Screenplay Structure - Screenwriting Tips 2
Here, you'll find a guide to screenplay structure, including advice on how to write a screenplay with the right number of pages, acts, scenes, and so on. This is Part 2 of the CWN series on how to write a movie script. Click here to go to Part 1 of the series. At the bottom of the page, you'll also find links to related pages with screenwriting tips and information about free screenplay software.
The basics of screenplay structure
Screenplays for feature-length movies tend to follow some fairly standard rules. That doesn't mean that you can't be creative. Any set of rules that applies to such wildly different films Shrek, Twilight, Million Dollar Baby, and Little Miss Sunshine probably has room for your creative vision as well.
As I said earlier, if you decide not to break the rules, no one's going to come and drag you off from jail. But no one's likely to produce your film either.
Let's talk numbers
Full-length screenplays are generally 100-120 pages, using formatting that I will discuss in a moment. The inciting incident
(i.e., the event that gets your hero off his couch) normally takes place about ten or fifteen pages in.
The bulk of the screenplay shows the hero struggling against difficulties in order to reach a final goal. This struggle builds to the story climax
, which takes place near the screenplay's end.
Different screenwriters and screenwriting teachers analyze the rest of the structure in different ways. Most agree that screenplays typically have three acts, or parts, basically a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Act 1 is about 30 pages and introduces the story. This is when we get to know the hero and when the inciting incident gets him out of his sofa and into battle mode. Act 2, about 60 pages, is the main part of the story. This is where your poor hero gets knocked around and the stakes get raised. His problems just get worse and worse, and the need to solve them seems more and more urgent. Act 3 is often a bit shorter than Act 1, maybe 20-30 pages. This is where you have the story climax, the final, last-ditch battle that determines the end of the movie. Then the dust clears and the hero rides off into the sunset (or gets trampled to death by his horse).
You can find a detailed analysis of the 3-act screenplay structure on Alexandra Sokoloff's wonderful writing blog
In addition to three acts, Alexandra Sokoloff also proposes that screenplays can generally be broken down to eight fifteen-minute segments
. Writer/Director Nathan Marshall, on the other hand, breaks the three acts into five key moments
, including a point at about page 17, or 17-minutes into the screenplay, when the main conflict is laid out.
The structure of scenes
A feature-length screenplay is made of about 50-70 scenes. These scenes are the bricks in the wall, the beads in the necklace, the vertebrae in the spine, or whatever metaphor you want to insert here. Each scene has a setting (where it happens), a time, and something that is shown or happens. Each scene in your screenplay should have a purpose. It should either move your character closer or farther from his goal or should deepen the audience's understanding of the character or the situation.
In his book How to Write a Selling Screenplay
, Christopher Keane suggests thinking of every scene as a tiny screenplay with its own beginning, middle, and end (it's often best to have an open ending, though, that leaves the audience wondering what will happen next). Christopher Keane refers to some advice on writing scenes from screenwriter William Goldman: decide what the central point of your scene is, then back up just a little and start your scene there.
The best way to learn about screenplay structure is to read lot of screenplays and study how they're put together. You can find lots of screenplays on websites such as www.script-o-rama.com
Click on one of the links below:
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