Screenplay structure is perhaps the most intuitive and ‘learnable’ aspect of screenwriting.

In its simplest form, it’s Beginning/Middle/End.

But that leaves room for lots of interpretation.

I’ve heard and repeated the following short-hand:

Act 1: Get your Hero in a tree.

Act 2: Throw Rocks at them.

Act 3: Get them out of the tree.

Okay… how about some numbers?

In general, act 1 is 25% of your movie, act 2 is 50%, and act 3 is 25%. Or for a 100 page script, it would break down as:

Act 1(25 pages)

Act 2(50 pages)

Act 3 (25 pages)

I prefer to approach it from a ‘what’s your story about’ standpoint.

Borrowing from a gazillion sources. Your story is about:

  1. A Hero (protagonist) who really wants something (goal)
  2. But there’s something in the way (obstacle — often a villain)
  3. And if they don’t achieve their goal, something really bad will happen (the stakes)

Incidentally, all of these elements are essential to a good log-line.

An archaeologist (hero) must find the Ark of the Covenant(goal) before the Nazis(obstacle) get it and use its power to conquer the world.(stakes)

A amazonian warrior (hero) must hunt and slay the God of War Ares (goal and obstacle combo) to stop the war that will end the world (stakes).

Once you have you have all those things decided(hero, goal, obstacle, stakes)…structure is a breeze.

Act 1: The Setup

The Setup is about introducing all of those elements. First we meet a character, learn about their life. Something happens that gives them a goal. But the goal has heinous obstacles. So the character really doesn’t want to chase after that thing until the stakes become so great they’re propelled to do so.

Once all those things communicated to the audience/reader — you’re done with act 1 and into act 2. At the end of act 1 — you should be able to ask the reader ‘what’s the story about’ and they should be able to communicate the hero/goal/obstacle/stakes.

Act 2: The Promise of the Premise!

All those cool things in the logline are setup. The hero is after something (fame, the girl, the Lost Ark)! There’s an obstacle (often a villain) that’s keeping them from getting it. But if they stop something bad will happen (the world will end! The Nazis will win the war! They’ll never get true love).

In act 2 — the hero should be on the mission! This is why location changes often happen here. Once the hero knows their mission they can travel from the Amazon to Europe, or go on a roadtrip with Professor X.

Act 2 really is the movie people came to see or the blurb on the back of the book. Sherlock Holmes is solving the mystery. Wonder Woman is out trying to hunt Ares and save the World. Soldiers have crashed on Skull Island and now must find a way to survive/get home. Ghostbusters are busting. Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks are going on dates and breaking up.

Throughout act 2 the audience should be asking themselves — with the HERO achieve their GOAL?

Act 2 is often separated into 2 acts by a midpoint. Really this is the ‘throw rocks at them’ moment. Act 2’s typically are typically half of your movie. So they can’t just be some linear progression. The heroes obstacle and stakes need to keep ratcheting up. Throw rocks at them. Then boulders. Then hand grenades!

Often times ticking clocks or huge betrayals or plot twists (or all of the above) mark the second half of act 2.

Act 3: The Finale

The finale is the simplest part in a ‘structure’ sense. You either give the hero what they want or not.

It’s also the most difficult to execute. There are lots of traps in act 3. They can be predictable, bloated with action. But the biggest act 3 problem usually isn’t about act 3. It’s about act 1 and 2. Oftentimes trouble in act is indicative in things that need to be fixed in the pages that proceed it.

So instead of the tree analogy…I like to think of it as:

Act 1: Get your hero up in a plane and kill the pilot.

Act 2: Throw rocks at them. Set the plane on fire. And put snakes on the plane.

Act 3: Get them out of the plane

There ya go…now that you’re a structure expert go learn the hard stuff like theme or character arc or snappy dialogue.