Why is screenplay structure important and why should all scripts adhere to basic structure guidelines? In this article, we are talking screenplay structure as we break down and understand its key elements and how they contribute to the overall impact of a screenplay.
The Importance of Structure
Before we dive in, it’s important to note that screenplay structure varies based on the format. There are features, TV movies, hour-long, half-hour multi-camera and half-hour single-camera TV, just to name a few. In this article, we are specifically looking at three-act structure, most commonly used for features and half-hour single-camera TV.
Think about it: What do all your favorite movies have in common? From Avenger’s Endgame to Shawshank Redemption, while these stories are vastly different, at their core, these screenplays have a great structure. Understanding screenplay structure will easily take your scriptwriting game from good to great. Screenplay structure is the backbone that supports the narrative, guiding the audience through a journey filled with tension, conflict, and resolution.
Act I: The Set-Up
The first act of a screenplay serves as the foundation upon which the entire story is built. It introduces the audience to the world of the film, establishes the main characters, and sets the central conflict in motion. This act begins with the normal, where the audience becomes familiar with the story's premise and the characters' desires and motivations.
Act I must include your inciting incident, typically by page 15. The inciting incident sparks the central conflict, propelling the story forward and hooking the audience's attention. By the end of Act I, the audience should have a clear understanding of the protagonist's goal and the challenges they will face.
To learn more about the inciting incident and goals, check out our Youtube videos below.
Act II: The Journey
Act II is the longest part of a screenplay and where the bulk of the story takes place. This act is known for its rising tension and the complications that the protagonist encounters while pursuing their goal. This is also where we see trial and error or fun and games. We are watching the protagonist either fail or succeed at reaching their goal.
As Act II progresses, the tension intensifies, leading to the midpoint of the screenplay. The midpoint is a crucial turning point in the story where new information is revealed, and the protagonist's journey takes an unexpected twist. Think of it as the character either hitting rock bottom or a moment where all is lost where they have to redirect their goal. It often provides a moment of reflection for the protagonist and shifts the dynamics of the conflict.
Want to dive deeper into trial and error and the midpoint? Check out the videos below!
Act III: The Pay-Off
The final act of a screenplay is where the tension reaches its peak and the central conflict comes to a head. Act III comprises the climax and the resolution. The climax is the most emotionally charged moment in the story where the protagonist faces their biggest challenge and confronts their problem head on. It is the point of no return where the protagonist must make a life-altering decision.
After the climax, the screenplay transitions into the resolution where loose ends are tied up, and the story comes to a satisfying conclusion. We now see an optimal new normal showing us how our characters are affected by reaching their goals. Act III allows the audience to experience the emotional fallout of the climax and witness the ultimate resolution of the protagonist's journey. It provides closure and leaves the audience with a lasting impression.
Head over to Youtube University to check out our videos on the resolution and climax.
Screenplay structure is the invisible framework that supports the storytelling in a screenplay. By shaping your screenplay in a way that produces a well-crafted structure, screenwriters can effectively engage the audience, build tension, and create compelling narratives. The three-act structure discussed in this article serves as a guideline, but it's important to note that creativity and originality should not be limited by rigid rules!
Ready to dive deeper into screenplay structure? Check out the Story Planners for Screenwriters for comprehensive guides on beat sheets, weekly writing assignments, and a completed screenplay in just 60 days!