Screenplay structure refers to a type of story structure commonly taught for writing feature length films. Though screenplay structure is a guideline and not meant to be restrictive or used for formulaic drama, ignoring it completely would be a mistake for new writers. Many famous screenwriters urge aspiring writers to learn the rules well, then forget them and write from the heart.
Traditionally, screenplays follow a three act structure: the Setup, the Main Conflict (Action) and the Resolution. Each act is a complete part of the overall story that has a beginning, middle and end or climax. The end of Act I dovetails perfectly into the beginning of Act II, or Main Conflict, while the final climax of Act II delivers us to the Resolution of Act III. Though there are several climaxes throughout a movie, they should build in intensity.
Plot points are key events within the acts that change or greatly complicate the action, and are strategically located at specific junctures to keep the story moving forward in a fresh direction. Acts and plot points work together to create a tight screenplay structure that holds the audience's interest.
- Act I — The Setup (30 pages long)
- Act II — The Main Conflict (60 pages long)
- Act III — Resolution (30 pages long)
Act I is referred to as the setup in screenplay structure because we meet our main character and learn of his or her dilemma. Commonly the story starts off with business as usual, the hero or heroine involved in their normal mode of life, when somewhere between pages 3 and 10, a trigger-event happens that throws the hero's world into turmoil or foreshadows trouble. On or about page 28, a mini-climax and plot point occurs that spins the action in a new direction, which delivers the story into the main conflict of Act II. Your worst fears imagined at page three have now become reality.
Act II is generally twice as long as Act I at approximately 60 pages, and is where most of the action takes place in the screenplay structure. Act II can be divided into two mini-acts, with the first 30 pages leading the main character into deeper and deeper trouble. Halfway through Act II, another major plot point spins the action in a new direction again, which launches us into the second half of the main conflict. Here the main character is at a total loss, with little hope for success. By about page 86, near the end of Act II, story events build to a thrilling climactic conclusion. The hero or heroine wins or loses, lives or dies.
Act III's resolution is where any loose ends are tied up and we see how the climax affected the other major characters in the story. Act III might be 20-30 pages or just a few pages, depending on the story's dictates. The general rule when it comes to screenplay structure is to get out as fast as possible after the final climax so that the film's emotional impact is not diluted by a lengthy resolution.
There are several variations to this basic screenplay structure. For example, George Lucas wrote Star Wars as three acts of equal length. Other writers, like Quentin Tarantino, tell stories out of sequential order to make them more interesting and less predictable. Acts need not be time-sequential as long as the audience can follow the action. It is also vital that the last climax is the most powerful and wraps up the story in a satisfying way.
In essence, story structure is simply great storytelling. Story dynamics boil down to believable characters in believable settings facing the hardest challenge of their lives. If such a story can be told disregarding all rules of screenplay structure, the writer would probably discover that a variation of the structure was buried within the story anyway. In other words, telling a great story makes for good structure as a by-product. Trying to tell a great story by getting the structure right won't work if the story isn't there.
From Aristotle's Poetics to Syd Field's The Screenwriter's Workbook, writers have been teaching the art of storytelling throughout the ages, dissecting the most powerful stories to see what makes them so effectively move the audience. If you're interested in screenplay structure, there are countless books to help aspiring writers learn the art of scriptwriting.