The term “screenplay structure” refers to a type of story structure that is commonly taught to people who want to write feature films. Though screenplay structure is meant to be a guideline and not to be restrictive or used for formulaic drama, it would be a mistake for new writers to ignore it entirely. Many well-known screenwriters advise aspiring screenwriters to study the rules thoroughly before forgetting them and writing from the heart.
The Setup, the Main Conflict (Action), and the Resolution are the three acts of a screenplay, according to tradition. Each act is a complete segment of the overall story, with a beginning, middle, and conclusion. The end of Act I seamlessly transitions into Act II, or the Main Conflict, while Act II’s final climax ushers us into Act III’s Resolution. Even if there are several climaxes in a film, they should all build in intensity.
Plot points are important events that occur within the acts and change or greatly complicate the action. They are strategically placed at key junctures to keep the story moving forward in a new direction. Acts and plot points combine to form a tight screenplay structure that keeps the audience’s attention.
The Setup (Act I) (30 pages long)
The Main Conflict (Act II) (60 pages long)
Resolution (Act III) (30 pages long)
We meet our main character and learn about his or her dilemma in Act I, which is referred to as the setup in screenplay structure. Typically, the story begins with the hero or heroine going about their daily routines when, somewhere between pages 3 and 10, a trigger-event occurs that throws the hero’s world into disarray or foreshadows trouble. A mini-climax and plot point occurs on or around page 28 that spins the action in a new direction and propels the story into Act II’s main conflict. Your worst fears, which you imagined on page three, have now come true.
Act II, at about 60 pages, is roughly twice as long as Act I and contains the majority of the action in the screenplay structure. The first 30 pages of Act II can be divided into two mini-acts, with the main character getting deeper and deeper into trouble. Another major plot point occurs halfway through Act II, spinning the action in a new direction and ushering us into the second half of the main conflict. The main character is at a complete loss and has little hope of succeeding. The story builds to a thrilling climactic conclusion around page 86, near the end of Act II. The hero or heroine lives or dies, depending on whether they win or lose.
The resolution of Act III ties up any loose ends and shows how the climax affected the other major characters in the story. Act III could be 20-30 pages long or just a few pages long, depending on the story. When it comes to screenplay structure, the general rule is to get out as soon as possible after the final climax, so that the emotional impact of the film is not diluted a long resolution.
This basic screenplay structure has several variations. Star Wars, for example, was written in three acts of equal length George Lucas. Others, such as Quentin Tarantino, tell stories in a non-sequential order in order to make them more interesting and unpredictable. Acts do not have to be in chronological order as long as the audience can follow the action. It’s also critical that the final climax is the most powerful and provides a satisfying conclusion to the story.
Simply put, story structure is excellent storytelling. The story’s dynamics boil down to believable characters in believable settings facing their most difficult challenge. If a story can be told without following any of the rules of screenplay structure, the writer will almost certainly find a variation of the structure buried within the story. To put it another way, telling a good story leads to good structure as a result. Getting the structure right won’t help you tell a great story if the story isn’t there.
Writers have been teaching the art of storytelling throughout history, from Aristotle’s Poetics to Syd Field’s The Screenwriter’s Workbook, dissecting the most powerful stories to see what makes them so effectively move the audience. If you’re interested in screenplay structure, there are a plethora of books available to help aspiring writers learn the craft.