When viewers take the time to watch a movie or television show, it’s natural to feel engaged by the unique storyline and captivating visuals. But while fans fall into the comfortable space of loving a new show or movie, it’s easy to forget that every story starts at the same spot — a great screenplay.
A screenplay is the beginning of the creation process where a screenwriter forms the plot, establishes a setting, creates the characters and what they’ll say. As a foundational part of the process, this step is just as important as the filming and editing processes.
Film director Alfred Hitchcock said, “To make a good film, you need three things: the script, the script and the script.”
The script or screenplay is similar to a blueprint for a construction project. While it may seem tiring to write a screenplay, screenwriting is an effective activity for engaging the mind’s imagination and it allows people to create a world where opportunities are endless. It’s also a rewarding experience to be able to share or read something you created.
The traditional structure for a film screenplay consists of three acts. Act one is known as “the setup” and can be divided into three parts: the exposition, the inciting incident and plot point one.
In the exposition, the screenwriter sets the stage. At this point, the audience should have a good idea about who the protagonist is, what their everyday life is like and their current challenges.
The inciting incident is the catalyst that sets the protagonist’s adventure in motion. Author and editor Kristen Kieffer recommends that screenwriters know their protagonist’s biggest fears and flaws, so that they also know what kind of journey they must go through to overcome their challenges and be satisfied with their life.
Plot point one is where the protagonist decides to engage with the situation that the inciting incident has inflicted upon them.
In “The Hunger Games,” the inciting incident and plot point one are the same scene. When Primrose Everdeen is chosen to participate in the infamous games, her sister, Katniss volunteers as tribute and takes her place, thus launching viewers into act two.
Act two is also referred to as “the confrontation” and is typically the longest act. It can be separated into the rising action, the midpoint and plot point two.
In the rising action, the protagonist’s journey begins and they start coming across roadblocks. They must survey their surroundings, their challenges and adapt in order to have a better chance of completing their mission. By this point in the script, the audience should be acquainted with the rest of the cast.
The midpoint takes place in the middle of the story, where a significant event occurs that directly threatens the protagonist’s goal and motivates them to work even harder. In the wake of the midpoint, the protagonist is forced to reflect on their conflict, and they take on a proactive role as opposed to a reactionary one.
The last and final act, act three, or “the resolution,” is made up of the pre-climax, the climax and the denouement.
The protagonist gets a taste of the antagonist’s strength in the pre-climax, as both have been training for their meeting. The audience might also be surprised by the antagonist’s true strength and have some doubt that the protagonist will make it through.
Normally contained in one scene, the climax signifies the final moments of the story’s overarching conflict.
Quickly transitioning into the denouement, the writer is now responsible for fulfilling any promises to the reader, tying up significant loose ends, underscoring the tone and releasing the tension built up by the climax. Think of it like a day after a rainstorm. The climax washes the protagonist clean, so they can live another day.
While screenwriting might seem like a technical and strenuous process, coming up with a story based on a unique set of characters can be an exciting way to jumpstart a creative mind.
Creating interesting characters and fully developing them is a must. While a lot of films may have the same plot, a well-developed character will stand out. Knowing and understanding character types is also important because their type will determine what role they play in the story.
While all three acts are important to the film, paying close attention to act one is imperative to the survival of the film. Anything is possible in the first act, and audiences will usually believe anything, a trick otherwise known as “the suspension of disbelief.”
Make sure to have everything make sense and avoid leaving clerical errors or plot holes because those mistakes at the beginning could put the entire film at risk. Writers might find themselves trudging back to the starting line if one small detail threatens the perfect final resolution.
With that being said, don’t be afraid to start over if you have to. A perfect screenplay isn’t born on the first try. It’s better to put in the effort by starting again with a new draft than trying to continue with confusing questions that threaten the audience’s understanding of the film.