The first thing I tell prospective writers is ‘STOP! Stop writing!’
The exact opposite of what you usually hear.
They usually tell you to ‘write all the time.’ Well not here. There is far too much I need to teach you first, before you start writing your screenplay.
Nothing is more important than your screenplay’s structure! The entire movie hangs off of it. If your structure isn’t rock-
NEXT UP… THEME!
What the story is REALLY about.
Rarely stated explicitly.
It’s the undercurrent running beneath your story. Always there. Infecting everything.
And, even once you’ve already read through the rest of this site, there’s still far too much work to do before you even think of writing page 1 of your script.
Structuring your story is, by far, your most important task. And it’s a task that almost all young screenwriters ignore completely. They just sit down at the computer and start typing all willy-
There’s a reason why most professional painters start with a sketch or an outline! It gives them structure upon which to create their art. Well, it’s the same thing with screenplays. You need to know where the story is going -
In Hollywood, everything typically matters to the story. If you are watching a crime-
what structure it should have (don’t worry, I’ll go into more detail later):
The First Act is typically about 18 to 25 minutes long, give or take. It is followed by the Second Act, which is usually considerably longer than the First Act -
Let’s take a closer look at each of a screenplay’s three acts:
paperclip’s going to be important come the third act!
There’s no way in hell that a $100 million film is going to waste 20 seconds panning over to a paperclip if it isn’t immensely important.
My point is... You don’t have any time in a screenplay to go off on tangents -
The First Act is, as the name suggests, the first act in your screenplay. It’s where the audience learns who everyone is and connects with the main-
The First Act typically opens with the inciting incident (often without the protagonist present). In Star Wars, it’s the droids delivering the holographic distress call. In Armageddon, it’s the discovery of the asteroid. In every comic-
This scene or sequence should be exciting and edge-
Next, you’ll have to introduce the protagonist. How often have you seen an exciting scene to open a movie -
An important scene, which is often missing in modern screenplays would come next. You want the audience to connect with the protagonist, to see themselves in them. So, you want a scene which shows the protagonist is a good guy (or is funny, or punishes bad guys, or is honest and noble, or has honour, etc…).
Make the audience want to root for him or her! Give the audience a reason to care, to want the protagonist to win. One short scene near the beginning where the protagonist does something that makes the audience care about them and root for them is all you need.
The first act is known primarily for exposition. You’ve got to give the audience a ton of information and backstory -
After you’ve introduced your main-
Would you ever have to tell your mother who your brother is? No, this is for the audience’s benefit alone. The audience needs to know everyone’s name, and they can’t learn that information unless a character speaks it (or, of course, you have a close-
Once you’ve introduced the characters, you’ll probably want to get the plot moving along. Luckily, the inciting-
The First Act ends with what is known as the First Turning-
This is when your protagonist gets his quest or mission. It’s when the audience finds out what’s going on, what the movie’s really about. When someone asks you what your screenplay’s about and you say ‘it’s about a guy who has to do…’ -
In Tarkovsky’s Stalker, it’s when the characters enter the Zone. In The Martian, it’s when he’s stranded on Mars. In Titanic, it’s when the iceberg hits. In Witness, it’s when they go to the Amish farm. In Interstellar, it’s when he leaves Earth. Etc…
The Second Act is, by far, the most boring act. All the excitement seems to happen in the First Act and the Third Act. Which sucks, because those acts are a fraction of the size of the second act.
The Second Act is where the vast majority of your plot plays out (except for the climax, of course).
The end of the first act gave your protagonist his or her quest. Their mission. Whatever it is they have to do by the end of the movie in order to get what they want or ‘win’. If your story’s about a killer asteroid, the protagonist’s quest is to stop it. If the film’s about a bank heist, the protagonist’s quest is to steal the money.
The Second Act usually starts with the protagonist overwhelmed by his new quest. At a low-
And, actually, try to think of your story like a roller-
You want your screenplay to do the same. Make life miserable for your protagonist -
If you have a love-
IMPORTANT NOTE: The first and second turning points typically come with a raise in stakes (for the protagonist) and a change in scenery. In Stalker, they go from the safety of outside The Zone, to the danger of inside the zone (at the first turning point). In Titanic, they go from an unsinkable ship -
Many movies have a false-
The Second Act ends with the Second Turning Point. This is when your protagonist’s quest now seems impossible to accomplish. It’s when the bad-
In Stalker, it’s when they get to The Room and one of them has a bomb. Same with Armageddon. In that movie, the second turning point is when the last drill fails and their mission can now never be completed (until, of course, Ben Affleck comes flying over the horizon to save the day a few moments later). And not just that, but the antagonist is going to blow them all up too!
The stakes rise dramatically. Before the 2nd turning-
The setting goes from the surface of the asteroid to actually inside the hole (with the surface exploding everywhere). In Stalker, they go from being in a dangerous place -
The Third Act is, of course, where you wrap everything up. It culminates with the climax and ends with the denouement, right before the end credits roll.
Your protagonist should overcome his or her character-
If there’s a love-
The protagonist has an epic, drawn-
Now that the main-
The crowd cheers, finally accepting the main-