How to Structure a Screenplay

How to Structure a Screenplay

With the advent of digital photography, more shutterbugs than ever have taken to calling themselves photographers and many have even gone into business for themselves. Now, with those same digital camera manufacturers offering better and better video options embedded into each iteration of their flagship still cameras, more and more photographers have added the word “filmmaker” to our business cards and taken aim at everything from short films to features. But being a real filmmaker requires more than the ability to just produce stunning images.

Even a room full of fellow cinematographers will eventually grow tired of two hours of jaw-dropping but unrelated imagery. And even the most beautiful or handsome model, who may look stunning on the frozen page, would have a hard time holding your attention over 120 minutes without some sort of character arc and personal development.

Here enters the screenplay. While many argue that film is a director’s sport, and actors are the ones who obtain the most fame, none of that would be possible without the screenwriter. While he or she may be the lowest person on the totem pole when it comes to the set (assuming the writer is even allowed on set), it is their contribution that determines the potential of the final product. Filmmaking is definitely a team sport. And all departments need to be hitting on all cylinders in order to achieve something truly great. Yet still, a great screenplay can sometimes overcome subpar direction or poor acting, but even the greatest thespians can’t breathe life into weak dialogue and aimless plotting.

So how do writers do it? If your entry into the creative world is your ability to tell a great story in one stunning frame, how do you go about telling a story that will run at 24 frames per second over the course of two hours? Well, like when learning photography, the first step is to start with the basics.

First, a disclaimer. Like all aspects of original art, rules are made to be broken. Likely as a photographer you began your journey learning the basics of f-stops, apertures, and ASAs (or ISOs) and discovered how to “correctly” expose an image. It is also just as likely that as you began to improve and create better and better work that you began to break some of those established rules and started to think outside of the box. Such is the creative process. But regardless of how far we stray from the norm, having a basic understanding of the foundational elements of our craft provide a firm basis from which we can experiment and find our own true voice.

A traditional Hollywood screenplay also generally follows certain norms. We call it story structure. Regardless of genre, there are usually basic story beats in most films that help audiences relate to the emotions we wish to convey. And while there is a cottage industry of books on writing screenplays and wealth of new terms on the pages of each, they all basically meltdown to the same basic concepts.

Need Versus Want 

The first thing to realize when creating a vibrant character is that people are complex. It seems like an obvious point, but the understanding of this point can often be at the heart of what separates an average film from a great one. We don’t always act rationally. We sometimes do things that, on the surface, seem to be against our own best interests but upon reflection can almost seem predestined. It makes us unpredictable. It also makes our characters memorable.

Often this dichotomy arises from the eternal struggle between need and want. Movies, like life itself, are often a matter of these two forces colliding. Take, for example, “The Godfather.” What is the film about? At the most basic level, it’s the story of Michael Corleone transitioning from honest war veteran to king of the underworld. That is a VERY simplistic way of describing the plot. After an assassination attempt on his father, Don Corleone, Michael has to take the lead in the family organized crime business and puts his own civilian life on hold to ensure the survival of the clan.

So, in this case, Michael’s want is clear. He wants to hold the family together and outmaneuver all the other rival families to ensure his family’s position.

His need, on the other hand, is far less explicit but is the driving force for the entire film. It is also what makes the story of a burgeoning mafia don relatable to a global audience who may not have ever even heard of the mafia until the film’s release.

Michael Corleone needs what almost all men need. He needs to make his father proud. Unlike his brothers, the erratic Sonny and the sensitive Fredo, Michael is not necessarily destined for a life in the family business. He has the option to build a life outside of that world with his beautiful bride and shows no real interest in following in his father’s footsteps. But, despite his father’s sins, Michael is still his father’s son. He loves his father. He doesn’t want his father’s legacy to be tarnished. And, also like his brothers, he wants desperately to win his father’s love. So, opposite the interest of his own personal safety, he assures that love by stepping up when the family needs him most. Thus he fulfills his need while, on the surface, pursuing his want.

Act Structure 

Most feature-length screenplays run roughly 120 pages. Each page relates approximately to one minute of screen time. This is not an exact science. Dialogue heavy pages may take up less than a minute of screen time. Action dense scenes may be only one page, but take up fifteen minutes of screen time once the director and stunt choreographer work their magic. But, as a general rule, one page equals one minute.

Feature film screenplays, as opposed to stage plays or television scripts, usually follow a three-act structure. The first act, running roughly 30 pages, introduces our story and our characters. It lays the tracks for what is to come. Our second act, the meat of the story, runs about 60 pages. This is where the bulk of the plot actually develops and we build up to our payoff. That payoff occurs in the final thirty pages of act three. We’ve built up our story and our character, now is the time to bring it all to a thrilling and memorable close.

Story Beats

A beginning, a middle, and an end. Pretty straightforward. You’ll see this basic structure in everything from an Oscar winner to a sneaker commercial. But, within a motion picture screenplay, story structure is generally further broken down into beats, or plot points. These are distinct moments in a character's emotional journey that occur over the course of the film and alter the course of the character’s tale and/or reveal things about his or her character.

The exact beats will be called different things by different writers, but I always refer to them in the same way my very first screenwriting instructor taught me more years ago than I’d care to mention in public, and that I’ve found to be incredibly useful in writing scripts over the years.

#1 - The Question

Fundamentally speaking, what is your story going to be about? What is the greater struggle you wish to explore over the next couple of hours? This needs to be established immediately and generally occurs in the first three pages.

Let’s use as an example a love story about a guy learning to love again after a bad breakup. Maybe you open with a shot of the man waking up alone in bed. Still glued to the far right of the bed, because the left was “her side.” A few scattered framed pictures of him with his ex-wife on the nearby mantel. An empty bottle of Jack Daniels on the floor by the bed. His five O’clock shadow now grown past midnight.

Right off the bat, you’ve established for the audience that this man is heartbroken. The audience already knows that his life has fallen apart a bit. They can see that he’s still carrying a torch for a lost love. And they know that what is to follow will have something to do with the character's romantic fortune.

Of course, that’s just one example. Maybe, instead, you are writing a horror movie about a desolate island hideaway? In that case, you’ll need to immediately establish an ominous mood. Think the opening scene of “Get Out” with Lakeith Stanfield walking down the dark suburban road. Or, maybe you’re writing a comedy like “40 Year Old Virgin” where you are telling the story of a man’s relationship with sex, or lack thereof. In that case, you open with a shot of said man waking up in the morning, in a room full of subtly phallic shaped decorations, getting out of bed to reveal... well, a certain unfulfilled part of his anatomy has grown overnight.

#2 - The New Opportunity 

Roughly at the ten-minute mark, this is our first hint that our character’s life could potentially change. Nothing concrete yet. But some person or opportunity enters the story that will eventually have an effect on the trajectory of the character arc. He or she won’t necessarily recognize this as an opportunity. But the audience does.

In our case of the lovelorn man, this may be the point in the story where he casually crosses paths with the beautiful waitress at the local diner. Many a “meet-cute” scene will arrive at this juncture. Or, in a bank heist movie, perhaps this is the point where the thieves first realize the vulnerability in the bank’s security system. Or in a classic romantic comedy like “When Harry Met Sally” where the two leads meet as friends in the opening scene and embark on a road trip together, around ten minutes in we get our first mention of the underlying question about their relationship and the entire film…

#3 - Change of Plans

Ending act one and launching us into act two, we have the change of plans. This is the plot point where something happens that doesn’t necessarily signal that the protagonist will achieve their goal, but means that the status quo, for better or for worse, will change.

In “When Harry Met Sally,” we go from the two leads being faintly acquainted and generally hostile to one another to them becoming friends. In the case of our heist movie, this is the point where they make a firm decision to rob the bank. In our hypothetical story of the lovelorn man, this may be the point where he really acknowledges his own attraction to the pretty waitress and asks her out on a date.

Or, in the case of one of the all-time greats “The Graduate,” this is where Benjamin Braddock takes Mrs. Robinson home after his parent’s dinner party only to be confronted with a bit more than he bargained for.

The change of plans beat sets the story and act two into motion.

#4 - The First Hint of Growth

Usually the most subtle of the story beats, around page 45 we generally get a slight hint that reminds the audience that the character is moving in a certain direction. Remember, our story exists on both the level of need and the level of want. This story beat is a perfect chance to indicate that the character has taken steps to achieve what they really need.

In our lovelorn tale, perhaps we return to the protagonist’s apartment and see his doing something simple like placing the framed picture of he and his ex-wife face down in a drawer. Perhaps he’s cleaned his apartment in anticipation that the waitress may stop by and he wants to make a good impression. These are both subtle things, but they indicate that he is moving in the direction of getting over his heartbreak.

#5 - Point of No Return

There’s no going back. While the change of plans sets the process in motion, and the first hint of growth shows the character’s first tentative steps towards obtaining his or her need, the point of no return, occurring at the halfway mark of the film, is the point where the character has fully committed to the journey. Whether by plan or by accident, the story will go forward to its conclusion. There’s is no more escape.

Let’s say this is the point where our lovelorn man first makes love to the beautiful waitress. After the encounter, she lies in his arms and gently whispers “I love you.” The man’s want is to go out on some dates. The man’s overarching need is to heal his broken heart and find the courage to fall in love again. When she says that, his story is now committed to coming to a conclusion. Either he’s going to be able to heal his broken heart and accept the love of this woman or he’s not. But with the option now officially on the table, he’s going to have to make a choice.

For a more literal and action-packed example, have a look at the iconic bank robbery scene from “Heat.” Up until this point in the film, our characters have had the option of pulling out of their plan to rob the bank. Up until that point, there is still the possibility, however remote, that Al Pacino’s hardened cop character and Robert DeNiro’s master criminal will never actually have to test each other’s resolve. But, once they go into the bank, once bullets have flown and lives have been lost, there is no turning back.

#6 - False Ending

Similar to the first hint of growth, the false ending, usually around page 75, is also an expression of character movement. Usually indicating a regression, this is the point in the film where the audience is lead to believe that all is lost.

Despite our lovelorn character finding the courage to go on a few dates with the waitress, despite the fact that she tells him that she loves him, he is still not quite at the point emotionally to admit that he loves her. On a certain level, he knows that he is, in fact, in love with this new woman. But he’s still so afraid to be hurt that he inevitably does something stupid that leads to their breaking up and the (temporary) end to their courtship.

Take the scene in “Jerry Maguire” when it has finally begun to dawn on Renee Zellweger’s character, Dorothy Boyd, that her picture-book romance with intimacy averse Jerry Maguire may not be on the most solid footing. Despite his supreme skills as a salesman, Jerry can’t sell the woman who knows him the best and she decides that it’s time for their relationship to come to an end.

#7 - Need and Want Collide 

Remember earlier in the essay where I mentioned that a character’s need and want don’t always see eye-to-eye? This is the point, at the end of act two and the start of act three that those two elements come colliding into contact and lead to the story’s ultimate conclusion.

In our “Jerry Maguire” example, this is where Jerry realizes that his stated want, to rebuild his career and be on top again, is really not even remotely as important as his underlying need, to learn to share genuine intimacy with the woman he loves. Once Dorothy leaves him, he quickly sees that what he thought he wanted all along was, in fact, just a smokescreen for the deeper change of character that he really needed.

In our lovelorn story, our character has found love, but let it slip through his fingers because he couldn’t overcome his own fear. This is the point at which he would discover the error of his own ways and explicitly alter his goals from just going out of a date to truly finding the courage to love again.

#8 - Climax

All roads lead to this. We’ve established our character and watched them grow. Our need and wants have collided and the character knows exactly what their ultimate goal is. Now the question is how it all will end. Will our waitress take our protagonist back when he shows up at the restaurant with a bouquet of roses? Will Jerry Maguire actually be able to sell Dorothy Boyd on his commitment to intimacy when it matters the most? Will Al Pacino’s cop finally catch Robert Deniro’s criminal or will he get away? And when they finally come guns blazing for another Pacino creation, will Tony Montana go out the way he lived?

#9 - Resolution

It’s all said and done. The story has built and delivered its final climactic scene. The questions have been answered. Our waitress has accepted our protagonist’s wedding proposal. The hero and villain have had their final shootout. Benjamin Braddock has “rescued” Elaine Robinson from a potentially boring marriage. Now what?

As I mentioned earlier, not every story you tell will follow exactly these beats. There are exceptions to every rule. Even exceptions within exceptions. But, if you look back on most major film releases over the last century, you’ll find a surprising number whose plot lines will closely follow the trajectory above. If your goal is to become a better storyteller, take a moment to rewatch a few of your favorite films. Take out a pen and paper and chart out how those filmmakers told their story. What parts of the film were the change of plans, the point of no return, the climax? What minute mark did each of those scenes begin? How did they fit into the story as a whole?

These are just the basics. Take a moment to understand the fundamentals, then sit down and create a masterpiece of your own.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Christopher Malcolm is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle, fitness, and advertising photographer, director, and cinematographer shooting for clients such as Nike, lululemon, ASICS, and Verizon.

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