LESSON 17

Screenplay Structure

“On the first couple of screenplays I wrote, it had never occurred to me to divide them into acts. But when I started partitioning them that way, the stories seemed to have more narrative drive. By the time I wrote Alien, I had used the three-act structure… and liked the results.”

Dan O’ Bannon
Guide to Screenplay Structure

Let’s build a solid structure for your screenplay.

There are many models to choose from: Four Stages, Four Acts, Five Acts, Seven Acts, Eight Sequences, 12 Sequences, 15 Plot Points, 21 Goals, 24 Plot Points, and more.

This YouTube video summarizes some.

There’s no “one right” or “best” option — all involve building an emotional connection with the audience, developing rising conflict, and driving the story forward to a satisfying ending.

Think of structure as a guide, not a rigid set of rules. Sooner abandon it than get stuck trying to make elements fit into place. You can always come back later and reassess your story in terms of structure.

We’ve chosen 12 sequences in a three-act structure based on the Hero’s Journey. These sequences will have interwoven subplots.

The three-act structure is still the most recognized and used narrative arrangement in the film industry. Here’s how we’ve interpreted it:


Act 1: Setup.

The first act takes up about a quarter of the screenplay’s length. It establishes the story world, lead character, and the central conflict.

It lets the audience connect with the protagonist as he or she goes about their usual way of handling life’s challenges.

Then something happens that alters the lead character’s routine.

This shift could be of the protagonist’s making or come from an external force. It could be deliberate or accidental.

The lead character embraces, rejects, ignores, or evades the event. Whatever the case, complications arise.

By the end of the first act, the protagonist is locked into resolving the narrative’s central conflict or pursuing what they want.

In doing this, the audience is made aware of the central dramatic question. For example, how and will the protagonist manage to exact revenge? How and will they catch the killer? How and will the lovers tend to a lasting romance? How and will this underdog possibly win the contest?

Act 2: Development and rising conflict.

The transition into the second act marks the beginning of the journey to answer the dramatic question.

The protagonist enters unfamiliar territory, whether figuratively or literally.

They start by trying to adjust to the new circumstances.

They will continue to struggle to overcome obstacles because of limited resources — a lack of skills, knowledge, experience, support, or the right mindset.

As they move forward, they discover enemies, allies, and new strategies.

Soon they approach a turning point that will change their circumstances dramatically. This midpoint collision is a pivotal event that crushes, interrogates, or encourages the lead character’s commitment and ability to succeed.

It brings about a period of celebration or mourning followed by an acceleration in story momentum as the protagonist proceeds with hardened resolve.

The second act is about double the length of the first.

Act 3: Climax and resolution.

New circumstances with mounting tension intensify into a high-stakes crisis.

The crisis and experience of past events contribute to the protagonist’s realization of what they must do to succeed. This involves courage, risk, and sacrifice.

They face their biggest ordeal in the most dramatic sequence of the screenplay: the final showdown.

The lead character’s new understanding allows them to achieve or realign their goal and resolve the central conflict.

Whatever happens, demonstrates and asserts the protagonist’s transformation.

With the central dramatic question having been answered, the lead character begins a new way of life.

The final act is about the same length as the first.

We’ve focused on story structure with a “happy” or optimistic ending. You can invert the trajectory of each sequence to write a tragedy.

If you’re overwhelmed by a desire to be more experimental, skip forward to the next module!

Otherwise, let’s begin by looking at subplots.

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LESSON 18
Subplots

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