Every storyteller reacts differently to the word “structure.” Some absolutely swear by it, others get nightmares from it. But like it or not, structure is an important aspect of every story ever told, not only screenplays.
All stories have a beginning, middle and an end.
Every great story has some form of structure to raise the stakes and make the audience care.
The most famous screenplay structure is the Three Act Structure.
We will also take a look at the Hero’s Journey Screenplay Structure and the Save The Cat Screenplay Structure.
What Does Screenplay Structure Mean Exactly?
Like a building, every movie you have ever seen has some sort of structure that is part of its successful recipe.
Structure for screenplays really means a guideline of how to write the story with different beats and turns that make it entertaining. It’s a guideline on how to introduce characters, drama, difficult choices, betrayal and so on.
Every book you ever read on screenwriting or every class you’ve ever taken had to mention structure. It’s an important part of screenwriting and one of the first things that is being taught to new writers.
Beyond screenplays, every story you’ve ever heard has a form of structure. Even when you tell a story that happened to you to a friend… it has a structure of how you reveal information to make it the most compelling, entertaining or funny.
The Three Act Structure
Also known as the most famous and used screenplay structure.
It’s also the structure that even the most anti-structure writers have the least difficulty accepting.
As the name reveals, the three act structure comes in three acts.
The First Act (from page 1 to approximately 30)
The first act is when the protagonist is introduced and the ordinary world is shown. We meet the protagonist in his or her “ordinary world.”
During the first act, the protagonist faces an inciting incident that sets the story in motion. It’s one event that is out of the ordinary and pushes the protagonist to take action.
During the first act, the protagonist will first refuse the call to action but soon find out that they have no choice but to take on that call to action. In many ways this is when the story truly begins.
The Second Act (runs from page 30 to approximately 90)
This is the longest part of the script and often the part where writers who don’t prepare an outline or treatment of what comes next get lost and never finish their script.
The Second Act is when the protagonist is on their new mission that often is much more difficult than they thought it would be. They barely make it through.
This act is filled with obstacles as we move forward in the story. It’s the act we like to call “confrontation” since that’s what the protagonist does for most of the act. Confront someone, a monster, themselves, etc.
Midway through the second act, there’s a big twist that pushes the story in a whole new direction and elevates the stakes greatly.
In the second part of the second act, the protagonist fights the evil they’re facing (someone else, monster, themselves, etc) even harder and is facing more obstacles.
Close to the end of the second act, the protagonist either faces a false defeat or a false victory. In most movies, this is the all is lost moment where the protagonist thinks they have lost and the antagonist has won.
The Third Act (runs from page 90 to 120)
In the first part of the third act, the protagonist gathers their newly found strength and confronts the antagonist one last time. This is when they succeed.
Following this final confrontation, the third act quickly gets into a wrap up of the story and shows us what the protagonist’s life is now, where do we leave them and what is now their ordinary world. It also shows us what the protagonist has learned and how they grew throughout the story.
Once you are done with the final climax in the second act, it’s important to wrap up the story fast and tie all storylines together. The third act is not the time to introduce anything new, but rather giving the audience closure.
If you want to read more about the three act structure, we recommend looking up Syd Field who is the mind behind that structure and/or purchasing his book titled “Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting.”
The Hero’s Journey
The Hero’s Journey was introduced to Hollywood by Joseph Campbell.
The Hero’s Journey adds specifications to the three act structure.
The Hero’s Journey can be regarded as an archetype for your typical hero (think Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, Batman, etc.)
This structure puts a big emphasis on the hero’s transformation through the story. How the hero is initially very unprepared for the journey ahead but how the hero is able to fight his or her own demons and overcome the obstacles they face to then come home a changed person.
As Campbell explains in this series available on Youtube, the hero is first found in the ordinary world.
Think of Frodo in The Hobbit living in his small village, unbothered by the outside world. This is the Hero’s ordinary world.
The Hero feels like something is missing… there’s discomfort.
An event happens that pushes the hero to embark on a journey. In this case, it is Gandalf who arrives in the Hobbit village and gives Frodo the ring after Bilbo leaves the village.
The call to adventure happens when Gandalf asks Frodo to take the ring out of the village.
This is a terrifying moment for the hero who doesn’t know if he is up to the task since this is taking him out of his comfort zone.
During the first half of the movie, the hero will fail through significant tests and obstacles.
The hero is tested through friends, enemies, true and fake allies.
Ultimately, at the midpoint, the hero faces their biggest fear.
The hero recovers from the consequences of their action and often wrongdoing in front of their biggest fear. It is a moment of reflection for the hero. It is often then that the hero gets support from his true allies.
Following this event, the hero will face their antagonist. And they will fail. The enemy survives leading to one final test where the hero uses what they have learned through the adventure they have embarked to destroy the enemy.
A more confident and wise hero comes home, bringing peace to the world.
The book The Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell is available for purchase here.
Save The Cat Structure
Save the Cat is one of the most discussed screenplay structures with some writers absolutely hating it and some being its biggest supporters.
Save the Cat was created by Blake Snyder and comes in many story beats as portrayed below.
The Set Up (page 1 to 10)
The set up starts with an opening image, something that Blake Snyder sees as crucial in his structure. The opening image sets the tone of the whole movie.
The Set up is also when the main theme of the movie is stated, which can come in the form of “be careful what you wish for” “you can’t choose your family” or any other thematic premise.
During the set up, all characters that are part of the A story (the main story) are being introduced.
The Catalyst (Page 10-12)
This is what the three act structure calls the inciting incident. It’s the moment that changes everything. The one event that brings chaos to the ordinary world.
The Debate (Page 12 to 25)
Also known as the refusal in the hero’s journey or the three act structure. This is the brief moment where the protagonist says “this is crazy.” The protagonist debates (often with themselves) if they should go on that journey and what their options are, only to find out that they really have none.
It’s a really relatable aspect of the script since all of us will have a moment of debate when faced with a new challenge that would completely take us out of our ordinary world.
Break into Act 2 (Page 25)
This is the moment where the protagonist decides actively to embark on this journey.
Blake Snyder is adamant that this needs to happen on page 25 at all cost. He even goes as far as saying that every time he reads a script, he first opens it on page 25 to see if this moment happens.
If you ask me, that’s a bit extreme but there is value in what he says by making sure that you have an important scene showing your protagonist making that choice. Your protagonist needs to be active in his or her fate.
Fun and Games (Page 25 to 55)
This is what Snyder describes as the heart of the movie. The place to introduce the B story (often comes in the form of a love story) and where the fun of the script is.
Midpoint (Page 55)
According to Snyder and in agreement with the other structures presented, the midpoint is often either an “up” where things are looking great for the protagonist or a “down” where the protagonist seems to be struggling in their mission.
The stakes are raised at the midpoint. That’s when we get into the meaty gritty of the story.
Bad Guys Close in (Page 55 to 75)
According to Snyder, this is one of the most difficult parts to write. It comes right before the All is Lost crucial moment.
This part is basically the moment where the antagonist(s) regroup and get ready to fight back.
All is Lost (page 75)
This moment is always the opposite of the midpoint. If the midpoint was a “down”, then the All is Lost is actually a false victory. If the midpoint was “up” and positive, then this moment will be a false defeat where All is Lost or so it seems.
Dark Night of the Soul (Page 75 to 85)
This is the moment where, just like in the Hero’s Journey, the protagonist reflects on the All is Lost or false victory. How does it make them feel?
Snyder calls this the darkness right before dawn. The moment the protagonist pulls out his last cards and gathers the strength he has left and the wisdom of what he has learned to break into the third act.
Break into Act Three (Page 85)
This is the moment where the A story (external) and the B story (internal) meet for the final battle.
Finale (Page 85 to 110)
The wrap up of the story , the lessons learned are applied, the protagonist wins against the antagonist.
We leave the protagonist in their new ordinary world, a changed person.
If you’d like to see how these beats apply to every movie ever made, look at the book: Save The Cat Goes to the Movie by Blake Snyder.
In summary, every screenplay structure comes with a set of rules.
Feel free to use the parts that speak to you and leave the others out.
Ultimately, not every single part will work for you. But whatever structure speaks to you the most should be the one you follow in your writing since it will keep you going and motivated.
Don’t follow a rule simply because you are told to do so. Make sure that you know why and what about it works with your writing.
Happy writing or should we say… structuring!