Buried beneath every well crafted story is structure. The structure of a screenplay gives shape and form to your story telling. It is not meant to limit your creativity but to help guide you in your writing.
The number one rule of story telling is the basis for the structure of screenplay: Always have a clear beginning, middle and end. In a screenplay this is accomplished through the traditional THREE ACT STRUCTURE: the SETUP, MAIN CONFLICT and RESOLUTION. These acts should be so distinct, that in a well told story, it is obvious where they begin and end.
- ACT I – This is where you set up your story, establish the situation and grab the readers’ attention. The following questions should be answered by the conclusion of Act I: Who is the story about? Where is it taking place? What is the characters motivation? Act I should make up approximately 25% of the entire script. Act I should end with a main conflict and continue into ACT II.
- ACT II – This is where matters are complicated for your character, conflicts rise into crisis. Most of the drama, conflict, action and story takes place here. Act II is the longest part of your story making up approximately 50% of the scripts entirety. Act II ends with the climatic conclusion.
- ACT III – This is where the resolution takes place. Loose ends are tied up. We can see how the climax has changed and affected the major characters of the story. Act III varies in length but is typically 25% of the story, depending on what the story requires.
The end of Act I fits perfectly into Act II, while the final climax of Act II moves us into the Resolution of Act III.
Within the Three Act’s there are six PLOT POINTS, or key events, that change or complicate the action. Plot points are the sequence of events that lead the main character toward their desired objective.
-CATALYST: Occurs during Act I, typically by page 10-15. Your story starts out in balance and the catalyst upsets the balance; thus giving your main character a problem, need, desire, goal, mission or challenge to overcome. This turmoil is what gives your story direction.
-BIG EVENT: Occurs at the end of Act I, typically by page 20-30. This is the event that changes the main characters life in a major way.
-PINCH: Takes place during Act II, typically half-way through your script (page 45-60). This is the next plot twist and the point of no return for your main character the point where motivation is strengthened and what they have to do is made perfectly clear
-CRISIS: Occurring during Act II, this event forces the crucial decision for the lead character. This is typically where it seems all is lost.
-SHOWDOWN: Occurring at the end of Act II and into the beginning of Act III, this is also known as the climax. Your central character faces off against their opposition for the final time.
-REALIZATION: Occurring during Act III and immediately after the showdown, or maybe even begin during it. This is where it is apparent that your central character has grown, changed or realized something.
This may be hard to visualize, so here are a few examples to help:
Thelma and Louise
Catalyst: Louise takes Thelma Fishing.
Big Event: Louise shoots and kills the guy who attacks Thelma.
Pinch: Louise says her final good-bye to Jimmy
Crisis: It is obvious - Thelma and Louise will die
Showdown: Thelma and Louise are pursued to the rim of the Grand Canyon. Realization: Together, Thelma and Louise found freedom from their lives.
Catalyst: General Maximus is told by Emperor Marcus Aurelius that he, not Commodus, will become Emperor of Rome and return it to the people.
Big Event: Maximus is captured and sold to Proximo where he becomes a Gladiator.
Pinch: Maximus heads to Rome where he is determined to win the crowd over in the hopes to come face to face with Commodus.
Crisis: Maximus is given his freedom by the Senate and attempts to escape Rome, but is caught and returned to captivity.
Showdown: In his final battle as a Gladiator, Maximus kills Commodus.
Realization: Rome will be returned to the people and in death Maximus is reunited with his family in his death.
Structure is essential for a well crafted story. But don’t let it block your creativity. Create believable characters, interesting
challenges and a story that ignites passion. If you are struggling with structure, let the story flow and in your rewrites you can bring more structure to your screenplay. You may find that a great story will fall into the correct structure all on its own. In conclusion, story structure is the essence of story telling, but structure needs a story to make it truly great.