Will Your Structure Win the Next Screenwriting Contest?

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”:

Beginning.

Characters are introduced, setting is established, and a specific problem or challenge arises to prevent your protagonist from reaching his/her principal objective.  This objective needs to be as apparent as possible, as early as possible. Within the first ten pages is almost the standard in today’s screenwriting contests.

One of the best ways to get things rolling is to put your protagonist-hero in an impossibly difficult or threatening circumstance within the first few pages of your script, and to then make us care about the outcome.

Middle.

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.

End.

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 circumstances.

But putting a protagonist in a pickle is only the first step, and the point at which Act One leads us forward.

Moving forward into Act Two, this is where you need to get creative and give your hero the tools to deal with that threat and to make us believe he can use those tools effectively.

But if he simply goes out and overcomes the threat, we’re going to sense that something’s missing. We’re going to feel cheated if things are too easy.

It’s only when our protagonist/hero is suddenly faced with the consequences of his/her own hubris, lack of skill, or misjudgment of the challenge that we find ourselves becoming truly interested.  Will he/she succeed? Will they find true love? Will Earth be spared from alien domination?

If the success of our protagonist is a foregone conclusion at this point—the end of Act Two—then we’re not drawn further into the story.

Act Three reveals the protagonist-hero’s new plan of action.  As that plan moves forward, complications arise. This is the point at which we see just how heroic our protagonist is in overcoming those new challenges as he ultimately achieves the objectives established at the outset of the story.

So how do you build your structure so that you capture the reader from the outset and hold their attention through FADE OUT?

It’s simple, really: Make sure your script grabs the reader’s attention at the very beginning. Those first ten pages are the key to the reader moving on.  Establish your story premise, characters, conflict, and the stakes for your characters early, and your reader won’t be able to stop until FADE OUT.

  • 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.
  • Make those obstacles formidable, if not impossible to overcome.
  • Allow your hero to figure out what it takes to overcome those obstacles and then change the rules, or the objective, or the threat.
  • Take your hero off-balance and then let her discover the path to success.

Throughout all of this, keep the reader off-balance too. If the reader can guess where it’s all going at any point in the story, you have a structural problem.

Solve that problem before you write a single line of dialogue. Structural deficiencies don’t heal themselves or improve with clever dialogue.

Your concept and premise are the foundation of your screenplay. And your structure is the framework upon which all that follows will be hung.  Make sure that framework—your structure—stands straight, square, and strong.

Give your structure the attention it needs and you’ll give yourself the best chance of success in any screenwriting competition…including the one at The Los Angeles International Screenplay Awards.


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