With decades of trial and error experience, Hollywood has perfected the structure of the commercial screenplay. This blueprint is the basis for virtually every movie you watch at the local multi-plex. Some screenwriters, particularly those just starting out, are loathe to use this structure. For them, it’s all about breaking the rules, changing the paradigm, being creative and doing something different. Or they just don’t like to be told what to do; they need to discover it for themselves. Well, let me make it easy for your: Follow the structure!
It is not likely that you, the unknown screenwriter, is going to set the cinematic universe on its ear with your thoroughly unique take on how to write a screenplay. There are over 100 years of screenplay evolution from far better writers, with time in the trenches, who have already trod the path you think you want to take. And what they have developed is the modern screenplay structure. And they’ve got the box office results to back up their model, not to mention the 3-act structure has been identified as early as 335 B.C. by Aristotle in his treatise on dramatic theory, Poetics.
But if you choose to take the path less travelled, you will be going up against not only thousands of years of historic philosophy, but an entrenched Hollywood mentality that is not particularly open to new ideas from unknown screenwriters. The modern screenplay has been refined to maximize profits for the studios. It has a broad appeal across all quadrants and is a set length to allow for multiple screenings in a given evening.
But what about--?
No. There are no ‘whatabouts,’ unless you have a proven track record. Remember, it’s Hollywood’s game; you have to play by their rules. Until you can show them you understand structure and can deliver a commercial screenplay, they are not interested in your grand opus that combines Citizen Kane with Gone With the Wind in the vein of Pulp Fiction. And let’s face it, if you don’t know basic screenplay structure, your Pulp Citizen in the Wind probably isn’t all that well written. The old adage, you can’t break the rules until you know the rules, applies here. If you’re not following screenplay structure, you’re not breaking the rules; you’re just floundering.
So what is screenplay structure? It is the foundation on which you will build your story. It is a prescribed set of events or elements that occur over the designated timeline of your story. Well, that sounds a little cookie cutter, you say.
Doesn’t that make every screenplay the same? Yes and no.
All screenplays are alike in the same way all paintings are alike. Every painting has the same basic elements: a subject, a canvas and paint. For a screenplay, you have a subject (what your story is about), a canvas (the pages on which you will tell your story), and your paint (the words with which you will tell your story). What a painting and a screenplay also have in common is perspective, your unique view of the subject. This is what makes every painting and every screenplay different. For the writer, the perspective will dictate your setting, your characters, the language, everything that makes your story unique to all others, even if you hit the same prescribed plot points as other screenwriters. It’s all in how you mix the paint and then apply it to the canvas. Is it naturalistic, cubist, pointillist? Are you using brushes with long easy strokes or are you slathering it on in thick globs with a spatula? Will your screenplay follow a linear path, moving from Point A to Point B like Dead Poets Society? Or will it interweave several strands of narrative like Crash? Perhaps you will go completely non-linearly like the aforementioned Pulp Fiction.
Once you have your story idea and a perspective, you can begin the process of structuring your screenplay. Essentially, this is a very basic way of outlining the story. Knowing that there are certain plot points that you need to hit, you can start to plug in those moments and have a loose idea of how the action will unfold. If you use more advance techniques, such as Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat methodology, you can sculpt the majority of your story beats from beginning to end. For now, we’re going to stick with the broader outline of the three-act structure as described by Syd Field in his book, Screenplay.
To understand the three-act structure you have to begin with the length of a Hollywood commercial screenplay. Screenplays typically run 90 to 120 pages. One page of your screenplay, if properly formatted, will equate to approximately one minute of screen time. Thus, a 90-page script will run 90 minutes, and a 120-page script will run two hours. Ideally, your screenplay should fall somewhere between these specified points. Anything under 90 pages will be deemed to short and lacking in story. Anything longer than 120 pages starts to cut into the number of times a movie can be screened in an evening. Hollywood does not like to cut into its profits, especially for an untested screenwriter. Don’t hobble yourself out of the gate; keep it under 120 pages.
Using the 120-page script as our example, let’s begin to structure the screenplay.
The screenplay is divided into three acts. Act 1 is the first quarter of our script, running from page1 through page 30. Act 2 makes up the bulk of our film and covers the middle half of the screenplay from page 31 through 90. Finally, Act 3 is the last quarter of the script, covering pages 91 to 120. These acts can also be described as The Setup, The Confrontation and The Resolution. So for our 120-page screenplay, the first act or Setup lasts for about 30 minutes. The second act or Confrontation lasts for one hour. And the third act or Resolution concludes the story in about 30 minutes.
The acts are separated by Plot Points, also known as the reversal moments. These are events that suddenly twist and turn our story in an unexpected direction. This is where the hero or protagonist sets out on his journey to solve his problem. In Wendell Mayes 1972 screenplay for The Revengers, this moment comes when rancher John Benedict (William Holden) returns home to find his entire family wiped out in an Indian raid. John’s life has been radically altered, but the twist is the raid was actually led by two white men, one of whom has a white eye. As John buries his family, a posse arrives with one of the raid’s leaders in tow. He tells John the man with the white eye is on his way to Mexico. In that moment, John knows what he has to do and where is going as the story breaks into Act 2.
To get to that moment where John makes his decision, there has to be some setup so that we, as an audience are invested in John and want to go on the journey with him and see vengeance meted out. That setup will require several different elements. The first is our MAIN CHARACTER. This is the person in the story who has a need or objective to fulfill to restore equilibrium to his life. In this case, it is John Benedict.
Our next element is EXPOSITION. This is where we learn who John is, his backstory, and some of the other characters in his life and where and when the story will take place. In this example, John is a rancher living on the frontier with his wife, two daughters and two sons. John also has a past as a military man fighting for the Union in the Civil War, for which he received a Presidential Medal of Honor. We learn he takes little pride in his medal and keeps it hidden away in a box, like his memories of war. Not even his children know of its existence. But it is the medal that will secure his eldest son a spot at West Point without the need of a recommendation by the governor. All in all, things are looking good for the Benedict family living on the frontier.
This leads us into our next element, the DRAMATIC PREMISE, or what the story is seemingly about. For The Revengers, it’s about a man living a relatively comfortable existence on the frontier with his family, far removed from the worries of war, but danger is always lurking nearby. This is emphasized by the fact the eldest son, Morgan, has just shot a mountain lion that was stalking a calf. The premise is established in the exposition, but continues through the act break when the First Plot Point shatters the premise.
This gives rise to the DRAMATIC SITUATION, the circumstances that surround the action of the premise. Knowing the horrors of war from his own past, John is reluctant to let Morgan go to West Point. But the boy is on the cusp of manhood, and the education he will receive will afford him great opportunity. John has done well with his family and he takes great pride that his son has been offered the chance to attend the military academy. John will track down the mountain lion Morgan has shot, so that the young man can prepare to leave for West Point. John’s decision to leave the family, even for a short period, will come back to haunt him.
This brings us to the INCITING INCIDENT, that event which set the story’s plot into motion. Typically, this will occur around page 15 or halfway through the first act. In The Revengers, a marauding band of Comanche Indians raids the homestead and wipe out John’s entire family.
Around page 25 is where we find our First Plot Point. In our example, John learns of the white-eyed man and begins his quest for vengeance. The act wraps when John declines the local sheriff’s offer of a posse and decides to form one of his own. Wrapping out of the act will take a few pages beyond the first plot point, but you need to be out of Act 1 by page 30.
Act 2 begins when John forms his own posse by freeing six lawless convicts from prison. Together, the band sets out to track the white-eyed man across the badlands of the American Southwest. The bulk of the action in your screenplay will happen in Act 2. It will be filled with OBSTACLES that your hero has to overcome in order to reach his goal. For John, one of the obstacles he must overcome is convincing the men he broke out of jail to join him on his hunt for the white-eyed man. He does this by promising to get all of them pardons for their past crimes. Not an easy promise to fulfill since he just committed a crime in releasing them from prison.
Just before the halfway point of the film is the FIRST CULMINATION. This is where our main character seems to be getting close to his achieving his objective, only to have everything come apart. The objective now seems forever out of reach. This sets us up for the MIDPOINT at page 60. When one of the escapee’s, Chamaco, tells John he is a father figure to him, John’s own memories of his slain son cause the rancher to react negatively to Chamaco. Offended by John’s actions, Chamaco shoots the rancher in the chest. Near death, John is rescued by a local woman, Elizabeth, who nurses him back to health. Bedridden, and with his posse gone, John is alone and despondent. It seems the white-eyed man will escape justice.
Of course, as John recuperates, his thirst for vengeance begins to grow again. Elizabeth, however, counsels him against filing his heart with hate and asks John to stay with her, placing yet another obstacle in his way. The growing anger in John’s soul, however, is greater than his growing love for Elizabeth and he ultimately leaves to reconnect with his outlaw posse and resume his quest. This is our SECOND PLOT POINT and sets John on his final journey to confront the white-eyed man, launching us into Act 3.
In this final act, we move toward resolution of the hero’s journey, for better or worse. He may be successful or he may not. What we do know is we will reach the SECOND CULMINATION or Climax. This is the point the whole story has been building to. It is where our forces in opposition, the protagonist and the antagonist, will confront one another in a physical and/or emotional battle for supremacy. In The Revengers, John tracks the white-eyed man to an Army camp, where the long sought after villain is being held prisoner. Before John can take his revenge, the post finds itself under attack by Indians, throwing one last obstacle in front of John. During the battle, Chamaco is wounded and dies while calling out for John. Having lost a second son, John breaks open the cell holding the white-eyed man and has him in his gun sights. . .but can’t pull the trigger. There has been too much blood shed and John has let hate take over his heart. He decides to put the violence in the past, just as he did the war so many years ago and return to his ranch and start over. That brings us to our final script element, the DENOUMENT. This is the state of equilibrium at the end of the story when the Main Character’s has accomplished his goal and returns to a normal life.
I chose The Revengers to illustrate the basic screenplay structure for two reasons. First, it was on TV today as I was preparing to write this, so I followed it to see if it hit the major points of screenplay structure. It did. The second reason I chose to use this film was because it was a box office failure. Too often, critical analysis of screenplay structure uses box office hits to try and prove the validity of the 3-act structure. Chinatown, by Robert Towne, is often used to that end. And yes, Chinatown does indeed hit all the points of the 3-act structure, but it succeeds where The Revengers fails. What’s the relevance, you ask? Just because you follow the structure does not guarantee your screenplay will work. There is more to it than just following the numbers. You have to create engaging characters, dynamic situations and have stakes an audience can relate to. The 3-act structure is not a cookie cutter formula. Just because you hit the marks, does not mean you have a good screenplay. It’s a lot harder than that. The 3-act structure is just an outline. You still have to write a good story. The Revengers fails on several points, not the least of which is its unsatisfying ending. John’s turn from violence is too abrupt. He remains too stoic at Chamaco’s death, then is suddenly filled with anger and will avenge his family and Chamaco, by killing the white-eyed man only to lower his gun seconds later. He then rides off into the sunset, after paraphrasing Elizabeth (‘There’s worms in my heart’) and returns to his ranch. It would have been more satisfying if John had returned to Elizabeth. She’s the one who changed his heart.
To wrap things up, the 3-act structure is not a paint-by-numbers scheme. If it was, anybody could write a screenplay. It’s simply a blueprint for the foundation on which to build your story. From there, it’s up to you to throw some paint and create something studios will want to read and audiences will want to watch.