How To Write a Screenplay (Resource article)

The title of this article is not How To Write A Fantastic Screenplay. To write a fantastic screenplay, you need vivid, visual descriptions, multi-dimensional characters, and a compelling plot full of conflict and twists and turns. The first step to all that exciting stuff is to step back and take a look at the general structure of a screenplay.

Screenplays (and movies) can generally be broken down into three acts. In a two hour film, Act I averages 30 pages, Act II is 60 pages, and Act III is 30 pages. One page equals roughly one minute of screen time, meaning the average length of a script is 90-120 pages. Though it not necessarily critical to stick to the three-act structure, it is vital to carefully construct your screenplay if you’re going to stay within these page constraints. There’s no room to go on tangents in a screenplay. If a scene does not advance the story and/or the character, it doesn’t belong in the script. If you want to spend five pages describing your heroine’s wedding gown, write a novel. In a script, you’ll have to settle for “she enters, wearing a fancy wedding dress.” Sorry. A script’s gotta keep moving.

Pages 1-15 are for your setup. Get to the point of the story quickly. What is the story about? Something needs to happen to your main character by page 15 that really gets the story moving. In the first few minutes of THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, poor Andy Dufresne is sentenced to life in prison.

The first plot point should come around page 25. A plot point is an event that changes the direction of the story. Plot Point 1 sent Marty McFly back to 1955 in Back to the Future. The first major plot point that occurs in the script launches the story full-force into Act II. A second a major plot point leads into Act III. There can (and should be) many plot points along the way, but having a major one around page 25 and another major one around page 75 is helpful in a well-structured screenplay. There can also be a fairly major plot point that occurs halfway through the script. This is called a midpoint.

The second major plot point is usually the point where things look the worst for the protagonist. If your main character is gathering flowers and singing gaily at this point in the story, you’ve got problems. If everything is honky-dory, why keep reading the script? Around page 75, sweet little E.T. appears to be dead. Would you keep reading if he and Elliott were sitting around playing Parcheesi?

The climax, which arrives around page 90, is just what it sounds likes. This is do or die time, the smackdown between the good guy and the bad guy. This is where the lowly farmgirl from Kansas ices the witch with a bucket of water. Everything in the story has been leading up to this moment. If you haven’t very carefully structured your story up to this point, you will have nowhere to go.

Finally, there is the resolution. This is where you wrap things up. There shouldn’t be all that much to say at this point so don’t hang around. After the dinosaurs eat everybody and the main characters barely escape Jurassic Park with their lives, what else is there to say? John Hammond realizes his zoo from hell was NOT a good idea and finally admits it. Roll credits.

Choose a movie that you have heard is good or choose one that you’ve already seen and know to be entertaining. Try to identify the setup, the first plot point, the second plot point, the climax, and the resolution. In particular, notice how the story keeps moving. Each scene and even each line of dialogue is there for a reason. It either advances the story, advances the character, or does both.

Conversely, the next time you find yourself bored by a movie, ask yourself if it’s because there are unnecessary scenes that don’t really contribute much to the story. In a bad comedy, scenes are stuck in there for allegedly “humorous” purposes. In a subpar action film, random things explode and excess car chases ensue for added “excitement”. These things feel tacked on because they are. They are not an integral part of the story and thus do not generate emotion, except perhaps annoyance.

Many important elements go into making an entertaining script designed to result in a compelling movie. Though the three-act structure is not a hard and fast Hollywood rule, it can be argued that nearly all of the most successful films generally conform to this internal structure. The most interesting stories are the ones that continue to introduce conflict and consistently move forward. Any movie that bores you at the beginning but ends with an entertaining and memorable final act is not a good film. A good movie is one that grabs you from the first moment and never lets go. Audiences were stunned when Daddy Darth Vader was revealed because they were utterly spellbound by the rest of the story that came before. Donald being revealed as Howard the Duck’s father would have resulted in a big who cares? A clever twist only works if the rest of the story is structured well. A great movie starts with a great screenplay. And a great screenplay starts on page ONE.