Having a solid structure for the story that they want to tell can be of great benefit for any writer. A screenplay structure can help organize a writer’s thoughts and turn a random assortment of ideas and actions into a well-written plan of action.
There are several structures to observe as a writer works, but one of the most common is the three-act screenplay structure. It’s the same structure that appears in many different types of stories, including novels. On that note, be sure to check out the Udemy course Adapting Novel to Screenplay if you already have a novel that you would like to adapt into a play.
The Importance of the Three Act Structure
The three act structure is important in writing a screenplay because it helps to ensure that the writer reaches all of the key aspects and turning points of their story. It also helps to signal when it is time to write in any plot twists in the story, and in general will help to lead the viewer down the most entertaining path. Whether or not a screenplay is good depends on the writer, but understanding the proper structure of a screenplay will help you get well on your way to becoming a great writer in the world of films and plays.
There are very few forms of writing in which the writer can do whatever he or she wants. This is especially true of screenplays – not only are most stories best told through this structure, but most viewers tend to expect this type of storytelling. Because of this, screenplays on the whole tend to be a bit more rigid than some other styles of writing – however, there is still a lot of room for creativity.
When writing a screenplay, the writer only has a few minutes to establish the character, introduce the conflict, and then begin the characters’ path toward resolving that conflict. That’s essentially what the three acts are all broken down to: the setup, the conflict, and the resolution.
Everything that happens in a screenplay can be placed into these three sections. For the most part, the conflict itself will take up the bulk of the screenplay – about the length of the setup and the resolution combined, in most cases.
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The First Act in Your Screenplay
As mentioned before, the first act in your play will be the setup. This will be when everything is established, the characters that are important to the play will all be mentioned here. The reason why these characters meet, the overarching plot, and anything else crucial to the plot should be established in these defining early moments.
Within the very first few pages of your screenplay, something should happen that sets your main character (or characters) in motion. This is called the inciting incident, and depending on the overall plot of the screenplay can be just about anything.
To use a famous example, Star Wars, you receive a wealth of information about the galaxy that the characters live in. You meet farm boy Luke Skywalker, you know that there are people rebelling against the evil Empire, and you even meet several characters that will become crucial to the plot of the story, including Obi Wan Kenobi, C-3PO, and R2D2. What you don’t know is how Luke will become involved in the overall plot – not until the inciting incident occurs, when he discovers that his family has been killed by the Empire.
Remember, the portion of the screenplay just prior to the inciting incident should establish why this is such strong motivation for your character. You learn early on that Luke Skywalker dreams about getting out and seeing the world around him, but you also learn that he has a deep love and respect for his aunt and uncle.
The inciting incident will signal the transition from the first act of the screenplay to the second. This point should take place about a quarter of the way through your screenplay, or even slightly earlier, for maximum effect.
The Second Act in Your Screenplay
The second act of the screenplay is when things get serious. As mentioned before, this long act will make up the bulk of the screenplay, and will contain the key points of the story. All of the major turning points happen here, including major events, revelations, and turning points in your character’s journey. The climax may occur here as well, though this is sometimes moved to the final act of the screenplay.
The second act starts off rather simply; it involves the character starting off down their path. Their allies may be introduced, or reintroduced if they already appeared in the first act. They should also spend some time coming up with their plan of action for overcoming the conflict that they have been faced with. In the case of Luke Skywalker, this plan of action occurs as he makes plans with his mentor (and enlists the aid of a new ally, Han Solo) to sneak on to the Death Star.
Much of what happens in the second act constitutes what the viewer would consider the main plot of the story. However, the second act itself is divided into two parts by a turning point, often called the “midpoint climax” of the story.
The midpoint climax and major turning point of Star Wars occurs when Luke Skywalker watches Darth Vader kill his mentor, Obi Wan Kenobi. Though he has rescued the princess, he now has a new mission – to help destroy the Death Star and avenge his mentor’s and his family’s deaths.
This midpoint climax forces the character to change direction, and may even change the entire course of the story. Everything that happens after this climax should be leading up to the final confrontation, or climax, that will occur in the third act.
The Third and Final Act of the Screenplay
The third act is when your protagonist must finally use the skills that he or she has learned to face their primary antagonist or challenge, whatever that challenge happens to be. There is little more time or room for development at this point – the protagonist may win, lose, or the challenge may even end in a draw (though the latter is usually a setup for a sequel, or even a series).
Once the final challenge is over, you can spend a little time showing the viewer of the play, show, or film what happened afterwards. In cases where there will be a sequel, or if the screenplay is part of what is or will be an ongoing series, the writer can take some time to set up things that will happen in later installments.
Just remember that you should take some time to wrap up the major plot points of the story and to show what has changed in the protagonist’s life as a result of the journey that they have gone through.
This final act of the screenplay should be roughly the same length as the first act, or perhaps even a little less. Be sure not to overdo it. Screenplays usually have strict time limits, and you don’t want to have to cut out any essential information or scenes from the important second act if possible.
Important Tip: The 5 Key Points
As you write your screenplay, you want to try to remember some important screenwriting tips to create the ultimate script.
First, remember the importance of hooking the viewer in the beginning. If you can’t capture someone’s attention with the very first minute, they’re likely to move along to something else.
Second, remember the importance of creating an inciting incident that makes sense to the viewer. A poorly executed inciting incident or a film with no inciting incident at all can ruin everything. Sure, a film may have some great action scenes, but they will be pointless if the viewer is constantly asking why these things are happening in the first place.
Third, remember that the viewer has to care about the main character. To make that happen, the screenwriter needs to develop the character. This can happen in a number of different ways, whether it’s using flashbacks or dialogue to establish backstory or using their interactions with other characters to show who they are and why they matter.
The penultimate point to pay close attention to is the climax. Some writers can get so caught up in the other aspects of the story that they forget how important the climax can actually be. Whether things end well or they end badly for the protagonist, keep this in mind – the climax should be big, whether it’s a long-awaited confrontation between a jilted woman and her ex-husband or the climactic battle between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader.
And finally, remember that the ending of a screenplay is just as important as its beginning. Once everything is said and done, you need to have a satisfying ending. It doesn’t necessarily have to be happy, but it should give your audience the sense that things have been resolved – at least, for the time being.
Don’t be afraid to explore different methods of writing screenplays. It is always best to find your own writing style and to then incorporate it into the screenplay structure to create a true masterpiece. Check out the Udemy course Screenwriting Workshop to get a few pointers.
Creating a Great Screenplay
Now that you understand the proper structure all there is to it is creating the actual piece. It can take some time to come up with a great story that you want to write, the writing process is far from easy, but with some hard work and diligence, anyone can create something to be proud of.
Don’t let your potential blockbuster get away from you. If you want to find out how to get into the screenwriting business, the Udemy course Film Screenwriting: Writing and Business of Screenwriting is just what you need to not only learn the basics, but to understand the process of selling your screenplay and finally seeing it on stage, on film, or even on your living room television.