Screenwriting

Structuring a screenplay

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Beginning, middle and end

Let's start with how to structure a script. Stories usually have a beginning, middle and an end, and this makes it easy to break a script into three parts, or ‘acts’. But what usually happens in each act?

In the beginning, we are introduced to our character in their normal world. It could be as normal as sitting on the couch watching TV. But then something has to happen. A problem needs to occur, or a goal needs to be set to set the story in motion and spur our character into action.

In the middle the character must try and solve a problem and or achieve their goal in front of them. However, they will encounter challenges and obstacles along the way.

By the end the character will have solved the problem or achieved their goal. They usually learn new skills or a 'life lesson' along the way. All is resolved, but the normal world is not quite the same following their journey. It’s different because of the change that has occurred within the character or the world. 

Activity

Open the three act structure document below. It has the three acts of a project we've called The Time Machine all out of order. Your task is to re-structure the plot points so the story makes sense.

The Pixar method

To kick start your own story, try this method used by Pixar. It's helpful in sketching out what might happen across the beginning, middle and end of your story.

There was once a character called ____________ Each day __________ until one day__________.

Because of that, this happened_________________ And then, this happened_________________

Until finally _____________.

Quickly fill out the blanks above using the example of The Time Machine. How well does it fit?

Now, using the simple story structure template below, brainstorm ideas and plan your own short script. This doesn't have to be your final project, it can just be an exercise for now. 

Structuring key points and moments

Now you've got an idea for a script, time to flesh out in more detail what happens in your three acts. We're going to focus on seven structure points used by many screenwriters. Though these structures are used in feature-length films, you can also apply them to short films. Just be aware that in a short film you might not fit all these points in as well as a feature-length film might.

Also, our main character is called a protagonist, and a protagonist doesn't just feature in a story, they help drive it forward along with the plot. Sometimes things just happen yes, but it's more interesting if the protagonist's decisions affect the story. 

Set up

This is the start of the story, before anything has happened. We use the set-up to introduce the world and the protagonist, and what the world is like to begin with.

Inciting incident

This is the event that sets the story in motion. It’s something that makes the protagonist sit up and pay attention. It’s their call to adventure. Sometimes, this is called the 'hook'.

First act turn

This is the point where the protagonist stands on the threshold of their adventure. They decide to take the challenge to leave their ordinary world, propelling us into the new world. The ‘new world’ might be as small as going to the haunted house next door, or as big as traveling into a volcano. It doesn't need to be a physical place, the 'new world' could be an uncharted social or emotional world. 

Midpoint

This is the middle of the story or the halfway point. At the midpoint, something might change; the protagonist may learn something new, face a new problem or change direction on their journey. Things are not going so well, but there’s no going back.

Lowest point

This is when the protagonist has lost their way. They feel like giving up. Sometimes this is called the ‘dark night’.

Climax

The protagonist picks themselves up and faces the last challenge.

Resolution

The protagonist triumphs, the normal world is restored, and everything is as it should be. However the world isn't exactly how it used to be. Something has changed in the world or how the protagonist sees it.

There are different theories about a protagonist's journey through these three acts, one of those is called the hero's journey and you can find out more in this video essay What Makes a Hero.

Look at the advanced structure worksheet below and fill it out with your own story. Don't forget to identify the theme for your story.

Once you have this structure, this will make writing your script much easier because have planned all the key moments from beginning to end.

Identifying the theme

Before you go any further, delve into your theme. Themes are ideas that are explored in a story or film. Remeber, theme goes beyond plot. That's because the plot is what happens in your story, whereas the theme is what your story is about.

In the script we've been working on (The Time Machine) the plot is about Alex, a girl who is thrown back in time and then has to try and make her way back home. However, the story is really about a girl who is having trouble moving school, wants things to go back to how they were and to be with her friends. So the theme is about dealing with change and growing up.

Activity

To get started list three of your favourite films, create a table and identify the 3-5 plot points that tell the story, and the ideas the films explore. This will help you identify the themes.

 The plot of the film (the setup, and what happens) The theme of the film (what the film is really about)

 

 

Resolution and other endings

The Time Machine  ends happily with the normal world restored (Alex getting back to her own time). You don’t always need a traditional resolution, as there are other ways to end a story. Think how to make your script original by experimenting with one of these endings:

Cliffhanger

When a story doesn’t have a neat or happy resolution and instead leaves the audience in suspense. Think about your favourite super hero movie as they often give the protagonist one last challenge. This is often used to set up a sequel.

Tragic ending

Maybe the protagonist doesn’t get what they wanted? What would this be like?

Twist

This is when something unexpected happens, and you trick the audience. A twist ending can be hard to do well.

Activity

For your own project, think about alternative endings to the resolution you had planned. You could think about some different endings for The Time Machine as well.

Make sure you think about how the theme of your story might be affected as a result. For example, having Alex stuck in the past in The Time Machine would make it harder to explore the idea that Alex needs to grow up and accept her family have moved. The theme would change suddenly and become more of a 'be careful what you wish for' type of story.

Timeline and tension graphs

We use structure to make sure the story has a journey, contains dramatic questions, and contains highs and lows for the characters.

Earlier you planned your story through structure points across three acts. Take the same story, or another one, and use the template below. This is a timeline and tension graph. In a tension graph you can see where the drama builds and falls, with tension high at points such as the climax, and lower at points like the resolution. Check it out the example from The Time Machine and notice the line throughout the graph which indicates when the tension is high, low; building or dropping.

Activity

Now it's your turn. Fill out the tension graph template using your own story to make sure your story contains highs and lows.

If your story doesn't fit the pattern in the template above, draw your own tension graph using the tension graph blank document below. For example, if you have a tragic ending there might be no relief of tension at the end. Or, if your story starts with a dramatic flash-forward to a tense part of the story, your tension graph would look different. It will be up to you to decide where you think the tension is high, and when there is relief for the characters and your audience. 

Well done, you're on your way to being a master of script structure. If you're enjoying the planning process you can always dive deeper and find out about writing script treatments.

Check out Script Lab's eight-sequence structure, and Studio Binder's detailed guide on writing script treatments here.

Otherwise, it's time to learn how to write a script.

1.2 Formatting and writing scripts

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