“A screenplay is a story told with pictures in dialogue and description and placed within the context of dramatic structure” – Syd Field
Did you do your homework and create a log line for your story? If not, go back to the last section and follow the instructions on creating a log line. If you did that, great! Pat yourself on the back and let’s continue.
Before we dive into the plot structure of your story, you need to be clear about what you are writing. What you’re being taught is the art of writing a screenplay, not a novel. According to Hollywood screenplay consultant Syd Field, “A screenplay is a story told with pictures in dialogue and description and placed within the context of dramatic structure”. That basically means a screenplay is specifically designed to be translated to a moving visual medium such as cinema, television or video game cutscenes. A screenplay is not a novel, a comic book or a radioplay. Screenplays should first and foremost tell the story visually and should only include dialogue when necessary to move the story along or to reveal character traits/intentions, etc. This is the opposite of a novel or a radio play where the use of dialogue and narrative is the only means of getting the message across.
If writing lots and lots of dialogue is your thing, then I suggest you write for radio or theatre. In a stage play, it’s not easy to communciate emotion and character intention through facial expressions and subtle movements because not everyone in the audience can see all that. That’s why most stage plays do it through dialogue, and pretty much every actor/actress I’ve worked with has told me the same thing – and the more stage-time/exposure they get, the better it is for them. The same rule applies to novels and radioplays in which there are no visuals at all so it has to be all done with words.
So to recap, screenplays are all about visual storytelling for film, TV and video game cutscenes. Dialogue is only used when necessary and should be kept short, punchy and in character (this will be covered in a later chapter). An excellent example of pure visual story-telling is a recent silent movie called “The Artist”. In that film, all the character’s emotions and intentions were effectively communicated via the actor’s movements and facial expressions. This goes to show that in a visual medium such as film, the use of dialogue is only necessary when it’s neccessary. With that out of the way, let’s move onto…
The Basic Structure of a Screenplay
Before you start writing scenes and dialogue you need to craft the basic framework of your story (think of this stage as setting up the construction site for a new building). Let’s start off simple and build upon it as we go along.
In her book, “How to Write a Movie in 21 Days” (which I highly recommend you read), author Viki King compares writing a new screenplay with hanging up a table cloth on a washing line. You pin one corner first, then the last. Now because the cloth is sagging and blowing around in the wind, you then add a pin to the centre to secure it to the line. But that’s not enough. You continue dividing and pinning the sagging areas to the line until your table cloth is securely fastened to it. Screenwriting has a similar process. You start with the beginning and end points (the first two pins on the table cloth). Then you divide the story by adding a middle point, then fill in the gaps with further plot points. Make sense? Don’t worry, it’ll sink in as we go along. Alright people, sharpen those pencils or fire up notepad and let’s start with the first task.
Let’s start by answering the following questions:
- Who is your main protagonist? (A protagonist is the main ‘good guy/girl’)
- What happens at the beginning of your story?
- What happens at the end?
These 3 components are crucial to your script and are pretty much the basics of every story ever written.
So far your plot structure looks like this:
Now although that’s all very nice it’s looking a little dull right now so we’re gonna now go ahead and split the action into three major story units which brings us to…
The 3 Act Structure
Think of an act as a substory within your main story. It’s main purpose is to drive your story intelligently from the beginning to the end. Most screenplays are divided into three acts.
- Act 1 – This is the setup of your story. This part of the screenplay outlines the protagonist’s normal life and the ‘ordinary’ world in which they live, and the struggles and desires they have.
- Act 2 – This is the largest part and the main chunk of your story. This is where all the action, confrontations, conflicts and mishaps happen. This is where the character begins to change and evolve.
- Act 3 – This is the resolution of your story. In this part, the main protagonist takes into account everything they’ve learned from acts 1 and 2 and puts into action to get to the goal and to ultimately change into a better person.
To effectively divide the screenplay into three acts, we need two major turning points. One of them comes at the end of Act 1 and leads us into Act 2. The other one comes at the end of Act 2 and leads us into Act 3.
Screenwriter Syd Field refers to these as “Plot Point 1” and “Plot Point 2“. Blake Snyder refers to them as “Breaks” and calls them “Break Into 2” and “Break Into 3“. It doesn’t matter what you call them, all you need to know is, these two major twists in the story link the 3 acts together as a chain.
So what kind of twists are we talking about here? Here’s my explanation. The plot point or twist in the story is an incident which takes place which spins the main protagonist’s life in a completely different direction.
Now this can be a little hard to grasp at first so let me use a few examples to explain what I mean.
Twist 1 – The first twist comes when Neo is confronted by enemy agents which leads to his meeting with Morpheus. Neo’s life has taken a major turn and things are no longer the same. Act 2 will follow Neo as he learns about the matrix, confronts enemy agents and meets with mentors. This will all end when we hit the end of Act 2 which contains the second major twist.
Twist 2 – The realisation that Neo is the all powerful being they’ve been waiting for, known as “the one“. Again this is a major twist which catapults the protagonist’s life in a completely different direction – things are not the same any more and Neo is a changed man. Act 3 will now focus on Neo’s new power being used in the ultimate final battle against the enemy agents.
Anaksha Dark Angel
Twist 1 – While investigating murdered teenager Annabelle DeMartini, private eye Jack Goldwyn discovers a darker subplot which potentially links Annabelle’s death to the recent drug epidemic. Jack realises the importance of this and now moves his focus on hunting down the source of the epidemic. Act 2 now focuses on Jack’s experiences in uncovering the epidemic and hunting down the Virgo Killer – a vigilante who he believes has killed his father.
Twist 2 – Jack locates the source of the drugs thanks to a snitch and discovers the real identity of his father’s killer. Jack is now more determined then ever and he’s going to do whatever it takes to smash the ring of criminals responsible for the drugs. Jack is a changed person and no longer holds any hatred or bitterness towards the vigilante who he originally blamed for his father’s death. Act 3 now focuses on how Jack smashes the drug epidemic and proves the innocence of the Virgo Killer.
Twist 1 – Rose attempts to commit suicide to escape a dull, meaningless life of aristocracy. While doing so she confronts Jack who manages to prevent her from throwing herself off the edge of the Titanic. This point establishes the start of their relationship and act 2 now focuses on them getting to know each other, experiencing the fun side of life and learning to love each other despite the forces that are trying to seperate them such as Rose’s mother and Rose’s fiancee, Cal. Act 2 also explores how Jack and Rose try and stay together when disaster strikes the Titanic in the form of an iceberg.
Twist 2 – Rose is saved by a lifeboat but she is without Jack. Knowing she will die, she leaps off the lifeboat and returns to the sinking ship so she can be with her lover. If she is going to die, she’d rather be with Jack. Rose’s life has changed and she is a different person thanks to everything she’s learnt from Jack during act 2 and now she cannot live without him.
Twist 1 – Rick meets Elsa, a past flame who suddenly turns up at his bar with her fiancee. Rick is immensly bitter and angry towards her and we get the feeling his cynical attitude comes from the negative experience he had when she left him for another man. Rick’s life has taken a turn now that she’s returned. Act 2 will now focus on Rick’s relationship with Elsa and how this effects his life and character.
Twist 2 – Despite their bitter past, Rick decides to help Elsa and her fiancee escape Casablanca for a better life, even if it means risking his own neck – something he would never have done for anyone. Again we see how Rick’s life has taken a major turn and his character has changed. Act 3 focuses on how Rick will help Elsa and her fiancee and how he will handle any obstacles, such as the Nazi soldiers who are after Elsa’s fiancee.
These examples should give you a basic idea of how to divide the three acts. Remember, twist 1 comes at the end of act 1 and twist 2 comes at the end of act 2. So now your plot structure should look like this:
OK I think that should be enough for today’s lesson. Have a go at splitting your story into three major acts by adding those two plot twists. In the next chapter, we’ll finish off the foundations of your screenplay by dividing the story even further.
Til next time.
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