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how to guide by Andrew Lowes | 2001

How To Scriptwrite - Part 1 - Structure

To write a script you need one thing to begin with – a good idea for a plot. Unfortunately, nobody can teach you to come up with good plot ideas. If could I’d currently be writing this under a palm tree in the Bahamas. Good ideas are the Holy Grail of film making. Good ideas don’t automatically mean good scripts, though. Many really rotten films began with a good idea but became mangled during the writing process. Scriptwriting is hard work. However, there are a number of tricks and techniques that you can use to try and make that process a little less painful.

In the coming weeks I’m going to cover some stuff that I’ve rarely seen mentioned in scriptwriting books or courses such as writing short films or writing for low-budget. I’m also going take a look at characterisation and dialogue, which are usually the two things most people have problems with.

First though we need to look at the most discussed area of scriptwriting. Structure.


It’s all an act

The structure of your script is vitally important. It acts as the framework of your story. To a large extent it is going to determine the pace and flow of the finished film. A badly structured script has wrecked many features.

The most common form of structure used in feature films is called the ‘three act structure’. The first act sets up the story and characters. It gives the audience the necessary information they will require to understand the rest of the film. The second act is where most of the story actually happens. It also initiates the dramatic resolution that takes place at the end of the third act. Act three is usually shorter then the other two and it is here that the narrative is tied up. Traditionally, the tempo of the story is accelerated towards a big climax.

To see the three-act structure in action lets use Star Wars as an example. I’ve picked on Star Wars not because I believe that it has a particularly strong script (I don’t) but because it is a classic example of the Hollywood blockbuster.

First act: We learn about the evil Empire and that it is fighting against a resistance movement called the Rebel Alliance. We are introduced to Luke Skywalker, the hero. Various circumstances lead him to leave his home planet and join the rebels.

Second act: Luke and his companions sneak aboard the Empire’s massive new battle station. They discover that a prominent member of the Alliance is being held captive there and rescue her. They escape the station not realising that a homing device has been placed aboard their ship.

Third act: The Empire move the battle station into position above the rebel base in an attempt to destroy it. However, the rebels attack the battle station with small fighter craft and Luke Skywalker is able to blow it up.

It should be noted that although the three act structure is a Hollywood convention that doesn’t mean that you should slavishly try to make your script fit the same model. Many very good films have been made that don’t fit into it at all – My Private Idaho for example. Many art-house films don’t use anything approaching a three-act structure. Basically the most important thing to bear in mind is "keep it interesting". Provide just enough narrative twists to keep the story moving along but not so many that the audience be bombarded with information. Like most things this is mainly a question of practice.

Are you having a breakdown?

Before you begin writing your script you need to do a little planning. You need to create a story outline. This is sometimes called a step outline. Here you list each scene in order, describing what takes place in it. This allows you to see how the structure of the film is working. It also gives you an opportunity to start pruning some of the dead wood from the script before you begin.

The golden rule is that if a scene doesn’t inform you about the characters or drive the story along in some way then it shouldn’t be in the script. It doesn’t matter if you’ve thought of a really good piece of dialogue for it – save it for another time. Be ruthless. If you aren’t then should your script be produced somebody else will be further down the line.

In his book "Screenplay; The Foundations of Screenwriting", Syd Field gives a tip which many writers find useful in creating a step outline. His advice is to write a description of each scene on to a separate 3x5 index card. In this way you can move scenes around or try removing them altogether to see how it affects the shape and flow of your script. You can also use these cards to write down small snippets of dialogue. It’s surprising how often you think of a really witty line at the most inopportune moments only to forget it again because the cat’s been sick on the carpet or the washing machine has chosen that particular moment to spray the kitchen floor with soapy water.

Once you have a clear idea of where the script is going the actual writing of it becomes much easier. The step outline becomes like a skeleton version of the script, which you then flesh out with the dialogue. By preparing a good outline half of the writing has been completed for you. It’s a well-worn cliché but writing really does consist of 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.

Me and my foreshadow

The technique of planting narrative seeds in the first act, which are then resolved at the film’s climax, is called foreshadowing. It’s also sometimes called Chekov’s Gun after the playwright said that if you introduce a gun in the first act of a play the audience expect to see it used before the end of the final act. Foreshadowing is a very powerful technique when used with subtlety. Used badly it has all the subtlety of Oliver Reed at a wine-tasting party. This sort of thing can be seen quite often in Jerry Bruckheimer or Paul Verhoven movies.

Audiences like to see foreshadowing used well because it makes them feel clever. The Sixth Sense uses foreshadowing to brilliant effect, for example. The film is constantly dropping hints about what the big twist is but you only realise that they’re big hints once you know what the plot twist actually is. Careful use of foreshadowing can add a real depth to your writing. It’s what sets no-brain popcorn movies apart from films which reward repeated re-viewings by revealing new layers to the narrative.

Do your homework

It sounds obvious but a really good way to learn how to structure a script is by watching films and reading their screenplays. Watch to see how the writers have paced scenes and built tension through the structure. You can also learn a great deal about pruning your scripts down to the essential elements.

Some good examples to look at are;

Jaws. The screenplay begins with a lot of establishing stuff that was completely excised from the finished film. I can see why it was removed because despite the fact it sounds good on paper it actually slows the narrative down. In a film that is designed to be a suspenseful thriller that doesn’t work.

Star Wars. Despite the fact that I said it wasn’t a very good script earlier I do think that it is worth investigating. The script went through about four drafts before arriving at the version we know today. It changed markedly through each successive draft. It provides one of the best examples I know of a writer latching onto the parts of a script that are working. Then refining and expanding upon them whilst jettisoning elements that clearly are not.

You can find loads of websites where you can download scripts on the Netribution links page. Just look under ‘Screenplays’

Next time:

Characterisation, dialogue and the art of the sub-text.

Screenwriting Part 5 - WRITING SHORT FILMS

Screenwriting Part 4 - WRITING FOR LOW BUDGET

Screenwriting Part 3 - LAYOUT


Screenwriting Part 1 - STRUCTURE

Film Insurance - Do you need it?

How to transfer tape and digital video to film

How to register a limited company for £31. A seven step guide.

How to make your short film eligable for the Academy Awards

An introduction to the role of Company Secretary

Company Secretary Guide - Part 2


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