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Screenplay story structure

The course is not a scriptwriting site and therefore I shall not be covering the art of screenwriting in detail. However, it can prove very useful to have a basic grasp of a few of the popular structure for feature films o we’ve presented some of them below.

Note: These should not be seen as prescriptive, nor as a sure-fire blueprint to a working script.  Rather, they should be used as guides to compare your script to the majority of other screenplays and to understand how most films are structured.

The Three Acts

The vast majority of feature films fit into a three act structure.  The first act is about a quarter of the film, the second act is half of the film and the final quarter is the final third act.

Act 1 sets up the world, our protagonist(s) and the struggles they may have to overcome. We will learn about what our hero/heroine wants and we should be able to infer what they need.  Towards the end of the first act they will be presented with a challenge / opportunity / threat / or some other call to action which they initially shy away from (or at least debate whether to respond to this call). The end of act 1 they have accepted this challenge (willingly or not) and will begin their journey.

Act 2 should really be broken into two acts as it has two very different halves.  The first half of act 2 involves the hero / heroine out of their comfort zone and starting to rise to the challenge they began at the end of act 2.  We will likely meet more characters and learn more about what’s ahead of them.  A second story (known as the ‘B story’) will be introduced.  In most films this is the love story.  Broadly, things tend to go well for our hero / heroine and they overcome the obstacles in their way.  Often, it is this part fo the film which makes up the majority of a film’s trailer.

Halfway through Act 2, and normally also halfway through the film, things start to turn.  Our hero / heroine faces increasingly harder threats and those around them turn on them.  The relativity fun obstacles of the first half of act 2 give way to much harder problems and they will feel overwhelmed.  Towards the end of act 2 our hero / heroine has lost everything – they’re defeated, alone and without hope.  However, though this disaster emerges an idea / a change / a new way of viewing the problems at hand.

Act 3 is where the most dramatic moments tend to take place.  The hero / heroine has changed, hopefully addressing the ‘need’ that was established in Act 1, and are now able to deal with the major obstacle.  The B story has played a part in helping our character(s) grow and unknowingly preparing them to deal with these final threats. They normally have to give up something that was precious to them at the start of the film, thereby proving to themselves and to the audience that they are forever changed by the film’s events. The film ends with the world and the characters(s) having been changed forever, normally for the better.

Not everyone likes the Three Act Structure and some people argue that it’s the enemy of good screenwriting.

Film vs Television

The lines between stories told in the cinema and on television are blurring considerably. More films are becoming almost episodic and many television shows tell cinematic narratives.  However, traditionally there was a difference between the types of stories told for the big and small screens.

Simply put, film stories are about change and television is about stasis.

  • Each feature film aims to create a new world with flawed characters and to then challenge them.  The characters go on huge emotional (and often physical) journeys which end up changing them, and their world, forever.  Everything is in danger and by the end everything is different.
  • Television shows are more concerned about continuing the world so that another episode can be presented next week.  This means that while characters may face obstacles, they will rarely fundamentally change through the process of overcoming those challenges.  ‘The Simpsons’ has been running for a quarter of century and yet Maggie remains a baby. True character growth could cause problems for the writers of future episodes, and would present a problem to the way most syndicated shows are broadcast (i.e. out of sequence, even between serieses).

Save The Cat

strongly recommend you buy a copy of Blake Synder’s book ‘Save The Cat‘.

It’s accessible to everyone, fun to read and will provide a large insight into how most mainstream movies are structured.


Other script structures

Below are some examples of other ways to view feature film script structure.  If you would like to look into this more deeply then please download this PDF