Do you have a story locked up inside you?
Writing a screenplay is an extremely rewarding process, but it’s not an easy task. It takes a serious amount of time and dedication to develop a good screenplay, and if your goal is to sell it, completing a first draft is only the beginning. You’ll have to refine the story, often with several more drafts, submit your script to studios and producers, and have someone like it enough to risk a substantial amount of money to buy it. Unless, of course, you’re planning to finance and produce it yourself.
The Write Project will help you to unleash and guide you from inspiration to writing the a story the world wants to experience. We’ll get you started in the screenwriting process by explaining the difference between idea, concept and story, in the first of a 12-part series designed to aid you in writing your next screenplay.
Note: You might want to rewatch “Back to the Future” in preparation for this series because it’s going to come up. A lot.
Day 1 – Idea, concept & story
The story is, as everyone understands, some real or imaginary events that are taking place and told for entertainment. The plot is the story of a movie arranged in the particular order we watch it, it is the storyline.
The genre is basically what kind of movie/story it is. What’s the style of it. Some very popular genres are:
- Action movies
- Film noir etc.
The theme of a movie is often confused with the story or the plot but in reality, theme is something completely different.
Theme is the idea behind the story, it is the main subject of the story.
A story can have of course many themes and that’s fine, but usually one or two of them prevail. Many times the theme can be changed by the director of the film [always in cooperation with the screenwriter], who can discern a different underlying subject in a story and choose to enhance this, instead of the main theme that is proposed by the story itself.
Your assignment is to come up with an idea. Develop it into a concept and then figure out your story.
Day 2 – Three-Act Structure
The Three-Act Story Structure divides a story into three distinct sections, each anchored around one or more plot points that drive the overall action. Over the course of the three acts, a complete story unfolds. The true three-act structure isn’t a formula, it keeps your beginning separate from your middle and your middle separate from your end.
Well, thanks to other screenwriters, that’s actually not it. For some reason, writers believe there is some kind of formula to the three-act, but it’s really just a form of basic organization. It is not the same thing as story structure. And this is where discrepancies emerge.
The traditional three-act structure includes the following parts:
► Act I – Setup: Exposition, Inciting Incident, Plot Point One.
► Act II – Confrontation: Rising Action, Midpoint, Plot Point Two.
► Act III – Resolution: Pre Climax, Climax, Denouement.
Each act has their own set of guidelines that help develop, build, and resolve a story. How strict these guidelines are determines the level of resistance amongst screenwriters. And rightfully so.
Look at this other diagram floating around the internet, supposedly describing the same thing.
This one looks a bit more involved, doesn’t it?
Do I really need two obstacles halfway through the second act? Will my story suffer with three or five, or one?
Of course not. You also can have as many of these “plot points” as you need to, to tell an effective, meaningful story.
There is no predetermined formula for knowing exactly where and when these critical events should occur within each act.
Big events like the inciting incident or resolution will obviously, and naturally, happen in their intended acts, but the specifics should come from the organic nature of your story, not a formulaic page count or act break.
Your assignment is to translate your story idea into a treatment that breaks things down into three acts.
Day 3 – The Inciting Incident
What is an inciting incident? An inciting incident is an event that hooks the viewer into the story and sets everything else that happens into motion. This moment is when an event thrusts the protagonist into the main action of the story. It is the most important thing in the first act of your film or TV script. But what is it and how can you make yours memorable?
Keep in mind, a great question to ask when searching for an inciting incident for your screenplay: What’s the dramatic thing that happens in your story that starts the adventure?
You know, that thing that clues the audience into the story, tone, adventure, and more?
If you don’t know…then your script probably sucks. Don’t worry, it doesn’t have to stay that way.
Your inciting incident is the key to your first act and starting your story off with a bang. But if you don’t know how to take advantage of it or use it, you’ve come to the right place.
Today I want to cover the inciting incident, talk about how important they are inside your screenplay, and give you some tips on how to write them.
Inciting Incidents in TV
You often think about inciting incidents in films but every TV episode has them. In TV pilots, they’re the reason the entire series happens. In other TV episodes, they get the story of the episode started.
Think about The Sopranos. The inciting incident is Tony having panic attacks. Those attacks force him to see a psychiatrist, which he doesn’t like too much.
What about in a show like Modern Family? Since that show is done like a documentary, you could say that the inciting incident is just this family saying it’s okay to film them. As that blends into the background, each episode punctuates its incident in respect to the story.
Sometimes inciting incidents work two ways. In a show like Smallville, they are the reason for the series. Clark arriving on earth. But since that came in a meteor shower which imbued people with powers all over and since this show is a “monster of the week” procedural, this inciting incident is the reason there’s a series and a launchpad for every episode to introduce its villain.
Inciting Incidents in Movies
Movies are so fun to write. You get characters, a plot, and you scramble them together and have fun. To stay organized in act one, you need your inciting incident to pop.
In a movie like The Hangover, the inciting incident is the moment when the guys wake up in their trashed hotel room with no memory of what happened the night before. As they regroup, they realize Doug is missing…and hilarity ensues.
In a movie (or book) like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the inciting incident is when Hagrid tells Harry Potter that he’s a wizard. This fact changes all the events after and reconstitutes everything we’ve seen in the world thus far.
In movies, the inciting incident has the habit of inspiring the title. This is very true in Gone Girl. The inciting incident in this movie is when Amy is just…well…gone. The whole movie hinges on her missing. And while there are awesome plot twists the movie still is driving by the absence of Amy and the investigation into Nick.
To study the inciting incident more in-depth, read this article by Joe Bunting.
Your assignment is to watch five movies up to the inciting incident and make a list of every scene that builds up to that moment. Understand its significance in the larger picture and know what time the inciting incident appears. Then, write 10 to 15 pages of your script building up to and depicting the inciting incident.
Day 4 – The First Act Turning Point
The first act turning point is that it’s exactly like the turntable on a railway line. It turns the engine of the film round and points it in a very specific direction – a direction which comes as a surprise, often an extreme surprise.
Arguably, the first act turning point is the most vital structural element in the film. So much depends on it.
The relationship between the inciting incident and the first tuning point is one of magnitude and direction. The inciting incident introduces the initial disturbance and asks an early version of the dramatic question, while the first turning point increases the stakes and reframes the question in the light of new information – a question answered only at the story’s climax and resolution. Mastering the use of these two important structural entities will help you launch your stories and keep them on track.
Where Does the First Turning Point Go?
Audiences are fickle. They will give you a while to get to the point, but they won’t give you forever. And, attention-
If you don’t tell your audience what’s going on for half-
If your first turning-
Also, you don’t want it too early. You need to introduce everyone first. And, definitely don’t mistake the inciting-
Pay attention to where the first turning point is in every movie you watch! You’ll notice that it’s always around minute 23 or so. At Minute 15, you’ll have no idea what’s going on, but by minute 25, you know exactly what’s going on and exactly what the protagonist has to do.
Your assignment is to go off and write the rest of the first act all the way up to this turning point. Thereafter, complete your Act One Checklist before moving on to Act Two.
Now that you’ve got act one together let’s see what you can do with act two…
Day 5 – The Mid-Point
When you’re writing a screenplay, most people consider the second act to be the hardest part. You usually go in with an ending in mind, and writing act one can be the most fun. But when it comes to the second act, you often stare at the blinking cursor and wonder where to go.
One of the reasons this happens is that you do not have a defined mid-point.
The Mid-point is a major plot point that occurs right around — you guessed it — the middle of the screenplay. A plot point’s function is to move the protagonist closer to or farther from his or her goal. So a Mid-point does that, but usually in a more pronounced way than smaller plot points and milestones.
“Often described as a major raising of the stakes and/or turning the story in a new direction. You probably notice the mid-point turn in movies without realizing it. After the mid-point, effective stories usually feel more intense, faster paced, more urgent and/or with higher stakes.”
It’s Indy finding the ark but left to die in the Well of Souls in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
It’s Buzz and Woody getting left behind in Toy Story.
It’s Neo meeting the Oracle and learning he’s not The One in The Matrix.
The Mid-point of your story represents the opportunity for the story to change, shift, or even leap forward. If you get there and nothing happens, you might have a lot to rewrite later. It is often vital for keeping the audience engaged in the story by providing a burst of energy to carry us through the second half.
It adds gasoline to the fire so we have enough burn to get us to the end.
How does a Mid-point inject new energy?
The two most common ways a Mid-point functions to inject new energy are:
- Increasing the opposition – anything that makes the opposition stronger, or makes it harder for the protagonist to accomplish his or her goal.
- Raising the stakes – whatever the main character stands to gain or lose, pending the outcome of the story.
Think about all the things you usually hear need to happen at the Mid-point:
“Add a timeclock!”
“A big reveal!”
“Sex at 60!”
“Now it’s personal!”
If we look a little more closely at what these recommended things are actually doing to the story, we see that each one either increases opposition or raises stakes.
And it’s pretty easy to understand why: those are two great ways to engage an audience. That’s the purpose of the midpoint. Create new tension. Cause the audience to lean in, to get even more invested. Make them eager to stick around for the rest of the story.
But for that engagement to happen, our emotions have to be affected. A key component of an effective Mid-point is that it isn’t just a plot device – it has bearing on the emotional story as well.
That’s why sometimes you’ll see Mid-points in movies that seem like they should matter, but they don’t. It’s a feeling — or lack of it, as the case may be. Those ineffective mid-points are big, flashy events that – on the surface – would appear to create the kind of impact you’d want from a Mid-point. Yet they feel disconnected from the story. It happens, and we don’t care.
If you notice that happening, stop the movie and ask yourself if that Mid-point is truly increasing the opposition or raising the stakes in a way that matters, emotionally. I’d be willing to bet money it’s not.
So as you’re building the Mid-point of your screenplay, look for a way to make the journey harder and more meaningful for the character. If you can do it in a way that’s surprising or interesting, all the better. And then make sure to show us why and how this matters to the protagonist.
If you can do that, your Mid-point doesn’t even have to be big and explosive. If you anchor it in the opposition or the stakes that really matter to the character (and therefore, to us), it’ll have the effect you want.
As with every discussion on story structure, it’s not enough to know that something happens. We need to think about why something happens. If we can identify the purpose we’re trying to fulfill, we have a target to aim for when we’re crafting the story.
Your assignment is to get to the mid-point in your script. For most of you, this could mean going from page 30 to 50, or even 60. Tough. It’s crunch time.
Day 6 – The Second Plot Point (Third-Act Turning Point)
In the Act Two, there are two very important plot points: The mid-point, which you can find it near the actual middle of the story, dividing the second act in two halves and the second plot point ( or Third-Act Turning Point), which pushes the story towards Act Three.
We are at the end of Act Two, and the protagonists are exhausted from the entire journey, they are completely worn out, but… we’re not just yet in the end! More effort is needed, one final step to take, one final chapter to go through.
The most important thing about the Third-Act Turning Point is that the protagonists realize at this point that “It hasn’t ended yet!”
Many times at this point, the protagonists lose everything they have. If they give up now, the film would end badly for them, but they don’t. Somehow, they acquire the strength and courage to move on. To try one more thing.
In this Second Turning Point sometimes we have what is called the “aha moment“. Usually, it’s NOT the most important “aha moment” of the film, the most important is usually in Act Three, but it’s something that helps the protagonists pick up their pieces and move on.
It’s the moment where usually a realization, a new idea or a new information comes forward and urges the protagonists to head on. Usually this is where Act Two ends, and Act Three begins. When a new “chapter” begins for the protagonists, which is going to be the final chapter, the one that will lead them towards the end of the story.
What’s the key to creating the perfect Act 2 ending?
Craft a painful, emotionally charged series of scenes that somehow brings your protagonist closer to his goal…even though, on the surface, he appears to be the furthest from it.
In sum, the secret to nailing the “all is lost” moment is to combine these three essentials:
Basically, they’re all you need to create a second-act ending that’s effective and powerful.
One with the capacity to re-engage audiences, right when their interest usually flags. (Actually, that’s another reason why it’s important to get this plot point right.)
At this stage, you probably want to dig deeper into each of these “all is lost” essentials.
Essential #1: Pain
As a writer, you’re probably inclined to be kind to your protagonist. After all, he’s usually the character whose essence and history most mirror your own personality and experience.
But you must resist that urge. In the words of Kurt Vonnegut:
Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
While this is true throughout your script, it’s especially true at the end of Act Two, during your protagonist’s “all is lost” moment. By being cruel to your protagonist, you’re being kind to audiences, who expect to experience a roller coaster of emotions.
The “all is lost” moment is the dip that makes your protagonist’s eventual ascent during Act Three all the more powerful.
In all likelihood, your first set of ideas of how to end Act Two is probably the equivalent of a paper cut. That’s not good enough, not to create an “all is lost” moment with impact.
For that, you need to turn the paper cut into a gaping wound (which, needless to say, is genre appropriate).
And after that…
Throw salt onto your protagonist’s wounds
Unstinting pain, that’s your primary order of business at this stage of your story.
Essential #2: Emotion
Your protagonist’s “all is lost” moment must elicit some significant degree of emotion from audiences. Otherwise, it’s about as useful as a flat tire.
As far as emotional reactions go, tears are great, but not always probable. Wide eyes and an involuntary gasp work equally well. Whether expressed through tears or gasps—or something in between—if successful, your “all is lost” moment recharges audiences’ emotional investment in your protagonist’s success all over again, priming them for the gripping climax that’s just ahead.
Sadly, this is where amateur writers make a fatal mistake
They assume that audiences will automatically care about whatever tragedy befalls the protagonist at the end of Act Two. But this isn’t the case–even with death. Whether your protagonist experiences a personal loss or a setback that seriously jeopardizes the stakes, you must show — not tell — audiences how and why this state of affairs matters to your protagonist.
Even if your protagonist experiences a setback that puts an entire city, country, planet, or galaxy into serious jeopardy, it’s still imperative to give audiences a reason to care about such tragedy.
As Scott Myers explains in an interview with Script Magazine:
I read a LOT of scripts and one recurring issue I find, regardless of genre, is a lack of emotional resonance. There can be all this huge stuff going on in the plot, literally in a sci-fi story at the scale of blowing up an entire planet, but if there aren’t points of connection for a script reader to the story’s characters, where we actually FEEL something authentic for them, then the effect can be so much noise.
That’s why I have this writing mantra: Substantial Saga / Small Story. That is whatever the big story is, what I call the Plotline, there have to be some intimate subplots and dynamics going on which engender a human connection between the reader and the characters.
Here’s one way to make that human connection that Myers is talking about: build a subplot around a character who comprises the stakes.
For example, if an entire planet will disappear if your protagonist fails to accomplish his goal, then weave in a subplot about fraternal twins trying eke out an existence on this planet.
Another worthwhile option: use a subplot to demonstrate the value of whatever your protagonist loses at the end of Act Two. This way, your “all is lost” moment will have emotional impact. You’ll have audiences right where you want them – eating from the palm of your hand.
Essential #3: Paradox
This, perhaps, is the trickiest aspect of the “all is lost” moment to understand. You and I both know that your story climax is just around the corner. Assuming your story ends on a positive note, your protagonist’s victory is a mere 15 pages away (give or take).
So, then, how can your protagonist be the furthest away from his goal at his “all is lost” moment?
In truth, he’s not. It just looks like he is.
See, oftentimes, your protagonist’s Act Two defeat, as negative and unpleasant as it is, is exactly what your protagonist needs to:
- push past his demons
- give up his crutches
- overcome his innate resistance to change
Because your protagonist has hit rock bottom at the “all is lost” moment, he’s desperate enough to take the path of most resistance — and confront the very thing he was trying to avoid.
In the process, he’ll blossom into the person he was meant to be.
The epic defeat of the “all is lost” moment contains the seeds of lasting victory
If you examine the end of Act Two from this perspective, then success is not as far off as your protagonist imagines — he just has to hang in there a little while longer. It certainly doesn’t seem that way. Not to your protagonist, and certainly not to audiences.
Therein lies the paradox!
Now that you know these elements, it should be much easier for you to figure out how to end Act Two of your screenplay.
Your assignment is to write the rest of your Act Two, up to the climax. Know what your low point is, and really set the stage for it. We need to feel that everything hinges on what comes next. Thereafter, complete your Act Two Checklist and see if you have your ducks in a row.
Now that you have a clear act two, it’s time to land the plane in act three! Click here to start part 2 of the 12-step screenwriting course.
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