Kickstart your creative writing — Use the proven structure of mainstream Hollywood screenwriters to outline your story.
So, how do you go about writing a screenplay for a feature length movie? Or any longer story for that matter?
You do one thing: Outline. Outline. Outline…. and… outline.
I know that many big-time novelists and screenwriters don’t outline at all. The Coen brothers have said in numerous interviews that they never outline, but for the rest of us, I truly believe that outlining is the way to go.
The classic books on screenwriting by Syd Field, Michael Hauge, and Christopher Vogler all talk about the need for structure to your story. Here, I’ve tried to summarize their wisdom and mix it all together to come up with a fundamental structure for storytelling.
It has worked really well for me and has always kept my writing on track and moving forward.
Why is structure so important to a story?
Stories, like music, almost always follow some kind of rhythm or harmony. I’m no musician but I can clearly hear if a piece of music is out of tune.
Creativity — music, storytelling, paintings — need to follow some form of structure. There must be a plan to the madness. If there is no structure, everything is muddled together and becomes noise.
Stories that don’t follow a structure often feel rushed, or flat and boring or, as is most often the case, become hard to follow.
Three act structure
One of the oldest — and most used — form of outlining is the Three Act structure. It dates back as long as humans have been telling stories and is still used today. Why? Because it’s solid and easily recognizable for the viewer/listener.
Think of your story as a circle divided into four equally large sizes. One part takes up the first act of your story, the next two parts are the second act, and lastly, the third act takes up the last fourth.
If you are writing a regular feature-length screenplay of 100 pages, the math is simple. 25 pages for Act I, 50 pages for Act II and 25 pages for Act III.
But, by thinking about the story as a complete circle, you can also clearly see where the mid-point of the story should be — right in the middle of Act II.
The story starts at the top — at noon if you will — and moves forward like a clock returning to 12:00 as it finishes.
Why is it useful to view the story as circular? Because most stories are about journeys where the main characters go out into the world to experience something and return to their own world changed or wiser for the better.
The vast majority of mainstream movies and story are like this.
Going on “The Hero’s Journey”?
“The Hero’s Journey”, or Monomyth as it’s sometimes referred to, is a term coined by mythological historian professor, Joseph Campbell. In his seminal book, “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” from 1949, Campbell examined the many myths found in tribes and religious groups around the world that they’d used as their cultural and narrative backbone.
Campbell’s work emphasizes that all these stories and myths are, at their fundamental core, simple variations on the same story. It’s the story of a hero that goes on a journey to a special world to solve some peril that has fallen upon himself or his tribe. The hero then returns to his ordinary world with the elixir to heal the tribe or having slain the monster threatening the tribe.
If you take another look at the three act circle above see the Ordinary World in Hero’s Journey is the top half of the circle — the top part, and the Special World is the lower half of the circle.
Many filmmakers, writers and storytellers alike count The Hero’s Journey as one of the core elements in their storytelling tool belt.
It’s the structure that we as the audience know and understand. Even though we might still be surprised by the story itself, the structure is known. We understand the rhythm and the harmony of the structure. This gives us a calm feeling deep down when we’re presented with stories that follow this structure.
The trick is to use the structure to provide scaffolding and pacing for your story. If you can manage this, you will have a story which resonates well with so many people. It can be new and exciting and tell a fantastical story, but at the same time, told in a way we instantly recognize and understand.
Metaphorically speaking, we are tapping our feet to the rhythm of the story, even though we have never seen it before. It’s a muscle memory. Deeply ingrained in our storytelling culture, through thousands of years of storytelling tradition.
If you are looking for a few more pointers on what could happen in our story — and when something could happen, you can look at what is sometimes referred to as the major beats of the narrative.
Please note: The beats below are structured after a 100 page script. If you plan to write a short script, just take the page number and divide by 100, e.g. the Point of No Return on page 50 is 50% of the script length.
1. Page 1: Opening Scene: Setting up the main character. Hard to do, but just think of what you want the viewer to see first when sitting down to watch your film.
2. From page 1–10: Setting up the story: All the main characters (protagonist, antagonist, supporting characters etc.) are introduced here. The audience must know or at least have some basic idea of what kind of people they are.
3. Page 10: The 1st Turning Point: Also known as the Point of Attack or Inciting Incident. Something happens here that gives the story a completely new direction. Someone dies, wins the lottery, the aliens attack, the long-lost father returns home… you get the idea. This is the thing that sets the entire story in motion. Up until now, we were just getting to know the characters, now the real story starts.
4. Page 10–25: The new situation: Okay, so something happened on page 10 and now everything is up in the air. What should the protagonist do? What is it all about? Should our hero embark on a journey to solve this new situation or should he/she just do nothing? Try to write down reasons to go and reasons to stay, and work with this conflict.
5. Page 25: The 2nd Turning Point (sometimes also called Plot Point 1, but it’s the same thing): The start of Act 2 is all about going into the great unknown. The situation that started on page 10 is now going to be dealt with. The plans that the hero had for his/her situation on page 1–10 is now being changed completely. Some talk about going from the Ordinary World to the Special World.
6. Page 30: If you have a subplot (you don’t always need one), now is the time to introduce it. Be it a love story or something.
7. Page 25–50: First half of Act 2: The situation develops and the hero is slowly but surely moving forward in a positive way toward solving the situation.
8. Page 37: The symbolic scene: This is where the main character really commits to the journey. The audience might have known for a long time that this was the case, but this is where the main character expresses it clearly in some way, like taking charge of the search & rescue team. Can be very dramatic or almost unnoticeable.
9. Page 50: The 3rd Turning Point: The Point of No Return: This is where things can’t get any worse or any better depending on your story. The journey is almost over and the end is clearly in sight. This is maybe the hardest part of the screenplay to nail completely, and also one of (if not the) most important points in the structure of the story.
10. Page 50–75: The 2nd half of Act 2: The plot thickens: The antagonist returns. The antagonist has already been very much present in the story, but now the “attacks” become more frequent and clear. The complications and the stakes involved in the journey increases very much. Before, the life of the protagonist maybe wasn’t at stake but now it most certainly is.
11. Page 65: The moment of regret: Maybe taking on this journey was a bad idea after all. Maybe we should just all go back. It’s not working out anyway. The hero of some of the supporting characters clearly states that they feel bad about doing what they are doing. Maybe we should just do what the antagonist wants us to do?
12. Page 75: The 4th Turning Point (also called Plot Point 2): All is lost. Major setback. One of the dear supporting characters dies, or the lovers are separated for good (it would seem), etc. The main characters are ready to give up. This is rock bottom, it can’t get any worse than this so why even continue?
13. Page 75–100: Act 3: The race against time to finish the journey. The part where the protagonist solves the main conflict.
14. Page 85: The aha moment: “So, this is how it works!” Aha! This one is not always used but good to get the third act some momentum. Could also be used to introduce a time-lock: They must get out of the building before the bomb explodes in 5 minutes, etc.
15. Page 85–100: The final push. All or nothing. Part of the third act where the main characters give all they have to complete the journey. Often the hero must face three tests that become more and more difficult in order to continue.
16. Page 9x: The 5th Turning Point: The Climax: Somewhere between page 90 and 99, the conflict is resolved. The antagonist is neutralized. The protagonist made it. The lovers reunite. The maniacal killer is captured.
17. Page 9x-100: The aftermath: Use these pages to show the protagonist riding out into the sunset or whatever suits the story. Tie up any loose ends.
There you have it. 100 pages. 3 acts. 5 major turning points and 17 story beats that make up more or less a typical mainstream story.
Even though the structure is a scaffold, it is not, as many claim, the reason why stories sometimes feel formulaic or a “paint by numbers” story. That is due to boring characters or an unimaginative overall story. Applying a solid structure to your narrative does not help with that.
But you don’t have to have all structure beats in your story. Just like you don’t have to have all instruments in the world to play good music. But what you must have is a baseline for your story. The drums or bass creates, well, the baseline of a piece of music. Without this baseline, the story becomes messy and confusing. We understand the scenes individually but we struggle to see where the story is heading or why different plots are presented to us.
“It’s a guide for the same reason that we have to take swim classes even though we’re mammals … ,” he says. “The monomyth is a swim lesson. It’s just saying: ‘Look, you’re going to be dealing with stories all the time. Try to understand what a story is.’ What makes a story different from a phone book, a music video, a fart, a song. The monomyth is like a compass. If you’re lost in the woods, knowing which way is north is definitely better than not knowing, but it doesn’t mean you need to walk north to get where you’re going.” (Dan Harmon — Source)
So, use them at will, but don’t be a slave to them. Use them as a guide not a rulebook. Many really good movies (and Oscar winners) did not use them, not even close. But when you’re like me, still new to this game, they help a lot more than hinder your story. At least they can help get some boundaries to your narrative and make you capable of completing your story.
Thanks for reading and happy writing!
How to Effectively Combat Writer’s Block and Fear of the Blank Page
Hemingway Was onto Something.
The productive benefits of doing less to achieve more
Do like Warren Buffett: stop trying to do everything all at once and focus on few key elements
Die Hard: First Impressions Last
How the simple and to-the-point character introduction in “Die Hard” elevated it from a mere standard action flick to…
Simon Lund Larsen works at a large toy factory in Denmark by day. He spends his free time trying figure out why some movies work so much better than others. Byline at The Outtake, Movie Time Guru and CineNation. You can find him here on Medium as Simon Lund Larsen or on Twitter with the same handle @SimonLundLarsen.