Story structure is one of the basic tools to play with in storytelling. The goal of the structure to organize the events in the story so they will be clear to the audience and also to built tension and a rising emotion in the script. In this article, I will explain more about it and give you some story structure examples, but before we get deep into the classic structure of films, there are a few things you should know:
When to start working with the 3 acts rule?
When you are working on the first draft of your script, you should have the film structure in mind, but personally, I recommend getting deep into the story structure only in the second draft so you won’t end up with a very formulaic script. I also recommend working with story structure only after you really understand your characters and the change they are going through.
as I said, script structure is a very basic tool and when you’ll start to analyze films, you’ll see that most of them if not all of them are using this structure.
To understand story structure, we have to understand the beat. If you read Robert McKee’s
Now:If you read Robert McKee’s
If you read Robert McKee’s book,Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting, then you’ve heard about this story element. For these of you who haven’t read it, it is a small change that happens inside a scene. Every scene should have at least one beat in it. When working on the story’s structure I would recommend starting with writing a list of all the beats in the script.
Timing each part of the story structure
Most script writing guides and lessons will also tell you how much time each part should have. I’m really against that kind of teaching. I don’t believe that there should be a fixed time limit to each part and this kind of thing depends on your film. Another thing about timing the acts is that those guides do not fit to short films. For example, they will tell you that you need to give about 12 minutes to the opening or at least 10 percent of all film, but in a short story, you don’t have time for that. In a short script, the opening shouldn’t take more than 1 page.
The 3 acts of a good story structure
A good story is generally divided into 3 major part: The opening, The middle and ending. Also known as act 1, act 2 and act 3. The important thing to remember is that all acts should arise from the protagonist’s desire. The one thing he wants should be your guide through these acts. I suggest writing down on a piece of paper the protagonist’s goal and keep looking at it while going through the acts. You can read about working with the protagonist’s desires in my Developing Characters post. It is also important to remember that the structure is not only for the plot but also for the internal journey that the hero is going through.
The opening- Act 1
The opening is the most important part. If it’s not working, you have a problem and I wouldn’t continue on until it is working. That is why I’ve also written an entire post about the opening of your film. The opening or the exposition is where we build the setup of the story. We get to know where the story is set and who are the main characters.
The opening is also where the writer should introduce the theme of the story or the general question of the theme. This theme will drive the rest of the story
The opening will end with a turning point (also known as the catalyst). We will have a few of this turning point and this is the first one. This turning point is something that happens to the hero and changes his life completely. It will bring our main character a conflict and an opportunity to solve it. The turning point should also introduce us to the theme of the movie. In the movie Back To The Future, this is where doc brown show Marty his new experiment. The turning point is when the Libyan terrorists are trying to kill him. Marty is forced to run away in the Delorean and accidently fly into the past.
Things to be careful in act 1:
Don’t start the story too soon. If nothing happens for a long time, that might be a problem. Don’t waste your audience’s time with too many explanations. See if there are explanations you can delete or move to act 2. Also, make sure that we know the protagonist enough to feel empathy for him.
Act 2- Rising Action
This is the hardest act to write in the script. This act will tell us the consequences of the turning point and how the hero is going to deal with them. All of the hero’s world has changed and now he will have to fix it by the time the film ends. The hero shouldn’t go right away to fix the problem.He will start by learning how to adjust to the new life first, understand what’s just happened. Only after he dealt with the problem, he can start taking action.
The second act is also the place where you should develop the relationships that were introduced to us in the first act. The act can also introduce to us other conflicts and sub-plots.
Things to be careful in act 2:
Sometimes we get to attached to the protagonist and try to much to think like him. It is a good idea to start thinking from the antagonist a little bit, especially in this act. The antagonist is as important as the protagonist.
The second turning point
This is still the second act. By now, our hero knows what he is doing. He has a plan and he is working on it, but something just went wrong and his plans need to be changed. This stage takes most of the second act and it will include mostly obstacles to the protagonist.
The third turning point
This is where the story really gets complicated and it looks like everything the hero have worked for is going down the drain. At this point, he has to make the biggest choice of his life so far. In a short film, this point should be the second turning point.
This is a very important moment because now we really get to know him.
A great third turning point is In the movie “Who framed Roger Rabbit”, this is where Edi understand he has to go inside toon town, the place where his brother got killed in if he wants to solve the case. For him, this is his biggest fear and while deciding that he also decides to stop drinking.
Quick tip on writing turning point:
When writing turning points always ask yourself if they are believable enough. There is a tendency with new writers to bring a turning point out of nowhere. Always do what you can to make them more believable.
This is where the hero faces the consequences of his last big choice. He has no choice but to face his biggest challenge. He has no way of turning back and he has to face it all. Again in movie “Who framed Roger Rabbit” (spoiler alert!!!!) this is where Edi meets the cartoonish character that killed his brother.
It’s nice to have a twist in the plot when you get to the climax. Think of all the possible situation your hero can get to at this point and try to eliminate the obvious ones. The more the conflict get complicated at the climax stage, the more your protagonist solution needs to be. When you are writing a climax with a big twist in the plot, make sure you’ve put enough clues to it throughout the story and that you used them wisely. When I say “used them wisely” I mean putting them in a way the audience will not notice at the time. Putting them in the high point of an action scene is a good example.
Now we have to see how our main character’s life has changed. The main conflict and the sub-conflicts should be solved by now.
These are the 3 acts story structure. When you are working on the second draft, you should make sure that there is a clear distinguish between all 3 acts. Especially when you feel something is not working in your story.