Call a Script Doctor! How to Break Down a Screenplay

Script Doctor

Summary: Understanding the fundamentals of screenwriting can help you write more sellable scripts.

There are a lot of different ways to tell a story. With cinema being around for as long as it has, and literature being around even longer, we still find unique means of mashing plot elements together.

Sure, there are also reboots upon reboots, but that is just par for the course. I mean,  you love telling the same old jokes or over and over again. So too do studios! Their preexistence is agreeable both to audiences and theaters, because they are familiar and cut down on Research and Development (R & D) costs. Plus, there is a part of us that says, “I know this plot already, but perhaps it will be bigger and better than before.” So we keep watching despite the track record of the franchise.

Example A: I eagerly look forward to Star Wars Episode VII, for example, even though I, II, and III were a wash.

At the same time,  people like Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan come on the scene every now and again to mix things up and inspire a new generation of filmmakers to try new things.

Before you reach the Tarantino or Nolan stage however, you must first understand the basics of storytelling. After all, to know the rules is to be able to effectively break them. To ignore or be ignorant of them the rules is to accidentally stumble upon genius, which happens, but has with a lesser chance of repeatable success.

With that said, let us review with the basic framework of a screenplay.

A typical movie runs at about 90 minutes (with longer pieces spilling over to about 120), with each page of script representing a minute of screen time.

These 90 minutes are broken up as follows:

Act 1: Minutes 1-30.

Act 2: Minutes 30-60.

Act 3: Minutes 60-90.

More character-driven genres usually have a longer first act, while plot-basic action movies tend to have a shorter one. The framework is therefore malleable, but still the guideline show above is useful for telling if you are on the right track.

In typical linear storytelling, Act 1 provides us with the Introduction, Act 2 provides us with the Rising Action, and Act 3 provides us with the climax and Falling Action. So, this aforementioned framework can be further subdivided into the following parts.

Act. 1a: Minutes 1-15. Introduce the Character(s)

Act. 1b: Minutes 15-30. Get Them Moving Towards Their First Battle

Act 2a: Minutes 30-45. The Characters Regroup After 1st Battle and Gain Confidence to Press On

Act 2b: Minutes 45-60. The Characters Enter Their Second Battle

Act 3a: Minutes 60-75. The Characters Face Certain Death

Act 3b: Minutes 75-90. The Characters Make Their Last Attempt at Victory and Suffer the Consequences (Win or Lose)

The battles listed here do not have to be physical ones. They can be emotional or spiritual, in the mind, against others, or against nature. As long as the characters are fighting a foe and the end of that fight produces a visible outcome, we are in the money.

Example B: I absolutely adore a movie called Rubber, which is a horror movie in which the villain is a tire.

The stories do not even have to be linear (Nolan is a master at throwing chronology into the wind.) So, feel free to play around; but know that if you get in trouble, you have this safety net to fall back on.

Final note: Make sure that whatever happens in your story, you are able to summarize it in a sentence (or two). Remember the log line from earlier? If you want to sell your script, you’ve first got to see the idea. Not only that, but the more you internalize what your story is about, the more you will be able to trim and fill out later drafts to make them the lean, mean, spitting image of your intended vision.

I wish you fun and success in your writing endeavors.

Blessings to you in Christ,

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