What Is a Screenplay?
A screenplay, also called a script, is a written document that includes everything that is seen or heard on screen: locations, character dialogue, and action. From the first draft to its final incarnation, a screenplay tells a story. However, it is also a technical document that contains all the information needed to film a movie.
How to Structure a Screenplay
Notable screenwriters and script consultants like Syd Field, Blake Snyder, and Michael Hauge have written books about how to properly tackle a screenplay’s story structure. While the exact story specifics of your favorite Hollywood movies vary, they mostly follow a similar basic plot structure that includes a beginning, a middle, and an end, shaped and paced by key elements or moments:
- The setup: The beginning of your first act contains the opening image of your film, an introduction to the main characters, the theme of the film, and the overall point of the story. The setup takes place in the first 10 pages of a screenplay, and should be both visually and emotionally stimulating enough to keep the reader invested. For example, the opening scene of The Truman Show (1998) shows us the key players and what the film will be about by using interview footage of the director and actors as they describe Truman’s unique circumstance and how they feel about the role they play in his staged living environment. Although the audience doesn’t know what twists and turns await, they have an understanding of the kind of story they’re going to see.
- The catalyst: Also known as the “inciting incident,” the catalyst is a call to action—the circumstance that thrusts your protagonist into the story. The catalyst can be a piece of information or a small event that pushes the lead character into setting the rest of the story events in motion. In Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), the catalyst is when the two Army Intelligence agents inform Indiana Jones that the Nazis are working with his old mentor, spurring him into action.
- Plot point one: In screenwriting, the end of act one is where the hero reaches their first major turning point, ushering viewers into the second act. At this point, the protagonist decides to leave their “normal world” behind and commits to the new story world. Once the protagonist answers this call to action, their journey truly begins, and they cannot go back to the life they once had. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001), act two starts when Harry Potter enters Hogwarts and discovers a new environment full of people just like him. The beginning of the second act is where elements of the B-story (sub-plot) are usually introduced, like the potential love interest or other secondary storylines that will come into play.
- The midpoint: The middle of your screenplay is where the stakes are raised and the audience finds out the true capability of the characters and the potential drama that awaits. Obstacles, subplots, and other conflicting events threatening the hero’s overall goal begin to unfold, giving the audience plenty to root for (or against). In the first Harry Potter film, the midpoint is when Harry’s broom loses control during the Quidditch match, and Hermione, believing Snape is trying to hurt Harry, sets his cloak on fire. This moment shows the possible foe these young characters are up against, and what they’re willing to do to save one another.
- The despair: At this point in the screenplay, the world has gotten the best of the heroes and all hope is lost. Both internal and external conflicts are heightened towards the end of act two, and the main characters have reached a low point. The characters believe they have truly lost, and there is no hope for redemption. The end of the second act is where the heroes feel defeat, and perhaps will not succeed in their endeavors.
- The redemption: By act three, the characters conceive of a winning plan, or at the very least, the hero is reinvigorated enough to attempt to solve the story’s conflict once and for all. The hero is no longer hopeless, they are going to fight for their cause—to save the people, the city, the school, etc. During the redemption, the hero pushes forward with an attempt that may save the day.
- The end: The story wraps up by the end of the third act. While your story should have reached a resolution, it does not necessarily mean your screenplay has to have a neat, button-ending, or a happy resolution. The story outlined by your premise has its own conclusion or sense of closure, even if there is an overarching plot that continues beyond this film’s story for future sequels.
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