Don’t Make This Mistake With Your Story Structure

Don't Make This Mistake With Your Story StructurePart 7 of The Do’s and Don’ts of Storytelling According to Marvel

I talk a lot about how important story structure is. But let’s be honest. Story structure is a complicated beast. Few stories ace every single beat to perfection every single time. I’ve read (and watched) incredible stories that were incredible in spite of the fact they were working off a sometimes wobbly narrative structure.

Although you should always be working toward the best story structure possible, if the challenges and constraints of your particular story are keeping it from glistening perfection, that probably isn’t going to make or break the deal for readers.

Unless… you’re committing what is, in my book, the single worst story structure mistake you can make: leaving your protagonist entirely out of the structure.

Why Iron Man 3 Has the Worst Story Structure of Any Marvel Movie

Not all of the Marvel movies are paragons of story structure (Captain America: The First Avenger, in particular, skipped its entire Second Pinch Point). But most of them are examples of how the occasional structural gaffe can be overlooked in favor of a story’s other favorable qualities.

Iron Man 3 is the exception.

Now, there are things I do like about this story.

  • I appreciate Tony’s PTSD and the fact that his actions—both for good and ill—in previous movies are having decided consequences.
Tony Stark Panic Attack Iron Man 3

Iron Man 3 (2013), Marvel Studios.

  • The Mandarin rocked. Until, you know… he didn’t.
Mandarin Ben Kingsley Iron Man 3

Iron Man 3 (2013), Marvel Studios.

  • More Happy! (Though, I think, under the circumstances, I would have opted for more Jon Favreau instead.)
Happy Hogan Sunglasses Iron Man 3

Iron Man 3 (2013), Marvel Studios.

  • Little boy Harley Keener was a delightfully different (and capable) foil for Tony.
Harley Keener Iron Man 3

Iron Man 3 (2013), Marvel Studios.

But none of them can make up for the story’s fundamental story structure problems.

Iron Man 3 makes that non-negotiable mistake I was talking about. It offers up a structure that has almost nothing to do with its protagonist—Iron Man inventor Tony Stark—which means its conflict isn’t driven by the protagonist.

Don’t Know What Your Story Is About? Look at Your Story Structure

In certain complex storylines, it can be difficult, at first glance, to know exactly what a story is about—what its throughline is. But the answer is always found in the story’s structure. Whatever plotline or character is most active in the plot’s turning points, that is what the story is about.

A great (non-Marvel) example of this is Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator. This is a sprawling story that, on the surface, seems to be about many things (Howard’s Hollywood career, Howard’s relationship with Katherine Hepburn, Howard’s OCD). But the plot points back up the emphasis of the title by showing us this is really a story about Howard’s love of aviation.

Same goes for my all-time favorite movie John Sturges’s The Great Escape, which artfully gives prominence to Steve McQueen’s decidedly subplot character by making sure that subplot shows up at every single major structural beat.

Now consider Iron Man 3‘s story structure:

Inciting Event: Aldrich Killian (the antagonist) petitions Tony’s girlfriend and CEO Pepper to fund his brain-hacking project Extremis.

Where’s Tony? Oh, yeah, hiding out in his basement being an obsessive insomniac.

Tony Stark Iron Man 3 And That's You

Iron Man 3 (2013), Marvel Studios.

First Plot Point: Tony’s bodyguard Happy follows a suspicious character, somebody blows up, Happy ends up in a coma.

Where’s Tony? Gift-wrapping Gigantor the Stuffed Rabbit for Pepper’s Christmas present. He finally impacts the main conflict when he calls out the Mandarin and gets his house blown up, but it’s a long time coming.

Stark Bunny Iron Man 3

Iron Man 3 (2013), Marvel Studios.

First Pinch Point: Pepper learns Aldrich is working for the Mandarin.

Where’s Tony? Crashlanded in Tennessee, trying to get his suit to work again. He does have a nice pinch, in which he battles the guy involved in Happy’s injury. But his storyline is totally untouched by the plot’s most important revelation up to this point.

Iron Man 3 Crashlanding

Iron Man 3 (2013), Marvel Studios.

Midpoint: The Mandarin publicly challenges the President on national TV. Meanwhile Pepper is captured.

Where’s Tony? Oh, he’s off gleaning a few clues that will eventually lead him to Aldrich’s base. But that’s about it. He doesn’t know about the Mandarin’s challenge or Pepper’s capture, which means these huge events have no power to drive the plot.


Second Pinch Point: Tony crashes the Mandarin’s base, is captured, and learns about Pepper’s capture.

Where’s Tony? Finally, he’s in the main game!

Iron Man 3 Second Pinch

Iron Man 3 (2013), Marvel Studios.

Third Plot Point: The President is captured and delivered to Aldrich.

Where’s Tony? Thankfully, he’s at least off doing related things, like rescuing all the people in the President’s plane. But the Third Plot Point should have been a moment that hit him as hard possible on a personal level. He’s not directly responsible for or involved in the President’s capture, so it lacks the bite it might have had. Plus, it decidedly pales in comparison to Tony’s personal loss of Pepper earlier.

Iron man 3 President

Iron Man 3 (2013), Marvel Studios.

Climax: After bringing in all his suits to fight Aldrich’s exploding minions, Tony finds Pepper—who has been injected with Extremis and turned into an exploding person. He does battle with Aldrich to save her.

Where’s Tony? Right where he should be.

Iron Man figting Aldrich Killian

Iron Man 3 (2013), Marvel Studios.

Climactic Moment: Pepper miraculously survives a 200-foot fall and emerges just in time to save Tony and kill Aldrich.

Where’s Tony? Well, he’s not ending the conflict, that’s for sure. His line to Pepper pretty much sums it up: “I got nothing.”

Tony Stark Iron Man 3 I Got Nothin

Iron Man 3 (2013), Marvel Studios.

5 Reasons Your Protagonist Must Drive Your Conflict

Now you tell me: what’s Iron Man 3 about? Just by looking at the bare bones of the story structure, you sure wouldn’t know it was supposed to be about Tony Stark. And the story suffers as a result.

Consider five important reasons your story needs your protagonist front and center within its structure.

1. Cohesion Within the Conflict

A structure that’s all over the place indicates a story that’s all over the place. Story structure should never be a random collection of events that “fit” the requirements of the various structural moments. Every structural moment must be part of a cohesive whole that creates a clear image of the entire story.

If your protagonist isn’t at the center of that image, then you have to question whether or not he’s really the protagonist.

2. Forward Momentum

Your story follows your protagonist. If he’s not moving forward—if he’s not driving the story forward by creating a string of causes and effects related to the story goals he’s pursuing—then the story readers are participating in isn’t going to be moving either. It’s possible there’s lots of movement happening in the background, where other characters are driving the plot. But that’s not the show readers are privy to, or, even if they are, it’s not the show you’ve told them they should care about most.

3. Proper Foreshadowing

Strong foreshadowing is inherent within good structure: the beginning sets up the end. When one character controls one plot point, only to have another control the next one, the results seem chaotic because they are. The story isn’t correctly setting itself up.

Even worse, when you start out with an Inciting Event (the question that prompts your entire story) that isn’t bookended by a correlative Climactic Moment (the answer to the Inciting Event’s question), then you have a plot that simply doesn’t work.

4. Interesting Scenes

The most interesting scenes result at the crossroads where your protagonist meets the conflict. If he’s not meeting the conflict, then you’re leaving a ton of great scenes on the table. Chances are good your protagonist is just meandering around the neighborhood doing busy work to fill up his time—and your book. Chances are also good your readers are bored.

5. Thematic Resonance

Structure, character, and theme are integrally related. Mess up one and you’ve messed up all three. When the structure is out of whack because the most important character isn’t present, you can be sure your theme has gone a little wonky on you as well.

Your story’s central conflict presents the external metaphor for your protagonist’s inner journey. But if he’s absent for some or most of that external journey, his inner development can’t help but be stunted.

Every story must have a protagonist. Even if that character shares the stage with other prominent characters—or even co-protagonists—he must be present at the structural turning points. Otherwise, the story either isn’t about him or is missing a vital playing piece.

If you’re writing a particularly complex story, you may choose to create a single throughline to act as your story’s spine—as do The Aviator and The Great Escape. Or you may choose to give all characters equal prominence by making sure they all have an important role or independent beat at the turning points—as does Brent Weeks’s Blinding Knife.

But whatever you do, don’t let your protagonist suffer in the background of your story structure. Bring him fully on stage, and at least give all his suffering a spotlight!

Stay Tuned: Next week, we’ll talk about how Thor: The Dark World robbed itself of thematic depth by choosing the wrong sequel scenes.

Previous Posts in This Series:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What does your story structure look like? Is your protagonist a prominent player at every turning point? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. Kate Flournoy says

    Mm, yes. This makes me think of my first several novels. For one, there was no plot and very little theme, and thus, no need for structure. And I had the most horrifying habit of switching randomly back and forth between characters. Quite honestly, my first novel could have been about nearly every single one of its characters, all mixed up and jumbled together in one huge incoherent mess.
    I’m very glad to have moved on from that. 😛
    Great article, Katie. If the protagonist isn’t the story, he isn’t the protagonist.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      You’re not alone. This is such an easy hole to fall into. As writers, we’re fascinated by ALL the possibilities of our stories and sometimes we get distracted by them. It takes discipline and experience to know which character and which events to hone in on.

  2. Well done.

    Your first point is probably the best one. On reflection, IM3 isn’t about Tony at all other than his epiphany that he is fallible and mortal. The real protagonist turns out to be Pepper because the only time there is real energy on the screen is when she’s involved.

    That doesn’t make IM3 a good movie, but sometimes there are worthy stories that are told from a completely non-protagonist point of view. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon is a good example. The main character is almost a McGuffin for the back story of which he is unaware. Another example from TV is the Babylon 5 episode, “The View from the Gallery” which follows two maintenance workers and if you know what the story arc is doing, makes for interesting viewing.

    Good article. I look forward to your next post.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Definitely true. In stories that purposefully create main characters and protagonists who are *not* the same character, this effect can be used to great success. But it is something that has to be done purposefully, since the other option is to end up with an unfocused mess.

  3. I’m a little confused. I mean, I understand this post and agree with it, but in the book I’m writing currently, I’m not sure if the protagonist is really “driving the story.” The protagonist has aspects of a character that drives and a character that doesn’t–she’s given her quest, but given the choice to say no (she says yes.). And while the plot would get no where without her, in the beginning and inevitably the end, she kind of lacks screen time in act two, because much of the vital act two-y scenes she cannot attend, so I rely on the secondary narrator to pull us through to Act Three, where the MC once again becomes relevant and entirely drives the rest of the way. It’s almost like a minor character became the protagonist for half the book. Is this really bad? And is there anyway to fix it without an entire rewrite?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      There are exceptions to every rule, and I certainly can’t say if your story might not be one of them. But, yes, generally speaking, this approach isn’t a good idea. The section without the protagonist’s presence will almost inevitably end up being the weakest part of the book. You don’t necessarily need an entire rewrite, but I’d look closely at the sections in which the protagonist isn’t integral to the plot and see if you can brainstorm a new angle that would allow her to be.

    • Jeffrey Barlow says

      I don’t know the parameters of your story, but wherever your character is during this period, she should be learning something important, and beginning to do whatever it is to get back there.. Two pinches and a midpoint are in act 2, so make something count for this character during this time.

      Take The Dark Knight Rises for example. Bruce Wayne is stuck in prison for most of Act 2 while the plot is being driven by Bane and Co. (Plotting the Antagonist – thanks again Katie!)

      But Bruce was still learning while imprisoned. Came across a minor character (that doctor who knew Bane and Raz Alghul (sp?) and told him he needed to fear death to become truly focused (or something I have to rewatch it)).

      Don’t ignore your protagonist. Add a minor character who has some new information is just one of many ways to help out here. My 2 cents.

      (I basically learned all this here in this site, so thanks again Katie!)

  4. Thanks Kate. I’ll be by later….

  5. WHERE’S TONY? If they did a full comedy version of Iron Man, that sounds like a good title.,,

  6. When I watched this film I was confused by Tony’s apparent absence in critical scenes. I watched it a second time and decided that Pepper seemed to be cast in the role of protagonist. After all, Pepper is thrown into the story early on AND, it is she who saves the day.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I have no problem with Pepper’s heroism, and I understand what the filmmakers were trying to do. But they came at it all wrong. If they’d wanted her to be the protag (which, of course, wouldn’t have worked for the series, but that’s another topic altogether), the entire story should have been planned that way. You can’t shoehorn the girl power into the story. It has to be a story that *enables* the girl power (or whatever) from start to finish.

      • Joe Long says

        I felt the of the movie was so cheap. Totally Deus ex machina. Pepper survives a certain death and all these remote control suits that we didn’t know were around or could do those things just suddenly appeared to save the day.

        I would have been much more satisfied, at that point, if Pepper would have died. That would have been some serious baggage for Tony to deal with going forward, allowing for further character development. Instead, Pepper miraculously lives and then doesn’t even appear in any following movies.

        I tolerated the structure problems, enjoyed some parts – but the end spoiled it all.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          I agree. It felt to me like the filmmakers thought they had come up with a brilliant idea to make Pepper a “strong female character”–only they ended up illustrating everything that’s wrong with that trope these days. She was a strong character from Day 1; if anything, this only weakened her.

  7. This definitely addresses why people have a problem with IM3. However, these reasons are likely why IM3 is my favorite of the Iron Man movies (unless you count Civil War as an Iron Man movie, which it basically is). I liked the anti-protagonist structure of this movie. While Tony has PTSD, he can’t be the hero, but his friends (Pepper, Happy, Rhodey) still get the job done. Life still goes on.

    But yes—making Tony the true protagonist likely would have made this more film successful!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I agree. I really like the “humanizing” perspective this movie takes, bringing Tony back to his “mechanic” roots. But even in a comparatively weak role, he could still have been present in the story’s important structural moments–which would have allowed the story to be much more about him and his problems and his evolution.

  8. If my MC isn’t a driving force now, he will be as soon as I get back to my writing. Excellent points. Thank you.

  9. I watched Batman vs. Superman last night. Total disaster from a structural standpoint. And the plot. More like what plot. I’m really glad I didn’t pay money to go see it.

    It was almost like Snyder just threw a bunch of stuff together to use up his special effects budget.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Totally agree. I saw it in the theater and was trying to keep track of the structure in my head (which is sometimes hard to do anyway without a clock). But fuhgeddabout. I gave up before I even got to the First Plot Point.

  10. Ingrid B. says

    Excellent post as always, Katie!
    This one gave me the confidence I needed to keep on with a decision I’d made with my WIP. I’d noticed my main protagonist wasn’t so much in the action, didn’t seem to be the driving force behind my storyline. Rather, it seemed a secondary protagonist WAS however as he kept stepping forward yelling at me to put him in the spotlight. I wasn’t listening and kept wondering why my MC didn’t seem to have direction.

    Shifting the secondary character over to being the MC ended up giving me a much stronger storyline, with clearer direction. BIG AHA moment! I was still not positive I’d made the right move in switching out my MC though.

    This post greatly clarified that to me. I’m very sure now that I’ve ended up with a much stronger, clearer tale to tell. Thank you!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Sometimes characters who start out in supporting roles can end up being the most powerful and interesting characters in the whole story. I think this is because we feel less pressure to get our secondary characters “right,” which lets us being more expansive and daring with them. Sometimes really good things arise, and the character ends up taking over the entire story. Kudos to you for recognizing it!

      • Over the past two years I’ve been reading a popular teen romance that’s been released online as a serial, around 15 chapters now. My favorite character is the female lead which the author admits was not in the original draft, but has turned out to be wonderfully done. She’s the girl the MC really is in love with, but who has so much emotional baggage she’s terrified of committing. Despite that she’s still a very strong character who drives the plot as much as he does.

        Meanwhile I’m pondering the backstory of my MC’s father, while working out how I can present the points I want to make as subtext.

  11. Enjoyed reading this series. I remembered talking about the movie with my college-age son, who also thought the movie was “ok”. And we agreed we were watching an Iron Man movies in which Iron man never really showed up.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It amazes me how every time I return to an old movie I had a “meh” (or worse) reaction to, the reason is almost always structural.

  12. Hi there, greetings from buckeye country.

    Interesting timing as always. Must be one of those Jedi mind tricks? The story I’m listening to right now has virtually every problem you mentioned here. This brings many questions and observations to mind. I’m right past the midway point at 53%. So far, there’s no clear protagonist. Multiple POV’s are used with the external conflict targeting the internal struggle of many characters. It’s quite interesting actually. There is one guy who holds the key to everything, but he’s largely in the background. Although, I guess all the other characters are affected by him either directly or indirectly, but he doesn’t stick out necessarily as a typical hero protagonist. As the story progresses, the lives of several people are affected based upon his actions and inactions early in the book. It’s almost like he’s a shadow protagonist secretly moving the plot. So this seems very atypical to me. He was the witness to a crime and left with hard evidence. As the story unravels, you see how his actions and inaction affect several people at once. Then they all seem to have a mirror moment around the midpoint. This seems highly unusual but cool!

    I think I’m beginning to see what the author is doing now. He’s putting on a heavy dose of foreshadowing with close family members, and using other characters as symbolic to resonate the theme.

    All of the POV time something is revealed about them as they relate to the protagonist. Past relationships negative and positive are brought to the surface until the lie is exposed. This book is amazing! It’s Absolute Power, by David Baldacci. He’s a very talented writer and is an expert at symbolism and metaphors to deepen the story. Minus the profanity and some naughty parts, it’s quite superb. I’ve never seen a plot like this one. It’s a giant spider web.

    Have you ever seen this before? It seems like the protag is there, but not there. He indirectly moves the plot from the background affecting everyone in the story. (It really helps to write this out, hah!) I’m expecting the second half of the 2nd act and 3rd act to be pretty juicy.

  13. I still like this movie – it’s better overall than Thor: The Dark World, but at the same time, there’s no denying that there are structural issues that hold this movie back a lot. I never bothered trying to analyze this movie that much because Iron Man is my least favourite member of the movie Avengers (I don’t dislike him). The plot itself isn’t the problem, nor is the fact that Iron Man is defeated in the first act.

    Like you said, the problem is that he’s effectively removed from the plot for the entire second act. That can work in a story where the villain’s main motivation is vengeance against the protagonist and maybe he fakes his death before striking back, but here, Aldrich’s plans are far too big for that.

    It would have worked better if Aldrich kidnapped the president first, and Pepper Pots after Iron Man saved the others from Air Force One. That wouldn’t fix all the movie’s problems, but it would have made the climax feel a bit more personal.

    As for Thor: The Dark World, I know you’ll get to it next, but Malekith is nothing like he is in the comics that I’ve read. In the comics, Malekith is somewhat like the Joker from Batman in that he’s got a loud personality. He’s basically in love with how evil he is, he’s deceptive, and he’s got a lot of magical power and an army of dark elves to back him up.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That ordering of events *would* have been much better. It kinda goes back to the “rule” of killing your bad guys in the right order: most important last. Same goes for the major events in the story (generally speaking): they should get more and more personal to the protagonist as the story goes on.

      I won’t be addressing Malakith much in the next article, but that take on his character would have been much more interesting. He felt like a huge wasted opportunity.

  14. Marcus English says

    I agree that stories where there is a definitive protagonist that he/she should be the focus and drive the story along, but what about stories that aren’t centered around one main character (i.e. Game of Thrones or Avengers)? Are there any rules for that, or is it just that the main character of a certain storyline should drive the action?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Most stories will feature one of the main characters as a frontrunner (Steve in the first Avengers, Tony in Age of Ultron). In stories that literally feature multiple protagonists equally, the key is to make sure they’re all involved integrally in either the structure of their own personal plotlines, or within the overarching plotline.

      • “In stories that literally feature multiple protagonists equally, the key is to make sure they’re all involved integrally in either the structure of their own personal plotlines, or within the overarching plotline.”

        Does this advice also apply to novels with multiple POVs? I want to write a fantasy novel with 1 POV from the main character, but I was given feedback that I should use a second POV (the non human one) on my original draft. My concern is that by introducing a 2nd POV I don’t want to take away from the main character.

        I tried and failed to do multiple POV and I ended up confusing myself so much that now I have to rewrite my entire story.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          The short answer is that you can handle this in two ways: either use the same plot point to drive the plot in both POVs – or time it so each POV gets its own structure-advancing plot point at the proper time. In the vast majority of cases, the first is preferable, since it will contribute to a much tighter story.

  15. You know I heard someone say it’s not how the person affects the case, but how the case works on the person. In this story it’s how his witnessing a crime forces him to come foward and deal with his own criminal past and how it’s affected those close to him. It’s also forcing the affected parties to face their own demons caused by his criminal lifestyle. This is great! I’m starting see some connections related to your recent posts. The external plot forces the protagonist to face his past and lifestyle, unearthing his internal struggle. But the way the book is written; the internal struggle of the family members is seen through their past relationship with the protagonist, and not so directly through him.

    This inner circle of his seems like an extension of himself. Even though the protag isn’t readily present, he’s seen through the lie in their lives.

    The mirror moment was interesting. Exceptional actually. The protag’s mirror moment was very short, just a moment in a scene. During that time he decided to take action that had a story wide ripple affect. Virtually everyone in the story had some sort of mirror moment of reflection; and their internal struggle was revealed. Even the antagonist force, which is really a group of people, had to come to terms with themselves.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Exactly! Whatever plot is being told needs to be *the* plot of the character’s lifetime. There’s a reason this story is important: because it will leave him changed forever.

  16. I enjoyed IM3 a lot but never connected the major plot points like that. Now you’ve got me retracing the entire story! I see what you’re pointing out, how pulling Tony off on his “road trip” separated the story structure. I do recall wondering when he was going to get back into the thick of it rather than letting other characters handle the bulk of the major points.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      This is actually one of the regrettable aspects of genre. A literal roadtrip movie with Tony Stark could have been awesome, but, of course, it would never fly within the action-heavy superhero genre–hence, the shoehorned action plotline that stands outside of Tony’s own journey.

  17. I hadn’t considered the points KM makes as to why I didn’t connect with IM3. I’ve never revisited 2 or 3 because they are my least favorite Marvel movies, but after these posts I may have to do so. (Interestingly, Kate’s post on Thor nailed why I don’t love the movie but look at it fondly. I’m looking forward to her Dark World post, because I found that to be the most forgettable of the Marvel films, and I’m wondering if her words will help illuminate why I feel that way.)

    Personally, my problem with IM3 has always stemmed from the movies big twist. *SPOILERS TO FOLLOW*

    I was very excited about the notion of a Mandarin who was a terrorist leader, as I thought that offered an opportunity for real relevance and depth. Then we get the big twist – that the Mandarin is just an actor. It was simultaneously the best thing about the movie, because I didn’t see it coming, and the worst, because it turned what was an interesting idea into a story about the nerd Tony snubbed becoming a super villain.

    I know it’s silly to complain that a comic book movie used such a silly, comic book type idea. But, for me, the film’s biggest sin was that it wasted a chance to delve into some of the more serious territory IM1 did.

    Love this series. Really looking forward to the remainder, as Cap 2 and 3, Guardians and Ant-man are personal faves. Thanks for making my Fridays more enjoyable, Kate.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Totally agree about the Mandarin. I was originally going to do this post on exactly that, before rewatching the film and realizing how egregious the structure was. I thought Ben Kingsley was excellent in his Mandarin role–and hilarious in the actor role. But ultimately the switcheroo was a huge disappointment in regards to a character who should have been Tony’s archenemy. One of Marvel’s greatest flaws is consistently shortchanging its villains.

      • Very true about Marvel’s villains. It’s one of the reasons I find Winter Soldier to be far and away my favorite Marvel film. Redford’s Alexander Pierce, and Hydra by extension, offered a layered antagonist with a legitimate, and terrifying, alternative viewpoint.

        I absolutely LOVE First Avenger, but it’s one note portrayal of the Red Skull left something to be desired. Your analysis of the missing second pinch point is well said, but I wonder if that would have been negated by a Red Skull that orchestrated Bucky’s demise. I’ve always felt his loss was lessened by its accidental nature, and a Red Skull plot to tear him away from Steve would have gone a long way towards making Skull a better villain and Bucky’s death more impactful.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Yes, totally agree with this. The missing Second Pinch Point in First Avenger should have been exactly that: setup for Bucky’s death at the Third Plot Point.

  18. Yes, it’s so true. Your protagonist needs to drive the plot, and not vice versa. A story arc needs to be about what the hero does to make the story happen, and not a story that happens around the hero.

    Of course, it’s easier said than done, but that’s why we continue to practice 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It *is* surprisingly easier said than done. I’ve read a surprising number of stories that seemed to forget they were supposed to be about their protagonists, instead of merely interjecting main characters into other people’s stories so the readers could, in essence, simply watch through their passive eyes.

  19. Interesting. Have not seen IM3 or Bat v Sup mentioned above. Think I still plan to anyway just to see what theyre about. Will kkeep all this 8n mind. Going to comb WIP for this structural problem. I think I know one chapter it happened to me and why I was so disappounted in it, so this could solve that. Thanks.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Definitely still worth watching if you’re a fan. BvS is a mess, but it still has some interesting things to say and some interesting ways of saying it.

  20. Perfect. I want receve more posts.

  21. Jeffrey Barlow says

    Question (though I think I can guess the answer, let’s see if I’m right):

    I am putting together a particularly complex story. A trilogy with three protagonists. (One with a positive arc, one negative, and one flat)

    I haven’t fully decided if I’m going to give each a book where they are a little more center stage or if it’s equal, or just one character being the main protagonist.

    Anywho, these characters do split up and reunite several times over the long haul. At thr times where they are together, the structure points are together and it isn’t an issue.

    When they are apart, can these plot points fill multiple scenes to encompass multiple POV’s that are really related?

    Also, if they are less related, should I create individual plot points for these characters?

    If characters share some plot points, is it weird to have individual plot points later in the story?

    Not sure if what I’m asking makes sense. I just ate bacon and my smartphone screen is frustrating me.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      All three of these approaches are legit, in the right circumstances.

      It’s not always necessary to show a plot point from every protagonists’ POV, if they’re all present (although you’ll definitely need to make certain their individual reactions are clear).

      You *can* include personal beats that are unique to each character, even within shared plot points, but that really depends on the needs of the story and the characters.

      And, yes, if any one of the characters isn’t involved in or impacted by the main plot point, it’s usually a good idea to give him one of his own that feeds back into the main plot in some way.

    • Just curious…

      Your creation of the positive-arc character makes sense to me, and I instinctively see him/her as the protagonist.

      The negative-arc character: I instinctively see him/her as the antagonist, assuming that this character somehow opposes the protagonist’s goals.

      Re: the flat-arc character—does he or she interact directly with the protagonist or antagonist? If there is no interaction at all, what purpose does this character serve?

      Perhaps I’m too literal-minded, and your story-vision is so vast that I don’t understand it…

      • Jeffrey Barlow says

        The positive and negative characters both interact and at times clash with each other. The antagonist plays a key role in why this happens. The negative arc character seems to be buying in, and turns out to be an anti-hero, directly contrasting the heroic positive arc provided by the other (undecidedly Main Character if I do decide to distinguish that).

        The flat arc character is more separated from these two throughout the story but has a pivotal point of view and plot line that reveals aspects of the story that provide depth for the other two characters, whose plot lines are much more directly interactive.

        It’s hard to explain without going into detail, and it is indeed vast.

  22. A.P. Lambert says

    All great points, really helps clear up why this story was so muddled. Though the worst offence for me was the very end where he rapid-fire lists off several monumental undertakings:
    -He somehow got rid of the shrapnel near his heart, part of what made him become Iron Man in the first place and it sounded no more difficult than a regular checkup at the doc’s office. Seems like that could have been a movie in itself, or it’s what this movie should have been about.
    -Pepper is somehow cured from her exploding person ability, which you’d expect to be a pretty big ordeal. It’s a strange superpower to begin with and not very well explained, but it’s usually pretty difficult to get rid of powers once you get them and never without an unforeseen consequence.
    -Tony destroys his suit and all the other suits he owned, pretty much shutting down the whole iron man operation. Huh? Is that supposed to help their relationship or something? It’s those suits which just saved all their collective butts. And obviously he’s just going to build more anyway, so why throw away a ton of great equipment for no reason?

    All of that was like Tony personally telling me the movie I just watched and the previous two didn’t matter. To add lemon juice to the wound, I can’t remember any of those things getting mentioned in the following Avengers movie. So bizarre.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Totally agree. I actually really hated that he pulled out the shrapnel (although it made total sense that he’d be able to dream up a way to do it). I loved that he possessed this tremendous physical weakness and was always one step away from death. It made the whole Iron Man persona that much more integral to who he is.

  23. Great article. I’m enjoying that you’re using Marvel as an example. There is such diversity in the movies, given the various writers and directors, yet they all seem to touch one another. Except for Civil War. A huge portion of that movie didn’t have to be made. Spider-Man? Ant-Man? The whole fight scene at the airport? Really?! Black Panther is cool though, and the thing between Wanda and Vision could be interesting if played out right – which it wasn’t. But, I don’t read the comics so there’s that.

    Anyhoo, the novel I wrote/writing/whatever, revolves around the heroine and her ‘Louis Vuitton baggage set, with the train case’ of a past, but also co-protags – one is her job (a pro cyclist), the other, her ‘knight in shining Jaguar’. Heroine is in vast majority, the rest is split between Knight and Job, with Antagonist sprinkled in for flavor.

    I’ve tried to keep the racing interesting and fast paced, but it is a huge part of who Heroine is, I could not leave it as a mere mention. Knight is extremely important, as meeting him begins the unraveling of Heroine’s tightly wound life. Antagonist, well, what can I say. He ruins the party.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Importance is what’s, well, important! If something is driving and moving the plot, that’s a sign it definitely belongs–and that it’s probably a subplot the protag should be involved in to at least some extent.

  24. THIS! THIS! THIS is the reason I never really felt the hype about Iron Man 3. I felt like something was missing. Cohesiveness. Tony driving the story forward. Everything you wrote. And guess what? These were the main things missing from a manuscript I was writing, why I felt that it was a bit – bland.

    The way I had constructed it was that the protagonist’s partner was heavily involved in the incidents, but the protagonist just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time for 80% of the story, and I had just realized this after I was already 15k words into the draft and was hesitant about changing parts of the story.

    I can’t thank you enough for this post. I am so glad I bought your outline and structure books. I will return to them, suck it up, and do a massive overhaul of my WIP’s story structure and outline.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yay! I love it when people have breakthroughs like this. 🙂 They can be a little painful, since they require revision. But they’re also sooo exciting, since they give you such a clear vision of the story you’re really trying to write. You go!

  25. Back when I was an “aspiring” writer, I plotted a story that ended up being porridge, not that I completed it. It was an idea for the ages, though, and your post on IM3 reminded me of it. I think it’s time for me to revive the idea.

    Thanks for that, and all the years of advice.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Always fun to return to old stories with a new vision for how to make them work. All the best!

  26. Amy Karas says

    Yes, Tony vs. Mandarin makes no sense structure wise. BUT!!! What about Tony vs. Iron Man? I think it might actually follow structure beautifully. Iron man (by that I mean the suits/ persona) has become something bigger than Tony. Iron man is there to engage the troubles and bad guys in the world (monster of the week is the mandarin); Tony is more afraid of Iron man than any baddies. Tony needs to defeat his personal demons (the hypervigilance). Iron man is becoming a different entity (foreshadowed when the suit attacks pepper in the night). Tony hides/ avoids/ or destroys iron man at most of the structural moments. Iron man saves Tony at the first pinch point; tony simultaneously causes Iron man’s serious hardware damage. Eventually Tony has to go toe to toe with the mandarin without iron man at the base. Even in the climax scene Iron man arrives in force to save the day, but Tony is no longer a part of it. Every time Tony climbs partially into a suit it is rendered useless within seconds. At the climactic moment Iron man/ Pepper save the day and Tony embraces the freedom to step back from being Iron man (portrayed in blowing up the suits) which is a gesture of his overcoming the hypervigilance/ PTSD.
    Tony vs. Iron man is a conflict that is reminiscent of the comics too. Now I need to pull out my story structure whiteboard and go watch it again to see if that times out.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That I totally agree with. The problem is that Tony vs. Iron Man is effectively a subplot to what is positioned as the main plot (and what audiences expect to the be the main plot in a story of this type). Had the story recognized that it was really about Tony’s existential crisis and restructured itself to reflect that, it would have worked fine.

  27. I have found it difficult before when discussing subplots and secondary characters to remember to tie them into the main plot. I found that giving a secondary plot or character (usually both) a well developed arc still works as long as it impacts the main character in some way.

    In my first book, “The Spectra Unearthed”, the secondary character Sienna is struggling to find her brother and work out her own identity in the Spectra world. Eventually she tells the main character what she has discovered, and Sienna’s passion for taking on her newly discovered role helps the main character to gain the willpower she needs to enter her own climax.

    Then in the second one, “The Spectra United”, Sienna is struggling with independence and learning to make her own choices. It influences the main character who has to choose to risk her own life and her sisters to save a kingdom she never liked.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Very smart. The litmus test for subplots’ and minor characters’ necessity is always: Do they impact the main plot? If they do, then you’re gold. 🙂

  28. I found this article amazingly helpful, thank you for breaking down your reasoning so clearly! In recent years I’ve learned to put a lot more conscious effort into how my protagonist drives the story – I used to fall into the trap of supporting characters guiding the plot, or of ‘stuff just happening’ to the protagonist with no internal influence.

    I currently write an episodic serial and I’m both intrigued and at times frustrated with structural issues related to this format. Regular ‘Pinch points’ must occur in each individual episode, but there also need to be larger pinches at specific points across the series as a whole – its the balance of episodic stories vs the overarching plot. I also find it can be easier to lose the thread of a subplot without careful thought. But so long as the protagonist is driving the main plot throughout, I feel it helps to guide all the other pieces into the correct places – they are largely a result of his decisions, after all.

  29. Wow, I’ve followed you for a while now, but this is the post that makes me rethink some of my own ideas for my WIP. I was going to have the POV from this little newbie who doesn’t have much to do with anything until the end. Now I realize the danger in having the protagonist as the observer. Thankfully, I already have a nice minor character who is the center of attention who just got promoted. 😉

  30. These posts are so good! I’m not even a Marvel fan and I totally get every single thing you’re saying, and hopefully will be able to use some of the hints and tips on my WIP!

  31. I’d have to say that I think Pepper is the Protagonist of IM3, whatever its title may be. Tony’s role is more like some kind of sidekick (which, in terms of SI, he pretty much did when he made Pepper CEO) or mentor-by-default, whose truth is probably something along the lines of “whatever you do, don’t screw it up as badly as I did”.
    Check it out again from this vantage point:
    Inciting Event: Aldrich Killian (the antagonist) petitions Stark CEO Pepper to fund his brain-hacking project Extremis.

    First Plot Point: Tony proves how completely clueless he is– about everything with Gigantor the stuffed rabbit and giving terrorists his address. Pepper is wondering why she puts up with this… should she put up with this? Oh crap, getting attacked, suits in the basement. Suit’s on me, NO! I told him the suits were too much when one attacked me… why am I staying with this… TONY, YOU IDIOT, NO! (Tears, tears and pain, because she was walking out of his bedroom and thinking about walking out of his life and now he’s dead.)

    First Pinch Point: Pepper learns Aldrich is working for the Mandarin.

    Midpoint: The Mandarin publicly challenges the President on national TV. Pepper is captured.

    Second Pinch Point: Pepper gets Extremis, and knows she will probably die a horrible flaming/exploding death. Note: This goes back to the inciting incident– You won’t buy my stuff? Okay, then, I will just kidnap you and inject you with it.

    Third Plot Point: The President is captured and delivered to Aldrich. Tony and Rhodey are busy with hero tasks. Pepper basically endures torture.

    Climax: Tony fails to save Pepper, even though he gives it his all and brings in all the suits he’s been working on in the times he should have spent on making himself a working person, working on his relationship, etc. Pepper survives because OH LOOK– that superserum stuff IS actually good for something. And we get to have the correlation back to when Tony saved Pepper in Malibu, but now she has to turn around and save him right back.

    Going on from here, I think it’s entirely possible–Pepper having expressed before in the IM movies that she couldn’t stand Tony being a superhero and putting himself in danger like that, and given how she acts at the beginning of IM3 (when being choked by the suit, the rabbit) that the justifiable ending, even though it happens off screen after the movie but before the next MCU– is that she does break up with him. She decides it’s too much, she can’t take it, she never signed on for being a superhero herself and she does not want to get dragged into this again– so she leaves him.

    Granted, it still could have been written better, but I think the movie as a whole works better if you think of IM3 as Pepper’s movie, where Tony is relegated to sidekick status but being the diva that he is, still manages to steal the title.

  32. Hello. I’ve just had a very enlightening read. I’ve thought no poor opinions towards Iron Man 3 and still don’t, which is interesting given the complaints I’ve seen. Personally I thought Mandarin was a pretty ironic metaphor, and the film concluded the trilogy exactly as I’d hoped, with Tony discarding what bound him to the Iron Man suit when he decided to finally get the shrapnel removed. I didn’t notice his absence in the conflict because he was still making personal progress, even if it wasn’t related to the conflict. Maybe if I hadn’t seen the earlier films…

    On a personal note, structure has been the missing link in my story trifecta since I first tried to write it in 2010: My current ‘protagonist’ and ‘antagonist’ start the conflict and they end it; in fact the the story’s setting can’t exist without them. However, they have minimal involvement in the rest of the plot, making way for two different protagonists who truly drive the turning points.

    This isn’t a book I intend to publish, mind, and labour of love as it may be, it’s several cuts above my paygrade. I’m hoping these articles can remedy that somewhat, especially since I’m familiar with the media involved. So thank you.


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