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How To Write A Screenplay – Screenplay Structure

So, you’ve come up with a film concept and you’ve got a theme that gives that concept a deeper meaning. You’ve also developed the characters to carry the theme. Finally, you have laid out a basic plot.

What’s next? … Structure.

Screenplay StructureScreenplay structure

Structure is the way in which your screenplay is organised.

It’s like baking cupcakes. The theme, characters, and plot are the ingredients. The structure is the baking tray that gives the cupcakes their shape. Without it, they may taste good (or not), but they’ll look like a mess.Correct Screenplay Structure

It’s the same with a screenplay. I’ve read scripts that were strong in terms of theme, characterization, and plot. Unfortunately, they were poorly structured, which meant that while I could appreciate the individual elements, the overall script fell short of its true potential.

Three Act Structure & Four Act Structure

The most common form of movie script structure is the Three Act Structure. It consists of a beginning (Act 1), a middle (Act 2), and an ending (Act 3).

Roughly speaking, Act 1 takes up the first quarter of the script, Act 2 takes up the middle half, and Act 3 covers the final quarter.

This makes Act 2 the longest by far. As a result, it is usually sub-divided. In other words, the Three Act Structure should more accurately be called the Four Act Structure!

For a 100-page screenplay, the page breakdown would be:

Act 1 = pages 1-25
Act 2.1 = pages 26-50
Act 2.2 = pages 51-75
Act 3 = pages 76-100

If your Act 1 is a couple of pages short or your Act 3 is a couple of pages long, it’s no big deal – assuming your script is good! Similarly, perfect structure won’t save a stinker.

ACT 1

Act 1 is the beginning of your story. In the first few pages, you need to set up your protagonist and the world that he or she inhabits.

In Logan, for instance, the script quickly establishes this is an older, more rough-around-the-edges version of Wolverine. The script also reveals that this is a world in which most of the mutants are dead and where the X-Men are long gone.

You also need to set the script’s tone as early as possible. Again, let’s use Logan as an example. The use of explicit violence and bad language signals that this is no standard PG-13 superhero movie. This is a revisionist R-rated tale.

Big BangIn many screenplays, an extended opening action sequence is used to efficiently cover many of the above points. Off the top of my head, this is the approach used in the Indiana Jones films, the Daniel Craig James Bond films, some of the Star Wars films, along with InceptionThe Dark Knight, and Avengers: Age Of Ultron.

Other genres have their equivalents. A suspenseful thriller might start by setting up some sort of mystery, which raises questions and piques our interest. A Farrelly Brothers-style comedy may open with a gross-out gag. And so on.

Nor do you have to open with a bang – but it does make things easier. Either way, the opening needs to suck us straight into the story.

Once you’ve got the opening few pages done, you should introduce your main theme. Typically, this occurs during the first major dialogue scene. It often takes the form of a question voiced by a character. For example, an older character might ask, “Are young people capable of wisdom?” The rest of the script will then attempt to answer this question. It will probably reach one of two conclusions: that young people are superficial, stupid and incapable of wisdom, or alternatively, that wisdom has nothing to do with age and that older people are sanctimonious idiots.

Of course, the theme doesn’t have to be posed as a question. It could be introduced as a statement of fact, i.e. “Young people are incapable of wisdom.” The script then goes on to prove or disprove this statement.

The second half of Act 1 begins to focus on plot.

If this is a ‘mission’ movie, then the mission should be handed out halfway through Act 1. Having received the mission, the protagonist will then assemble his or her team, come up with a plan, and set off.

Time for another example: Saving Private Ryan. It starts with the big bang mentioned above, and then Tom Hanks’ Captain Miller receives his mission, which leads to him collecting his men together and heading off to execute said mission.Mission Movie

Under the hood, most films are mission movies in some shape or form. Take Dumb And Dumber. Lloyd meets a cute girl, whom he falls for. She then accidentally leaves her bag in his limo. When Lloyd discovers the bag, he decides to travel across the country to return it. In other words, it’s a self-appointed mission. He then picks up his sidekick, Harry, and together they begin their journey.

Obviously, not all movies are mission movies. I’m just saying that it’s far more common then you might realize.

Introducing the stakes

The second half of Act 1 also tends to contain some sort of debating point, in which the characters discuss the likely outcome of whatever it is they intend to do.

Movie StakesFor instance, soldiers might contemplate the odds of successfully carrying out a risky military assault. Cops may talk about the challenges of a tricky new narcotics investigation. Athletes could discuss their formidable rivals in some upcoming sporting event. A jilted teenager might ponder the difficulties of winning back his estranged girlfriend.

What all these examples have in common is that they’re building up ‘the stakes’. In simple terms, the stakes are simply the thing or things that are at risk. In some genres, the protagonist’s life is at stake. In more low-key screenplays, the stakes might be the loss of the protagonist’s reputation, public humiliation, or the failure to achieve a cherished dream.

Typically, Act 1 now ends with the protagonist setting off on his or her adventure, whether figurative or literal.

Act 2

In his book Save The Cat, Blake Snyder refers to the first half of Act 2 as the “fun and games” of the script, and the second half as “the bad guys close in”. This is an excellent way of putting it.

Fun and games

What Snyder means by “fun and games” is all the stuff that made you want to go and watch the movie in the first place.

Movie trailers tend to draw heavily on moments taken from this part of the film. Take Independence Day… Act 1 deals with the arrival of the aliens and sets up our human protagonists. The first half of Act 2 then focuses on the aliens launching their attack. Cities are destroyed, famous landmarks are obliterated, and US fighter pilots are defeated. Anyone who went to see Independence Day back in 1996 did so because of these sequences, all of which were marketed heavily in the trailer. And it’s not just disaster movies that take this approach. In comedies, many of the best gags, the ones that the film is remembered for (like the ‘sperm hair’ gag in There’s Something About Mary), come during this stage.

By the way, at this point of the script, you don’t want to focus too much on your main theme – at least not explicitly. Instead, you need to be developing your characters, who of course, are carrying the theme for you. In particular, you can explore a character’s backstory, revealing more of their true nature. You can also shade relationships between key characters.

Regarding plot, this will normally take the form of various challenges that the characters must deal with. There may be a few failures, but there should also be some successes. The characters need to be making at least some progress, even if it’s two steps forward and one step back.

The midpoint

The first half of Act 2 takes us to the script’s midpoint. Something particularly dramatic needs to mark this crossover from Act 2.1 to Act 2.2.

In a war film, a major battle might be fought. In a police drama, there could be some sort of showdown between the cops and the robbers. Of course, depending on the genre, the midpoint doesn’t need to involve physical carnage. In a teen romance, this could be where the jilted boyfriend (temporarily) wins back his lost love.

Midpoint VictoryIdeally, the midpoint should end with a victory of some sort for our protagonist. This isn’t written in stone. The midpoint could be a downer. But for reasons that I’ll explain in the next section, ‘upper’ midpoints tend to work better in most screenplays.

The bad guys close in

Up until now, our protagonist has enjoyed some victories. But from here on in, the set-backs start to pile up.

In a cop drama, where the bad guys are literal, perhaps our protagonist has dealt with some of Mr. Big’s cronies and disrupted his illegal shenanigans. But now Mr. Big is really pissed off and decides to up the ante. As a result, he sends his thugs to terrorize the protagonist’s family.The Bad Guys Close In

In other genres, the bad guys will be figurative. In the teen romance, our jilted boyfriend has won back his estranged girlfriend. But now things start to go wrong. Perhaps he allows his bad habits to return – the same bad habits that resulted in his girlfriend leaving him in the first instance. Or perhaps he discovers that over the past few months the girlfriend has been seeing someone else. In this case, the boyfriend’s jealousy could be a ‘bad guy’. Alternatively, the other chap that the girlfriend has been dating could show up and cause problems.

Ultimately, the second half of Act 2 involves the protagonist being on the ropes: they’re struggling and the fight is slipping away. This is why you may want the midpoint to end on a high – because if it doesn’t, the second half of Act 2 could feel relentlessly downbeat.

The darkest moment

The Darkest MomentAct 2 ends with a knockout blow that brings the protagonist on the verge of outright defeat. This is often called something like “the darkest hour” or “the darkest moment”. It represents the low point of your script. Frequently, some beloved secondary character either dies or appears to die. You know the cliches… The likable best friend who had all the coolest lines. Or the sympathetic spouse who provided the protagonist with an emotional anchor. Or the wise mentor who taught the protagonist everything he or she holds dear.

Of course, the darkest moment doesn’t have to involve a death. In a corporate-set drama, this is where the protagonist loses his or her job and professional reputation. And in our teen romance, this is where the boyfriend loses his girlfriend all over again – and there’s apparently no chance of winning her back. As for buddy-buddy films, both comedic and dramatic, this is where the two friends come to blows and decide to go their separate ways. Anyway, you get the idea.

Act 3

If you have come up with a strong concept, if you have developed great themes and characters to drive your plot, and if you have structured said plot correctly, then Act 3 should be a cakewalk! Hell, all you need to do is switch on your computer and let it write itself. Still, that’s a lot of ifs…

The reality is that Act 3 is often the weakest part of many scripts. Rather than providing an exciting climax it just fizzles out. Sometimes this is down to sloppiness on the writer’s part. Often, however, he or she has simply made a genuine mistake in one of the other areas that I’ve listed – which is understandable given that writing a screenplay is damn hard.

For instance, those themes may not be nearly as deep as you thought they were. Or perhaps they’re too deep and therefore intangible. Same goes for the characters. Alternatively, maybe a key plot-point has been overlooked or the stakes introduced in Act 1 weren’t set up properly, which means that the climactic sequence lacks context. It could be any one of these things or a dozen others.

Just remember that if your Act 3 isn’t working, there’s a strong chance the problem isn’t with Act 3, but with something that came earlier in the script.

Inevitability

InevitabilityAct 3 should follow your story through to its inevitable conclusion. I say inevitable… I think the ending of most decent scripts is one of inevitability. A script is no different to real life, where our personal strengths and weaknesses define our success or failure. For instance, if you’re a difficult and argumentative person, there’s a far greater likelihood that your relationships with other people won’t end well.

However, the difference between a decent screenplay and a great screenplay is that in the latter, although the ending is inevitable, it doesn’t feel inevitable.

Clint Eastwood’s classic Unforgiven is a good example. The story shows us that William Munny is the ultimate cold-blooded killer. He has a gift for killing. As a result, we should know that he’s going to win pretty much any fight he walks into (the fact that he’s played by Clint heightens this likelihood). Yet when he strides into the bar for his showdown with Gene Hackman’s Little Bill, we’re totally caught up in the emotion of the story and haven’t got a clue how things will pan out.

Act 3 mechanics

In terms of a checklist, Act 3 needs to go something like this:

The protagonist comes to terms with the darkest moment. They pull themselves together, reevaluate the challenge, come up with a clever idea to set things right, and then kick some bad guy ass, literally or figuratively.

In the cop drama, this could involve arresting Mr. Big – or putting a bullet in his head. For the war film, it’s that heroic last stand in which most of the good guys die, but in doing so, they win the war. In our teen romance, perhaps the long-suffering boyfriend wins back his lost love for a second (and hopefully) permanent time. Or maybe he realizes she wasn’t right for him and instead meets someone more appropriate.

Breaking the rules

So that’s the basics of film script structure. Now obviously, these rules don’t apply to every screenplay ever written. In fact, many of the best writers go out of their way to break these rules, like it’s a badge of honor. Sometimes they don’t quite pull it off… and sometimes they end up writing a masterpiece.

But remember, before you go turning the rules into scrambled eggs, you first need to know what they are in the first place!

That’s it for now. If you have any questions or thoughts, I’d love to hear them – so feel free to leave a comment below.

Best, al

14 Comments

  1. This article is very informative I had no idea writing a screen play required so much attention to detail.
    You detail the steps involved and I like the examples of Logan & Unforgiven.

    The examples help pull it the content all together for me and I am glad I came across this content.

    After reading this I am confident that I could in time write a screen play of my own. Thanks for walking me through the process.

    • Hey Alexander,

      Really glad you enjoyed the article. Yes, Logan is an example of how Hollywood can still throw up some pleasant surprises. As for Unforgiven, in my opinion we’re talking about a great filmmaker operating at the top of his game. A bone fide masterpiece.

      When it comes to writing a screenplay of your own, you should definitely give it a try at some point. It’s extremely challenging, but also amazingly satisfying. 

      All the best,

      al

  2. Hi, Al,

    Your in-depth breakdown of how professional screenplay writing is created is marvelously informative. It gave me a more clear view as to exactly why poorly-constructed screenplays that somehow manage to make their way into film production, fall flat. From a film viewer’s perspective, it’s hard to put one’s finger on just why that happens. But after following your logic on the specifics, it makes perfect sense.

    I can appreciate the art and talent that goes into effective screenplay writing. Though I have never written one myself, I worked for the Director’s Guild in LA some time ago and met many would-be writers (with their obligatory screenplay under their arms) whose egos seemed to prevent them from accomplishing the goals they set for themselves. They would have benefitted more from learning from your screenwriting skills than letting their personal powerplays get in their own way.

    As a proofreader of screenplays during those days, I now have a greater appreciation of just why some works were mediocre and others excelled, thanks to your remarkable explanation of the technique and how the various aspects should come together. I also saw many a script doing closed captioning for the hearing impaired. Believe me, some of those screenplays made me cringe!

    I also used an earlier version of Final Draft to create screenplays for others. I, too, experienced some of the snafus you mentioned – especially the frustrating scenario of the spell check feature you described. But I would certainly have to agree that Final Draft raised the bar high for screenplay writers, and I enjoyed the mechanics of the actual program, in any version. So thank you for going into such detail of Final Draft 10 for up-and-coming screenplay writers and pros alike.

    There certainly is a lot more to screenplay writing than meets the eye, and you give an amazing insight into that world. I especially love your use of graphics, which help to depict each major point. Thanks for sharing your amazing skills with the world, Al.

    Keep up your great work!
    Priscilla

    • Hi Priscilla,

      Thank you so much for your kind words and for taking the time to read – it’s really appreciated. 

      It sounds like you’ve had a fair bit of experience in the movie industry and a lot of what you say really resonates – particularly when you mentioned the would-be writers with “their obligatory screenplay under their arms”. That brought a smile to my face. Nowadays it’s all electronic, but when I first started my career, I remember it was still a pretty common sight 😉

      Yes, so many young writers can be very precious about their work and are convinced they’re going to be the next William Goldman. It’s quite sad, because some of them are genuinely talented; if they just buckled down and did the work, they might achieve great things. Then again, it’s a cruel industry – on the one hand, it flatters writers and thus encourages the inflated egos, only to then put a needle in them.

      Anyway, once again, many thanks.

      Best, al

  3. I’ve always been curious about the process of screenplay writing, and amazed by it. I used to think it was as simple as just writing down a story like you would tell it in person but man was I wrong. The more I thought about it the more I realized all the intricacies involved in making a story come together. It’s incredible! Thanks for explaining all the bits and parts so well.

    xx

    Helen

    • Hi Helen, glad you enjoyed the article. Yes, from the outside, screenwriting can seem simple. However, there is no such thing as an easy script – they all bring their own unique challenges. Sometimes you can write a script in a few months, sometimes it can take a year plus, and sometimes you just have to accept that you’re flogging a dead horse and just walk away. I’ve had my fair share of those 😉

  4. Al, this post was so easy to follow. I mean that not just from an entertainment perspective (though it was entertaining!), but from an information perspective. The steps are clearly laid out; the examples are both current and relevant; and the graphics are well placed. I see the value in this post not simply for screen plays but for other forms of writing. Many thanks for your contribution!

    • Hi Randene, thank you so much – both for taking the time to read the article and for your kind words. Although I’ve been writing for years, this is the first time that I’ve tried my hand at a screenwriting guide, so I’m really pleased that my points are coming across.

      Best, al

  5. These are a lot of great tips! You really showed what is good and what to do when working on your screenplay. This is so helpful, thank you so much! I have a question with openings. You say you should start off with a bang, but don’t necessarily have to. If I wanted to bring the audience in a different way how would I go about doing it? Without any bangs. Thanks again for the awesome article!

    • Hi Brianne, thanks so much for reading. 

      The bang opening often works well because it’s efficient and helps suck you right into the script. In action-type projects, it also buys you time. You’ve got a big set-piece out of the way and don’t have to worry about another one until early in Act 2. Instead, you can focus on more interesting things, such as characterisation.

      Now obviously the bang opening isn’t appropriate for every type of film. For instance, I wouldn’t use it for a slow-burning thriller, an intellectual drama, or a gentle comedy. 

      There are a million and one ways to open these sorts of stories, and it’s hard to answer without further details. However, there are a few general points to keep in mind:

      1. Your script should start as late as possible in the story. So let’s say your protagonist experienced some sort of trauma in their past, which has gone on to define them as a human being in the present day. In that situation, I would open in the present and then reveal the original trauma (either through dialogue or flashback) later in the script. You want to get into the main thrust of your story as quickly as possible. Exposition and backstory can be seeded into the script in smaller chunks. 

      2. I say that you want to get into the main thrust of your story as quickly as possible. However, it shouldn’t be rushed. It’s a balancing act. It often takes readers a few pages to get into the flow, so try not to serve up anything too deep and heavy right at the start, otherwise it might not register. It’s also best to avoid lengthy dialogue scenes early on as it’s hard to grab someone’s attention with a lot of talk.

      3. One good way to open a script is by showing your protagonist’s daily routine prior to the drama. This helps add context and makes the character more accessible. But as mentioned above, try to keep dialogue to a minimum. For instance, having them pause to exchange a few lines with the next-door neighbour is fine; but no Shakespearean soliloquies just yet!

      Hope that helps.

      Best, al

  6. Hi, Al!
    I seldom write a screenplay, but you recommend us an interesting way to write a screenplay. Since I do not have good organization skills, I think to write a screenplay just like writing a poem at the beginning. Afterwards, I find that write the screenplay can let me step by step to follow. I would recommend my friends who play drama to read your article!

  7. Hi Al,

    I really like your comparison to the cupcake and the baking tray. That’s a very clear way to explain structure.
    Your use of examples to show the layout of the different acts is very effective. By the way, I love the movie “Saving Private Ryan”.
    Just like in songwriting there are some standard song forms, like verse, verse, chorus, bridge, verse, there are many songs that break away from the norm and use a completely non standard form, just like you mention near the end of your article about not always following the normal movie layout.
    I really enjoyed this article. It would b very helpful to an aspiring screenplay writer.

    Ray

    • Hey Ray, many thanks and glad you enjoyed the article. 

      Yes, for sure, once you know the rules, no matter the art form, then they are there to be broken. That’s where we often find the true greatness 😉

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