You undoubtedly have a pretty good idea that the judges at serious screenwriting competitions will be grading your work on a number of specific elements. One of the most critical is the structure of your screenplay. Without a beginning, middle, and end, your screenplay is simply going to have a difficult time making it to the finals of any script writing contest.
Why is that?
Because every screenplay is something like a house of cards; one misplaced element, one slip, and the whole thing falls in on itself.
A screenplay is a collection of interdependent elements; each one affects the other. Each of those
elements comes to life in a series of causes and effects and none can come to life without the other.
You’ve certainly heard the word “structure” as it applies to dramatic writing. You understand the
importance of beginning, middle, and end in any short story, novel, epic poem, play, or movie. Your screenplay is no exception.
Consider these three essential story-telling screenwriting “moments”:
Often referred to as “the inciting incident,” something has to happen to make the protagonist do
something in pursuit of his/her objective. This is where your active protagonist-hero investigates the challenge, makes plans to deal with it, gathers resources, and sets out to achieve objectives in the most active way possible. And then something happens. Plans are revealed as flawed, additional
obstacles begin to appear, insurmountable tragedy befalls our hero. All appears lost and we’re at an absolute low point or moment of despair. And then…the hero sucks it up, develops an alternative plan
of attack, realizes what’s really important, and finally summons the courage to go on.
With a new plan in place, the hero forges ahead, only to discover that the new plan won’t work, that courage isn’t enough, or that the antagonist is smarter/stronger than anyone could have anticipated. Ultimately, the protagonist overcomes the final obstacle to achieve the goal or objective.
You’ll find this straightforward three act structure in almost all fiction dating back to Homer, and
certainly in the majority of scripts that rank well in today’s screenwriting competitions. Why? Because it works and it’s expected. Our collective cultural story sense is attuned to the struggles of
protagonist-heroes, the challenges presented by antagonist-villains, and those always unforeseen
- Make your characters’ ambitions-wants-needs-objectives crystal clear as soon as possible. Create obstacles to your characters’ achieving those ends. Let us know right away what your hero wants. Make sure we care about seeing them achieve their objectives.
- Be sure we have a clear picture of the period, place, and scope of the story. If it’s the surface of Mars, say so. If it’s the back alleys of Victorian London, say so. Don’t make the reader wonder about anything.
- Build tension. Create obstacles.