Jul 22, 2010

How to Structure a Film Script

Good scriptwriting starts with structure. Learning when and where to insert plot turns and act breaks can take years...unless someone has already done the work for you

Writing film scripts isn’t just about talent, creativity and hard work. Underpinning the drama, the emotion, and the conflict inherent in all good scripts is a standardised yet flexible structure of critical plot points called beats.

The nine critical beats every script should contain include:

1. The opening image (Act 1 begins)
2. The introduction
3. The catalyst
4. The big event (Act 2 begins)
5. The midpoint or pinch
6. The crisis (Act 3 begins)
7. The showdown or finale
8. The resolution
9. The final image.

Act 1: Setting the Scene Using the Opening Image

The opening image must locate the film in a reality and ensure that the audience are aware of the film’s genre, style and mood. For example, a film set in Los Angeles may begin with shots of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, Hollywood Boulevard and The Hollywood Sign. If the picture is a comedy, the audience might also see a man, dressed like a female, chasing a Chihuahua down the street. If it’s a thriller, the audience would be more likely to see a detective (the hero) meandering toward a coffee shop in search of a doughnut.

Writing a Great Introduction

After the opening image, the screen writer must set-up the world. All major characters should be introduced (including the antagonist) and the hum-drum of their daily lives exposed. The theme and main character’s flaw should also be revealed (although one or both may not be obvious) and all of this should occur within the first 10 pages.
The Importance of the Catalyst

The catalyst is the first tremor of the earthquake to come: the set-up for the payoff. The main character will often be unaware that a critical event has occurred, but once in motion the ramifications of the catalyst cannot be avoided. The result is the big event.
Act 2: the Big Event Must be Catastrophic

The big event must turn the hero’s world upside down and ensure that life can never be the same. In the film Titanic, it’s the iceberg. In Law Abiding Citizen, it’s Ames horrific death by lethal injection. In Star Wars, it’s the death of Luke’s aunt and uncle.

The Midpoint and its Effect on Pace

The midpoint should be positioned in the middle of the film and signify to the audience that the ante is about to be upped. After the midpoint, the character must commit to the course of action required to restore balance to their world and/or overcome whatever obstacle stands in the path of success. Unfortunately for the hero, this committal must be rebuked by a series of complications to ensure that the character suffers in order to grow. To exacerbate the intensity of the complications, the screen writer should also increase the pace of the script from the midpoint until the conclusion.
The Crisis: the Ultimate Test of Character

The crisis signifies the potential end of the road for the hero character. By overcoming the crisis, which is the moment when the character appears defeated and vulnerable, the character is able to demonstrate his or her strength and an ability to emotionally grow. This emotional growth is called an arc, and all of the characters in the film should arc, except for the villain.
The Resolution: the Will to Change Saves the Day

The resolution is the physical manifestation of the crisis. The hero must finally recognize and address the inner fault preventing him or her from success. The inner fault is often revealed as the theme and, once overcome, will allow the hero to conquer the broken aspect of their character to face-off against the antagonist.
The Showdown or Finale

The hero, emboldened by the acceptance to change, is finally in possession of the strength and knowledge required to defeat the villain. In its simplest form, it is the hero’s ability to change that finally grants him victory over his enemy: the antagonist is doomed to repeat the same mistakes because he or she lacks the ability to embrace change.
Setting the New Scene Using the Final Image

The final image must contrast the new world against the world of the opening image. It’s a vivid visual indicator to the audience that the world has changed for the better thanks to the hero.

Applying the nine beats listed above will ensure that a screen play contains all of the required plot turns to become a successful film. However, to gain a better understanding of how beats can be applied, and many other intricacies of writing for film and television, readers are encouraged to seek out the works of Syd Field, David Trottier and Blake Snyder.

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