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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.

CORRECT SCREENPLAY STRUCTURE

Nothing is more important than your screenplay’s structure! The entire movie hangs off of it. If your structure isn’t rock-solid, you are doomed from the get-go. We’ll show you proper Hollywood structure.

NEXT UP…  THEME!


What the story is REALLY about.

Rarely stated explicitly.

It’s the undercurrent running beneath your story. Always there. Infecting everything.

BACK “The four cornerstones of character, on which the structure of this nation was built, are:   initiative, imagination, individuality and independence!” - Eddie Rickenbacker 04

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-nilly, hoping a structure will just magically form itself, resulting in a great film.

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 - exactly - before you can start crafting scenes. With a screenplay, you only have around 100 pages to get a hell of a lot of information across to the viewer. There is almost no room for anything extraneous. That’s why Pulp Fiction was so ground-breaking. For one of the first times ever, the director held shots a lot longer than he needed to. Showed things that didn’t really matter to the story. It was unheard of.

In Hollywood, everything typically matters to the story. If you are watching a crime-mystery and the camera pans over to a paperclip on the dead guy’s desk - you can guarantee that that

what structure it should have (don’t worry, I’ll go into more detail later):

Hollywood films almost always follow a story-structure known as the Three Act Structure.

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 - which itself is followed by the Third Act (similar in length to the the First Act, but typically at least 5 minutes longer). When I say ‘every Hollywood film follows the three act structure,’ I mean literally every one. So, if you don’t know that structure backwards and forwards, you’re never going to make it in Hollywood as a writer. Good thing I’m here to teach you!

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 - or write stream-of-consciousness style. You have a whole bunch of things you have to shoe-horn into your script - and nowhere near enough pages to do it. Therefore, absolutely everything needs to be important. Nothing extraneous. Every word finely-crafted and chosen for a reason. If something isn’t important, you need to remove it from the script and give yourself back that space, so you can use it on something that is important. For instance, let’s take a quick look at all the things you need to include in your screenplay and

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-character.

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-book movie, it’s something pretty cool showing off the superheroes’ powers. In Scream, it’s the psycho-killer killing Drew Barrymore.

This scene or sequence should be exciting and edge-of-your-seat for the audience. Hopefully it should reinforce the screenplay’s theme (and perhaps introduce the antagonist or some other important character or characters).

Next, you’ll have to introduce the protagonist. How often have you seen an exciting scene to open a movie - then an alarm goes off and the protagonist wakes up and gets out of bed? Your protagonist’s introduction should be a lot more interesting and memorable! Never settle for the usual cliche.

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 - and you’ve got to give it to them quickly. As movies have evolved over the last hundred and twenty years, the first act seems to be getting shorter (along with our attention-spans I presume). Today, the typical first act is only about 20 minutes long, so that doesn’t give you much time to get a hell of a lot of information across to the viewer.

After you’ve introduced your main-character, you’ll also have to introduce a lot of your supporting characters. Ever notice how the first 10 minutes of most movies involves the characters all walking around calling each other by their first names? This is why. How often have you seen a character say to their mother ‘Where is my brother Billy today?!’

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-up of a name-tag or something). And, there’s a famous rule-of-thumb that it takes three repetitions for information to stick with people - so, if you want to get any important information (like the main-character’s name) across to the audience, you’ll probably want to mention that information in at least three different places in your script.

Once you’ve introduced the characters, you’ll probably want to get the plot moving along. Luckily, the inciting-incident probably started you off.

The First Act ends with what is known as the First Turning-Point.

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…’ - what he has to do is the first turning point.

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…

FORWARD Structuring Your Screenplay The 1st Act
The 2nd Act

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-point.

And, actually, try to think of your story like a roller-coaster, like a series of ups and downs for your protagonist. Roller-coasters aren’t any fun if they just go straight. They aren’t any fun if they just go up, or just go down. No, they are only fun when they go up and down, up and down.

You want your screenplay to do the same. Make life miserable for your protagonist - then, give him a (small) victory - then take it all away again. Constantly up and down, up and down. Put him on the verge of victory - only to make the agony of near-certain defeat feel that much worse.

If you have a love-story, most of it will play out in the second-act. In fact most of your story will play out in the second act.

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 - to a sinking ship. In Armageddon, they go from a drill-rig with no killer-asteroid to NASA and certain-extinction. So, your Second Act should have higher stakes for the protagonist than the First Act and come with a new setting.

Many movies have a false-victory or a false-defeat at roughly half-way through the Second Act. If they do, it’s usually the opposite of what happens at the Second Turning-Point (if the second turning-point is a false-defeat, the second act would have a false-victory and vice versa).

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-guys show up, armed to the teeth, looking for blood. It’s when the Earth’s last hope fails and all is lost. It’s when the main-character finds out that the bad guy is really his best friend the cop.

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-point, they just had to worry about a killer-asteroid - afterwards they had to worry about a killer-asteroid and an insane guy with a nuke!

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 - to being in a dangerous place with a giant bomb.

The 3rd Act

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-flaw, thereby satisfying their character-arc and finally allowing them the chance to succeed in their goal.

Sub-plots should all be wound up by now.

If there’s a love-story, the couple should probably have broken up and then just gotten back together before now. And, everything should, pretty much, be wrapped up - except for the final kiss right before the end credits.

The protagonist has an epic, drawn-out final-battle with the Antagonist, stopping of course, for multiple long speeches/dialogues (that, presumably, explain the antagonist’s motivation in greater detail).

Now that the main-character has overcome his flaw, he’s finally able to defeat the antagonist and claim victory for his people. If he hadn’t overcome that flaw, the climax would have gone very different!

The crowd cheers, finally accepting the main-character as one of them. He kisses the girl and they live happily ever after (denouement).

The First Turning-Point - The last scene of your first act, when your protagonist chooses his quest The Second Turning-Point - the last scene of the second act The Climax - the conclusion of your story-line, the ending Related Articles: How to Write a Screenplay: Welcome to SCREENPLAY.today - We'll teach you how to write your very own Hollywood-style script or screenplay - for free! SCREENPLAY.today Online Screenwriting Course - Learn How To Write a Top-Quality Script for a Film or Movie - FREE!