Stanley Kubrick and Story Units

“A story is comprised of six to eight non-submersible plot units. This is what Stanley Kubrick told writer Brian Aldiss… [Kubrick’s] approach is to look at a long story as a group of short stories, which come together to create something far greater than a long narrative ever could, Kubrick’s method focuses on scenes, each with its own mood.” (Source)


  1. Status quo
  2. Changes
  3. Trials and tribulations
  4. Mission start
  5. Low point
  6. Indications of success, beginning Act III
  7. Confrontation
  8. (Epilogue: new status quo)

Longer version, ripped straight for the source blog, with minor edits:

(1) The status quo, introduction to the character and his current life, some foreshadowing of events that will take place later on; but most importantly, it is here we find out what the character wants, and this desire is the main reason why we will care about him throughout the story and be invested in the character. This unit ends with an event that disrupts the status quo, but doesn’t launch the character on the main adventure yet.

(2) Here the character is dealing with the changes on his life, some more foreshadowing, and a major event that takes us to the middle of the story, the second act.

(3) Trials and tribulations, the character grows. This is where you have the most creative freedom.

(4) The character goes on some sort of mission, but doesn’t accomplish much, if anything at all; this is when we realize what will have to be done in order to accomplish the final goal, we really understand the mission that lies ahead of us, but this newfound realization weights on our character.

(5) This is the lowest point of the story, the saddest non-submersible plot unit. The character feels he could never possibly win, even thinks about giving up, all the events taking place around him support this feeling. But the character somehow finds a new conviction, draws a plan, finally realizes what needs to be done.

(6) This is what you would say is the beginning of the third act. The character will have success of some kind, but not truly accomplish the mission (in Toy Story, Woody and Sid’s toys manage to save Buzz, but not really get back to Andy; in The Matrix, Neo and Trinity save Morpheus, but still haven’t really gone up against Smith). This is why so many movies have a damsel in distress, it gives the main character motivation to move out of the low point, as well as a mission for this unit, before really going up against the main antagonist. Also, this unit normally doesn’t have a very cheerful end, don’t make it feel as if you are giving the audience any real realization.

(7) This is the tricky one, what you actually have here is a split ending, these are almost two different units. At first, the hero will face the enemy, or maybe just his minions, but still not get everything done. The second part is when Stallone dares the antagonist to “fight him like a man,” they drop their guns and really get everything done. The best way to understand this is to look once again at The Matrix: Neo fights Smith in the subway, it’s awesome, beautiful, what audiences paid money to see, but think about, what did they really accomplish? Not much. After that confrontation, they go outside, Neo goes up against Smith for real now, and he realizes he is the one.

And after everything is done, your story needs an epilogue, where we learn what the character’s new status quo is.

But how about stories with six or eight plot units? For stories with only six units, four and five merge together. And for stories with eight units, you actually split unit seven in two. By the way, you can also have a prologue, like the bank robbery in the beginning of the The Dark Knight.

Additional thoughts from a Reddit thread on this link mostly say “there’s no best way to write.” Most ‘rules’ and structures are simply suggestions. You can’t possibly follow all advice, because it’s almost never universal, and some of it is contradictory.

“Use this as advice, but eventually make your own decisions, you will only know the best way for you to write a story until you work your ass off.” Modern movies use a three-act structure, as recommended by Aristotle. Shakespeare used a five-act. Renaissance dramatists used eight. Whatever works, works. The important thing is to write!

One person linked to this (Youtube videos talking about film structure)

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