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11 MIN
December 5, 2019

5 Elements Of A Great Screenplay

There are five basic but essential elements of every great story, no matter the type or genre. They enable screenwriters and novelists alike to capture their audience and craft a story worth telling. Like building blocks, they’re connected to each other to carry the load and balance out your story.

We’ll go over each element and then show you how to begin writing. In the end, you’ll find a checklist for the five elements to test the strength of your screenplay.

Remember before you start writing your ideal screenplay to download Arc Studio. The web version is totally FREE, no credit card required, and it will able you to start doing the work planning your screenplay and the crucial 5 elements in it before you start writing your first draft.

The 5 elements that make up a great story

The ingredients of a great story are far from secret ingredients. Depending on which storytelling theory you consult, they might go by different names. For this introduction, we’re going to call them character, want and need, plot, structure, and conflict and resolution.


Every story needs a hero. Your protagonist or main character determines what is happening in your story. Without the hero and their actions, there would be no story.

The main character will draw your audience in if they can identify with them and root for them. In other words, create a likable hero. Your protagonist will start out far from perfect but give them qualities to make them relatable and the audience will want to keep going. A character is well-rounded when we perceive them as believable or authentic.

Christian Bale as Batman.
Batman is an example of a hero.

Humans are complex beings. An interesting character has at least one thing they need to fix, a problem or a flaw. As the title The Dark Knight suggests, Batman is a flawed, even tragic hero.

A thing that the hero needs to fix allows the story to develop and move forward. The problem can come in the form of an opponent, foe or villain, an antagonist to complement the protagonist. Secondary characters further populate the story to support the plot. They enable the hero’s progression or transformation of character.

Want and need

A hero who lacks nothing makes for a boring tale. In every great story, their want and need define the protagonist. These are the things that motivate the main character in their actions: their wishes, dreams, and desires. In Ready Player One, Parzival is on a quest to find an Easter egg inside the oasis.

Still from Ready Player One.
Parzival is on a quest to find an Easter egg inside the oasis, in Ready Player One.

The object of the hero’s pursuit, what they want, is one thing. But what turns out to be the true solution to their flaw or problem is another: it’s their need that ends up changing their life. Other names for this paired story element are premise and theme, A story and B story, or also external and internal story.

The external journey can be specific to the main character and feature exciting action. The internal journey is more reflective and universal, something the hero has to learn or change about themselves. Fixing the hero’s flaw can mean finding love, trust, faith, or human connection, taking on responsibility, overcoming fear, acceptance, sacrifice, or mere survival. The theme of Ready Player One is the hero making connections in real life, not inside the simulation.


The storyline or plot of your writing is a series of events in which actions and occurrences cause and effect later ones. The plot ties the events in your story together, directing the audience towards the question: why does it all happen? Together with character, the plot affects everything in your writing.

The plot of every great story follows certain patterns or story archetypes. Their exact number varies with different storytelling theories. For Aristotle, only simple and complex plots existed. Modern approaches feature a higher number of distinct story archetypes or master plots. The important lesson is the common denominators shared by stories of each of these plots.

The Wizard of Oz still.
The Wizard of Oz displays the classic trope of the "hero's journey."

One such archetype is the quest plot or hero’s journey, also termed monomyth by American professor of literature Joseph Campbell. A hero goes on an adventure or quest to find something, obtains victory after a decisive crisis, and returns fundamentally changed or transformed – think of Don Quixote or The Wizard of Oz.

The plot is not a genre. Romance as a genre, for example, classifies love stories in the broadest range. As a plot, romance features the common denominators of an encounter of two people by chance or fate. After they fall in love, they have to overcome various obstacles to be together before it ends either happily ever after (Pretty Woman) or tragically (Romeo and Juliet).


By now you have the who and what of your story: your characters and the hero’s want and need as well as what is going to happen to them. The element of structure defines what goes where giving order to things and creating a unified whole.

Plot and structure are closely related. The plot determines the events that happen, the structure defines when they occur. Within the simple structure of beginning, middle, and end, timing is everything.

Aristotle called these three parts of a story setup, confrontation and resolution. This is the so-called three-act-structure, defining major plot points and transitions from one act to another. Your narrative will feature additional events with immediate or delayed effects. A term to describe these is story beats. They are units of plot linking the events of the story together. So-called beat sheets illustrate these units and their timing for different types of plots.

The number and distribution of story beats vary with storytelling schools of thought. Yet they always seek to achieve the perfect rise and fall of action that will have the audience at the edge of their seat.

If you are wanting to learn more about how to correctly structure your screenplay, including proper page margins, how to format where things take place, scene headings, and how to correctly format dialogue and more, check out our ultimate guide to formatting!

Conflict and resolution

Plot creates tension, which makes a story interesting and entertaining. Two people falling in love and spending the rest of their life together is a love story. But a hero pursuing their love despite denial is much more intriguing. In Leaving Las Vegas, the relationship between Ben and Sera is doomed by the exact rule that allows them to live together: they’ve vowed to not change each other’s lives.

Introduce tension in your story through opposition. An antagonist can be a villain, a rival, a character flaw or external circumstances such as society as a whole. You’ll be able to increase the tension by raising the opposing force more and more.

Conflict drives your hero out of their current circumstances and towards change. As they develop, their need takes prevalence over their want until they’re truly changed at the resolution.

How to begin writing your story or screenplay

Knowing these five components of great stories is good and well, but which element comes first? How do you begin writing? You can avoid common problems that arise at various writing stages if you choose either character or plot as a starting point. Define your hero by their actions, or create a protagonist for a certain plot.

Start with character

Your audience will follow your hero through thick and thin, so it makes sense to start with them. Make your main character well-rounded and give them a problem or flaw, a want they pursue and a need they have to discover or learn.

Proactive characters make great heroes: they pursue their want, or what they think they need. Then you introduce the opposition, obstacles or antagonist, creating conflict. Over the course of events, they will arrive at the root of their problems, discovering their true need.

Create a main character bound for major change with a specific problem or flaw; make them unable to remain in a status quo; going after a concrete goal against a strong opposing force; which will lead them to a realization about themselves. As you define your protagonist, a plot for them will also begin to crystalize.

To get you started checkout our blog on creating characters step-by-step.

Start with plot

The opposite might seem counter-intuitive, yet putting plot before character goes all the way back to Aristotle. He felt that a hero’s happiness or misery depended on their actions. You can let a protagonist talk all you want in your story, the audience will know and judge them by their actions.

If you know what kind of story you’re going to write and need to populate it with characters, story beats and a beat sheet are a good starting point. Chart the changes that will occur, then play psychologist and conjure an image of the person that will undergo them, and why – and you’ll arrive at your story’s hero and other characters.

Putting plot first might strike you as formulaic, like choosing a pre-made structure. Writers rejecting this approach feel they can’t create anything new by working with an existing story archetype and its structure.

Yet bestselling works of fiction hit the sweet spot on both plot and character, as well as style and theme – their pleasing pattern of story beats have been proven by algorithms, as The Bestseller Code: Anatomy of the Blockbuster Novel tells us.

Story archetypes and plot structure are not a rigid construction superimposed on your writing. They’re a craft that can enable the smooth flow of a plot. Your specific characters and their journey are what makes your story unique.

To get started with plot checkout Arc Studio's plot board which can help you visualize where your story is going more easily.

The problem of starting elsewhere

Don’t get us wrong: there are many more ways to go about beginning work on your screenplay or novel. J. R. R. Tolkien created whole languages before he wrote The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings.

Yet world-building can be exhaustive work and in vain if you can’t manage to bring interesting characters to life in the universe you created or fail to come up with an enticing plot to take place in your fantasy world.

We perceive stories as ‘strong’ when they feature well-rounded characters and a balanced, symmetrical plot. Stories where an otherworldly setting or extraordinary structure takes precedence but characters and story arch remain flat strike us as ‘weak’.  

Sure, movies like Memento, Forrest Gump, 12 Monkeys, Fight Club, Goodfellas, or Citizen Kane break with storytelling traditions we’ve described so far. But master the basics before you begin writing without a protagonist or a structure outside of three acts.

A good story should start in the middle of the action. Look at Netflix's drama The Crown which opens in the middle of the action as Phillip is made a knight of the Order of the Garter and Duke of Edinburgh the day before his wedding to Princess Elizabeth and ends over 50 years later at the marriage of Prince Charles to Camilla Parker Bowles.

Workshop: applying the five essential story elements to The Dark Knight

In this workshop, we'll break down the 2008 film The Dark Knight into the five essential elements of a great story: character, want and need, plot, structure, and conflict and resolution. This will not only deepen your understanding of the film but also demonstrate how these elements contribute to a compelling narrative.

1. Character: understanding the protagonist and antagonist

  • Protagonist (Hero): Bruce Wayne/Batman (played by Christian Bale) is the film's complex hero. He's a vigilante determined to rid Gotham City of crime and corruption. Despite his formidable presence as Batman, Bruce is conflicted, bearing the weight of his dual identity and the moral dilemmas it presents.
  • Antagonist (Villain): The Joker (played by Heath Ledger) is the anarchic force opposing Batman. His goal isn't just to commit crimes but to disrupt the moral fabric of Gotham and prove that even the best people can be corrupted under the right circumstances.
The screenplay opening of The Dark Knight
In The Dark Knight the antagonist, the Joker is spoken about by other bank robbers before we actually see him, adding to the sense of mystery about him

2. Want and need: the internal and external journeys

  • Batman's Want (External Goal): To stop the Joker and bring peace to Gotham. He wants to be the hero Gotham needs, to work within or outside the law to ensure the city's safety.
  • Batman's Need (Internal Journey): To come to terms with the nature of his own existence and the impact of his choices on those he loves and the city he protects. Throughout the film, he grapples with the realization that his presence may be inciting more chaos than order.

3. Plot: the Sequence of events

The Dark Knight follows a complex plot that can be viewed through the lens of the "hero's journey" archetype:

  • Ordinary World: Gotham at a crossroads, with crime seemingly on the decline thanks to Batman and Commissioner Gordon.
  • Call to Adventure: The rise of the Joker, who challenges the established order.
  • Tests, Allies, and Enemies: Batman faces various moral and physical tests, allies with Gordon and Harvey Dent, and combats not just the Joker but the corrupt system.
  • Ordeal: Batman must save either Rachel or Harvey, a choice that leads to significant personal loss.
  • Reward: Temporarily thwarting the Joker's plans.
  • The Road Back: Realizing the fight is far from over and the stakes are higher than ever.
  • Resurrection: Batman takes the fall for Harvey Dent's actions to preserve the latter's image as Gotham's white knight.
  • Return with the Elixir: Batman becomes the dark knight Gotham needs, not the hero it deserves, embracing his role as an outcast.

4. Structure: three-act breakdown

Do check our blog on the three act sructure for more details about this.

  • Act 1 (Setup): Introduction to Gotham's state, Batman's impact, and the emergence of the Joker.
  • Act 2 (Confrontation): Batman's struggle against the Joker's chaotic spree, Harvey Dent's transformation into Two-Face, and the moral dilemmas faced by all characters.
  • Act 3 (Resolution): The final confrontation, the ferry scene showcasing human nature, and Batman's decision to assume blame for Harvey's crimes.

5. Conflict and resolution: tension and climax

  • Conflict: The ideological battle between Batman's order and the Joker's chaos, along with Bruce Wayne's personal conflicts regarding his role and impact.
  • Resolution: Batman decides to let Gotham vilify him to preserve the hope that Harvey Dent represented. The Joker is defeated, but the battle leaves Batman as a fugitive, underscoring the theme that the fight against chaos and evil is ongoing and costly.
The last page of The Dark Knight script
The ending and resolution of The Dark Knight in which Batman becomes a fugitive, a 'dark knight' in the words of Gordon

Applying the elements to your writing

  1. Character: Start by defining your protagonist's and antagonist's motivations and flaws. They should be complex and multifaceted, driving the story forward.
  2. Want and Need: Clearly distinguish between the external objectives and the internal growth of your protagonist. These elements should conflict and evolve together.
  3. Plot: Utilize the hero's journey or another plot structure as a guide, but don't be afraid to add complexity and subvert expectations.
  4. Structure: Break your story into three acts, ensuring that each serves the narrative's progression and character development.
  5. Conflict and Resolution: Your story's tension should escalate to a climax that feels both inevitable and surprising, providing a resolution that reflects the journey and growth of the characters.

Now test the theory:

We encourage you to use the five-story elements we’ve described above when drafting your novel or to test your ongoing screenplay project. To transition from theory to practical application, it’s also helpful to apply character, want and need, plot, structure as well as conflict and resolution to existing works: can you detect the patterns in blockbuster movies and literary classics and identify the five elements in popular titles?

This article is one of many on our blog about storytelling theory. In future instances, we’ll return to the elements that make up great stories for a more in-depth analysis, consult Aristotle again as well as other gurus of story and dramatic theory, and give you more practical tips on how to create compelling characters or plot your screenplay. In the meantime, check out our suggested reading below.

Further reading

  • Aristotle – Poetics. The earliest surviving work of dramatic theory.
  • Joseph Campbell – The Hero with a Thousand Faces. This work first published in 1949 unites modern psychology and comparative mythology. Campbell formulates the Hero’s Journey as a universal motif of adventure and transformation running through all of humanity’s mythic traditions.
  • Blake Snyder – Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need. Consulted by screenwriters the world over, this classic identifies 10 archetypes or plots every movie follows and explains why this is important to your script writing efforts.
  • Jessica Brody – Save the Cat! Writes a Novel: The Last Book On Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need. Best-selling novelist Jessica Brody takes the Save the Cat! screenwriting methodology and transforms it into a story-structure guide for writing novels, also with ten-story archetypes.
  • Ronald B. Tobias – 20 Master Plots: And How to Build Them. Tobias boils down the essence of all great stories to twenty master plots, which he outlines with man examples from literature and classic movies. Each archetype is further broken down according to its three-act-structure and a practical checklist concludes each chapter.

Ready to start writing?

You may be ready to start writing but have a few questions - and that is perfectly normal! We can help you learn any information you need to know about screenwriting within our blog. Learn about what every script needs to include, how to format correctly (including tricky things like parentheticals and headings), production tips and more!

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5 Elements Of A Great Screenplay
Jakob Straub

Jakob is a freelance writer and storyteller. He publishes creative fiction in English and German and assists other writers with the development of plot and characters to shape their manuscripts into compelling stories.

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Arc Studio is a screenwriting app that keeps track of all your screenplay elements. And it’s free!

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