Having a strong grasp of screenwriting structure is essential if you’re an aspiring screenwriter aiming to break into the business. However, while there’s a ton of theory out there on act breaks, plot points and what has to happen where, there’s not much in the way of practical things you can do to help improve your sense of structure.
This is what I’m going to show you in this post — a hands-on exercise that will put theory into practice and immerse you in how films are actually put together.
Here’s what you do:
Put on a movie and pause it right before the first scene starts. Open up your laptop, bring up a blank document and name it according to whichever movie you’re about to outline. (You might also want to open up IMDb in another window as you’re going to need it for names.)
Hit “play” on the movie and simply start writing what you see. That is, a short summary of each scene as it happens in the present tense. You don’t have to go into major detail here — just type out the basic conflict in each scene and what the end result is.
For example, if you were writing an outline for the movie Whiplash, you might write the first scene as follows:
“At a top music school, Andrew practices the drums alone. He’s interrupted by an alpha-male tutor, Fletcher, who’s looking for players. Andrew plays for him, but Fletcher leaves unimpressed.”
As I said, we don’t need to extraneous details here, like the fact the camera slowly zooms in on Andrew playing, or that he wipes his brow with a cloth, or that Fletcher asks Andrew why he stopped playing, and then why he started again. Just put down the bare bones of each scene — enough to understand the movement of the plot and that’s it.
It can be helpful to start each scene summary with a place or time, for example, “At a top music school”, or “Outside, Lester and Ricky smoke a joint”, or “At the airport, Max picks up a business woman, Annie”.
Once you’ve watched the whole movie and written down what happens in each scene, it’s time to break it down. Go through the outline and divide it up into three big acts, noting where the end of each act occurs — the break into Act Two, and Act Three. Then, break the movie down into its seven sequences.
As you may know, most Hollywood films can be broken down into seven or eight sequences, with two in Act One, four in Act Two and one in Act Three. This means there are two extra “mini-climaxes” at the end of a sequence in-between the start of Act Two and the Midpoint, and in-between the Midpoint and end of Act Two. (Check out our site for more info.)
By continually outlining and breaking down movies every week, you’ll really get a hold on structure and specifically on how sequences work. I suggest breaking down films in your chosen genre, or if you write in multiple genres, writing an outline in each. This will help immerse yourself in not only the structure of movies, but also in the specific genre conventions you write in.
This is a very simple, yet extremely powerful exercise that will not only work wonders on your sense of structure, but on other aspects of your screenwriting, like scenes, genre and characters. I suggest outlining and breaking down a movie a week and in three months time you’ll really notice a difference in your sense of structure.
Alex Bloom is the founder of the hands-on screenplay consultancy, Script Reader Pro Some of his favourite movies are Annie Hall, The Shining and Top Hat and he lives in Los Angeles with his wife who secretly wants to move back to Munich.