screenplays that sell 101: structure
There’s no recipe for a great story! No wait, there is.
We all love a good screenplay. But what is it about a screenplay that makes it stand out from the rest, enough so that we call it ‘good’ or at least ‘professionally-structured’?
Let’s deep dive into this pot of ink to get some good tips for our next screenplay (pun intended).
the three-act structure:
This writing model originated with the structuration of fiction writing. It is the way of loosely dividing a story into three parts – the Setup, the Confrontation and the Resolution. Syd Field was the one to make it popular through his book, Screenplay – Foundations of Screenwriting, all the way back in 1979.
The first act – the Setup – is for exposition. Establish the main characters, their attributes, their intentions; and the location, its attributes and its intention. In screenplays, deep thought into the location and setting is as important as the characters themselves, often being a character in itself – driving the narrative in subtle, yet significant ways.
In the end of the first act, there is usually an ‘inciting incident’ that confronts the main protagonist/ protagonists. The important questions raised here will be answered in the climax, giving the story its closure.
The second act or the rising act is usually the part where the protagonist/ protagonists (from here referred to as Pro) attempt to find a resolution to said inciting incident. Here we, as audiences, are acquainted with the strengths of the confronting antagonist and that gives us a sense of why it’s hard for our Pro to find tangible solutions. So here is when the Pro will start gaining the skills they need to be able to stand at power with the antagonist. This is popularly referred to as character development (and yes, you and I are in that stage of the story of our respective lives 🥲).
The third act is the resolution stage where it’ll all start to make sense. The skills developed will be more than enough to surpass obstacles and overpower the antagonist; and now the Pro can finally have their happily ever after- whatever it may be (when you and I are reaching this point in our respective stories is anyone’s guess 🙂).
Now that we have nerded out on a little bit of theory, let’s see a few examples of how this structure – or lack thereof, has resulted in genius screenplays.
screenplay by – Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein
A wonderfully crafted script with deep characters, memorable dialogues and, in our opinion, the most iconic romantic triangle – this movie was magic through pens and lens.
It follows the three act structure to the T and still manages to be unpredictable and interesting. Through strong characterization that helped strengthen the plot, Casablanca has become that classic tale of nostalgia that extends comfort and warmth to its admirers. It is also extremely clean where each character goes through their individual story in tandem with the main story and they all find their befitting end.
Casablanca is the finest example out there when it comes to having an engaging plot, an interesting middle and then a very strong end.
The romantic triangle is established as soon as the movie begins with Ilsa and Victor Laszlo stepping into Rick’s cafe. One can’t help but think of the obvious question – who gets the girl?
That drama and tension is carried through the second act, despite other dynamic factors being at play. The film holds on to it tight and its presence is obvious to the audience throughout.
The end of the movie – Rick’s confrontation with Strasser – is the most satisfying end ever. Not to mention that the movie didn’t shy away from showing each character’s destiny, further adding to a sense of closure.
2. The Godfather
screenplay by – Mario Puzo and Ford Coppola
Family, trust, blood, drama and deceit – that was the core of one of the most iconic movies of its time. The Godfather played our emotions like a fiddle. We screamed with joy and smiled through our tears as the characters took us through a remarkably complex and sinful journey that almost invites you into its dark world – and you go in rather happily.
As a screenplay, this is a perfect example of how the screenwriters played around with the three act structure just a little bit to drive a bold narrative.
The mafia world was an uncharted territory at the time this movie came out – so the screenwriters cleverly started their story with a generic set up and slowly but steadily kept aquenting us with untamed themes that pushed our acceptance levels little by little.
The writers did that by stradling things we knew and things we couldn’t even dream of so that each one of us can relate to the story but then would be blown away a minute later – thus keeping us on the edge of our seats as we often forgot to breathe.
For example – the opening scene was not something that builds our curiosity – instead it boldly tells us that Don Corleone is a man of power – enough to take away a life or two without any consequences. Something you can relate to? No. But now we are at this wedding with family and friends. Something you can relate to? Yes! But wait, this wedding is different – it has body guards and famous people. Can you relate to that? No. But wait, it also has quirky uncles and aunts and people dancing together. Can you relate to that? Yes! So even though it may seem unstructured to the common eye, a person who’d like to study the genius of the writers can clearly see a pattern – a pattern that is almost certain to get a viewer hooked for many hours to follow.
The ending too didn’t give us much resolution. The character we were all rooting for is now a murderer and a thief. He tried to watch the underworld from afar but he is now hopelessly weaved right into it. In a sense, The Godfather told us that sometimes, there isn’t a happily ever after and loose ends are just that – loose but ends.
Read the full ‘The Godfather’ script.
screenplay by Bong Joon-ho and Han Jin-won
A screenplay that played with screenwriting stereotypes like a child’s toy and had multiple characters that were both, the protagonist as well as the antagonist, while keeping the drama alive while somehow also being a comedy while somehow also being a tragedy – this rule breaker won an Oscar and showed the filmmaking world the most powerful trick in writing – stick to what you know.
When writing is almost an intuitive experience and one word flows into another – you just know you’ve got yourself a winner. In this case, the writers have intuitively tapped into our sentiments through a story that is anything but predictable. The insight comes from knowing that quickly changing scenarios is what this swipe up swipe left swipe right kind of generation wants. So that’s exactly what they served. They quickly kept changing plot after plot after plot until you became accustomed to it, almost waiting for the next twist to happen so that you can be blown away once again.
We open the story with a seemingly ordinary world of a very poor and struggling family. We build up to that same family living their rich employer’s family’s life while they are away. And we end with a lot of gory killings with a new set of protagonists joining the old ones that almost no one predicted.
This movie doesn’t follow any protocol, and that is what was refreshing for it – it was quintessentially original. People loved the analogy and they loved how the screenplay made them feel like they were floating in an abyss at the mercy of the writers to drive their next set of emotions. This recipe was perfect enough to make the film win the Best Picture Academy Award. The narrative showed us that it was driven by the obsession to tell a great story, the awards that came were just the consequence of innocent but deep passion.
Only when we know the existence of a structure can we think outside of it, or dare we say, even break it altogether. We saw how a clean stereotypical storyline can work as well as the one that plays with the rules, and also the one that rejects every single rule. So whether you’re the kind of writer who loves an organized style of writing or you are a rebel with a cause, your stories can win the hearts of your audience if enough passion drives it. We leave you with that thought and hopefully with the spark of a new story brewing. Please share if and when you have one – we would love to hear.