When learning to write a screenplay, often writers tell beginners to just start writing and think about structure later. However, I have found the opposite to be much more useful and time effective, because writing first and then adding in structure is often a distraction from your work at large. So, this post is dedicated to teaching beginners about structure.
ALL screenplays have structure. No matter what. There is not one single movie out there that someone decided to write, who just let their pen flow and it somehow magically turned out to work perfectly on screen. It just doesn’t happen. Every screenplay writer must take into account the structure that screenplays require, and I will teach you the basic knowledge in structure.
The base of structure in all screenplays is the 3 Act Structure. If you’re not familiar with it, read up more on it here for some history. But you’ll learn that this is the base. Beginning, Middle, and End. Certain things have to happen by the first act, by the middle, by the climax, etc. A low point must come, a point of no return, a confrontation, etc. are just come of the things that all screenwriting formulas include, but none are all equally alike. Next, comes the interpretation of that 3 Act Structure/ Begining, Middle, and End. And this is where it gets interesting because YOU as a writer get to choose creatively what you think will work best for you. Although there is the basic 3 Act Structure that everyone must follow for writing a screenplay, there isn’t just one exact formula. So i’m here to suggest a few for you to pick from and to get started learning what it takes to write a screenplay structurally.
- In The Screenwriting Formula by Rob Tobin, he takes a basic stab at the screenwriting formula. You’ll find that other writers have tailored this formula more specifically, claiming for example there are 8 sequences within that basic formula (we’ll cover this one later in post). But Rob Tobin, keeps it simple. For people that have a hard time grasping structure and feel they get in way too deep over their heads, this book might be wise. In this book Rob Tobin covers the major elements of the first act, the major elements of the first part of the second act, the major elements of the second part of the second act, and major elements of the third act. He then lists what is essential to have within each act. For example, the major elements of the first act include: “The Hero and His Flaw, The Hero’s Redeemeing Qualities, Hero’s Enabling Circumstances”, etc. He claims that screenplays include 7 elements: The Hero, The Flaw, The Enabling Circumstances, The Opponent, The Hero’s Ally, The Life-Changing Event, Jeopardy, aand Combining Story Elements-but you’ll have to buy the book to read about how they are incorporated into structure
- Next, we have Chris Soth’s Million-Dollar Screenwriting: The Mini-Movie Method. In his DVD seminar (four DVDs with a running time of some 300 minutes) he goes into detail about how the three-act structure was designed for the theater. He argues the formula for screenwriting is based on “sequences” or “mini-movies” that keep the action moving forward and he shows how they meld to create a strong and vibrant story. His take on structure is very straightforward, and his DVD’s while not the best quality are still very informative.
- My all-time favorite and most effective which I will always stand by is The Story Solution by Eric Edson. Now I’m not going to go into too much detail here because I already did a post on this one alone- check it out here. But I think this screenwriting formula is the most effective because they’re short and simple. Instead of focusing on 8 sequences, which often take more to go into each one, you get to focus on 21-23 SMALL sequences which requires a lot more and is so much easier to follow. In Eric Edson’s book he lists exactly what needs to go in each sequence and gives specific examples for each sequence. But more than that his book is worth it because of the content he lists as necessary for a screenplay, which not all my other suggestions go into. However, if you don’t feel ready to inch out a little further and push yourself to go for this one (even though I will still suggest it to beginners) dont feel bad- you can go for a simple one like my first suggestion.
- There are also other things like the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet that you can use. I wouldn’t suggest using this alone because I don’t think it goes into as much detail as other books or DVD’s. You can certainly get Blake Snyder’s book as it doesn’t hurt to explore different formulas. In this beat sheet, there are a number of things listed in chronological order thats needed to write a movie. Example: Opening Image (1), Theme Stated (5), Set-up (1-10), Catalyst (12), Debate (12-25), etc.
There are so many different formulas I could show you guys, but I thought these were a good start. It’s important to explore and test these different formulas before sticking with one that will be your guide as you write your first screenplay from start to finish. I read a few books, took a few classes, and listened to some seminars before sticking to my favorite. I hope this post was some help in navigating screenwriting formula and please take my suggestions. Learn the formula so we can get to writing