Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Screenwriting Mistake #46: No structure

I should start this post by saying that I am a big believer in screenwriting structure. I don’t think that excellent structure alone can make a script good, but it is extremely difficult to write a good script that doesn’t have at least some semblance of structure. I’ve analyzed enough good and bad scripts to say definitively that the good ones adhere more closely to standard screenplay structure than the bad ones.

But no matter how many books come out that extol the value of structure, the argument that I hear the most from new screenwriters is that they don’t want to be “constrained” by structure. They just want to write freely and let their artistic ability dictate the flow of the script. But just like structure alone isn’t enough to generate a good script, creativity is also not enough without structure to accompany it. Like so many professions, screenwriting is a mixture of art and science, so you need a healthy dollop of both in order to be successful.

So why does screenwriting structure exist? Simply speaking, this is just the way that most people prefer to consume their movie-going experiences. Structure doesn’t exist because some studio executive said that’s how movies should be written. The studio’s only goal is to give the people what they want, so they produce movies that they believe the greatest number of people will want to see. That kind of movie almost invariably contains at least some measure of structure, and the really successful ones have almost perfect structure. That’s the reason why I always check for structure when evaluating screenplays.

So what kind of structure should you have in your script? Of course, I think you should check out my structure guide and adhere to that as closely as possible. At the very least, you should have the following: A first act (comprising about 25% of the script) that shows who the protagonist is, what his internal flaw is and how it’s causing problems in his life, accompanied by a couple of major events that propel him to begin pursuing a clear and tangible external goal. This should be followed by a second act (comprising about 50% of the script) that shows the protagonist trying to accomplish his external goal against increasingly difficult obstacles, then reaching a point of no return in the middle, only to fail at his goal at the end of this act. The main things that you need to do in your third act (comprising the final 25% of your script) are to show whether or not your protagonist overcomes his internal flaw and whether or not he accomplishes his external goal. The protagonist should ideally have some kind of big showdown with his antagonist toward the end. There’s a lot more to structure than that brief description, but if your script contains all of those elements, it will be several steps ahead of the majority of the screenplays being written today.


  1. Hi Phil,
    Came across a doc on Netflix called "Tales from the Script." It should be required viewing by those wanting a career as a screenwriter. It's about the dedication required, the adherence to structure that is required and about who will fail and what it takes to win.

    And it's about the same things you always tell us. Check it out if you havn't seen it.

  2. I was actually just discussing that video with someone this weekend, Leo. Excellent recommendation!