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November 30, 2021

Different Types of Screenwriting Story Structures

When you've had your initial idea for a script, you might feel energized and excited. But you soon might feel overwhelmed. How do you convey your thoughts and your major plot points on paper without them becoming tangled and confused? The solution? Utilize the right screenwriting story structure! Luckily, there are a few different types available.

The different types of screenwriting story structures:

Don't let yourself get bogged down. You can adapt several story structures and use them to your advantage. Thinking these terms can help you nail down your plot and write with more confidence.  

The three-act structure

The simplest structure for you to adapt to your own needs is a three-act structure. Aristotle favored this.

The setup

This is where you put in motion all the events leading up to your film's main problem or conflict. We need to understand what the motivations are for all of your main characters.

What are the circumstances in which they live that lead them to conflict either with outside and external conflict or an internal conflict?

This could include background details on where your characters grow up or an insight into their personal and family lives.

In Disney Pixar's Up, the setup is the flashback montage we see at the start of the film telling Carl's whole married life until his wife Ellie dies. This gives us all the information we need to know to understand why Carl embarks on his own hero's journey.

Alt-text: The exposition or set up in Up is the emotional montage at the start of the film.

Source: https://ohmy.disney.com/movies/2015/12/13/carl-and-ellies-life-moments-ranked-from-cute-to-cutest/

The clash or the problem

All stories have conflict. This either exists between different characters or an existential force that is often personified into a character.

More complex stories - especially dystopias - can have multiple villains. If we consider Amazon's The Man In The High Castle, we have the main villain (antagonist) Obergruppenfuhrer John Smith - a senior Nazi in SS of The Great Nazi Reich (The formerU.S).

Our hero Julianna Crane eventually has to defeat him, but there are other enemies - primarily within the Nazi leadership - including Hitler, Himmler, and Heydrich.

Alt-text: In The Man In The High Castle, Nazi officer John Smith is the main antagonist our hero Juliana Crane must defeat. But there are other more loathsome antagonists Juliana must confront to resolve the plot's conflict and to remove the Nazi ideology.

The clash or problem is the values and ideas of Nazism, which is personified in the characters who have adopted those values for varying reasons. Either - as with Smith - to protect his family or to further his career. Or because they genuinely believe in those values.

Dividing it up

If we divide our screen time into four, then the setup and the resolution should both take up one quarter each while the clash should take up two quarters - or about half of the film.

Using the one-page-per-minute rule can give us a good idea of how many pages to expend on each section of your script. For a 2 hour (120 minutes) film, we should be looking at a 30-minute setup, a 60-minute clash, and a 30-minute resolution.

For a 60 minute episode of a television series for a streaming service, consider 15 minutes each on your set up and resolution and thirty minutes on the problem or conflict stage.

All rules are meant to be broken, so if you can justify it, then you don't have to abide by this.

The resolution

Your narrative should be cyclical. Once we resolve the problems by defeating the villain or solving the problem, we should be right back at the start of the narrative, with some changes.

Whatever problems, personal issues, or dynamics your characters were facing at the start should have moved forward. The events of the narrative should have either brought characters closer together or pushed them further apart.

The Three Act Structure illustrated.

Five-act structure

Other story structure examples include a three-act structure is a five-act structure. This has more of a basis in literary theory and was first proposed by Gustav Freytag. His pyramid of dramatic structure helps us see the ups and downs of a story and how we build a story.

Using Freytag's ideas, we start with an introduction or exposition - background material we need to understand the central conflict. After this, the tension begins to rise; your characters will find themselves in increasing jeopardy until the climax.

There should be a huge payoff to reward your viewers for sticking with you until this point in the climax. This is where you can reveal twists and turns about your character's actions and motivations.

As the action falls, there can be a cyclical resolution and brings us back to the beginning - loose ends can be tied up. Or you can choose to offer your viewers a catastrophe.

This could be a deus ex-machina - a random unexpected event that disrupts the resolution and brings a more significant conflict into the drama. It could be something you've had in play since the opening scenes. If you are writing a television series, you may consider this at the end of your first series.

This leaves the door open for future series and shocks your audience.

The 5-act structure, illustrated.
The 5-act structure, illustrated.

The hero's journey

Another story structure example is to consider the hero's journey.

This doesn't work as well if you have a story with multiple character points of view or there is no clear villain. The hero's journey works well for the biopic genre, where we tell the life story of one character from their perspective.  

In the hero's journey format, your hero begins his life at home - in ancient stories, this would often be in his small village or tribe - but circumstances compel him to leave home. They must embark on a journey where they must face inner as well as external conflicts.

In ancient times the hero would have to fight the enemy alone with a sword. The enemy would usually be a mythical creature such as a cyclops or a dragon.

In 'slaying the dragon', the hero becomes a man and can return to his homeland as a fully integrated member of the community.

This is not to say you can't use the hero's journey structure if your main character is a woman.

The heros journey, illustrated.
The hero's journey, illustrated.

Choosing the right type of screenwriting story structure

Every writer is different. For some writers getting the outline structure in place before they write is vitally necessary. Aaron Sorkin likes to come up with an obstacle and intention and uses index cards before he sits down to write.

For others, it's more important to get the story out in the first draft. While their first draft will be messy, they will do a lot more planning after his completion.

Listen to your gut and do what works for you. If you feel planning works for you, it could be helpful to write yourself a grid. Here you can compare how your story would work with a three-act structure versus a five-act structure.

See how the events of your narrative fit into each structure. If one structure seems to work better than the other, then go with it. See if adjusting your ideas to fit a particular structure brings any new life to your script. There are many different types of screenwriting story structures available for you to utilize!

Don't forget Arc Studio Pro has some great tools built-in for planning your script and keeping you organized. Get writing for free today!

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Different Types of Screenwriting Story Structures
Harry Verity

Harry is a professional writer. His first novel The Talk Show was published in the U.S and the U.K by Bloodhound Books in 2021 and he is currently working on adapting it for screen. He's also written for Media Magazine - a UK magazine for students of A-level Film, Media and Television Studies. In addition, he was a senior ghostwriter at Story Terrace from 2015- 2021, the private memoir firm.

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David Wain

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Writer/Director "Role Models"