Screen Play Elements – Part 1

I have no trouble suspending disbelief when I watch a movie or a television show so I wasn’t good at analyzing how movies are structured. To better understand how big screen movies, made for television movies, and television shows are structured, I took an on-line screen writing course withi Bill Radkin. During this course, I came to appreciate what is involved in creating a compelling screen play.

If I asked you what are the two key points to writing a screen play, what would you say?
Strong plot. I agree. It’s important.
Snappy dialogue. Yes, that too.
Using formatting specific to screen plays. Absolutely.
Great characters. Of course.

All these things are important but there are two things which pull this list together to make a memorable movie. These are a having a good STORY and the THREE ACT STRUCTURE.

Today, I’ll explain the Three Act Structure from a screen writer’s perspective. You may understand the Three Act Structure for novels and have a general idea about how to use it, but for screen writing it is a specific formula. STORY has a specific definition and use within the Three Act Structure. I will delve into this in tomorrow’s post Screen Play Elements (Story) – Part 2.

In the following table, I have condensed the key elements of screen plays.

Key Elements of the Three Act Structure

Act 1 Act 2 Act 3
Beginning Middle End
25%

50% (25% + midpoint + 25%)

25%

Set up

Protagonist gets up a tree

Complication

Rocks are thrown at the protagonist

Resolution

Protagonist gets down the tree

Chaos More chaos Order
Lack of control/information Lack of control– midpoint AHA moment – control begins to be established Control
Central problem with inciting incident established. Ends with a major turning point in the plot/problem complicated and stakes raised by end of Act 1 More complications, major turning point around the middle of the act which is a reversal. Ends with a major turning point (taking charge of situation but not resolving issues), complication or escalation Final confrontation. Protagonist resolves problem /overcomes issues (depends if tragic or happy ending) and order is restored.
Plot oriented (you know where to begin) Story oriented (where theme and ideas are explored) Plot oriented (you know where it ends)

The TREE refers to putting the protagonist into a threatening situation.

The ROCKS are CONFLICT. Conflict takes two forms: external and internal.

External conflict is plot oriented and forms the action. It is the problem, disaster, or situation the protagonist will try to solve, get away from, or realize.

Internal conflict happens when a character deals with internal issues and some type of change occurs (not always. James Bond is always James Bond.) Character change or growth creates the character arc. Internal conflict means fear. The protagonist is afraid of something such as losing someone (family, society); losing something like wealth, prestige, treasure, or a job; or is afraid of change as brought about by an antagonist (the world as it is known, a societal or political change).

Every movie has one major or CENTRAL conflict which creates the SET UP in Act One. The problem is evident, the solution seems impossible, and the stakes are so high that the protagonist is compelled to do something. Once the protagonist is compelled to do something, that moves the story from Act One to Act Two. The Set Up occurs in the first 25% of the movie.

Having a strong central conflict helps avoid the murky middle of Act Two. All scenes must directly involve the central conflict. If they don’t, they’re not adding to the story problems and the story is going in the wrong direction. In other words, they’re not throwing rocks at the protagonist and making matters bad enough that he or she needs to finally figure it out and find some inner resolve to overcome the problem. This is a good point to remember when revising your novel.

A strong central conflict is also used to explore THEME whether it be as simple as good versus evil, the development of a person into a hero, or privilege and income disparity. All characters, reflect the theme as they are either for, against or ambivalent towards it. In every good movie, you’ll see this is true. We stay focused on the central problem and we’re hoping for a triumphant outcome until the end.

How do you know if you’re throwing rocks at the central problem or if the story has gone in the wrong direction? Outline. If you don’t like to outline from the start, do it when you’re finished. Write one line about each scene and focus on the rock. Then decide if the one-line description illustrates the central conflict. If it does, great. If not, either delete that scene or change it.

In the first half of Act Two, the protagonist’s problem keeps getting worse and worse and there seems to be no way to resolve it. The protagonist is missing information, is the hunted or the villain untouchable and keeps jeopardising the protagonist’s mission. Then, in the middle of the act, the MID POINT TURN occurs. Almost exactly (time it, and you’ll see). That is when the protagonist has an AHA moment in which he changes from the pursues to the pursuer, from the victim to the victor. Fortunes change at this point and chaos begins to turn into order. However, it is still a dangerous time for the protagonist because although fortunes have changed, the resolution is not easy. Rocks are still thrown, but they don’t hurt quite as much.

Act Three is where the resolution occurs. The protagonist is the victor except perhaps in a tragedy but the central conflict is resolved or explored to completion. Every question or issue which was set up in Act One is resolved and order is restored.

Pick a favorite movie and with these elements from the Three Act Structure in mind, time it. Do this for the great novels which have been turned into screen plays. Do this only once or twice otherwise, movies may become predictable and it’ll be hard to suspend disbelief and enjoy them. After all, the goal of a novel or movie is to take us to another world for a short time. By understanding how movies work, it’ll empower us as writers to tell compelling stories which readers will flock to.

Join me tomorrow when I discuss STORY.

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