So, that was 30 days of script writing, and what did I learn from that (apart from being able to write a first draft feature length screenplay in less than 30 days while holding down a full time job and being a caring family man)?
One thing: Outline. Outline. Outline…. and… outline.
I know that many big time screenwriter and directors 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.
When I sat down the work out the storyline for my script Downfall I looked at what the “masters” of screenwriting said about structuring the story.
Listed below are the fundamental structure I’ve complied from all of these and for me at least it worked really well and always kept my writing on track and moving forward.
(Please note: The beats below are structured after a 100 pages script. If you plan to write a short script just take the page number and divided by 100, e.g. point of no return on page 50 is 50% of the script lenght).
- Page 1: Opening Scene: Setting up the main character. Hard to do, but just think of what you want to viewer to see first when sitting down to watch your film.
- 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.
- Page 10: The 1st Turning Point: Something happens here that give 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 where just getting to know the characters, now the real story starts.
- 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.
- Page 25: The 2nd Turning Point (sometimes also called the 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 in page 1-10 is now being changed completely. Some talk about going from the Ordinary World to the Special World.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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. 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.
- Page 50-75: The 2nd half of Act 2: The plot thickens: The antagonist return. The antagonist has already been very much present in the story, but now the “attacks” becomes 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 not it most certainly is.
- 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?
- 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.
- Page 75-100: Act 3: The race against time to finish the journey. The part where the protagonist solve the main conflict.
- 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 introduces a time-lock: They must get out of the building before the bomb explodes in 5 minutes, etc.
- 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 becomes more and more difficult in order to continue.
- 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 maniacl killer is captured
- 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, 17 beats that make up more or less a typical movie. Use them at will; many really good movies (and Oscar winners) did not use them, not even close. But when you’re, like me, still new at this game, they help a lot more than hinders your story.