Story structure is such a huge part of screenwriting. There is a resistance to such an emphasis on structure in some circles, and I've missed out on screenwriting gigs in the past because of my own interest in the subject. However, to dismiss screenwriting structure so quickly is to fundamentally misunderstand how we engage with screen media.
One of the key differences between novel storytelling and screen storytelling is that a novel is not expected to be finished in one sitting. However, a film is expected to be watched in one go, and in a specific venue like a cinema. Even television nowadays expect audiences to binge-watch a series. With all of this in mind, the structure becomes very important so as to hold the audience's engagement.
Many screenwriters starting out are not confident in how to structure a screen story and so they lean on some of the story maps and guides that populate screenwriting blogs (such as this) or how-to manuals. There is nothing wrong with this at all, but I want to explain how you can build your own story structure - to let go of things like "on page 10 the inciting incident must happen" and all these other arbitrary rules, and to instead use logic and an understanding of audience engagement to help you better understand how to tell your own specific story.
Before We Begin... For this breakdown, I'll be using Phil Parker's theories of genre, theme, and tone which can be found in his work The Art and Science of Screenwriting. I won't go into these here, but in simplified terms, when I refer to tone, I'm referring to Comedy/Tragedy/Drama and I'll be using a more precise taxonomy of stories than we typically tend to use when discussing genre. The same goes for the theme.
Okay, let's begin.
Step 1: Act Breakdown The first thing you need to do is decide how many acts your story will have. I'm of the belief (and I'm sure people will argue with me on this) that acts are like slices of pie. You can have as many slices as you want but the pie is still the same. I believe you can have three acts, five acts (if you subscribe to John Yorke's theory of story structure) or as many as you want. At the end of the day, your story is not going to be longer or shorter because of this aspect. I encourage working with three acts because it's hard enough to get a hang of three-act structure without making things more complicated. Again, I'm sure people will disagree but there you go.
Step 2: The Function of Each Act
Now that you've decided on an act breakdown, you must decide on the function of each act. Again, this is where working with three acts can come in handy. It makes life a lot easier when trying to understand the function of each. Generally speaking, the first act is the set up for the journey ahead. It's the introduction of all the ingredients that the story will need. It's the set up for the necessity for the journey. The second act is usually the journey itself and it's the protagonist's pursuit of their external goal, their 'want'. The third act is usually the 'climbing back on the horse' moment. It's the part where the protagonist has to choose between pursuing their external 'want' or their internal 'need'. It's the conclusion of the journey where the protagonist has a chance to come out the other end a changed person (for better or worse).
You must decide on the function of each act and then build each act accordingly.
Step 3: Deciding on Your Active Questions
This ties in with Step 2. There should be an active question driving each act. The resolution (at least in part) of that question can trigger the end of that act.
Introduce the question early in act 1, and then allow the climax of act 1 to trigger a new active question for act 2. Repeat this for act 3 and you will keep your audience engaged throughout.
Step 4: Deciding on Story length
As a rule, make sure your second act (if prescribing to three-act structure) is double the length of your first act or third act. Another way of looking at is that the actual journey is half the length of the overall script. With this in mind, you can assign a page length for each act. In a 100 page script, act one would be 25 pages, act 2 would be 50 pages and act 3 would be 25 pages.
This might not seem important, but it lays down the pacing of the story and it also makes sure you don't go overboard on your different story threads.
Step 5: Allocating Space to Your Various Story Threads Your script will almost always have more than one story thread. We call these A stories, B stories and so on. They might also be known as subplots.
You need to make sure that your subplots don't overwhelm the main story. As a rule, a dual protagonist story will allocate 50% of the script to each protagonist's journey. In a single protagonist story, your protagonist will receive about 75% of the story, with 25% being allocated to the B story. As more stories come into play, you can allocate more space if needs be. But don't go overboard.
Step 6: What is the Function of the Other Storylines?
Your subplots need to have a function and they can't detract from the main protagonist's quest. I've written about how to write a B-Story in another post, so be sure to check that out if you are unsure about this aspect.
Generally speaking, your B-Story will help your protagonist understand their 'internal need' or, at the very least, help them to achieve their external 'want'. When you understand the function of these subplots in your story, you can distribute space on your map for them in an appropriate way that benefits the protagonist's journey. Step 7: Understanding the Theme of Your Story What is the theme of your story? Many screenwriters go nuts and rattle off a list of themes, but there should be one dominant theme in your script. Figure out what that is before you even start and write the story around that theme.
Let's say your theme is 'revenge'. Everything your protagonist does should be built around revenge. Naturally then, your antagonist should be built around the opposite of that (as they are opposing forces). This is why in most revenge stories, the antagonist is a law enforcement officer of some sort. They are naturally opposed to the idea of revenge and they get in the way of the protagonist.
When you know this, it becomes very easy to lay down the beats of what your protagonist will do throughout the story. It gives you a compass that you can refer back to, to see if your protagonist is moving in the right direction.
It gives you enough information to lay down the beats of what your antagonist will do as well.
Step 8: Understanding the Tone of Your Story
The same goes for tone. Is your story tonally comedic? Tonally tragic? Or tonally dramatic (the drama coming from not knowing how the story will unfold).
When you understand this, it again becomes easy to understand how your protagonist will act and how their journey will play out throughout the story. For example, if we accept that James Bond is tonally comedic by nature (in that he always bounces back at the end with a quip and a one-liner), then it becomes obvious how the story will end. If we accept that Jason Bourne is a tragic character (in that he loses everything and is less than he was before in each subsequent chapter of the story), then it becomes clearer how his story will end as well.
Again, it's a compass to refer back to.
Step 9: Balancing Your Scenes Appropriately Remember that comedic scenes work in contrast to less comedic moments around them. Bridesmaids is a great example of comedy because the film isn't laugh-out-loud from start to finish. There are very sombre moments in that film - but the comedic moments work because they are contrasted against those moments. Likewise, the sombre and more poignant moments work because they are next to the hilarious scenes.
If your film is going to end tragically, there should be signs of hope building up that moment. Otherwise, the tragedy is not as effective. If it's going to be a happy ending, make us feel things could end badly for our hero. That way, the pay off is more satisfying. For more info on writing a great tragedy, have a look at this previous post I wrote.
Case Study: Avengers Assemble (2012)
What's the film about? It's about The Avengers coming together to defeat Loki. It's a multiple protagonist story, with each character given almost equal screen time.
It has a clear three-act structure and each act has a clear function. Act 1 is about bringing the team together. Act 2 is about getting them to work together, albeit reluctantly. At the end of that act, they fail and act 3 is about them coming together once more to put their differences aside and move forward stronger as a unit. They defeat the villain and save the world.
It also has very clear active questions. The active question in Act 1 isn't "will the heroes come together?" as some might think. We know they will. The question that is on the audiences' minds is "how will the heroes come together?". What clever contrivances will the filmmakers employ to bring these people together for the adventure that awaits? The active question of Act 2 is "will they learn to work together?" and finally, the active question for Act 3 is "will they defeat Loki?". Each of these active questions gives the audience clear stages to consider throughout the film and, from a screenwriting perspective, it gives the writer clear objectives to aim for in the story.
The theme of the story is 'desire for order'. This is evident in almost all aspects of the film. Loki has a particular idea of order when he tries to enslave humanity. The Avengers want to restore order by defeating Loki. Even Nick Fury wants order among his unit when he recruits The Avengers to work together.
Tonally, this is a comedic story. It is comedic in some obvious ways (certain action moments or lines of dialogue) but it's also comedic because we know how the story will end. We know that Loki will be defeated and the characters will bounce back at the end. At that time, it was obvious that nothing was ever going to happen to our beloved Marvel characters. Now, not so much...
In terms of balance, it's a perfect example. If we look at the third act specifically, The Avengers find themselves separated and defeated. Then they have a high point when they get back together and move forward as one. This is followed by a low point when it looks like they will be defeated. Finally, there is a high point when they successfully defeat Loki and save the world.
This is a lot of information obviously. And it may not make sense on first reading. It isn't a magic wand to suddenly fix a poorly written script either. However, if you study these points, reflect on them and start applying them to your writing, you'll find that the story will start to reveal itself to you in interesting ways. At the very least, it can help you get around writer's block, particularly if you feel that you don't know where to take a particular story.
Have a go yourself and see where it takes you. Happy writing!
(Image copyright: Disney)