Mastering Story: Screenplay Structure 101

Bonus Material:  Beat Sheet Guide

Have you ever watched a movie and thought, “Hey, I could write this!”? Or had an idea that you thought would be just stellar on screen? As humans, we’re natural-born storytellers, and so it’s no wonder that you’ve probably had such thoughts. 

The hard part isn’t about coming up with ideas – it’s about finding a way to organize those ideas into a story with a clear beginning, middle, and end. 

As teenagers finish high school and start to look towards their futures, there is no skill more vital than clear communication. 

Whether it’s cracking the college essay, figuring out how to sell themselves in an interview, or navigating new assignments, figuring out how to tell a compelling story is essential. Creative writing teaches students how to think in a new way that is readily transferable to all of the above scenarios and more.

To novice writers, though, an empty page can feel overwhelming. I mean, where do you even begin? How do you break a story? When do you introduce new plot developments? How do you know when the story’s done? The possibilities seem endless!

Thankfully, creative writing isn’t as freewheeling as most people assume. While writers are obviously allowed to go in any direction that moves them, there are certain tried-and-true frameworks that we keep coming back to. We’re going to dive into one such framework here.

Before we dive into the specifics, though, there are some basic things you should know up front.

SCREENWRITING 101: THE BASICS

Virtually any story can be summarized in this way: a likable character needs to overcome a series of increasingly difficult tasks in order to accomplish a compelling desire and grow as a human along the way.

It’s your job as a writer to invent that journey and to come up with obstacles that will enable your character to grow in a believable way. People grow when they’re faced with challenging situations that push them out of their comfort zones!  

So how do we introduce those challenging situations?

As mentioned above, every story should have a beginning, middle, and end. In screenwriting, we think of these pieces in terms of acts. 

  • Act 1 is your “beginning.” This is where you show your protagonist in his/her “before world.” What does their status quo look like before undergoing the journey that will make up the bulk of your story? What flaws do they have that they might be unaware of? We should get a clear understanding of what’s missing in this person’s life and how they need to change.
    • Act 1 should take up ~25% of your story
  • Act 2 is the “middle” of your story. It begins with your protagonist choosing to pursue his/her goal, embarking on a journey in the process. Your protagonist’s status quo will start to be challenged as they’re faced with more and more obstacles, forcing that character to grow as they adapt to new circumstances.
    • Act 2 should take up ~50% of your story
  • Act 3 is the “end” of your story. After experiencing a moment of defeat at the end of Act 2, the protagonist considers giving up on their goal and returning to who they were at the beginning of the film, but they ultimately muster the strength to carry on. They use everything that they’ve learned to overcome their flaws and use their new strength to finally accomplish their goal.  
    • Act 3 should take up the last ~25% of your story

So that’s a nice basic framework, but how long is “25%,” exactly? The cool thing about screenwriting is that it’s formatted so that each page of writing translates to one minute of screen time

  • Since most movies are about 1.5 hours to 2.5 hours, most screenplays should be about 90 pages to 150 pages. 
  • The “ideal” screenplay is 110 pages. 

Now that you have a basic idea of story, let’s look at that ideal 110-page screenplay to breakdown story even further. 

SCREENWRITING 101: STORY BEATS

Act 1 (Pages 1-25)

  • SET UP & THEME (Pages 1-10): The first impression of the story’s world and protagonist – a “before” snapshot of the person we’re about to follow on this adventure. It should present the main character’s world as it is and show us all of their problems. We should get a clear understanding of what’s missing in this person’s life and how they need to change. At some point during this beat, the theme of the movie should be explicitly stated, and that statement should serve as the movie’s thematic premise.
  • CATALYST (Page 12): The inciting incident. This is the moment where life begins to change as your protagonist is faced with some form of life-changing event. It is allowing a monster onboard your ship, meeting the true love of your life, getting fired from your job, etc. It’s the moment that shakes up your “before” world. Usually, your character is posed with a choice: do they want to try to fix whatever calamity they’ve just encountered, or do they want to try to ignore it and carry on with business-as-usual?
  • DEBATE (Pages 12-25): After experiencing the catalyst, the protagonist should doubt the journey that they must take. Change is scary. Can they really face the challenge that’s been put in front of them? It’s the moment of truth – will they embark on the journey or stay in their “before” world?

Act 2 (Pages 25-85)

  • BREAK INTO 2 (Page 25): After the period of debate at the end of Act I, the protagonist ultimately decides to move forward with their quest. This is where the protagonist leaves their comfort zone and enters the upside-down world that is Act II.
  • B-STORY (Page 30): This is where you want to introduce a new element of the story. For most screenplays, it’s “the love story.” It is also the story that carries the theme of the movie. 
  • FUN AND GAMES (Pages 30-55): This is where you deliver on the “promise of the premise.” What kind of moments would people expect when they hear the concept of your film? It’s where most of the “trailer moments” will be found. It’s also where we’re concerned with forward progress of the journey – the character should begin to encounter obstacles, but generally things are going well for the protagonist as they’re having “fun” and moving along in the pursuit of their goal. 
  • MIDPOINT (Page 55): The midpoint is either an “up” where the hero seemingly peaks (though it is a false peak) or it is a “down” when the world collapses all around the hero (though it is a false collapse). The stakes are raised, the fun-and-games are over, and we’re back to the story. The protagonist’s strategy usually shifts after the midpoint as they begin to realize that things are more complicated than they may have seemed.
  • CHALLENGES AND DECLINE (Pages 55-75): This is where the situation becomes much more difficult for the protagonist, and the forces that are aligned against them (internal and external) begin to tighten their grip. Doubt, jealousy, fear and foes regroup to defeat the main character’s goals. This is when the bad guys send in the heavy artillery.
  • ALL IS LOST (Page 75): This is the moment where the hero loses everything they’ve gained, and the initial goal seems totally impossible. It is the opposite of the midpoint in terms of “up” or “down,” most often the hero’s lowest point. Usually, there is a symbolic or literal death here as the hero comes to feel that their journey was all for nothing.
  • DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL (Pages 75-85): After experiencing defeat, the hero should take some time to react. Typically, they wallow in hopelessness as they question their journey and wonder if it’s even worth it to keep carrying on in their pursuit. 

Act 3 (Pages 85-110)

  • BREAK INTO 3 (Page 85): Thanks to a fresh idea, new inspiration, or last-minute thematic advice from the B-story (usually the love interest), the main character chooses to try again. They’ve finally come to understand the theme of the film and have realized the solution to their problem as a result – now all they have to do is apply it.
  • FINALE (Pages 85-110): This time around, the main character incorporates the theme – the nugget of truth that now makes sense – into the fight for the goal because they now have experience from the A-story and context from the B-story. Act 3 is all about synthesis! Thanks to what the protagonist has learned, they manage to defy the odds and accomplish their goal as a new person.
  • FINAL IMAGE (Page 110): The very end of the story, where we get a snapshot of the protagonist’s new life that’s been born from the journey. Usually, it’s in direct contrast to whatever we saw at the beginning of the film. 

DOWNLOAD OUR FULL BEAT SHEET GUIDE

If that felt like a lot to process, it’s because it is! Distilling the complex structure of a 110+ page work into just a few paragraphs inevitably means that a lot of information is getting jammed into a limited space.

That being said, nailing structure is fundamental to starting your journey as a storyteller. You can’t effectively build out character and theme until you have a strong story to layer onto! 

To help you begin to organize your thoughts so that you can move into the writing stage, you can use our free beat sheet guide, which identifies what your major story “beats” (industry lingo for “developments”) should look like and where they should occur.

In addition to providing space for you to hone in on the key elements of your own story, we also break down a popular movie through the above lens to help you better understand what this template looks like in action. 


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Annie

Annie is a graduate of Harvard University (B.A. in English). Originally from Connecticut, Annie now lives in Los Angeles and continues to mentor children across the country via online tutoring and college counseling. Over the last eight years, Annie has worked with hundreds of students to prepare them for all-things college, including SAT prep, ACT prep, application essays, subject tutoring, and general counseling. She is a Master tutor at Princeton Tutoring.