What Most Writers Don’t Know About Screenplay Structure

by Guest Blogger | 4 comments

This guest post is by Alex Bloom. Alex founded the screenplay consultancy Script Reader Pro with the idea of hiring only working screenwriters and filmmakers. They offer a wide range of actionable script coverage services and a hands-on screenwriting course designed to cut out much of the “fluff” found in the world of screenwriting.

Do you struggle with screenplay structure? Especially sustaining momentum in that long second act?

What Most Writers Don't Know About Screenplay Structure

When learning how to write a script, writers are overwhelmingly taught that screenplay structure is all about three acts. But is this the easiest way to structure a screenplay? Or even the correct way?

The Problem With Traditional Three Act Structure

The three act paradigm goes something like this: A protagonist is faced with a problem in act one (set up), attempts to solve it in act two (confrontation), and fails or succeeds at the end of act three (resolution).

The problem with this three act formula, however, is that it often leads to writers running out of steam in act two as they try to fill it with “conflict.” This means act two becomes a series of disconnected events that aren’t really connected and seem to exist just for the sake of “things happening.”

This happens when screenwriters focus too much on traditional three act structure and ignore the building blocks underneath each act—sequences.

Why It’s Easier to Write Screenplays Using Sequences

Each act is also made up of sequences which in themselves have a beginning, middle and end and so can be considered “mini-movies.” At the beginning of each sequence the protagonist is often presented with a goal to achieve, and by the end they’ve either succeeded or failed, just like in an act.

Breaking down each act into sequences makes it much easier to plot the protagonist’s journey through the script—especially during that long expanse of “rising stakes” during act two.

In traditional three act structure, we get only five major turning points:

  • Call to Action / min 12 approx (sometimes called Catalyst or Inciting Incident)
  • Act One Turning Point / min 25 approx
  • Midpoint / min 55 approx
  • Act Two Turning Point / min 85 approx
  • Climax / min 100 approx

If we use sequences to underpin these turning points, though, we get seven:

  • Call to Action / min 12 approx
  • Act One Turning Point / min 25 approx
  • Act One Decision Success Or Failure / min 40 approx
  • Midpoint / min 55 approx
  • Midpoint Decision Success Or Failure / min 70 approx
  • Act Two Turning Point / min 85 approx
  • Climax / min 100 approx

Each sequence runs for approximately twelve to fifteen minutes and ends with a climax that relates to either one of the five original turning points or one of the two new ones. Each sequence is also given an identifying letter from A to G and breaks down like this:

  • Act One
    • Sequence A
    • Sequence B
  • Act Two
    • Sequence C
    • Sequence D
    • Sequence E
    • Sequence F
  • Act Three
    • Sequence G

An Example of Sequences

I’m going to use Bridesmaids, written by Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo, for this example.

Sequence A ends with the Call to Action.

In Bridesmaids, we’re introduced to Annie and her underwhelming life. The climax of this sequence is also the Call to Action of the whole movie: best friend Lillian asks Annie to be her maid of honor.

Sequence B ends with the Act One Turning Point.

This is often a decision the protagonist makes or something that happens that reveals the real conflict. In Bridesmaids, Annie realizes Helen’s a major rival after they try to out-do each other’s speeches.

Sequence C ends with the Act One Decision Success or Failure.

This moment signifies the result of the protagonist’s first attempt at solving the problem established in act one. Sequence C in Bridesmaids revolves around Annie’s choice to take the girls to a Mexican restaurant before the dress fitting. It ends in disaster when everyone gets diarrhea.

Sequence D ends with the Midpoint.

This is often a major reversal in the protagonist’s fortunes which forces them to carry on with a quest that’s now even more difficult to accomplish. For example, Annie ruins the Vegas trip and loses her maid of honor duties.

Sequence E ends with the Midpoint Decision Success or Failure.

Like the Midpoint, this is often another huge twist in which things either get temporarily better or temporarily worse. For example, after ruining the trip to Vegas, Annie then loses her love interest, Rhodes; gets fired; and moves in with her mom

Sequence F ends with the Act Two Turning Point.

Very often this is the protagonist's worst moment in the whole script because they wind up worse off than they were at the beginning. This is where Annie freaks out at the bridal shower and falls out with Lillian.

Sequence G ends on the overall climax to the movie.

This sequence is the stage for the “final test” the protagonist has to pass, and at the end they either succeed or fail. Annie succeeds at the end of Bridesmaids, as she resolves her differences with Helen and finds Lillian, and the wedding goes off without a hitch.

Try a Sequence-Based Screenplay

Dividing a screenplay up into sequences means conflict becomes easier to write as you’re able to break down the protagonist’s quest into mini goals for them to achieve. This comes in especially handy during that long stretch that needs filling with conflict in act two.

Try it out to hook your viewers from the start and keep them invested until the very end.

What do you think of this way of looking at screenplay structure? Let me know in the comments.

PRACTICE

Today, you have two choices.

If you’re working on an outline or synopsis of your screenplay, spend fifteen minutes going through it breaking it down into sequences. Have a rethink about how your protagonist could make their way through seven “mini-movies” rather than three big acts.

Adding sequences A, B, D, F and G should be fairly easy, as they correspond to turning points you should already have. When it comes to sequences C and E, though, you may need to tweak the story a little so your protagonist works toward either a success or a failure after the Act One Turning Point or Midpoint.

If you're not working on a screenplay, take fifteen minutes to try outlining a story using sequences. Pick one of these story ideas, or come up with one of your own to use.

When you're done, share your writing in the comments below, and be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers!

How to Write Like Louise PennyWant to write like Louise Penny? Join our new class and learn how. Learn more and sign up here.

Join Class

Next LIVE lesson is coming up soon!

This article is by a guest blogger. Would you like to write for The Write Practice? Check out our guest post guidelines.

4 Comments

  1. Jason Bougger

    You have pinpointed my biggest problem as a writer with this paragraph:

    “The problem with this three act formula, however, is that it often leads
    to writers running out of steam in act two as they try to fill it with
    “conflict.” This means act two becomes a series of disconnected events
    that aren’t really connected and seem to exist just for the sake of
    “things happening.” ”

    So many times (and now I’m not just talking about myself) a work of fiction has so much unrelated filler in the middle of the book and this is exactly why.

    I like your solutions and the idea of breaking things down further. Will try to keep this stuff in mind as I continue pushing through the current revision.

    Reply
  2. Bruce Carroll

    I love the phrase, “a series of disconnected events that aren’t really connected.” That made me giggle.

    As an actor, I know that each scene, or even each French scene (marked by the entrance or exit of one or more characters) has its own dramatic structure. But breaking it down like you suggest (A, B, C, etc. — I really didn’t read it all as I was getting confused) is way too much structure for me. I don’t know if you’d call me a Pantser, but I pants it more than that!

    The takeaway from all of this for me is: use what works. If a three-act structure works, great. If a seven-sequence structure works, fine. If you just want to write off the cuff and making sure “stuff happens,” that’s swell.

    I also learned I don’t want to go to school for screenwriting. I don’t think I could stay awake during classes.

    Reply
  3. NatalieHawaii

    There are numerous structure suggestions from many notable writers and teachers. Three Act structure is the base of all, simply put, the beginning, middle and end. You can extend it to an amazing 5-turning point structure by Michael Hauge, dig into 12 steps of Hero’s Journey by Chris Vogler, 8 mini movies structure by Chris Soth in Mini Movie Method, use most acceptable and recognizable by Hollywood 15-point structure based on Save the Cat book by Blake Snyder, as well as John Truby, Robert Mckee, Linda Seger and many more amazing offers. Great to know them. Study them all and choose what works for you. Word of caution though – don’t contrive your muse to the structure. Let your story come organically. You can always adjust it later in your rewrite. Happy writing!

    Reply
  4. Minh Truong

    Sequence a: Carnelian the assassin has a meeting with Thanatos over the fact that she has been attacked by death clowns. Thanatos tells her the truth; Death, a supernatural force that Thanatos had previously been in charge of, had taken form and gone rouge. Therefore, Thanatos is hiring a special crew of the best of the best to take care of Death, and Carnelian will be part of the team. This is her new ‘job’, and she has a life or (hah) death incentive to succeed.

    Sequence b: Carnelian has a fight with a merc that Death has recruited. The merc reveals death’s plans for both the supernatural and the human world- Carnelian learns that it is beyond slipping out of Thanatos’ control and will impact everyone, especially Carnelian. She loses her cocksure, apathetic attitude and starts thinking of this seriously.

    Sequence c: Carnelian and her team set up a trap to catch Death, but it ends in complete chaos as her and the others of her crew are completely dysfunctional and do not work well at all. All of them end up seriously injured, with Death mocking them.

    Sequence d: The team still works together, but frustrated, they eventually disband and start their own plots to catch Death. Carnelian becomes more vulnerable, and is left without the others to cover her blindspots

    Sequence e: After all working on their own, Thanatos finds out and misleadingly blames only Carnelian. He forces the others together and tells Carnelian that because of her mistakes, she will never be able to get jobs or work in the assassin industry ever again

    Sequence f: Carnelian finds Death, and challenges it. It overpowers her, captures her and starts torturing her both physically and mentally. It taunts her with all of her ‘last regrets’ as well as the memories/ emotions that she secretly regrets and hides, those who incapicate her ability to be an effective assassin. Death opens itself to an attack , but now she has lost all of her capacity and no longer can assassinate anyone.

    Sequence g: The team finds Carnelian, resolve their differences, and together, they beat Death back into submission and hand it over to Thanatos. Thanatos does not apologize, but merely hands her a folder with a new job.

    I came up with this from a writing prompt I did a while back, but I really hope I can write this when I finish working on my current WIP!

    Reply

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Monday Must-Reads [10.24.16] - […] What Most Writers Don’t Know About Screenplay Structure […]

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Say Yes to Practice

Join over 450,000 readers who are saying YES to practice. You’ll also get a free copy of our eBook 14 Prompts:

Popular Resources

Books By Our Writers

A Shadow Stained in Blood
- Ichabod Ebenezer
Vestige Rise of the Pureblood
- Antonio Roberts
The Girl Who Broke the Dark
- Evelyn Puerto
39
Share to...