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.
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.
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 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.
In 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 Inception, The 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.
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.
For 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.
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 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.
Ideally, 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.
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
Act 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.
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.
Act 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.