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Do you know how to write a screenplay that works?
In this series of articles, our goal is to give you ALL the tools you need to create a professional screenplay from beginning to finish.
Essentially, we’re laying out the foundations so you can build a beautiful house on top of it!
Let’s dive in:
How to Write a Screenplay That Works
First off, an assumption: I’m going to assume you already have a screenwriting program that you use to write with. If you don’t, there are plenty of good options available online for free.
How do you know if a screenplay is working?
For example, does a screenplay work if it hits all the beats and conventions of a traditional Hollywood movie? Does it only work if it follows the Save the Cat formula? Or only if it subverts audience expectations in a groundbreaking way?
The truth is, there’s only one way to know if a screenplay is working or not, and that’s if the audience comes away feeling how you intended them to feel.
Why Doesn’t Your Screenplay Work?
If you’re writing a comedy and they come away from reading your script sad or angry or both, your script probably missed the mark.
By the same token, if they’re laughing through a period drama you wrote, you probably didn’t nail it.
A lot of times that is because something is wrong on a story level.
This means that something critical to the core of your story is a misfire – meaning it either doesn’t make sense logically, or doesn’t connect emotionally, or most often, both.
This is different than a scene being written poorly, or a character’s dialogue needing a tune-up. When a fundamental part of your story isn’t working, like key plot points or character arcs, it’s what we refer to as a story problem.
Why Does Your Script Have Story Problems?
Story problems happen a lot, and there’s one main reason for that: writing a good story is hard.
To get a story right, you have to put together an intricate puzzle, weaving together A plots and B plots while servicing characters and themes, all while keeping the whole thing exciting.
Because movies are about what happens next, you must always keep things moving forward at a steady pace.
Some specific reasons you might have story problems:
You might have started writing your script before you fully fleshed out your story at a structural level. Or maybe your character arc works on paper but doesn’t actually make sense for a real person. Maybe your character doesn’t actually change, or changes too fast, or not until the very end.
Story problems are a dime a dozen, especially when you jump into a story before figuring out where you’re going. The best way to fix story problems? Get it right before you write.
Do this by writing an outline!
How to Write a Screenplay Outline
Let’s be real – everyone on planet Earth who has ever seen a movie has at least one movie idea.
You’re going about your day, minding your own business and overhear something, or you’re spacing out at work daydreaming and have the thought: “Huh. You know what could be a good movie..”
Now you want to take that idea and actually turn it into a movie.
You first need to start by outlining the story.
What is an Outline?
An outline is a summary of the most important components and plot points of the story.
Depending on who you talk to, everyone has a different approach to outlining. Some writers’ approach to outlining is not to outline at all!
The famous example I always think of is that there are two different types of writers: architects and gardeners.
Architects plan everything out in advance, accounting for every possible plot point ahead of time. Gardeners come up with a scenario, plant a bunch of seeds, and see what grows.
No matter which one you think you are, you still need to come up with the story structure to your story.
What is Story Structure?
Story Structure, in its simplest form, dictates there be a beginning, middle, and end.
Every story, from the earliest classics to the most cutting edge, has some kind of structure to it.
Usually, this means all stories need a beginning, middle, and end, but can be translated in so many different ways. One famous example is Shakespeare’s Five Act structure to all his plays.
Modern American screenplay structure doesn’t necessarily have five acts unless you’re talking about a Quentin Tarantino movie, but you certainly could structure a film that way if you wanted.
However, in its most basic form, all traditional American screenplays can be separated by and broken up into a First Act, Second Act, and the Third Act. Technically, that’s all you need.
What else needs to happen, and when, is a subject of much debate and analysis.
There are plenty of schools of thought on how to further break down your screenplay, ranging from breaking the story up by sequences or beats to rigorous down-to-the-page-number rules.
The Hero’s Journey
Let’s keep it simple for now. You’ve probably heard of Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero of a Thousand Faces.
He breaks down the uniting story structure of all classic stories like this:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.Joseph Campbell
One of my favorite ways to put this in modern movie terms is the following:
A character is in a zone of comfort, but they want something. They enter an unfamiliar situation, adapt to it, get what they wanted, pay a heavy price for it, then return to their familiar situation… having changed.– Dan Harmon
That’s from Community creator and co-creator of Rick And Morty Dan Harmon and his Story Circle method for writing story structure.
I personally think it is one of the most simple and satisfying types of story structures to follow, no matter what type of story you’re writing.
What is the Story Circle?
The Story Circle is actually an adaptation of the arc every character goes through over the course of The Hero’s Journey, but in a way that’s easier (and more streamlined) to apply to modern screenplay storytelling, and structured in a circle for thematic relevance.
What’s better yet, is that most well-crafted movies and TV episode stories tend to have about eight main plot points anyway – so the story circle perfectly aligns with other screenplay structure theories like the Sequence method.
Here are the eight steps of the Story Circle, and how this would correlate to the points you might know from other screenplay writing formulas:
- A character is in a zone of comfort (Beginning of Act 1, the ordinary world)
- But they want something (Inciting incident)
- They enter an unfamiliar situation (Turning point 1 + Break into Act 2)
- Adapt to it (First half of Act 2)
- Get what they wanted (Midpoint)
- Pay a heavy price for it (Lowest moment, Turning point 2)
- Then return to their familiar situation (Break into Act 3, Campfire Scene)
- Having changed (Climax + Resolution)
As you can see, the story circle is a quick and simple way of categorizing all the other story points that screenwriters usually use to divide up their stories, like the Inciting Incident, Midpoint, Lowest Moment, Climax, etc.
The Beats of a Story in Three Acts
In order for a story to matter, the character must leave the ordinary world and venture forth on some adventure. Along this adventure, they will face a single moment of decision.
That moment decision is the “change” Dan refers to at the end of his Story Circle.
These are all elements that make up the structure of a screenplay. Let’s go through them step by step, and in sequential order by breaking up the story circle into Three Act Structure.
1. A Character is in a Zone of Comfort
Every great story begins the same way: we meet the main character living in their ordinary world. We get to know them as a character, usually through a series of scenes that help us as the audience relate to that character while setting up the main conflicts this character might face in their day to day life.
All of this is what Dan refers to as a character’s “zone of comfort” and usually takes up the first ten or so minutes of the first act.
Most importantly, during this stage, we learn that even though this world is comfortable to our character, it is missing something.
2. But They Want Something
This ‘something’ is usually represented as the thing the character wants. The wanting of something is your character’s goal, and this desire will be what carries them (and the audience) through the rest of the story.
In a Disney princess movie, this desire is most famously represented on screen as the princess’ wish, and is usually accompanied by a song, like this famous example from Belle in Beauty and the Beast:
This is a very important part of your story’s structure and should not be overlooked.
If you write this part well, the audience should also want the character’s dream to come true for them, and just as strongly as the character does. The stronger the want, the more impactful the story.
However, this want is also something that the character’s main flaw is keeping them from getting at the start of the film. That’s because, oftentimes, what a character wants is not what that character ultimately needs.
3. They Enter and Unfamiliar Situation
This wanting will often lead us to the Inciting Incident. The inciting incident is what puts the main storyline in motion, even if only in a small way. From an audience’s perspective, this is the “why today?” of your story.
It could be something huge, like the death of the wife in the movie Up (Pixar 2009), or when Marlin loses his wife and their unborn children (except Nemo) in Finding Nemo (Pixar 2003).
But it doesn’t have to be an earth-shattering moment – it can even be a tiny fracture that shows us something is not right with the character’s ordinary world.
No matter how it happens or what it is, this inciting incident, and the character’s accompanying desire, is almost always the catalyst for the entire rest of the story.
That’s because this inciting incident thrusts the character to go outside of the comfort zone of their ordinary world – the “unfamiliar situation” Dan talks about – in order to achieve their goal.
This is no easy decision – it takes more than an inciting incident for the character to enter this unfamiliar territory. They are often slow to take up the charge or originally refuse it outright. That’s where the First Turning Point comes in.
The first turning point is your character’s first big moment of decision, and by accepting this call, they are then thrust into serious or circumstances that lead them to Act Two…
4. Adapt to It (The Unfamiliar Situation)
So your character has left behind the comfort of the First Act in pursuit of their goal, and they have entered the unfamiliar situation of the Second Act.
In most popular myths and ageless stories, this is represented as a hero venturing forth to achieve a goal and faces a series of trials to get it.
This series of trials is what Dan refers to when he says that the hero “adapts” to their unfamiliar situation. The adapting process is the hero confronting the conflict of the story.
The first half of Act Two is all about establishing conflicts that test the hero, either through a singular trial or a series of trials.
So sometimes, a character might have a deeper, unspoken want that only surfaces as they learn more about themselves and the situation they’ve been thrust into.
If we should exemplify this with another example from the Pixar universe, think of the unfamiliar situation in Ratatouille (2007) where the kitchen help, Linguini, teams up with the rat and master chef, Remy.
Together, this odd couple quickly rises through the ranks of a French kitchen, made famous by Auguste Gusteau, through a series of trials under the constant danger of being discovered.
5. Get What They Wanted
As the hero continues to adapt, they should be getting closer to accomplishing their main goal – if not exactly what they want, at least a version of what they wanted.
This false hope moment is almost always the midpoint of your story, and if done correctly, it should mirror the end of your story in some way.
If their goal is an object in an ancient tomb, they could even literally have the object in their hands.
If their goal is to be rich and successful, maybe they now have enough money to buy an expensive and exciting house, and so they throw a housewarming party for the ages.
To keep the movie from being over, a new conflict must occur to take your character off their high and bring them crashing back down to reality.
Like when Linguini finds out he’s the true heir to the famous French restaurant (and fast-food brand) in Ratatouille and therefore rich. Plus, he also gets the girl, Colette.
But in the process, Linguini loses his friendship with the rat Remy, who was the reason for his success in the kitchen in the first place.
In other words, to get what they wanted, there must be consequences. A price must be paid…
6. Pay a Heavy Price for It
Breaking the tranquility of the false ending of the midpoint, your character must now face their most important trial yet – the “heavy price” the character pays to get their goal.
I’ve heard this moment described most accurately as a character’s lowest moment. Some writers refer to this as the “dark night of the soul.” It’s when the character loses everything – or almost everything.
How your characters come back from this lowest moment is one of the most important parts of your script. It’s the culmination of the entire story to this point and should lead them to a Second Turning Point where the character must make a critical decision to change.
Second Turning Point
The second turning point in your story can only happen after a character has experienced their lowest moment. As in life, it’s often only when we reach our rock bottom do we realize how bad things have really gotten.
The best stories often come down to how well the writer can pull off this turn. As you outline this part, try to write your character into the worst hole they could possibly be in. If you as the writer can’t figure out a way for them to get out, that’s a good sign.
So how do they get out?
Your character should have a fatal flaw, or internal conflict, something that has kept them from fully getting what they want until this part of the story. The only way for them to get out of this lowest moment hole is to finally face their flaw head-on.
How do they overcome that flaw? Does it mean letting go of the things they originally wanted in place of something they actually needed all along? Or does it mean realizing something they couldn’t see before?
Ultimately, they must acknowledge their weakness, embrace a strength, and make a choice to change.
Only after overcoming and resolving this internal conflict can they figure out a way out of their external plot conflict. And once they do that, they can face the final challenge of Act Two!
The second turning point example from Finding Nemo
Let’s break down the second turning point, as it happens in Finding Nemo (2003).
Of course, Nemo’s dad – Marlin – wants to get his son back. And on the surface, he also wants to get things back to normal, where everything is safe and nothing really happens.
But in the end, it becomes clear, that he actually really enjoyed the adventure, and that he needed the push, to learn to trust others again, and to let go of his fear:
Marlin and Dory are Caught Inside the Whale
Marlin : I promised I’d never let anything happen to him.
Dory : Hmm. That’s a funny thing to promise.
Marlin : What?
Dory : Well, you can’t never let anything happen to him. Then nothing would ever happen to him. Not much fun for little Harpo.
Marlin : The water’s going down. It’s-it’s-it’s going down!
Dory : Hmm. Are you sure about that?
Marlin : Look! Already it’s half-empty.
Dory : Hmm… I’d say it’s half-full.
Marlin : Stop that! It’s half-empty!
[inside the whale as it starts to swallow]
Marlin: What’s going on?
Dory : I’ll ask. Whaaaa…
Marlin : No, no more whale! You can’t speak whale!
Dory : Yes I can!
Marlin : No, you can’t! You think you can do these things, but you can’t, Nemo!
Dory : Okay [Dory let’s herself fall into the abyss of the whale, but is caught by Marlin]
Marlin : Doryyyy… don’t….
Dory : He says it’s time to let go. Everything is gonna be alright.
Marlin : How do you know? How do you know something bad isn’t gonna happen?
Dory : I don’t
[Marlin let’s go on faith]– Finding Nemo (Pixar 2003)
7. Return to Their Familiar Situation
After overcoming their lowest moment through facing their internal conflict head-on, your character is now ready for the final confrontation of Act Three.
One of the most famous examples of the return home story beat is from one of the oldest written stories: The Odyssey.
When Odysseus returns from his odyssey at sea to find his home littered with arrogant suitors looking to replace him and take his land, he must fend them off to reclaim his rightful place with his family.
But before your character is ready for this final battle, they must take a moment to recover from their lowest moment. This is represented by a campfire scene where your character rallies their newfound strength in preparation to return home.
The campfire scene can look many different ways, but the term comes from the classic western genre, where the characters would literally sit around a campfire and discuss the plan for the big showdown to come the following day.
As for the showdown itself, when your character is finally ready to make their last stand, this final confrontation is what’s referred to as the climax.
In production terms, this is also referred to as the main set piece of Act 3, referring to the main set where the main action will go down.
Put another way, this big climactic confrontation is really the culmination of the external conflict, or plot conflict, your character has been facing for the entire story. The greater the challenge, and the greater the reward, the more we will want the character to win. So how do they?
Story Trick – Plant and Pay Off
One of the best tricks to use in this section is a plant and payoff.
A plant and payoff is a story beat you hide in the first act that will come back as important in the third act. Some examples:
- A key is thrown haphazardly into a flower pot at the top of the story that your character can rediscover.
- A friend the character insulted when they were pursuing their main goal only to realize they can help them now – as long as your character faces their flaw and admits their mistake.
- A piece of the mystery comes together when watching an old home movie, revealing that the character’s father was the author of a mystery letter that set the whole story in motion.
The best part about this trick is, the more that you can tie their change to a payoff that was planted earlier, the more satisfying the moment will be for viewers. “Aha! I remember that!”
8. Having Changed
Outside the specifics of the plot mechanics of the climax, the main thing necessary for your hero to overcome this final confrontation is that they have actually changed.
The thing they couldn’t do at the beginning, they now can do. Or even better – the thing they thought they wanted turns out to be irrelevant in the face of the thing they realize they needed all along.
Then, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, your newly changed character will overcome their final challenge and return back to their old familiar situation having learned a valuable lesson…
Or not! Some of our oldest recorded stories are the Greek tragedies, and their influence is still felt today. Characters don’t have to learn their lesson, but the price they pay is loss or death.
The character might even change but change too late, leaving lessons for the audience to learn from so they don’t repeat the same mistake.
Which of these you choose will be uniquely influenced by the theme of your story. If your theme is about how good conquers all, the change will probably be inevitable.
If your theme is about the inevitable corruption of greed, your character might not change, lose everything, and end up a penniless mute.
It’s entirely up to whatever outcome best serves the story you are telling, and at the end of the day, only you can decide how best to end your story.
Applying the Sequence Model
Sequences in screenplay structure refer to a series of scenes that all follow the same line of action.
Because there are eight parts to Dan’s story circle, you can adapt it to the sequence method by breaking your story’s outline into about eight sequences for a feature.
For example, Dan’s first story beat of the story circle, 1. A character is in a zone of comfort, could easily be translated into a 5 – 7 scene Sequence 1.
Then Dan’s second story beat, 2. But they want something, could become another five scene sequence covering the incident to the first turning point.
You can break each sequence down even more molecularly by subdividing them by page count to match other methods like the Save The Cat Formula.
If you follow that model, then each story beat can be broken down into 10-15 page sequences.
This is obviously a very “writing by numbers” way of screenwriting, and it doesn’t fit everyone’s sensibilities.
As I mentioned above, the only thing structure your screenplay needs for sure is a beginning, middle, and end. Everything else is speculation or shorthand to help make it easier to control the chaos of your creativity.
By using the beats of the story circle, you’re just making it easier for yourself to write with a roadmap that audiences can follow more easily.
Moving From Outline To Screenplay
Once you have written out the main story points for your story above, you have an outline!
You’ll almost definitely want to go back and reread it to see where you can flesh out moments and improve story beats with a deeper description as you visualize them more.
Pro tip: Write as much as you can here, as this will be your guide when you go to write the screenplay.
If you want to save yourself a step, you could even start by writing out your outline directly in a screenwriting program, breaking the outline up into scenes with specific location headings as they come to you, and then fleshing it out into actual scenes from there.
However you do it, remember that outlining will save you a lot of time – as long as it’s done correctly.
You can work out a lot of story problems in a potential script with a strong outline, without bogging yourself down with the work of writing and polishing draft after draft.
If you find yourself rewriting your outline too much and it still doesn’t work, it could be that the story just isn’t strong enough.
That’s okay – that’s why you outlined it instead of going straight to draft. Save yourself the trouble and work on one of your other ideas instead.
Who knows – it could be you aren’t ready to crack this particular story yet, and giving it some space and time will help you realize something you couldn’t see before next time you try.
Once you have your outline in a place you are comfortable moving forward with, it’s time to write the screenplay!
There are a few ways to approach starting your screenplay. The blank page can be daunting, so I advocate for getting started the way that most excites you.
If you want to start by writing your favorite scene, start there.
Or if your outline is descriptive enough, you can copy and paste it into your screenwriting program and start elaborating on it and adapting it into screenplay format by turning the paragraphs into scenes – just make sure you know the rules about writing in active voice and other unwritten screenwriting formatting rules.
Grant Harvey is a freelance writer, screenwriter, and filmmaker based out of Los Angeles. When he’s not working on his own feature-length screenplays and television pilots, Grant uses his passion and experience in film and videography to help others learn the tools, strategies, and equipment needed to create high-quality videos as a filmmaker of any skill level.