Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Screenplay Structure

I'm going to be posting some structural analyses of screenplays here, so I wanted to put up this outline of the structure points that I will be looking for in my evaluations. The structural points below don’t need to happen at an exact page number, but just at an approximate percentage point in the script. All of these structural points should relate specifically to the protagonist’s pursuit of his external goal. An accompanying event in the protagonist’s efforts to overcome his internal flaw should happen shortly before or after each one of the structural points below.

Structure Outline

Statement of Theme
In the first few pages of your screenplay, one of the characters should state the story’s theme out loud. For example, in the setup for “When Harry Met Sally,” Billy Crystal tells Meg Ryan that it’s not possible for men and women to be just friends because the sex always gets in the way. This raises the question that the characters will be exploring throughout the rest of the story. Every screenplay must have a single, specific theme or question that it is investigating, and then everything that happens in the script must pertain directly to that central theme or question. Not all screenplays state the script out loud, but it’s a good thing to do because it makes the story that much clearer for your audience.

Setup – First 10%
The opening 10% of your script should establish who the protagonist is, as well as who the other major characters are and what kind of environment the protagonist lives in. This part of the script should also demonstrate why the protagonist is unhappy in this environment so that the audience will understand why he will want to make a change.

Small Catalyst – 10%
At about the 10% point in the script, the first catalyst should occur. This catalyst should happen to the protagonist, and not be an action that the protagonist takes. This catalyst should be the first thing in the script that propels the protagonist toward the pursuit of his external goal, and should also give him a glimpse of who he could become if he were to overcome his internal flaw.

Large Catalyst – 17%
At about the 17% point (roughly halfway between the small catalyst and the first plot point) an even more significant catalyst should happen to the protagonist. Along with the first catalyst, this larger event should lead the protagonist inevitably toward the pursuit of his external goal, which will begin at plot point one.

Plot Point 1 – 25%
At the 25% point of the script, the protagonist must begin the pursuit of his external goal. He doesn’t have to be fully committed to accomplishing his external goal yet, but he must now be on a clear path toward the pursuit of his external goal. Often, the location will change at this point to visually represent the protagonist leaving the comfort of his ordinary world for the dangers of this new extraordinary world. It is also at this point where the protagonist begins to try living the kind of life that could truly make him happy, though he’s not very good at it yet. Plot Point One marks the beginning of Act Two.

Pinch One – 37.5% (also called a “twist” or “complication”)
In between the first plot point and the mid-point, a major plot event should occur that complicates the protagonist’s pursuit of his external goal. This event often reveals new information to the protagonist that will cause him to go in a new direction. Note that every plot event that occurs in the script should provide a more significant obstacle than the last so that the audience can see a clear arc in the development of the protagonist’s character.

Mid-point – 50%
The mid-point of a screenplay is called the point of no return (or sometimes the false point of no return). Something should happen here to force the protagonist to commit 100% to accomplishing his external goal. Often at this point, the protagonist and antagonist will change roles so that the character who was more passive now becomes the aggressor.

Pinch Two – 62.5%
Halfway between the mid-point and the second plot point should be a major plot event that pushes the protagonist in a new direction, usually because of the revelation of new information. Also, if your protagonist has a mentor who is helping him to overcome his internal flaw, that character usually dies at the end of this section of the script, or perhaps in the next section.

Plot Point 2 – 75%
At the second plot point, the worst thing that could possibly occur in the protagonist’s pursuit of his external goal should happen. This usually happens because the antagonist exposes the protagonist’s internal flaw for the world to see. It should appear at this point that the antagonist has won the battle and that it is now impossible for the protagonist to overcome his internal flaw and achieve his external goal. This point marks the end of Act 2.

Buildup to Resolution
The protagonist returns to his ordinary world at this point, but he should now be so changed by everything that he has gone through that he can no longer be satisfied living the way he did before. The protagonist will summon all of his internal resources, often following a visit to a mentor or oracle, and make one final heroic push to accomplish his external goal. This is the real point of no return.

The Ending
There are four possible ways that a screenplay can end:

1. Protagonist overcomes internal flaw, but doesn’t accomplish external goal – This is an emotionally satisfying ending because it shows that the protagonist has realized that fixing his internal flaw, rather than achieving his external goal, is the thing that will make him truly happy. It also shows how much the protagonist is willing to sacrifice in order to be happy.
(Avatar, Little Miss Sunshine, Milk, Rain Man, E.T., Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz)

2. Accomplish external goal, don’t overcome internal flaw – This is a cautionary tale because the hero never does realize that overcoming his internal flaw is the only thing that will make him truly happy. He goes on blindly pursuing his external goal, mistakenly believing that it is the one thing that will make him happy. At the end of this kind of script, it should be obvious that the protagonist is still unhappy.
(The Hurt Locker, Memento, There Will Be Blood, The Godfather, Apocalypse Now)

3. Fail at external goal and overcoming internal flaw – This is a tragedy.
(A Serious Man, Romeo and Juliet, Brokeback Mountain, Fargo, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid)

4. Succeed at external goal and at overcoming internal flaw – This is a typical Hollywood movie.
(Slumdog Millionaire, Precious, Juno, Star Wars, The Full Monty, Good Will Hunting)

The Aftermath
It’s usually a good idea to include a scene at the end of the script to show how the protagonist has grown since the beginning of your story. A common way to do this is to repeat a scene from the beginning of the story, which the protagonist didn’t handle well, but now he does handle it well because of the things that he has learned since that point.


  1. You wrote: "At about the 10% point in the script, the first catalyst should occur. This catalyst should happen to the protagonist, and not be an action that the protagonist takes."

    I disagree strenuously. This is how we often write stories in America - but it's a cultural prejudice, not an artistic merit. America is basically conservative, and a "good" person is one who wants to maintain the status quo. The "morals" of our movies are often about learning to accept the status quo. This is seen most starkly in superhero stories, where the person who has a vision and a plan to change the world is always the villain. And it's bad art.

    1. Actually, I believe the reason for this is because it mirrors the natural course of a human life. When people are young, things happen to them, and then they begin to take charge of their lives when they get older. I have no idea what this statement has to do with ending a story by maintaining the status quo. In my opinion, the best movies are the ones in which characters challenge the status quo.

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