Story structure makes the most sense when you can see it at work in stories that work. Here’s how the first scene of How to Train Your Dragon is structured.
Today, I’m back with the third installment of our deep-dive study of How to Train Your Dragon. We’re doing a deep study of story structure using the six elements of story, and in this episode, we’re going to zoom in and see them at work in How to Train Your Dragon again.
So far, we’ve studied the six elements in the movie as a whole and the six elements in the first act. In this article, we’ll focus on the scene level: how do the six elements work in the opening scene of How to Train Your Dragon?
If you missed the previous articles, don’t worry. I’ll catch you up to speed now.
Also, when I was growing up, my dad always told me that we learn things through repetition. Repetition. Repetition.
So if you have read the last few articles, I encourage you to stick around for this recap. The more you encounter these concepts, the more familiar they’ll become and the more comfortable you’ll be applying them to your own writing.
With all that said, here’s your crash course on story structure.
Story Structure Crash Course
Stories are about change. Things start one way and they end another way. We come to stories because we want to see how that change happens—where things begin, where things end up, and how they get there.
The thing that changes is called the value shift. I find it a really helpful practice to actually specify the value shift in a story—to say things start here and they end there.
Because once you know the value shift, you can plot your course from the start to the end.
6 Elements of Story
And the course that you plot will follow the six elements of story. This is a story structure framework that maps one arc of change. And when you understand the six elements, you’ll start to recognize them everywhere.
Here are the six elements:
- 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.
The 6 Elements of Story Are Everywhere
Now, there are a lot of things I love about the six elements of story. I use them everywhere in my editing practice. Check out this article for a bunch of reasons why I think these elements are among the most useful editing tools you can have in your arsenal.
But for now, all you need to know is this: one of my favorite things about the six elements is that you can find them at every level of story.
Zoom out, and you’ll find them in the story as a whole. Zoom in a little closer, and you’ll find them in each act. Zoom in even closer, and you’ll find them in each scene. Heck, zoom out even farther, and you can plot a series with the six elements.
Everywhere you have an arc of change, you can use the six elements of story to plot it.
That’s why we’re in our third article in a row studying How to Train Your Dragon. It’s not just because I’m a little obsessed with this movie (although that’s also true).
I’m spending so much time here because I want to show you just how useful and flexible these six elements are. I want to help you start to recognize them all over the stories you consume so you can start implementing them in the stories you create.
You can use them to edit the arc of your entire plot. You can use them to structure your acts. And you can use them to find targeted, specific, minute edits to each one of your scenes that will have huge payoffs throughout your entire book.
Example: Scene 1 of How to Train Your Dragon
Sound good? Are you tracking with me? Let’s dive back into How to Train Your Dragon and see all these concepts in action.
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 scene and see how it’s structured. I consider the first nine and a half minutes of the movie to be the first scene. That’s about eleven percent of the movie.
Watch the first scene on YouTube here:
You might notice that that clip is about eight and a half minutes long. That’s one minute shorter than I choose to cut this scene in my analysis. There’s a minute of resolution we lose at the end, which you can watch in this clip:
Get the Full How to Train Your Dragon Analysis
Want to see the analysis of this scene along with my analysis of the full movie and all four acts?
I’ve compiled my complete How to Train Your Dragon analysis into a spreadsheet you can download for quick reference. Get the spreadsheet by entering your email below:
All right, that’s enough about the clip and the spreadsheet. Let’s get to the analysis.
What Changes in Scene 1?
The first part of our analysis is the value shift. What changes from the beginning to the end of the scene?
Here are the most important value shifts I see in this scene:
At the beginning of the scene, Hiccup has never killed a dragon. He’s tried a bunch of times, but he’s never succeeded. By the end of the scene, he’s knocked a dragon out of the sky.
This is a shift from failure to success, or more specifically, from never hit a dragon to hit a dragon.
At the beginning of the scene, Hiccup is safe. His village is under attack and there are dragons everywhere setting buildings on fire, but Hiccup has been sidelined from the battle and is safe and secure in the blacksmith’s shop. The dragons don’t notice him or see him as a threat.
At the end of the scene, Hiccup is in danger, running from a dragon who saw him knock Toothless out of the sky and who is chasing him specifically and trying to set him on fire.
This is a shift from safety to danger.
At the beginning of the scene, Hiccup is sidelined from the battle and ignored by the other Vikings. They’re off fighting dragons, and he gets to sharpen swords alone.
At the end of the scene, Hiccup has drawn the full attention of the whole community for what they perceive as another failure. Every one of Hiccup’s perceived failures lowers his status in the community, and he gets publicly shamed for his screwup.
This is a shift from ignored to shamed.
So those are three core value shifts:
- Failure to success (or more specifically, has never hit a dragon to has hit a dragon)
- Safety to danger
- Ignored to shamed
The 6 Elements in Scene 1
Now that we know our starting and ending values, let’s look at the path between them: the six elements of story in this scene. Keep those values in mind as we break down the events of the scene.
First up: the inciting incident. Dragons attack Berk.
All is quiet on this early morning in Berk. The camera pans over the village as Hiccup narrates an introduction to his community.
And then, chaos hits: the dragons attack. Our normal is disrupted. The action kicks off.
Next: the progressive complications. At this point, I could mention a lot of things. The progressive complications encompass everything that happens between the inciting incident and the turning point, which is a lot of story.
But we don’t need to know everything that happens. I’ll give you the highlights, the things I see as the most important progressive complications.
First up: when Hiccup runs out to join the battle, everyone tells him to go back inside. And by everyone, I mean every single Viking he passes, including his dad, Stoic, the chief of the village. He wants a chance to join the fight, kill a dragon, and prove himself as a Viking, but he’s told over and over again to go home.
Next, Hiccup has joined Gobber in the blacksmith shop, repairing weapons and sharpening swords for the other Vikings. He tries to negotiate with Gobber to let him go out and fight. And Gobber tells him that if he wants to get out there and fight dragons, he needs to stop being all of himself. Gobber refuses to let him go fight and tells him that Hiccup just as he is is not enough.
Third, the battle intensifies when a Night Fury attacks, and Gobber runs out to join the fight. On his way out, he tells Hiccup to stay put, but Hiccup is now left unattended. So of course, he grabs the custom-built dragon-shooting machine he’s crafted and runs out of the shop and through the village and to the top of a hill to seize his chance at shooting a dragon.
So there you go: three moments I’ve marked as progressive complications.
- When Hiccup runs out to join the battle, everyone, including Stoic, tells him to go back inside.
- Gobber refuses to let him go fight and tells him that Hiccup just as he is is not enough.
- Hiccup is left unattended and takes his chance to sneak into the battle and test his machine.
Each one of these moments makes the situation more complicated. Some of these things are negative—Hiccup is denied the chance to fight and is told repeatedly that he’s not enough. That last one is positive—he’s left unattended and has an opportunity to test himself in battle.
This is great: we have some things that make the situation better and some that make it worse. All of them raise the stakes and make things more complicated.
Next up, we have the turning point. Hiccup readies his weapon, waits for his moment, sees the silhouette of the Night Fury blocking out the stars, and shoots . . . and he hits it! He hits the dragon, and Toothless falls out of the sky.
This is HUGE. For the first time, Hiccup has hit a dragon. For the first time, he’s had a success as a dragon-killing Viking. For the first time, he’s accomplished his goal, the achievement that will bring him glory and honor among the Vikings and maybe even help him get a girlfriend.
This changes everything—in this scene and beyond. We’re no longer in the normal world of Hiccup the failure, unable to kill a dragon, unable to find his place in the community. We have entered an entirely new realm, a space where Hiccup has proven himself by doing something no Viking has ever done: shooting a Night Fury out of the sky.
But that’s not quite all of the turning point. The shooting a dragon out of the sky is one part. A half second later, it becomes clear that someone witnessed Hiccup’s victory: another dragon, a Monstrous Nightmare who now sees Hiccup as a threat and is ready to attack.
So our turning point is this: Hiccup shoots a dragon out of the sky and no one but another dragon witnesses it.
This leads us to the crisis: the choice that Hiccup must make as a result of the turning point.
The turning point demands action. Hiccup can’t just keep doing what he’s been doing all scene. He’ll have to make a decision and do something new.
And the crisis is a dilemma. It’s a choice between two options: this or that? And each option has consequences. Each option has teeth—in this scene, literal teeth.
What’s Hiccup’s choice? What two options does he face?
I can sum his crisis up really succinctly like this:
Brag or survive?
Remember, the whole reason Hiccup has run out to this hill in the middle of a battle with a machine he built himself is to gain status in his community by killing a dragon. Every moment up to this point has emphasized how low his status is among the Vikings. His route to glory in his community, or even just equal footing, is by killing a dragon.
So this victory matters a lot. But it only matters if the Vikings recognize it. In order for him to rise in status, he’ll have to show them his success. He’ll have to shout, draw attention to himself, brag.
On the other hand, this Monstrous Nightmare did see him, and now it wants to kill him. It’s a massive dragon, it’s right in front of him, and it has the ability to set itself on fire. If he stands here next to his machine and shouts and yells to the other Vikings about his success, he will definitely die on this hill.
Yet if he doesn’t manage to show the Vikings what he’s done, they’ll only see the catastrophe that’s currently happening. They’ll only see Hiccup once again running from a dragon, disrupting the battle, destroying the village, failing yet again to be a Viking. Every time he fails, his status drops a little bit more. It’s not just that he won’t gain status for his success; his status will actually go down.
So here are his options:
OPTION 1: Run, abandon his dragon-killing machine, abandon his victory and the status that’s so close he can taste it, accept the coming drop in status, and stay alive?
OPTION 2: Stand his ground, do his best to draw attention to his success in the seconds he has left, and sacrifice his life for his status gain?
Essentially, the question at hand is, is Hiccup willing to die for his status?
This choice has significant consequences. But it’s not really a hard choice for Hiccup to make. He doesn’t have to waffle or weigh his options. (Which is good, because he doesn’t have time to make up his mind—either he runs now, or he dies now.)
So the crisis in this scene lasts only a few seconds before we hurtle into the climax.
That’s the climax, the choice Hiccup makes: he runs from the dragon. No, he is not willing to die for his status. As badly as he wants to be recognized among the Vikings, he’s not here to get eaten.
So he runs.
We get nearly a minute of Hiccup running from the dragon, the dragon breathing fire at him, Stoic running up to rescue Hiccup and punch the dragon in the face, and a pillar of fire tumbling down through the village and releasing all the sheep to be stolen away by all the dragons leaving Burke.
There’s no status gain here. Hiccup has chosen a status loss, and he’s gotten it—not only did his Night Fury shot go entirely unnoticed by the Vikings, but he managed to make the battle much worse, destroy a lot of village infrastructure, and lose all their sheep to the dragons.
Which leads us to the resolution: Stoic tells Hiccup that he’s not a dragon killer and sends him out of the battle in humiliation.
Stoic is livid. From his perspective, Hiccup has once again disobeyed orders, once again tried some cockamamie plan to kill a dragon and failed, once again disrupted the battle, once again caused a loss of precious Viking resources.
He drags Hiccup down the hill by his collar and chastises him in front of the whole village. Hiccup tries to tell him about the dragon he shot out of the sky and claims that he’s a dragon killer like all the other Vikings, but Stoic says, “You are many things, Hiccup, but a dragon killer is not one of them.” Then he sends Hiccup away so he can clean up his mess.
And just to really drive the point home, as Gobber walks Hiccup back to his house, Hiccup complains about how Stoic is constantly disappointed in him. Gobber explains, “It’s not so much what you look like; it’s what’s inside that he can’t stand.” And then Gobber tells Hiccup to stop trying to be something he’s not.
And Hiccup replies, “I just want to be one of you guys.”
By the end of the scene, Hiccup feels even more rejected and isolated and outcast and different from the Viking community than he ever felt at the beginning.
Value Shifts + 6 Elements of Story = Arc of Change
Do you see it? Do you see the arc of change at work? Do you see how the six elements have taken us on a journey from the starting values to the ending values?
Notice how by the time we get to the resolution, all of our values have shifted:
Hiccup went from never having hit a dragon to successfully hitting a dragon for the first time. Failure to success.
He went from safety, when all the Vikings and the dragons were ignoring him, to danger when he drew the notice of the Monstrous Nightmare. (And then by the end of the scene, when the battle ended, he and everyone else returned to safety again.)
And Hiccup went from being ignored by the Vikings, low in status but not drawing too much attention, to being publicly shamed and having all the ways in which he’s not like the Vikings broadcast for everyone to see. Ignored to shamed. His low status is now even lower.
And the way we journeyed through that arc of change was along the six commandments. Here they are again:
- Inciting incident: Dragons attack Berk.
- Progressive complications: Everyone tells Hiccup to go back inside. Gobber tells Hiccup to stay out of the fight. When Hiccup is left unattended, he sneaks out to try to kill a dragon.
- Turning point: Hiccup shoots a Night Fury out of the sky, and the only witness is a Monstrous Nightmare.
- Crisis: Brag or survive?
- Climax: Hiccup runs and causes chaos that makes the Vikings lose the battle.
- Resolution: Hiccup is publicly shamed.
Failure to success. Safety to danger. Ignored to shamed.
One full arc of change.
To Write Great Stories, Study Great Stories
This movie is masterfully done. I love studying it because it holds up to scrutiny so well.
We could keep digging into this scene and talk about how the choice Hiccup makes here mirrors and foreshadows the choice he’ll have to make in the crisis of the movie as a whole: he’ll have to choose once again between running or not, between surviving or risking his life. It’s a sacrifice he’s not willing to make for status, but it’s one he is willing to make when his community is on the line.
Or, we could keep digging and talk about how the turning point of this scene is also the turning point of this act, and then the act adds on a few more scenes to take us to an even greater crisis and climax.
But I’ll go ahead and wrap it up here.
If you haven’t seen the scene, I highly recommend you go watch it now so you can see everything we’ve talked about in action.
And be sure to download the spreadsheet where I share my full analysis of each level of the movie. Get that download here:
I hope this helps illustrate how the six elements of story work in practice. If you haven’t yet, I highly recommend that you check out the previous two articles, where I dig into How to Train Your Dragon at the level of the full movie and the first act, so you can see how the six elements work when you zoom out and when you zoom in.
If you have any questions about the six elements of story, I’d love to hear them.
What’s making sense to you? What’s confusing? Where are you feeling stuck?
Send me an email at alice [at] alicesudlow [dot] com. You might just hear the answer on a future episode of Your Next Draft!