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How to Write a Feature Movie Script, Part 1

Updated on February 1, 2017
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Story Structure

Everything in life has some sort of structure so that when followed it leads to success in some way. A building that stands the test of time and weather began as an idea in someone’s head. That idea was transferred onto a blueprint that was then followed by a contractor who built the building to exact structural specifications.

A screenplay is nothing more than a blueprint that either you or someone else will make into a motion picture that people will go to see and enjoy (you hope). If your screenplay does not follow the basic structure of a story, then the movie will be a failure.

Over the past three thousand years, people have experimented with several different structures for telling a story. Then several philosophers attempted to describe what seemed to be the best examples of a story structure that seemed to be the most successful method of sharing a story that other people would enjoy.

Aristotle was one of the first to speculate that all stories seemed to move along a time line that he called a “continuum.” That movement through time moved in such a way that something unusual or unexpected happened near the end. This event would appear to “reverse” the movement or goal of the person that the story is about.

(See the Diagram below under "The Continuum.")

Soon after the turn of the Seventeenth Century, Lope de Vega of Spain postulated that the best stories did not simply move through time; they started with an exposition of some kind that oriented the reader or viewer to what was going on as well as who the characters were. He wrote that a good story teller offers a set-up followed by a movement of action ending with a reversal followed by an ending that neatly tied the whole story together.

Structurally, he rebelled against the standard "five acts" of his day and wrote that the simple (and better) form is three acts. Then he proceeded over his lifetime to write more than 1500 plays.

In 1863, playwright Gustav Freytag wrote a thesis on the popular five-act structure that continued to dominate play-wrighting into the nineteenth century. In his treatise, he postulated that the five acts actually were three acts that built over time to a climax. He placed the five basic elements of drama of his day (exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement) and showed how these elements worked in the flow of a story.

But, perhaps the most important element of Freytag’s speculation was his conclusion that tension is what keeps people writing (or listening) to a story. Although most people identify tension as conflict, he insisted that tension is made up of the hope that the main character has throughout the story line which is held in conflict with the fear that the main character has of losing the eventual goal, or the hope of achieving the final goal.

(See the chart below titled: "Movement in Time.")

It is this tension that writers today strive for as they structure their stories in such a way as to hold people in their seats for two and even three hours at a time. And that idea of structure is what is important for a writer to learn before developing a story line.

So, a strong structure is the beginning of any movie script no matter who produces it. And that structure has certain elements that work together to create a story that people will enjoy and even recommend to their friends: Pacing, turning points, obstacles, and dramatic irony.

The Continuum
The Continuum | Source
Movement in Time
Movement in Time | Source

Pacing

Today when you read the script of a successful movie, one thing you will notice is that from the beginning page all the way to the end, the action gradually intensifies as the story moves through time to its conclusion. This is what we call pacing.

You might want to think of your story as a roller coaster that moves along a pre-determined track. Your story has a pre-determined beginning, middle, and end. So, what you want to do is to have enough twists and turns along the way to keep the audience interested by having gradually higher highs and lower lows with lots of different turns that are almost unexpected and exciting.

In reality, a good story is simply an emotional roller coaster so that the tougher the obstacles become for your hero, the shorter the scenes become until the story is almost claustrophobic. Therein lays a major secret to understanding the “Hollywood” way of writing screenplays: keep people in their seats.

Turning Points

Every good story has at least two moments during its development that move the story along with strength and logic. They will grab the story and the characters and turn them in a new direction that will eventually lead to the final goal of the story. Every time the action seems to be settling down in its movement and the audience believes they know what will happen next, a turning point, or “curveball”, or surprise that will add a breeze of fresh air to the story.

That turn cannot be totally unexpected otherwise the audience will refuse to accept it and walk out. But, if it happens within the logic of the story and is something that is simply not expected (as opposed to a total surprise), the audience will be more than happy to see the change and go with the new flow of the direction the story is headed.

Obstacles

Every person living has had problems to deal with. These difficulties tend to cause stress in one’s life that a person would rather not deal with. However, problems (or obstacles) are what create drama in a story. And to be honest, without drama there is no story.

So, you must create a series of obstacles for your main character (or hero) to deal with in some way during the pursuit of the ultimate goal. The obstacles can be both inner forces (that are part of one’s personality) and outer forces that block your hero from achieving his/her ultimate goal.

You might think of this in terms of a snowball rolling down a hill. The farther it rolls, the larger it gets until it reaches the bottom. Thus, your hero should face obstacle after obstacle each one being more complicated and more powerful than the one before it until the hero faces his/her final impossible problem to solve in order to achieve the final goal.

Dramatic Irony

But, these elements are just part of what makes a story increasingly more interesting and tense. The screenwriter needs to let his audience in on a secret that is unknown to the main character. This is what is called dramatic irony. It is that feeling that the audience gets when the hero proposes marriage to his girlfriend soon after the audience saw her rolling in the sack with another man. This also helps the audience to think they are in on the story in a special way.

Although this may seem odd to some writers, it is an element that average stories do not possess. Without well-developed dramatic irony, the viewer of the story on the screen often feels cheated or, at worse, becomes bored with the whole thing. Good use of dramatic irony is often the glue that keeps audiences in their chairs to the end.

Dramatic irony can also be developed through a particular characteristic or a truth that the audience (and everyone in the story) is aware of. Then in the climax, or later in the story, that characteristic appears to be an obstacle that the hero must overcome. An example from the MGM film Quigley Down Under (1990) will suffice. Quigley (Tom Sellick), an American from Montana, tells Marsden (the antagonist played by Alan Rickman) that he does not like using the Colt .45, but rather prefers to use the rifle. In the climax, the two have a duel with pistols and Marsden is outdrawn and shot by Quigley. Marsden says to him in his dying breath, “I thought you said you couldn’t shoot with the Colt.” To which Quigley replies, “I said I didn’t like it, I didn’t say I couldn’t shoot with it.” That’s dramatic irony used as the climactic moment in the movie as the hero wins the day.

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    • GoodLady profile image

      Penelope Hart 4 years ago from Rome, Italy

      Your article is extremely helpful because you have simply explained all the whys and the hows of an extremely complicated art form - a very exacting art form. I thoroughly enjoyed your piece .

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