Breaking Down Story Maps

Story Maps are one of the greatest resources on ScreenplayHowTo. They provide a great way for a novice writer to get a handle on the many moving parts and information that’s included with a screenplay. Story Maps are wonderful tools. I strongly encourage people to spend as much time as possible making their own.

Once you get a good grasp on how Story Maps work, you’re going to want to push them beyond that, so you can better identify the part that helps you write the second act.


GUY: Here’s my pitch: A guy must bond with his gambler father to get closure on his childhood.
ME: Great. What’s the second act?
GUY: Well, it’s whatever happens between page 25 and page 90.
ME: Right, but how is this explored? So he needs to bond with his father. Do they bond by surfing? Kidnapping a girl? Planning a casino heist.
GUY: No!
ME: But they could, right? You see how each avenue of exploration changes the genre, tone and visuals of the movie. How is yours explored?
GUY: I don’t know.
ME: Then you only have half an idea.

I’ve heard of college classes where they read each other’s screenplays, but only the second act. That’s apocryphal, but I love that idea, because the second act is the movie.


  1. Protagonist
  2. Characterization/Main Misbehavior
  3. External Goal
  4. Internal Goal
  5. Main dramatic conflict
  6. Themes
  7. Central Dramatic Question
  8. Ending
  9. Arc
  10. Story Engines
  11. Beat Sheet

The two biggest components tell the story in total:

BEAT SHEETS tell every beat of the story.
STORY ENGINES tell the act breaks. I never got this, why not just call them act breaks? Anyway, whatever. Terminology arguments are rarely useful. Anyway, these tell the second act,so you can often determine the flow of the entire movie from them

The other components are suggestive rather than fully descriptive. It’s useful to look at where the things they suggest go. Let’s look at the Story Map for Looper.


Looper Story Map


PROTAGONIST: Joe, mid-20s, a specialized assassin for the mob known as a Looper
EXTERNAL GOAL: To close his loop
INTERNAL GOAL: To do what’s in his best interest
MAIN DRAMATIC CONFLICT: Old Joe (introduced)
THEME(S): Selflessness / Sacrifice (introduced)

The important thing is that act one should be clear. They should set up the who/what/where and create suspension of disbelief for everything that follows. Looper sets up everything efficiently. Joe never nakedly says, “I’m a selfish Looper who wants to do what’s in my best interest,” but the first act artfully illustrates that as clearly as if he had. By the end of the first act, all these things are established.


CENTRAL DRAMATIC QUESTION: Will Joe protect Cid and kill Old Joe?
ARC: Joe goes from a selfish man to a man who sacrifices himself to save a little boy.
THEME(S): Selflessness / Sacrifice (explored)

Act Two explores the central dramatic question and illustrates the arc in ways that are visual and hopefully interesting. Anyone can ask a central dramatic question or suggest an arc. It’s the ability to make that exploration fascinating that separates the good writers from the mediocre.


ENDING: Joe kills himself, erasing the existence of Old Joe and saving Cid.
THEME(S): Selflessness / Sacrifice (resolved)
CENTRAL DRAMATIC QUESTION: Will Joe protect Cid and kill Old Joe? (resolved)

Just like in act one, it’s not so much about conveying that information as it is conveying that information in a haunting an unforgettable way.


When we look at any story, whether it’s a movie, our script, or a story map, we always want to ask ourselves, what’s at the core of the movie. How are the central dramatic questions and the the themes explored, how did the movie specifically make those questions interesting?

When you’re writing a movie you’re going to want to have a sense of the second act, the money part, the genre beats. And to that, it’s best to interrogate the beats of a story map.So the next time you look at a story map, ask yourselves these questions:

  1. What does the main characters spend most of the second act doing to try an accomplish his goals?
  2. What is the genre of the movie?
  3. What beats in the story illustrate that genre?
  4. How many of these beats could one discern or thin slice from the handle?

Once you have a grasp of the anatomy of a story map, work to build your understanding of them so you have a better grasp on how the second act enable the movie and what’s specifically interesting or engaging about that particular story. Then be able to answer that question about the project you’re writing.


Looper Story Map Free Download

Matt Lazarus
Matt Lazarus
Articles: 15


  1. Thank you Matt. Looper is one of my favorite movies. I’ve probably seen it a half dozen times or more. Story maps seem like a good way to build a story. I just downloaded the free looper map and have a some questions:

    Is it a good process to apply the story map to your story and then attempt to build sequences? The sequences were noted in the looper map really brought the idea home on how important the second act is. it’s really cool to see it all written out so simply. Ok, so my questions-

    Is it typical to think of your story in these terms or is building a story more a process or trial and error and nothing is typical so why not try story maps? did you examine your favorite movies in such detail prior to writing your stories? sorry for such a ramble :-0

    • I wish there was a best way. You’ll find your own process, one that’s as good as any, better than none. If you’ve already discovered sequences, you sound like you’re well on your way.

      Story maps are great, and if they get you to a draft, awesome! If they don’t, it’s often handy to start looking for more answers, more tools, more possible avenues of attack.

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