The most basic structure of telling a story is to have a beginning, middle, and end. Screenwriting is a bit more complicated than this as not only do you have to tell a good story with interesting characters, but you have to adhere to a strict format including when to place various story elements.
The general rule of thumb is for a screenplay have a three-act structure: Act 1 is the beginning; Act 2 is the middle; and Act 3 is the end. Given the maxim that one page of a properly-formatted screenplay is roughly equivalent to a minute of screen time, then each act would be approximately 30-pages for a 90-minute movie. What about 2-hour films (or longer)? It is an accepted practice that Act 2 is much longer than the others and can be an hour or more itself with a major turning point at the half-way point. Some refer to this split as Act 2a and Act 2b, but for sake of argument, let’s say that this really constitutes two separate acts with an act break every half hour.
Each act has a specific purpose in the context of the story. In order to better explain how the acts function, let’s analyze Jaws. Any film can be used to demonstrate how a screenplay should be constructed.
Act 1 is for exposition with three elements established: 1) the principal characters, in particular the protagonist and antagonist; 2) the setting, including the period the story takes place, primary locations, and tone that the setting evokes; 3) the central conflict that is the reason the story exists. Jaws does a good job with all three. The protagonist is Chief of Police Martin Brody, who transplanted his wife and two young sons from NYC to a small island community despite having a fear of the water only to find the town’s citizens and welfare threatened by a man-eating shark that he has to vanquish. Amity Island is a character in its own right, with characters like Mayor Vaughn and Captain Quint adding color and conflict. By the first half-hour mark, we know these characters, the setting, and the conflict. Now the story can really get going.
It’s been said that the first few pages of any screenplay must have a “hook,” something that grabs the audience’s attention. This is logical, since who wants to begin a movie (or a screenplay) by being boring? Grab the audience with a scene that will draw in the viewer or reader with a scene that makes us understand what we are to expect. In other words, start off with a bang. Jaws does this in an unforgettable fashion with the death of a girl going for an evening skinny dip. After this opening, how can anyone stop watching? It sets up the fact that an unspeakable monster in the ocean is about to attack. The following scenes introduces Brody, his investigation indicates a shark attack, and the local government’s concern that word of the attack will a detriment on money generated by summer vacationers. Further attacks occur, and Brody finds himself in the position of having to stop the beast, which of course is the meat of the story.
By the end of Act 1, there needs to be a major event that sends the story moving, often caused by the protagonist making a decision that has long-reaching consequences; if the character had made a different decision, then a completely different story would ensue. In Steven Spielberg’s shark film, Act 1 ends with the introduction of shark expert Matt Hooper, who determines that indeed the girl from the beginning was killed by a shark rather than a boating accident as the coroner was forced to conclude, so something still must be done to stop the menace.
The mistake many people do during Act 1 is forget what its purpose is and wanting to jump into the main action too soon. The audience needs to know who the story is about, where and when it takes place, and what problem needs to be solved by the end. Use every scene to develop these three points. If you want to introduce a theme at this time, it’s acceptable, but the rest of the movie can be used to develop your ideas.
If Act 1 is “the boring stuff” that people often skip over after seeing a film repeatedly because they don’t need to see the set-up again, then Act 2 is the good stuff. This is where the story really takes off, beginning around page 30. By now, we know the principal characters, the world in which they exist, and the situation they have to deal with, so now we can have fun throwing all sorts of problems their way. In literary terms, this is the rising action; we’re elevating the conflict (AKA thickening the plot). Brody and Hooper have to contend with the inaction of the local officials, handle the guilt from a victim’s mother, prove that a shark fishermen killed is not the man-eater stalking their waters, investigate an abandoned boat, and manage the Fourth of July crowd on the beach all while the evil fish is still on the loose.
It is very important to be efficient during Act 2. Make every scene count; if a scene does not advance the plot or develop a theme, then cut it or combine it with one that does. Many times people complain that a movie has a strong start and finish, but drags in the middle. This is due to the writer losing focus on what the story is. Use scenes like building blocks. You’re moving from the last turning point to the next one, so everything in between needs to propel the story toward it.
TURNING POINT (ACT 2B OR ACT 3)
About an hour into the film, or around page 60 in the screenplay, the story spins in a different direction with some unexpected event. For the next half hour, we’re still in the middle of the story, but the characters are dealing with developments vastly different than what transpired in the first half of the story. The difference between a 90-minute movie and a 2-hour (or longer) film is that with the shorter length still has a turning point, but the ramification of it are dealt with in a much shorter time period. Often, this section is only 10-20 minutes long before moving into the conclusion. Longer movies will obviously take advantage of the time to build up to the final act.
At the hour point in Jaws, panic takes hold on the Amity Island beach after two kids pull a prank, but then the real shark attacks, endangering the sons of both Brody and Mayor Vaughn. This prompts the mayor to hire Quint, thereby setting into motion the triumvirate of Brody, Hooper, and Quint that will continue until the end of the film. This new dynamic brings in a new conflict, that of old salt sea captain Quint going against college-educated scientist Hooper. This rivalry is one of the more entertaining aspects of the movie and develops the theme of old fashioned techniques vs. modern technology. They go out on the water in Quint’s boat the Orca, where Brody finally sees the monster he’s up against. They don’t truly understand the magnitude of the threat against them until the shark attacks the boat during an evening bonding session. This segment wraps up at an hour and thirty-six minutes, running slightly long according to tradition, but it still works as an act break. By this point, there is another turning point that leads toward the inevitable conclusion–in this case, the turning point is that attack. The three men now have their own lives in peril, as the ship has been damaged, they are dealing with an unpredictable enemy, and human failings may be their undoing.
THE FINAL ACT
What is typically known as Act 3, unless you prescribe to the theory that each act is approximately a half hour long and thereby enabling more acts than the traditional three, is your story’s finale. This encompasses the climax and falling action, which is where everything is resolved in a thrilling manner, followed by any other loose ends being wrapped up before the credits roll.
In Jaws, this is primarily the depiction of the final showdown between men and shark. However, it also illustrates the conclusion of individual story arcs: Brody overcomes his hydrophobia through the showdown with his nemesis; Hooper proves his masculinity by submerging himself in a shark case to go face-to-face with the big fish; and Quint puts aside his pride and hubris to allow new ideas on how to catch the shark, though allowing his obsession to finally best him. There’s not much of a falling action–after the shark is destroyed in a spectacular and edge-of-the-seat manner, we are treated to a mostly silent reunion of the survivors and their swim back to shore. Some stories need a lot of resolution, so after the climax the film may go on for another ten to fifteen minutes depending what is required for the audience to leave the theater satisfied. When nothing more needs to said, then that is time to end the film.
One mistake that often happens is to continue the story far longer than what is necessary, which results in the audience growing impatient and irritated at the movie. Don’t be afraid to write “The End” when the time comes. Conclude with a strong emotion, whether it’s a joke, a shock, a tender moment, or one of sadness. The ending of any story is the last impression you have to make with the audience, so make it a good one.
Read more musings on film and television by Jamie Helton at FilmVerse.
© 2012 Jamie Helton