one believes it. Remember balancing and foreshadowing.
  4. Does your story have a major reveal or plot twist half way through? A well-designed plot twist that changes the course of a character’s journey always sparks my interest in finishing. And it prevents the dreaded sagging middle.
  5. Are your scenes falling into a predictable pattern? Or…a little boring? Make sure your main character has a goal each scene. Surprise the reader in how his goal is thwarted and how your main character reacts.
  6. Are your characters predictable? It’s okay for your characters to act out of character. I sure don’t act the same way all the time. Give the shy girl a moment where she gets mad and yells. Give the selfish/mean character a moment of mercy and compassion. In other words, add depth to your characters.
  7. Can you make the challenges and obstacles your characters face more unique to your story?  Go back to making a list. Sometimes what we think is bad, just isn’t bad enough.
  8. How would you rate your details on a scale from vague to specific? Fun and unique details about a character or the setting immediately draws me into the story. Surprise the reader. Go past the typical.
  9. How about sentence structure and paragraph length? Long sentences, short and powerful sentences – mix it up. Don’t always start your sentences with a phrase, or an -ing word, or the character’s name. Have short paragraph and long paragraphs.
  10. What about word choice? I love reading unique similes that pertain to the story. I love reading strong verbs that evoke a mental image. I love nouns and verbs that help set the mood. Cutting the deadwood from your sentences will be a delight to your readers’ eyes.

This recent post on Guide to Literary Agents blog is exactly what I’m talking about.

I loved this unique story premise presented in a query on the Caren Johnson Literary blog.

Donald Maass in Writing the Breakout Novel covers the topic of breaking out past the typical. He talks about larger than life characters and character turnabouts and suprises. Worth reading.

Join in. Add your tips in the comments on how to surprise your reader.

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