There is no one-size-fits-all paradigm for proper screenplay structure.
There are, however, certain functional elements that are necessary to the telling of a good screen story.
For convenience, these elements are usually broken down into the industry expected and accepted three acts.
The elements described in the act breakdowns that follow are short, sweet, to the point, and typical, but by no means universal or all-inclusive.
ACT 1: Introduction and Setup (about 25/30 pages) – The Central Dramatic Question that acts as the story’s spine (through-line) is posed.
- Sets up the backdrop for the story – those that are necessary to the piece — tone, mood, economics, societal rules, and/or universe of the story being presented, etc.
- Introduces the protagonist and his life situation in such a way that the reader/audience will form an emotional connection and/or empathize and/or sympathize with the protagonist. This is not to say that the character is not in some way flawed. In fact, flaws make for better protagonists (and characters).
- Introduces the major change that upsets the status quo or disrupts the equilibrium of the protagonist’s life.
The bullet point directly above this sentence happens, usually, by page ten. Normally called the story’s hook.
- Introduces other major characters necessary to the story.
- Introduces the decision made by the protagonist to restore balance to his world. This decision results in a clear goal now embraced by the protagonist.
This decision is the basis for the central dramatic question which will serve as the spine (through-line) of the story.
“Will the protagonist overcome (fill in the obstacles), to achieve (fill in the goal) and thus succeed in restoring balance to his/her world, or suffer (consequences if he/she doesn’t)?”
- Introduces the antagonist and/or other forces that may or may not be responsible for the change in the antagonist’s life, but are always a source of obstacles, barriers and complications.
- The protagonist comes up with some sort of plan.
When the protagonist acts on the plan the story kicks into gear and into act two.
ACT 2: Obstacles, Complications, Failures (and a sub-plot or two – the next 50/60 pages or so) The Central Dramatic Question is exploited.
- Often times, the protagonist’s plan, or a part thereof is revealed early on in the second act.
- The protagonist may gain an ally or allies. These characters may be involved in sub-plots that either parallel or intersect the story’s through-line.
- In the process of coming to grips with the barriers and obstacles of act two, the protagonist experiences some form of growth that allows him to overcome his or her serious character flaw, gain some new ability or come more into his/her own.
- Sometimes a fumbled effort or new hard-won knowledge causes the story to take off in a new direction. (The Wiz won’t help Dorothy and her friend unless she brings back the witch’s broom. Known as a plot twist.)
- At the end of act 2 we move into “the darkest hour.” It appears all is lost and there’s no way the protagonist is going to succeed.
ACT 3: The conclusion (about the last 10 – 20 pages). The Central Dramatic Question is answered. All loose ends are wrapped up, subplots are closed (if not already achieved).
The hero either comes up with some clever or amazing or brilliant or effective and/or usually heretofore not-thought-of solution to:
- Rise to the occasion and achieve his/her goal. (An up ending – most common.)
- Rise to the occasion and achieve the goal, but in the process he/she loses something else. (A bittersweet ending.)
Or, despite the last-ditch effort:
- Fails to rise to the occasion and he/she succumbs suffering the dire consequence that has been foretold should failure be the outcome. (A down ending.)