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SCREENPLAY STRUCTURE

HOW TO CREATE
YOUR STORY BLUEPRINT

A MINI-eBOOK
BY LAURA CROSS

www.ScenarioWritingStudio.com
Written by Laura Cross

Copyright © 2009 Laura Cross. All rights reserved worldwide.

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TABLE OF CONTENTS

STRUCTURE IS FORM..................................................................................... 2

THE THREE-ACT STRUCTURE ......................................................................... 3

CREATE YOUR STORY BLUEPRINT .................................................................. 5

SCREENPLAY STRUCTURE EXAMPLE.............................................................. 13


2

STRUCTURE IS FORM

The structure of your screenplay is like the foundation of a house. It must be

constructed with the right material in the correct order, strong enough to support

all the necessary components of your script.

There is no paint-by-numbers, correct formula to create the perfect screenplay

structure. One size does not fit all in screenplay writing. No structural model

will be the right system for every movie.

But your script must have structure. Without structure, your story will collapse.

Regardless of what structural model you use, your story, like all compelling

stories, must:

1. Have a beginning, middle, and end (regardless of the chronological order

of events).

2. Create a situation, add complications, and provide a conclusion.

_______________________________________________________________________
Screenplay Structure: How To Create Your Story Blueprint
Laura Cross | www.ScenarioWritingStudio.com
3

THE THREE-ACT STRUCTURE

Most successful screenwriters use a version of the three-act structure to create

their story. First presented by Aristotle, the three-act structure has influenced

drama for hundreds of years and is alive-and-kicking today. It is the most

popular dramatic model. If you analyze a few of your favorite films, you’ll most

likely find the three-act structure in action. Let’s take a look at the three

divisions of the three-act structure.

ACT I

Act I sets up the situation. The protagonist lives his “normal” life (which is

defined by the individual story), but he has a fatal flaw. One day, there is a

reversal of fortune brought on by his fatal flaw. His ‘normal’ life is disrupted by

an incredible event that sends him on a journey.

ACT II

Act II creates complications. Obstacles make it difficult for the protagonist to

achieve his goal, which is solving the problem and righting the reversal.

Eventually the protagonist finds enlightenment and learns how to fix the problem

(often the protagonist is transformed, perhaps even altering his goal) but it’s too

late – a catastrophic event keeps him from his goal. All appears to be lost.

_______________________________________________________________________
Screenplay Structure: How To Create Your Story Blueprint
Laura Cross | www.ScenarioWritingStudio.com
4

ACT III

Act III provides the conclusion. A second reversal occurs (often with help from

an ally) which results in catharsis and the story is resolved.

This is a sparse definition of the three acts. Now we will examine the elements

contained in each act that will help you build your structure.

_______________________________________________________________________
Screenplay Structure: How To Create Your Story Blueprint
Laura Cross | www.ScenarioWritingStudio.com
5

CREATE YOUR STORY BLUEPRINT

Create your story blueprint by noting each point of your plot that fits into the

following structural elements. What event in your plot is the Point of Attack?

What event is the Inciting Incident? What is your Crisis event? When you

understand which event (or plot point) makes up each element, you have

created the structure of your screenplay. You now have a clear road map to

keep your writing on course and make sure your script arrives at the correct

destination.

ACT I ACT II Act III


The Situation Complications / Obstacles Conclusion
(20-30 pages) (50-60 pages) (15-30 pages)

Point Inciting First MidPoint Second Climax E


of Incident Turning Turning (Resolution) N
Attack Point Point D

_______________________________________________________________________
Screenplay Structure: How To Create Your Story Blueprint
Laura Cross | www.ScenarioWritingStudio.com
6

ACT I – THE SITUATION

The First Act is the set up where you will introduce the Protagonist/Hero (and

reveal his fatal flaw) and the Antagonist/Villain, and poses the dramatic question.

The inciting incident (what happens to your protagonist) and the first turning

point (what he decides to do) create a major dramatic question. A compelling

dramatic question arouses curiosity and suspense and engages the audience to

stick around and find out the answer. (Will Luke Skywalker join the rebel forces,

save Princess Leia and defeat the evil Empire?)

Within the first 30 pages of your script you will also


ACT I
convey the period (contemporary/past), the arena
THE SITUATION
(20-30 pages) (where the story takes place) and often the

Point of Attack “normal” balance of the protagonist’s life. Other


Inciting Incident
Call to Action important elements you need to establish are the
First Turning Point
tone, genre, and theme.

POINT OF ATTACK

The Point of Attack is where you choose to start the story on Page 1! It can be

an unusual event, special occasion or a crisis. It should be intriguing enough to

hook the viewer. The Godfather begins with a wedding. Star Wars launches

with the rebel forces under attack from the evil Empire and Princess Leia sending

a desperate message for help.

_______________________________________________________________________
Screenplay Structure: How To Create Your Story Blueprint
Laura Cross | www.ScenarioWritingStudio.com
7

INCITING INCIDENT

The Inciting Incident is the single event that sets the story in motion and forces

the protagonist to act. It can occur anywhere in the first act and may be the

same as the Point of Attack or the First Turning Point.

CALL TO ACTION

The First Act has set up a main character and a problem. The question

becomes, “What is at stake and what will the protagonist do about it?” The hero

has a dilemma - a difficult choice to make. The pros and cons, risks and rewards

are presented. Will he answer the call to action? Obi Wan Kenobi implores Luke

to join him in the resistance. Luke is compelled by Princess Leia’s holographic

plea for help but he has too many responsibilities at home and refuses the call to

action. (Luke is a “Reluctant Hero” – until he returns home to find his family

slaughtered by storm troopers and vows to learn the ways of the Force with Obi

Wan as his mentor.)

FIRST TURNING POINT

The First Turning Point occurs at the Act break. After this beat, the Hero is

thrust into a world that is new, risky, strange and in every way different from the

status quo established in the first few pages. Luke leaves his ordinary world

behind – and is thrust into a dangerous situation at the Mos Eisley Cantina – full

_______________________________________________________________________
Screenplay Structure: How To Create Your Story Blueprint
Laura Cross | www.ScenarioWritingStudio.com
8

of alien creatures deadly bounty hunters, and storm troopers – to join forces

with a ‘wanted’ smuggler/pilot, Han Solo, and his Wookie co-pilot.

ACT II – COMPLICATIONS AND OBSTACLES

Act II is full of complications and obstacles - constantly testing the hero and

raising the stakes. Act II also sees the subplot, or subplots, deepening. A

subplot involves secondary


ACT II
characters with concerns outside
COMPLICATIONS & OBSTACLES
the main dramatic question. The (50-60 pages)

subplot eventually intersects with First Attempt To Solve The Problem


Complications Ensue
the main plot in a way that affects MidPoint
The Villain is More Powerful Than The Hero
the protagonist and reinforces the Second Turning Point / Crisis

theme and premise.

FIRST ATTEMPT TO SOLVE PROBLEM

The Hero has a problem and he needs to solve it to achieve his goal. Whatever

the problem is, he will attempt to solve it by the easiest and most direct route

possible – and he will FAIL. This beat is about proving the problem can’t be

solved by a simple logical method. It is a set up for the ensuing complications

and obstacles.

_______________________________________________________________________
Screenplay Structure: How To Create Your Story Blueprint
Laura Cross | www.ScenarioWritingStudio.com
9

COMPLICATIONS ENSUE

There is no easy solution. The first attempt to solve the problem only results in

making the problem worse. (In North by Northwest, Thornhill goes to the UN to

try to solve the mystery of his abduction; he becomes indirectly involved in, and

falsely accused of, the murder of a dignitary. Now, he’s wanted by the police!)

MIDPOINT

The protagonist has suffered innumerable obstacles, conflicts, and complications

in his quest to achieve his goal. The action continues to escalate, raising the

stakes and increasing dramatic tension. There may be some successes but they

are always undone. The protagonist’s ‘world’ is unstable. By the MidPoint (or

the point of no return), the Hero has moved from a passive to a more active

relationship with the antagonist. The Hero is on the offensive and attempting to

take charge of the situation. (In some stories, the MidPoint may represent a

short-lived victory for the protagonist.)

THE VILLAIN IS MORE POWERFUL THAN THE HERO

The hero fights the good fight for his or her goal, but the antagonist is always

more powerful (mentally, physically, or psychologically). Even in an internal

conflict story, the antagonistic ‘forces’ will overpower the protagonist during this

beat.

_______________________________________________________________________
Screenplay Structure: How To Create Your Story Blueprint
Laura Cross | www.ScenarioWritingStudio.com
10

CRISIS / SECOND TURNING POINT

The Second Turning Point and Crisis is perhaps the most identifiable and

structurally important beats in the story (sometimes they are the same beat,

sometimes they are separate beats). The Second Turning Point is where the

worst thing that could possibly happen to the hero, happens, and he experiences

a major setback. This occurs at the act break at the end of Act II and launches

the story into Act III. It is the darkest moment when all hope seems lost.

The Crisis is where the Hero faces the ultimate emotional challenge. It is a

decisive moment of the greatest magnitude. When all seems lost, will the hero

have the strength to carry on? It’s a point of no return - where the Hero must

find the resolve within him and risk everything to reach his goal. (The personal

Crisis sometimes occurs early in Act III).

In some stories, the end of Act II also presents the answer to the dramatic

question (the mystery is solved, the killer is caught, the conspiracy is unraveled.)

In Se7en, at the end of Act II, the serial killer turns himself in at the police

station. The dramatic question - “Will the detectives stop the serial killer?” - is

answered. However, even though the dramatic question is answered, the story

does not end here.

_______________________________________________________________________
Screenplay Structure: How To Create Your Story Blueprint
Laura Cross | www.ScenarioWritingStudio.com
11

ACT III – THE CONCLUSION

Act III is the conclusion of the story. All sub-plots and loose ends are tied up.

The story is resolved in such a way that is surprising yet inevitable, and above

all, satisfying for the audience.


ACT III

THE CONCLUSION
ENLIGHTENMENT (15-30 pages)

As the MidPoint so often represents a short- Enlightenment


Run Up To The Climax
lived victory for the Hero, the end of Act II Climax
Resolution / Denouement
often represents a short-lived defeat.

Enlightenment occurs at the beginning of Act III. It is where the protagonist

finally understands how to defeat the antagonist. The goal is again possible. A

good enlightenment should be something the protagonist (and the audience)

could not have understood before enduring the conflicts and trials of Act II.

RUN UP TO THE CLIMAX

Now that the Hero is enlightened, he is renewed and ready to defeat the

antagonist and achieve his goal. There’s no room for exposition or explanation

in this section – the Hero must act or lose everything! The protagonist has

figured out how to solve the problem and is now racing to prevent a catastrophe

(whether internal or external).

_______________________________________________________________________
Screenplay Structure: How To Create Your Story Blueprint
Laura Cross | www.ScenarioWritingStudio.com
12

CLIMAX

The Climax is the final obstacle. It is the “Obligatory Scene,” where the Hero

confronts the Antagonist in a final struggle. If the dramatic question was not

answered at the end of Act II, then it is answered here.

RESOLUTION / DENOUEMENT

After the Climax, there is a moment of catharsis and order is restored to world of

the protagonist. This is the Resolution or Denouement and occurs in the last few

pages of the script (or the last page of a script). An effective story needs only a

brief resolution to end the screenplay - all the vital questions should already be

answered by the culmination of the climax.

_______________________________________________________________________
Screenplay Structure: How To Create Your Story Blueprint
Laura Cross | www.ScenarioWritingStudio.com
13

SCREENPLAY STRUCTURE EXAMPLE

“DIE HARD”

THE FIRST ACT

POINT OF ATTACK - John McClane arrives in Los Angeles from New York to

visit his estranged wife and children (in an attempt at reconciliation) during

Christmas.

INCITING INCIDENT – During a Christmas Eve office party, a group of

‘terrorists’ seize the Nakatomi building where McClane’s wife works and take 60

employees hostage, including McClane’s wife, Holly. McClane, who was at the

party, escapes being captured by slipping into the stairwell and going to another

floor, but remains trapped inside the building.

CALL TO ACTION – McClane immediately answers the call to action and begins

formulating a plan to save his wife and the hostages.

FIRST TURNING POINT – ‘Terrorist’ Hans Gruber kills Takagi and McClane is

thrown into a dangerous situation.

_______________________________________________________________________
Screenplay Structure: How To Create Your Story Blueprint
Laura Cross | www.ScenarioWritingStudio.com
14

THE SECOND ACT

FIRST ATTEMPT TO SOLVE THE PROBLEM – McClane sets off the fire alarm

to notify 911 dispatchers of an emergency situation. But the ‘terrorists’ are

tapped into the system and notify emergency dispatch it is a false alarm. No

help arrives. And now, the ‘terrorists’ are aware of McClane’s presence and are

determined to kill him.

COMPLICATIONS ENSUE - Two ‘terrorists’ attack McClane. He manages to kill

them and acquire one of their two-way radios and a gun. McClane uses the

radio to contact emergency dispatch to report the situation – but the dispatcher

doesn’t believe him and the ‘terrorists’ hear his call. Now the brother of one of

the ‘terrorists’ he killed is on a mission to take him out. Karl and two other

‘terrorists’ chase McClane into an airshaft. Just before they are about to find him

and kill him, the ‘terrorists’ retreat to the hostage area.

MIDPOINT – A patrol officer finally drives by the Nakatomi building, but

determines nothing is amiss. Just as the officer is driving away, McClane tosses

a body onto the windshield of the police car and fires a volley of shots from a

machine gun. Now he has their attention. The police are on their way to the

building. A brief moment of victory.

_______________________________________________________________________
Screenplay Structure: How To Create Your Story Blueprint
Laura Cross | www.ScenarioWritingStudio.com
15

THE VILLAIN IS MORE POWERFUL THAN THE HERO – Hans kills an

employee named Ellis and the police blame McClane for the death. The

‘terrorists’ blow up the SWAT truck and stop the FBI team from entering the

building by hitting them with a hail of bullets. The bad guys are winning.

TURNING POINT / CRISIS - While looking for the detonators McClane

acquired from one of his ‘terrorist’ kills, Hans and McClane run into each other.

Hans tricks McClane into believing he is an innocent hostage. McClane is

attacked by Karl, loses the detonators to the ‘terrorists’ and Hans gets away, only

to take McClane’s wife, Holly, as a personal hostage.

THE THIRD ACT

ENLIGHTENMENT – McClane figures out that Hans plans to slip away with the

stolen money by blowing up the roof of the Nakatomi building with the hostages

(so the FBI will believe he and the other ‘terrorists’ have died in the explosion).

RUN UP TO THE CLIMAX – McClane ascends to the roof and gets the hostages

out of danger then sets out to find his wife, Holly. The roof blows up and

McClane uses a fire hose to swing down the building and through the glass onto

a lower floor.

_______________________________________________________________________
Screenplay Structure: How To Create Your Story Blueprint
Laura Cross | www.ScenarioWritingStudio.com
16

CLIMAX - McClane confronts Hans and shoots him with a gun he has hidden

and taped to his back. Hans crashes through a window and falls several stories

to his death. McClane has killed the bad guys, and saved Holly and the hostages.

RESOLUTION / DENOUEMENT – McClane and his wife stumble out of the

Nakatomi building, bruised and battered and hugging one another. Officer

Powell shoots Karl dead, Holly punches out the annoying television reporter, and

the limo-guy, Argyle, drives the couple off into the sunset.

_______________________________________________________________________
Screenplay Structure: How To Create Your Story Blueprint
Laura Cross | www.ScenarioWritingStudio.com
17

SCREENPLAY BLUEPRINT

TITLE: ____________________________________

ACT I
POINT OF ATTACK: ____________________________________________
INCITING INCIDENT: __________________________________________
CALL TO ACTION: ______________________________________________
FIRST TURNING POINT: _______________________________________

ACT II
FIRST ATTEMPT TO SOLVE PROBLEM: ________________________
_________________________________________________________________
COMPLICATIONS ENSUE: _____________________________________
MIDPOINT: ____________________________________________________
VILLAIN IS MORE POWERFUL THAN THE HERO: _____________
_________________________________________________________________
SECOND TURNING POINT / CRISIS: ___________________________
_________________________________________________________________

ACT III
ENLIGHTENMENT: ___________________________________________
RUN UP TO THE CLIMAX: _____________________________________
CLIMAX: ______________________________________________________
RESOLUTION / DENOUEMENT: _______________________________

_______________________________________________________________________
Screenplay Structure: How To Create Your Story Blueprint
Laura Cross | www.ScenarioWritingStudio.com

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