Structure is Form
The structure of your screenplay is like the foundation of a house. It must be constructed with the right material in the correct order, strong enough to support all the necessary components of your script.
There is no paint-by-numbers, correct formula to create the perfect screenplay structure. One size does not fit all in screenplay writing. No structural model will be the right system for every movie.
But your script must have structure. Without structure, your story will collapse. Regardless of what structural model you use, your story, like all compelling stories, must:
- Have a beginning, middle, and end (regardless of the chronological order of events).
- Create a situation, add complications, and provide a conclusion.
The 3-Act Structure
Most successful screenwriters use a version of the three-act structure to create their story. First presented by Aristotle, the three-act structure has influenced drama for hundreds of years and is alive-and-kicking today. It is the most popular dramatic model. If you analyze a few of your favorite films, you’ll most likely find the three-act structure in action. Let’s take a look at the three divisions of the three-act structure.
Act I sets up the situation. The protagonist lives his “normal” life (which is defined by the individual story), but he has a fatal flaw. One day, there is a reversal of fortune brought on by his fatal flaw. His ‘normal’ life is disrupted by an incredible event that sends him on a journey.
Act II creates complications. Obstacles make it difficult for the protagonist to achieve his goal, which is solving the problem and righting the reversal. Eventually the protagonist finds enlightenment and learns how to fix the problem (often the protagonist is transformed, perhaps even altering his goal) but it’s too late – a catastrophic event keeps him from his goal. All appears to be lost.
Act III provides the conclusion. A second reversal occurs (often with help from an ally) which results in catharsis and the story is resolved.
This is a brief definition of the three acts. Now we will examine the elements contained in each act that will help you build your structure.
Create Your Story Blueprint
Create your story blueprint by noting each point of your plot that fits into the following structural elements. What event in your plot is the Point of Attack? What event is the Inciting Incident? What is your Crisis event? When you understand which event (or plot point) makes up each element, you have created the structure of your screenplay. You now have a clear road map to keep your writing on course and make sure your script arrives at the correct destination.
ACT I – THE SITUATION
The First Act is the set up where you will introduce the Protagonist/Hero (and reveal his fatal flaw) and the Antagonist/Villain, and poses the dramatic question. The inciting incident (what happens to your protagonist) and the first turning point (what he decides to do) create a major dramatic question. A compelling dramatic question arouses curiosity and suspense and engages the audience to stick around and find out the answer. (Will Luke Skywalker join the rebel forces, save Princess Leia and defeat the evil Empire?)
Within the first 30 pages of your script you will also convey the period (contemporary/past), the arena (where the story takes place) and often the “normal” balance of the protagonist’s life. Other important elements you need to establish are the tone, genre, and theme.
Point of Attack
The Point of Attack is where you choose to start the story on Page 1! It can be an unusual event, special occasion or a crisis. It should be intriguing enough to hook the viewer. The Godfather begins with a wedding. Star Wars launches with the rebel forces under attack from the evil Empire and Princess Leia sending a desperate message for help.
The Inciting Incident is the single event that sets the story in motion and forces the protagonist to act. It can occur anywhere in the first act and may be the same as the Point of Attack or the First Turning Point.
Call to Action
The First Act has set up a main character and a problem. The question becomes, “What is at stake and what will the protagonist do about it?” The hero has a dilemma - a difficult choice to make. The pros and cons, risks and rewards are presented. Will he answer the call to action? Obi Wan Kenobi implores Luke to join him in the resistance. Luke is compelled by Princess Leia’s holographic plea for help but he has too many responsibilities at home and refuses the call to action. (Luke is a “Reluctant Hero” – until he returns home to find his family slaughtered by storm troopers and vows to learn the ways of the Force with Obi Wan as his mentor.)
First Turning Point
The First Turning Point occurs at the Act break. After this beat, the Hero is thrust into a world that is new, risky, strange and in every way different from the status quo established in the first few pages. Luke leaves his ordinary world behind – and is thrust into a dangerous situation at the Mos Eisley Cantina – full of alien creatures deadly bounty hunters, and storm troopers – to join forces with a ‘wanted’ smuggler/pilot, Han Solo, and his Wookie co-pilot.
ACT II – COMPLICATIONS AND OBSTACLES
Act II is full of complications and obstacles - constantly testing the hero and raising the stakes. Act II also sees the subplot, or subplots, deepening. A subplot involves secondary characters with concerns outside the main dramatic question. The subplot eventually intersects with the main plot in a way that affects the protagonist and reinforces the theme and premise.
First Attempt to Solve the Problem
The Hero has a problem and he needs to solve it to achieve his goal. Whatever the problem is, he will attempt to solve it by the easiest and most direct route possible – and he will FAIL. This beat is about proving the problem can’t be solved by a simple logical method. It is a set up for the ensuing complications and obstacles.
There is no easy solution. The first attempt to solve the problem only results in making the problem worse. (In North by Northwest, Thornhill goes to the UN to try to solve the mystery of his abduction - he becomes indirectly involved in, and falsely accused of, the murder of a dignitary. Now, he’s wanted by the police!)
The protagonist has suffered innumerable obstacles, conflicts, and complications in his quest to achieve his goal. The action continues to escalate, raising the stakes and increasing dramatic tension. There may be some successes but they are always undone. The protagonist’s ‘world’ is unstable. By the MidPoint (or the point of no return), the Hero has moved from a passive to a more active relationship with the antagonist. The Hero is on the offensive and attempting to take charge of the situation. (In some stories, the MidPoint may represent a short-lived victory for the protagonist.)
The Villain is More Powerful than the Hero
The hero fights the good fight for his or her goal, but the antagonist is always more powerful (mentally, physically, or psychologically). Even in an internal conflict story, the antagonistic ‘forces’ will overpower the protagonist during this beat.
Crisis / Second Turning Point
The Second Turning Point and Crisis is perhaps the most identifiable and structurally important beats in the story (sometimes they are the same beat, sometimes they are separate beats). The Second Turning Point is where the worst thing that could possibly happen to the hero, happens, and he experiences a major setback. This occurs at the act break at the end of Act II and launches the story into Act III. It is the darkest moment when all hope seems lost.
The Crisis is where the Hero faces the ultimate emotional challenge. It is a decisive moment of the greatest magnitude. When all seems lost, will the hero have the strength to carry on? It’s a point of no return - where the Hero must find the resolve within him and risk everything to reach his goal. (The personal Crisis sometimes occurs early in Act III).
In some stories, the end of Act II also presents the answer to the dramatic question (the mystery is solved, the killer is caught, the conspiracy is unraveled.) In Se7en, at the end of Act II, the serial killer turns himself in at the police station. The dramatic question - “Will the detectives stop the serial killer?” - is answered. However, even though the dramatic question is answered, the story does not end here.
ACT III – THE CONCLUSION
Act III is the conclusion of the story. All sub-plots and loose ends are tied up. The story is resolved in such a way that is surprising yet inevitable, and above all, satisfying for the audience.
As the MidPoint so often represents a short-lived victory for the Hero, the end of Act II often represents a short-lived defeat. Enlightenment occurs at the beginning of Act III. It is where the protagonist finally understands how to defeat the antagonist. The goal is again possible. A good enlightenment should be something the protagonist (and the audience) could not have understood before enduring the conflicts and trials of Act II.
Run Up to the Climax
Now that the Hero is enlightened, he is renewed and ready to defeat the antagonist and achieve his goal. There’s no room for exposition or explanation in this section – the Hero must act or lose everything! The protagonist has figured out how to solve the problem and is now racing to prevent a catastrophe (whether internal or external).
The Climax is the final obstacle. It is the “Obligatory Scene,” where the Hero confronts the Antagonist in a final struggle. If the dramatic question was not answered at the end of Act II, then it is answered here.
After the Climax, there is a moment of catharsis and order is restored to world of the protagonist. This is the Resolution or Denouement and occurs in the last few pages of the script (or the last page of a script). An effective story needs only a brief resolution to end the screenplay - all the vital questions should already be answered by the culmination of the climax.
DIE HARD: ACT I
POINT OF ATTACK - John McClane arrives in Los Angeles from New York to visit his estranged wife and children (in an attempt at reconciliation) during Christmas.
INCITING INCIDENT – During a Christmas Eve office party, a group of "terrorists" seize the Nakatomi building where McClane’s wife works and take 60 employees hostage, including McClane’s wife, Holly. McClane, who was at the party, escapes being captured by slipping into the stairwell and going to another floor but remains trapped inside the building.
CALL TO ACTION – McClane immediately answers the call to action and begins formulating a plan to save his wife and the hostages.
FIRST TURNING POINT – “Terrorist” Hans Gruber kills Takagi and McClane is thrown into a dangerous situation.
DIE HARD: ACT II
FIRST ATTEMPT TO SOLVE THE PROBLEM – McClane sets off the fire alarm to notify 911 dispatchers of an emergency situation. But the “terrorists” are tapped into the system and notify emergency dispatch it is a false alarm. No help arrives. And now, the “terrorists” are aware of McClane’s presence and are determined to kill him.
COMPLICATIONS ENSUE - Two “terrorists” attack McClane. He manages to kill them and acquire one of their two-way radios and a gun. McClane uses the radio to contact emergency dispatch to report the situation – but the dispatcher doesn’t believe him and the “terrorists” hear his call. Now the brother of one of the ‘terrorists’ he killed is on a mission to take him out. Karl and two other “terrorist” chase McClane into an airshaft. Just before they are about to find him and kill him, the ‘terrorists’ retreat to the hostage area.
MIDPOINT – A patrol officer finally drives by the Nakatomi building but determines nothing is amiss. Just as the officer is driving away, McClane tosses a body onto the windshield of the police car and fires a volley of shots from a machine gun. Now he has their attention. The police are on their way to the building. A brief moment of victory.
THE VILLAIN IS MORE POWERFUL THAN THE HERO – Hans kills an employee named Ellis and the police blame McClane for the death. The "terrorists" blow up the SWAT truck and stop the FBI team from entering the building by hitting them with a hail of bullets. The bad guys are winning.
TURNING POINT / CRISIS - While looking for the detonators McClane acquired from one of his “terrorist” kills, Hans and McClane run into each other. Hans tricks McClane into believing he is an innocent hostage. McClane is attacked by Karl, loses the detonators to the "terrorists” and Hans gets away, only to take McClane’s wife, Holly, as a personal hostage.
DIE HARD: ACT III
ENLIGHTENMENT – McClane figures out that Hans plans to slip away with the stolen money by blowing up the roof of the Nakatomi building with the hostages (so the FBI will believe he and the other "terrorists" have died in the explosion).
RUN UP TO THE CLIMAX – McClane ascends to the roof and gets the hostages out of danger then sets out to find his wife, Holly. The roof blows up and McClane uses a fire hose to swing down the building and through the glass onto a lower floor.
CLIMAX - McClane confronts Hans and shoots him with a gun he has hidden and taped to his back. Hans crashes through a window and falls several stories to his death. McClane has killed the bad guys, and saved Holly and the hostages.
RESOLUTION / DENOUEMENT – McClane and his wife stumble out of the Nakatomi building, bruised and battered and hugging one another. Officer Powell shoots Karl dead, Holly punches out the annoying television reporter, and the limo-guy, Argyle, drives the couple off into the sunset.