Analysis, inspiration

Plot Structure of Ready Player One

TLDR: In this post I analyze the plot structure of Ready Player One in order to improve my own plotting.


Ready Player One has got great bones. It’s got such great bones that it makes me want to x-ray them or even better, yank them out and hang my own organs, muscle, and skin on them. Reading Ready Player One made me want to write plot outlines, something I admitted to avoiding in my previous post. So what makes RPO so good?

Before I dive in, I’ll say that RPO also has love in its writing. The author, Ernest Cline, clearly enjoyed what he was doing. Without the passion he brought to the writing of this book, no amount of cookie cutter plot structure would have made it work. That probably goes without saying.

Ready Player One has some stock plot moments such as the “no turning back” moment at the end of Act 1 and the “things can’t get any worse” moment at the beginning of Act 3. I think the protagonist even mentions not going back. There’s nothing wrong with being up front about such things.

I wanted to see what other moments I could find so I went chapter by chapter and identified key moments and what percentage through the book they occurred at. I started with a long list of moments and slimmed them down to the following:

1% Hook and setup
18% Pivotal moment. Call to action.
39% Stakes raised. Bad things happen.
45% No turning back now.
56% Second call to action.
64% Bad things happen.
66% Stakes raised.
71% Hope.
72% Bad things happen. Utter darkness. Insurmountable situation.
78% Minor good tidings. Build up.
91% Climactic battle begins.
95% Second climax (more thematic and character focused).
96% Denouement

Here’s what I notice:

Act 1 and Act 2 have some symmetry. The weakest part of both those chapters is the early middle in which the protagonist is dithering before the call to action. Act 1 is padded with scene setting and Act 2 is padded with the protagonist being love-struck and distracted from his quest. But even these weak parts are good because 1. the setting is novel and interesting and 2. the hero being distracted is itself a point of tension (the hero pays for it later on when the villain acquires the second key).

Act 3 is a different animal altogether. It opens with a bang as everything goes terribly wrong. It has some moments of hope and good tidings for the heroes, but these are mere necessities to make it possible for the heroes to have any chance at all in the final confrontation. The reader is reminded of the stakes and how much of an advantage the villain has.

Lastly, there’s a climactic battle and then the situation changes and there is a smaller, more personal climax. Both are exciting in different ways and this dual climax structure really worked for me as a reader.

I was inspired by Ready Player One to do more of my own writing and that’s some of the highest praise I can give it. I’ll end with a more detailed summary of the events in the book and where they appear (based on page number):

1-12 Hook. A dramatic change. Clear goal and stakes. Ends with another hook, a reveal that begs the question, “but how?”
13-67 Establishes sympathetic protagonist who is also clever. Shows protagonist’s friends. Shows protagonist’s enemies. Shows a day in the life of the protagonist.
67 Pivotal moment. Call to action.
67-115 Race to the first accomplishment. Friends and rivals and trials along the way.
115 Positive note at the end of action sequence.
116-47 Results of the action both bad and good. Villains making moves.
147 STAKES RAISED and bad shit happens. Villain is to be taken seriously.
148-166 Bad news all around for the heroes.
166 Leaving behind the old world. No going back now.
166-190 Distaction and side tracking. Hero is morose. Hero makes things worse with bad decisions.
190-207 Minor improvements to hero’s condition, but not there yet. Potential for change.
207 Call to action.
208-237 Villains are gaining power. Hero gets head back in the game, but makes no tangible progress.
238 DARKNESS Low point. Bad things happen for hero. Good things happen for villain. And hints that things get worse.
249 Glimmer of hope
255 Action and progress
266 Villains gain more ground, but the heroes have a plan.
269 Utter darkness. Insurmountable situation.
280 Reminder of stakes.
290 Good news: it was all part of plan. Bad news: villains are further along than anticipated and plan must be altered.
295-334 Action and escape. Build up to the final fight. To the climax.
340 Climactic battle.
345 Change in the situation. A new challenge. Hero is ill prepared.
360 Final accomplishment of the challenge through change in the hero. Makes use of theme.
360-372 Denouement


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