Story structure makes the most sense when you can see it at work in stories that work. Here’s how the first act of How to Train Your Dragon is structured.
Today, I’m continuing our deep dive into story structure. Which means we’re digging into How to Train Your Dragon again, and I’m really excited for it.
In the last few articles, we’ve been exploring my favorite approach to story structure: a simple story structure framework that works anywhere you use it in a story.
It’s called the six elements of story, and it’s a core piece of everything I do as an editor. I use it in every story, in every genre, in every act and scene and full-length novel. It’s wonderfully flexible, and once you master it, you can use it to structure pretty much any story you want to tell.
And to prove that this story structure really does work anywhere, I’m breaking down How to Train Your Dragon on several different levels to show you how it works.
In last week’s article, I broke down the arc of the entire movie to show you how the six elements work on the scale of a story as a whole. See that analysis here.
Now, I’m going to zoom in one level closer and look at the first act of the movie. Every act of How to Train Your Dragon follows the six elements, too, so I’m going to break down the first act and show you how they work.
And in next week’s article, I’m going to zoom in another level closer and look at the first scene of the movie. I’ll show you the six elements at play in one tiny individual unit of story, just a few minutes of movie.
Isn’t it fantastic that you can learn just one story structure tool and then use it anywhere in your story? The six elements help you write better novels, and they help you write better acts, and they help you write better scenes. They help absolutely everywhere, because they describe how one arc of change happens, and stories are about change.
If you’ve read the last few articles, you’ll probably find that some of what I’m saying is familiar. And that’s okay! I’m spending a lot of time here because the more you encounter these concepts, the more familiar they’ll become and the more comfortable you’ll be using them in your own stories.
And if you haven’t seen the last few articles, no worries. I’m going to give you a super quick recap of the six elements so you know what we’re looking for here. And then we’ll get into the breakdown of the first act of How to Train Your Dragon.
Get My Full Analysis of How to Train Your Dragon
Before I get to that recap, though, I want to mention that I do have a companion resource to go with this article.
In order to prepare for this series, I watched How to Train Your Dragon again. And I pulled up a spreadsheet as I watched, and I tracked the movie. I formed a hypothesis about where each act started and ended, and how the six elements worked in every layer.
I did this a few times, actually. In my original spreadsheet, there are several tabs where I came up with a few different hypotheses, and then I’d watch the movie again and think about the themes and the goals and the arcs and test my hypotheses.
Eventually, I landed on a breakdown of the movie that I believe really accurately reflects how this story is structured and what makes this story work.
The result is a spreadsheet of analysis of How to Train Your Dragon that breaks down the movie as a whole, all four acts, and the first scene according to the six elements of story. I’ve also included time stamps of each segment of story so you can see how long each act is and what percentage of the movie is spent in each act.
And that’s what I want to share with you here. You can get that spreadsheet and see my full analysis of How to Train Your Dragon by filling out the form below:
It’s a great companion resource to have on hand as we go through the act one breakdown in this article. It also puts the whole movie, all four acts, and the first scene in one place so you can see how the six elements of story layer together.
I also wanted to share that little bit of behind the scenes of how this spreadsheet was made so you can see that it takes time and practice to master story structure.
I have been analyzing story using the six elements of story for the last six years, and it’s still a tool I’m constantly practicing using and learning more as I do. I watched How to Train Your Dragon several times, came up with some hypotheses, debated them with my editor friends, watched the movie again, and checked my work. Some pieces were really obvious and easy to spot (it’s very clear when we’re in the climax!), and some pieces took a lot more time and trial and error.
I want you to know that if you’re struggling with this story structure I’m sharing, that’s totally normal. It gets clearer and easier with practice. So stick with me, download that How to Train Your Dragon spreadsheet, and be patient with yourself, and over time, it’ll all come together.
All right, that’s enough preamble. Let’s get into the quick recap of the six elements of story, and then we’ll break down the first act of How to Train Your Dragon.
Recap: The 6 Elements of Story
The six elements of story form one arc of change. Things start one way, and they end another way. In order to change, they go through the following six steps:
- The inciting incident: Something disrupts the character’s “normal” and kicks off the action of the story.
- Progressive complications: The conflict escalates as more complications happen. These events might make things better or worse, but they certainly make things more complicated.
- The turning point: The largest, most problematic progressive complication, which forces the protagonist to respond in some way.
- The crisis: In order to respond to the turning point, the protagonist must make a difficult choice. This is a choice between two bad things (best bad choice) or two good things (irreconcilable goods).
- The climax: The moment when the protagonist takes action on the crisis choice and experiences the consequences.
- The resolution: The “new normal” after the climax. Something has changed since the story began with the inciting incident, and readers want to see what the world looks like now.
And there you go: the six elements of story. One arc of change.
Recap: Value Shifts
And while we’re recapping ideas, let me mention one more important story structure concept: the value shift.
Stories are about change. Like I said before, things are one way at the beginning of a story and they’re another way at the end of the story.
The value shift is essentially the thing that changes. And the six elements of story are the journey that we take from the starting state to the ending state.
If the term “value shift” is new to you, don’t worry. I have a full article on value shifts: Value Shifts: How to Craft Compelling Change in Every Story. And the example story I use in that article is also How to Train Your Dragon, so it’s a great companion to this article.
So that’s our story structure: the value shift and six elements we’ll look for throughout the first act of How to Train Your Dragon.
Example: Act 1 of How to Train Your Dragon
Now, let’s get into our example and see them at work!
Last week, we talked through the structure of the movie as a whole. In case you missed that article, here’s the premise of the movie:
A scrawny young Viking boy whose community is frequently attacked by dragons wants to prove that he’s a true Viking by killing a dragon.
Let’s zoom in on the first act and see how it works. I consider the first 17 minutes of the movie to be the first act, which works out to about 19% of the movie.
What Changes in Act 1?
The first part of our analysis is the value shift. What changes from the beginning to the end of the act?
Here are the most important value shifts I see in this first act:
At the beginning of the act, Hiccup is trying to kill a dragon. At the end of the act, he believes he can never kill a dragon.
On the outside, this is a value shift from trying to giving up.
But on the inside, this is actually a shift from assimilating to staying true to himself: when Hiccup doesn’t kill Toothless, he chooses not to follow the Viking way of life, but instead to hold to his own values.
So that’s two value shifts so far:
- Trying to giving up
- Assimilating to staying true to himself
Here’s another value shift: at the beginning of the act, Hiccup’s community—specifically, Hiccup’s dad—believes he’s a failure as a Viking because he’ll never be able to help defend the community. By the end of the act, Hiccup’s dad has decided to give him a chance to enroll in dragon training and become a proper Viking. So now we have a value shift on Hiccup’s status in the community. He goes from rejected to opportunity for acceptance.
And here’s another value shift: at the beginning of the act, Toothless’s life is at risk. Yes, dragons are stealing the Vikings’ food, but the Vikings are fighting back, and Hiccup shoots Toothless out of the sky and hunts him down to kill him. By the end of the act, Hiccup has chosen not to kill Toothless and has cut the ropes that tied him down. Toothless goes from danger to safety.
So these are all value shifts I want you to keep in mind as we go through this act:
- Trying to giving up
- Assimilating to staying true to himself
- Rejected to opportunity for acceptance
- Danger to safety
The 6 Elements in Act 1
Now that we know what changes, let’s take a look at how that change happens. Let’s break down the first act according to the six elements of story.
First up, the inciting incident: dragons attack Berk.
The movie opens with the camera panning around this rocky, pastoral island, and Hiccup narrates an introduction to his home. This is Berk, home of the Vikings, where the land and the people are rugged, tough, and sturdy. It looks like a peaceful pre-dawn morning, with sheep grazing in a field . . . for about thirty seconds.
And then a dragon swoops down and snatches a sheep in its claws. And suddenly, there are dragons everywhere, snatching up sheep and setting the grass on fire, and the people of Berk rush out of their homes armed and ready to fight off this attack.
So that’s our inciting incident, which leads us to the progressive complications.
Now, when you’re breaking down a story according to the six elements, you can have a lot of progressive complications. Every little bump in the road that challenges the protagonist, every little win that helps them along the way, all those things can be progressive complications.
But I’m not going to list everything that happens in this section of the act. I’m going to share just one progressive complication, the one I think is the most important for Hiccup’s arc in this act.
Here it is: Gobber tells Hiccup to stay out of the fight.
Here’s what happens: About a minute and a half into the movie, Hiccup runs into Stoic, and his first lines are, “Hiccup! What is he doing out again—what are you doing out? Get inside!”
After this run-in with Stoic, Hiccup runs to the blacksmith’s workshop and starts sharpening weapons. And he tries to negotiate with Gobber the blacksmith to get Gobber’s permission for Hiccup to go join the fight.
But Gobber tells him that he is just not cut out for it. He’s not strong enough or Viking-like enough. And if he ever wants to get out there and fight dragons, he needs to stop “all of this,” and he waves at Hiccup’s whole person.
Hiccup is asking for his chance to fulfill this goal he’s been yearning for, one that would prove his Viking-ness to everyone and maybe even land him a date. And Gobber tells him no. Stay inside and sharpen weapons.
That’s our key progressive complication in this act.
Notice that the “before” side of those value shifts are all at play here. There’s a lot of danger for everyone: the dragons are setting fire to things; the Vikings are brandishing axes and chasing them.
When Hiccup steps outside to join the fight, he runs into Stoic and is immediately rejected.
So he goes to his blacksmithing job and negotiates with Gobber. He’s trying to find his chance to kill a dragon.
And Gobber tells him he’s not enough; he’s too much Hiccup and not enough Viking to kill a dragon. Essentially, he needs to stop being Hiccup and assimilate into the Viking way of thinking and being.
Danger. Rejection. Trying. Assimilating. All our value shifts are represented within the first five minutes.
And this leads us to the turning point. Here it is: Hiccup uses the dragon-shooting contraption he’s built and shoots a dragon out of the sky.
This is huge. It changes everything. Hiccup now has proof positive that he does have what it takes to kill a dragon. He can do it! His machine works! He’s enough! He has achieved the ultimate status symbol for a Viking in his community.
And not only that, but Hiccup hasn’t just shot any dragon. He’s hit a Night Fury, the deadliest of dragons, the dragon no Viking has ever seen. It’s the most terrifying and mysterious threat the Vikings face, and Hiccup has taken it out of the sky with one shot.
Now, this doesn’t help a ton right in this moment, because as it turns out, no Viking witnessed it and he attracts the attention of a dragon who then burns down half the village. So in the immediate aftermath, it’s a disaster. But in the scope of this act, it’s a huge positive turn.
The turning point leads us to the crisis. Hiccup has shot down the dragon, but he has to bring it back to prove to the Vikings that he really has killed a dragon. So he goes hunting through the forest to find the dragon.
And when he does find it, the dragon is tied up on the ground, unable to move—but crucially, the dragon is still alive.
And now, Hiccup has a crisis choice to make. What’s he going to do now?
As you know, I frame the crisis choice as a binary decision where each option carries consequences. Here’s Hiccup’s crisis:
Kill the dragon or set the dragon free?
This is a huge decision. Here are the consequences he faces:
OPTION ONE: Kill the dragon, eliminate the greatest threat to the Viking community, and gain all the honor and status and respect he’s been yearning for?
The rewards are high. But the cost is also high—Hiccup will have to kill an animal who looks into his eyes with a level of intelligence and emotion that matches his own.
OPTION TWO: Free the dragon, sacrifice the honor and status and respect, and return the greatest threat to the Viking community to the sky to attack again?
The cost here is high. In freeing the dragon, he’ll be letting go of everything he’s wanted for years. He’ll be giving up on his goal of killing a dragon and gaining recognition as a Viking.
He’ll also be responsible for putting his community at risk again—he has brought down their greatest threat, and now he’ll be releasing it.
And he’ll be releasing it while standing right next to it. The dragon could easily turn around and kill him as soon as the bonds are released.
But the reward is high, too. If he frees the dragon, he will not have to sacrifice his own conscience, the inner voice that tells him that killing this creature is wrong. He will be able to live with himself.
Toothless’s and Hiccup’s lives are on the line here. So is Hiccup’s status in his community and his success or failure at the task he’s set himself. And in a way, Hiccup’s soul is on the line here, too. If he kills this dragon today, he’ll be killing a part of himself.
It’s a simple choice: kill the dragon or set it free? But the stakes are enormous.
What will Hiccup do? We find out in the climax: he gives himself a pep talk, raises his knife, looks into the dragon’s eye, and . . . chooses to cut the ropes instead.
In short, Hiccup doesn’t kill the dragon. He sets the dragon free.
This is a really intense moment. Hiccup has broken from the Viking way. He’s given up on his goal.
And in so doing, he’s put himself at enormous risk. He’s freeing an animal that has the power to kill him.
When the ropes fall away, the dragon leaps at him and pins him against a rock. It looks like it’s going to plasma blast him and destroy him. It roars in his face.
And then it turns and flies away. Hiccup is alive. He’s faced down a dragon, and he’s survived.
Which leads us to the resolution. Hiccup returns home where Stoic is cooking dinner.
Stoic tells him he has news: he’s granting Hiccup’s request. He’s enrolling Hiccup in dragon training, the school all Viking teens attend to learn how to kill dragons. And Hiccup is going to start tomorrow.
And Hiccup has news for Stoic, too: he’s realized he can’t kill a dragon, and he wants to retract his request to enter dragon training. He no longer wants to follow this path to Viking honor and glory. He knows now for certain that he cannot do it.
But Stoic won’t hear of it. Despite Hiccup’s protestations, Stoic requires him to attend dragon training and learn to adopt the ways of the Vikings. And Hiccup sighs and grudgingly accepts.
Notice how in this resolution, all our values have shifted:
Hiccup is no longer trying to kill dragons; he’s fully given up.
Hiccup is no longer trying to assimilate into Viking society; he’s staying true to himself and trying to bow out of the Viking ethos of killing dragons.
Stoic is no longer rejecting Hiccup’s efforts to join Viking society. Instead, he’s offering him an opportunity for acceptance.
And Toothless, the dragon Hiccup shot out of the sky, is no longer in danger of being killed by Vikings. He’s free and safe in the woods.
- Trying to giving up
- Assimilating to staying true to himself
- Rejected to opportunity for acceptance
- Danger to safety
In our resolution, we’re now on the “after” side of all our values.
Summary: The 6 Elements in Act 1
So there you have it: the six elements of story in the first act of How to Train Your Dragon.
Here they are again:
- Inciting incident: Dragons attack Berk.
- Progressive complication: Gobber tells Hiccup to stay out of the fight.
- Turning point: Hiccup shoots a Night Fury out of the sky.
- Crisis: Kill the dragon or set it free?
- Climax: Hiccup frees the dragon.
- Resolution: Despite Hiccup’s protest, Stoic enrolls Hiccup in dragon training.
And over the course of those six elements, our values shift:
We start with trying and we end with giving up.
We start with assimilating and we end with holding true to oneself.
We start with rejection and we end with an opportunity for acceptance.
And we start in danger and we end in safety.
One complete arc of story from the start of the act to the end.
I hope this deep dive into the first act of How to Train Your Dragon helps make it a little clearer for you how these six elements of story work, and how they work at every level of story.
Don’t forget to check out the spreadsheet where I’ve broken down all four acts of the movie using the six elements so you can see how this structure works all the way through the movie. You can get that analysis by filling out the form below:
Next week, we’ll take it one level deeper and study the first scene of the movie.
If you want to test yourself before you check out that article, I recommend that you watch the opening scene and see if you can identify the six elements at work in it. It’s about nine minutes long, so it’s a great short exercise to challenge yourself to put this all into practice.