A Guide to Structuring Your Scripts and Screenplays
When you’re structuring your screenplay, there are a number of options to consider if you want the strongest script possible.
The backbone of every good film or video project is a solid script. And the backbone of every solid script is an even more solid structure. Structure is what makes the screenplay-writing-world go round, so to speak. It’s the deciding factor in why many film or video projects succeed or fail.
To properly structure your scripts and screenplays, you must first understand why you should bother. Once you have a good understanding of working with your structure, you can improvise and change it as you’d like — but usually only within the confines of the structure rules.
Let’s dive into the hows and whys when structuring your scripts and screenplays — as well as different structural alternatives — to give your films and projects the sturdiest backbone possible.
Break Down Your Idea
A project begins with a simple idea. Let’s make a cool short film based on this. Or, I’ve always wanted to tell this story — how do I take it from paper to film? In the beginning, it’s perfectly fine to free associate, without the confines of structure — or even knowing exactly what your idea will become.
However, once you form your idea into an actual film project, you’ll need to outline it and eventually write your script. Here’s a great article on how (and why) to break your idea and screenplay down.
It’s also helpful (early on) to start working with a script supervisor (here’s more info on what that role entails and why you might need one).
The Three-Act Structure
If you take any intro-to-screenwriting class (or even just search around online), you’ll probably find a lot of information about the “Three-Act Structure.” The roots of the three-act structure go deep into the history not only of film but also novels, plays, comic books, and more. And, you can find the three-act structure in films by everyone from Hitchcock to Spielberg.
Based on the work of the great Joseph Campbell and his efforts to unlock the monomyth (or Hero’s Journey), which we’re all accustomed to reading, watching, and writing about, the three-act structure is basically the following:
- Act 1: Setup
- Act II: Confrontation
- Act III: Resolution
However, there’s a lot of nuance behind those three acts. And while you can always read up a great deal more on the three-act structure, it’s important to know that once you understand it, you can definitely start bending — if not breaking — its rules. (Here’s an awesome article on how to do just that.)
Alternative Structures to Consider
Outside of the three-act structure, there are other alternative structures you can consider. (Although, it’s worth noting that the vast majority of the films and story narratives you encounter will be based on the three-act — many screenwriting books, seminars, and competitions often focus on the three-act.)
Here are some of the most well-known alternatives:
- 22 Steps: created by screenwriter John Truby, the 22 Steps are a more literal “step-by-step” structure to follow for blockbuster and adventure films.
- Four-Act: Often associated with television writing, the four-act is a modified version of the three-act structure that either divides the middle (2nd) act into two parts, or alternatively, adds a fourth act to the end.
- Progressive Complications: While compatible as a part of the three- (or four-) act structure, progressive complications involves structuring your story to make sure the stakes are constantly rising.
And there are plenty of other alternative structures out there, some with names and methodologies, and others that are completely undefined and up to you. In many ways, research is best, but it’s important to just start writing, make your own mistakes, get feedback, and write again.
Cover image by Saikorn.
For more script- and screenwriting advice and resources, check out some of these articles:
- Free Script Writing Software Options for the Low-Budget Filmmaker
- How to Overcome the 5 Biggest Obstacles to Writing Your Screenplay
- Interview: Christina Kallas on Writing and Directing Multi-Protagonist Screenplays
- 5 Important Tools Every Screenwriter Should Have
- Tips for Rewriting Your Screenplay Without Starting Completely Over