blog

Organic Screenplay Structure

WRITE SCREENPLAYS THAT GET NOTICED AND OPEN DOORS

Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.

Subscribe
As Seen On

When you start fleshing out a new story idea…
Or when you’re trying to figure out which plot points go where…
Or maybe just when you think about everything you’ve read in screenwriting books…

Do you feel overwhelmed?

Screenwriting can be both very complex and very simple. If you know me at all, you know I love to figure out what makes good screenplays work, to pull stories apart and examine the pieces.

But I also really, really like to think about stories in the simplest terms possible. In part because I think some of the most powerful stories ARE quite simple. And in part because it gives us another approach for building new stories.

Sometimes it’s overwhelming to think about plot points and structure. And overwhelm can stop you in your tracks.

So what if we try a different angle today?

What if we try building a story not by thinking about the plot points that create the shape, but by starting with the essential core of the story and then letting the parts emerge from that core.

Maybe it’s all the gardening I’ve been doing lately, but in my mind I see a little story seed being planted and then the story sprouting up from it. And I hope this more organic way of growing a story will be another tool you can use in your development process.

What is the movie?

What is the most basic version of the story you’re telling?

If we can get to the simple, essential stuff at the core of your story then we have a clear starting point and also a North Star to keep an eye on so we can make sure your screenplay is doing what you want it to do.

We have to know what story you’re telling before we can figure out how to tell it.

So that’s what we want to identify here – the essence. Or you might think of it as the “explain it to me like I’m 5” version.

We’re talking even more basic than a logline. Writing a logline requires you to begin to make some choices about shaping the story. With this basic version we’re just trying to get at the essential core of the story – only what it needs for the story to exist.

It’s about a group of kids in search of lost treasure.
It’s about a woman who exposes a big company poisoning a small town.
It’s about a guy trying to save his daughter from kidnappers.
It’s about a formerly-abused woman who’s trying to help an abused girl.

There isn’t really a “right” answer here. Just tell us what story you want to tell.

What are the parts that make up the story?

A story itself is composed of parts that all relate in some way to a goal. The story you’re telling, if you want to get really nerdy about it, actually demonstrates the life cycle of a goal.

In Act 1 the goal is created.
In Act 2 the goal is pursued.
In Act 3 the pursuit of the goal is resolved – the goal is achieved or not.

So, to follow up on one of our examples:

Goonies is about a group of kids in search of lost treasure.

In Act 1, the kids decide they need to find the lost treasure.
In Act 2, the kids search for the lost treasure.
In Act 3, the kids locate the lost treasure.

Or, take Erin Brockovich:

It’s about a woman who exposes a big company poisoning a small town.

In Act 1, the woman notices there’s something strange going on in the small town.
In Act 2, the woman investigates and goes after the big company.
In Act 3, the woman proves the wrongdoing.

Alright – so that’s broad strokes. Just the basics. We still have a lot to figure out, including specifically how each of these big swaths of story play out. But for now, this tells you what needs to happen in each of the main parts of the screenplay. And that’s what we’re aiming for – packing only what we need in this suitcase so we’re not overwhelmed as we move forward.

Do we need one more metaphor? How about thinking of this process as taking an x-ray. We’re looking past all the pretty stuff to see the bones inside.

The pieces that make the parts

So we’ve figured out what are the most basic parts needed to build the story we’re telling. The next step then is to figure out what pieces are essential to build each of these parts.

In Act 1 the goal is created.

  • So we need to know how the goal is created.
  • And since we know stories need conflict, who or what is opposing the character’s goal.

In Act 2 the goal is pursued.

  • What kind of action does the character take to pursue the goal?
  • What makes the goal difficult to achieve?

In Act 3 the pursuit of the goal is resolved – the goal is achieved or not.

  • What changes – new information or attitude – to enable the character to make a final push toward the goal?
  • Does the character succeed or fail?

That gives you the broad strokes of the plot, without thinking in terms of plot points just yet.

So, if you’re developing the story for Erin Brockovich, you might come up with:

It’s about a woman who exposes a big company poisoning a small town.

In Act 1, the woman notices there’s something strange going on in the small town.
In Act 2, the woman investigates and goes after the big company.
In Act 3, the woman proves the wrongdoing.

In Act 1 the goal is created:

  • Erin sees evidence of something strange in a small town and decides to take a closer look.
  • There’s a big company behind the information she uncovers.

In Act 2 the goal is pursued:

  • Erin investigates and learns the small town is being poisoned. She puts together a class-action lawsuit against the big company.
  • The big company doesn’t want the truth exposed and has more resources at their disposal.

In Act 3 the pursuit of the goal is resolved – the goal is achieved or not:

  • Erin realizes the value of standing up for yourself and rallies the people of the town to fight back and not let the big company treat them as if they’re disposable.
  • Erin proves the company is culpable and they must pay millions to the town.

So again – we’re not focused on nailing down specific plot points or events yet. We’re just working out what basic information we’ll need to include in order to fulfill the function of each part of the story. And this is all in service of that basic story essence we identified.

Watch the story blossom

And then a next step could be to think about the character and additional pieces that we’ll need if we want to make this story meaningful. Things like:

And with those pieces added to the parts, you might think about how each of the parts plays out – getting specific now – or even, finally, figuring out the major plot points.

Grow your screenplay with intention

Again, this exercise is all about identifying the basics. Looking past everything else to make sure the bones are there. Starting with a seed and letting the story sprout.

Want more metaphors? We could look at this process like mixing paint color. If the essence of your story is “green” then you know you need to put blue and yellow together to get it.

Or like cooking. If you set out to make a lasagna, and you clearly know you want lasagna, then you can figure out what ingredients you need to include.

Let’s get clear on the story you’re telling so you can build it with intention. The story at it’s most basic will tell you what essential parts are needed to create it, and then building each of those parts becomes a series of organic, incremental – and totally manageable – steps.

WRITE SCREENPLAYS THAT GET NOTICED AND OPEN DOORS

Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.

Subscribe