How to Structure a Character-Driven Story

A Short Term 12 Case Study


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As Seen On

This is the first in a new series where I’ll break down how movies and scripts work and pull out specific lessons you can apply to your projects. And I often use more mainstream movies as examples because I want to make sure more people are familiar with them, but this time I’m going with Short Term 12, a smaller, lesser-known movie. Still, there are many reasons to study it:

  1. It’s great, especially if you’re up for a good cry. 😭
  2. It’s a character-driven movie, so it lets us talk about how to make a story work when the “action” is internal.
  3. It does a beautiful job weaving in subplots and using them to reinforce the “big idea”, the thematic stuff the story is exploring.
  4. Even though it was released several years ago it’s a fun one to revisit since it features A TON of talented folks who you’ll probably recognize now. Including Brie Larson (Captain Marvel), John Gallagher Jr. (The Newsroom), Stephanie Beatriz (Brooklyn 99), Rami Malek (Mr. Robot and Bohemian Rhapsody), LaKeith Stanfield (Atlanta and Get Out), and Kaitlyn Dever (Booksmart). And it was written and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, whose new movie Just Mercy is already getting Oscar buzz.

**Fair warning: the subject matter in this movie may be upsetting to some.**

Making the character’s internal growth visible and external

When we look at the movie’s big picture structure, we can see that the major plot points reflect the protagonist’s internal growth, moreso than the pursuit of an external goal. But they’ve found ways to externalize that internal arc. Which, of course, is vital in making the story translate to the screen.


The movie is about Grace, who manages Short Term 12, a group home facility for troubled teenagers.

At the Inciting Incident, Grace learns a new girl – Jayden – is coming in and is asked to take special care of her. When they meet, we see there’s an instant connection between them; Jayden is like a younger version of Grace. Grace doesn’t know it yet, but working with this girl will force Grace to confront issues of her own past. That’s the transformation we’re watching in this movie.

Grace may not realize it, but she’s stuck. Working with teenagers all day allows her to stay in a familiar place. But it also means she’s not really moving forward. She’s sort of hiding out in an in-between space, ignoring her issues.

Then Grace learns she’s pregnant, and her immediate reaction is not to keep it. But we see her at home with boyfriend Mason (who also works at Short Term 12), and it’s clear they have a good, loving, supportive relationship. And maybe she’s just scared to want a family and a future. He needs her to open up to him if they’re going to have that. If only she can find a way to talk about her issues.

  • So you can see the “story goal” here – which we talk about a lot – isn’t so much something Grace is actively pursuing. It’s something she’s struggling with, and we’re going to watch her journey and see if she succeeds or not. Remember, the audience needs something to track or they get confused and bored. We can track her progress because there’s an external barometer: if Grace opens up, especially to Mason, she’s growing – she’s moving toward a positive outcome to the story.
  • The story also nicely offers a question here: what won’t Grace talk about? That piques our curiosity, which helps engage us and get us to follow along as the story unfolds.


As Grace works with Jayden, we get more clues about Grace’s own past: her father is in prison, Grace used to self-harm. We see Grace watching how good Mason is with the kids; he’s genuinely a good guy. When she finally tells him she’s pregnant, he’s elated. He tells her, “You know we can do this, right?” And we can see that she wants to believe it, but she’s not so sure.

At the Midpoint Jayden has an episode of acting out. As Grace takes care of her, they bond and Grace reveals she understands that sometimes we inflict pain on ourselves in order to avoid feeling another kind of pain that we don’t want to acknowledge. The stakes are raised here because we can guess what Grace has been through and we want her to get the happy life she deserves, but now we know her destructive patterns. Which direction will she choose now? Avoidance or acknowledgement? We’re leaning in, hope and fear both ratcheted up.

  • In this scene Grace says, “It’s impossible to worry about anything else when there’s blood coming out of you.” This sets up a concrete, external indication of what’s going on internally.


Grace continues to bond with Jayden, who finally confides her father’s abuse through a story she’s written. Grace notifies the therapist in charge of the facility, confident she’s helping Jayden.

Meanwhile, the future looks good for Grace and Mason. He asks her to marry him and she agrees. But a phone call alerting her of her father’s parole sends her retreating again. We see her physically pull away from Mason and emotionally close down again. She doesn’t speak, and we see she’s hurt herself to the point of bleeding.

Then Grace learns Jayden’s dad has taken her out of Short Term 12. Grace confronts the therapist but is told Jayden is now denying the abuse, and that Grace is not qualified to step in. She’s failed to protect Jayden.

  • In this scene Grace is also told that the only way Jayden can get help is by telling what’s happened to her. She has to talk about it or nothing will change. It’s the lesson Grace needs to learn as well.


An episode with another of the Short Term 12 kids further calls into question whether Grace can handle even the things she thought she was doing well. She tells Mason she can’t do it – she can’t let him in, she can’t marry him, she can’t have the baby. It’s over.

The final battle scene, though, is when Grace goes to Jayden’s house. She sneaks in, and Jayden finds her holding a baseball bat, standing over sleeping dad. Thankfully, Grace talks to Jayden instead of killing dad. Grace reveals what happened to her as a child. In turn, Jayden shows new marks on her body – evidence of dad’s abuse. She’s finally ready to talk about it too.

Wrapping up all of the plot threads, we see Jayden telling her story to the therapist. Grace returns home to Mason, ready to try to move forward. She opens up to her own therapist for the first time. Grace and Mason see an ultrasound of their baby.

Life continues, inside and outside of Short Term 12.

If you’re writing (or interested in writing) a story that’s focused on a character’s internal struggle and development, rather than the typical concrete, external goals, Short Term 12 is one to watch and study. You’ll see how they’ve taken the internal and found great little ways to make it external without feeling forced or contrived.


Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.