Screenwriting and Story Structure

If you’re new to screenwriting or thinking about getting started in the craft, learning the fundamentals of story structure are key to establishing a solid foundation.

Understanding the basics will ensure you’re on the right path before you even begin to write. Certain story elements called “plot points” must be incorporated in the story and fall at specific times within the screenplay to keep the story advancing smoothly. It will also be easier for an audience to stay interested in your story and understand what is happening in front of them.

Stick to a three act formula – act I, II and III, otherwise known as setup, conflict and resolution.
Keep the script to a 120 pages in length. Syd Field, author of Screenplay and The Screen Writer’s Workbook, has outlined a paradigm that most screenplays follow. According to Field, screenplays follow a three-act structure, meaning the standard screenplay can be divided into three parts.

The first act is where all the major characters of the story are introduced, plus the world where they live in, and the conflict that will move the story forward. Everything in the hero’s everyday life appears in balance at the beginning of the hero’s journey. Then something happens called the inciting incident. This is what throws things out of balance, giving the hero a new desire, mission or goal.

Act I comprises the first quarter of the screenplay. (A 2 hour movie, Act I would last approximately 30 minutes.)

What happens in Act I (Setup)?

Exposition – the part of a story that introduces the characters, shows some of their interrelationships, and places them within a time and place.

This part of the story introduces the main character, the dramatic premise, and the dramatic situation.

Main character – (Hero) the person in the story who has a need/objective to fulfill and whose actions drive the story

Dramatic premise – what the story’s about

Dramatic situation – the circumstances surrounding the action

Inciting Incident – an event that sets the plot of the film in motion. It occurs approximately halfway through the first act.

The “Plot Point”–According to Field, the three acts are separated by two plot points. A plot point, often called a reversal, is an event that thrusts the plot in a new direction, leading into a new act of the screenplay.

Plot Point #1, which leads into Act II, is the moment when the hero takes on the problem.

The second act is by far the longest and for some screenwriters, Act II is the hardest one to write. Act II is also the development stage of the story. This is where the paramount part of the story takes place. The characters are faced with more conflict, challenges known as progressive complications. This leads to the end of act II, the “crisis”; the place in the story where everything that can go wrong, goes wrong.

Act II comprises the next two quarters of the film. (A 2 hour movie, Act II would last approximately 60 minutes.)

What happens in Act II (Confrontation)?

Obstacles–In the second act, the main character encounters obstacle after obstacle that prevent him from achieving his dramatic need.

First Culmination – a point just before the halfway point of the film where the main character seems close to achieving his or her goal/objective. Then, everything falls apart, leading to the midpoint.

Midpoint – a point approximately halfway through the film where the main character reaches his/her lowest point and seems farthest from fulfilling the dramatic need or objective.

The “Plot Point” – According to Field, the three acts are separated by two plot points. A plot point, often called a reversal, is an event that thrusts the plot in a new direction, leading into a new act of the screenplay.

The last act, Act III presents the final confrontation in the story; the hero decides that he/she can go on, usually with greater resolve because he/she solved the inner problem that was holding them back. Thus, showing us the ultimate climax followed by the dénouement. This act is generally the shortest in length and must resolve the story one way or another. The protagonist must go head-to-head with the villain and either achieves his or her goal or fails. Think showdown then conclusion.

Act III comprises the final quarter of the film. (A 2 hour movie, Act III would be the final 30 minutes.)

What happens in Act III (Resolution)?

Climax (Second Culmination) – The point at which the plot reaches its maximum tension and the forces in opposition confront each other at a peak of physical or emotional action.

Denouement – The brief period of calm at the end of a film where a state of equilibrium returns.

When you think of the story’s line of events, they can be broken down into three parts. If your story structure has a solid foundation, you’ll have a much better chance of having your work read and eventually accepted. If the reader can relate to the main character in some way, your screenplay is likely to generate interest and leave a good impression.

It is believed that 98% of all the screenwriters fail. Why the others succeed is something to explore if you want to be part of the 2%.

Creativity comes from an open mind; good work is generated from a steady hand.

–          David Spies

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4 Responses to Screenwriting and Story Structure

  1. David,
    I agree that structure and correct formatting are essential elements of a good screenplay and professional readers will discount your screenplay, especially for formatting, before they get beyond the first page. Although you can format on Word I would highly recommend purchasing screenwriting software such as Final Draft or Movie Magic Screenwriter. With regard to structure there are several ways to approach it.

    Writing a treatment is one. A treatment can be between 10 and 15 pages. In the treatment you basically tell the story. This can help organize your thoughts and follow the arcs of your characters. This only works if you are beginning with a well thought out story. If the story is in the concept stages another helpful tool is an outline. This is very basic and only covers the key elements of your story.

    Whatever you do make sure you begin with a title and a log line. The log line will more than likely keep you on track as you write. For instance; “Robin Hood” – “An English Nobleman turns outlaw to fight the evil prince and save the kingdom”.

    Most importantly write. Write first, edit later. Don’t let thoughts of formatting or structure hinder your writing. You can address all that in the rewrite.

    • David Spies says:

      Hi Michael,
      I’m in agreement that screenwriting software is a recommended tool for any promising screenwriter; Final Draft has been my program of choice.

      There are several things that a screenwriter can do to help them prepare to write their screenplay. You made some excellent points in regards to approaching story structure. I do find it very helpful to begin with an outline of a story, and then creating a logline and a synopsis. However, I will not begin writing a story unless I know how it will end. Generally I know the ending before I have crafted the beginning.

      A writer definitely doesn’t want the mechanics of screenwriting to hinder their creative talent; however, it’s a good idea to understand the basics of structure to make the process that much smoother.
      A great technique in any writing is “freewriting.” Without notice, your muse will be present, an idea will strike and you’ll put pen to paper. I find this is the best way to get the most creative ideas scribbled out before they’re lost. You must allow your passion to be your motivation. There will always be plenty of time for structure later. Let the inspiration flow and your creativity will take shape.

  2. Hey David – yes, agree that it’s useful to know all of the above terms – simply because they’ll be thrown at your from time to time and you don’t want to look like an idiot when this stuff comes up in conversations.

    But at the same time I also always worry about all of the above – not for myself but for every newbie out there. The how-to books and the respective gurus can inhibit instead of inspire. They can put the fear into newbies instead of motivating them. So – to all newbies – know the terms, get that out of the way – then write, write, write! If you have a love for film, if you’ve watched them all your life, if you’ve drowned in them – then just pick up the corresponding scripts – read them, analyze them, learn from them – forget the terms, focus on the stories, on your passion – go write!

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