Your Screenplay’s Structure Is Only as Strong As…


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.

As Seen On
by Naomi Write + Co. in screenwriting, story analysis

Writers sometimes think that “structure” means a formulaic story. (A common complaint about popular structure paradigms like Save the Cat). So this week I want to explore the difference between structure and formula.

As an example, let’s look at Act 1 of Disney’s Encanto, which I watched this week. I thought it was a really useful example because the Act 1 beats fulfill every function necessary to effectively set up the story, but provide plenty of surprises and unexpected choices along the way. If you haven’t yet seen the movie, or if you’d rather read than watch, you can download the Encanto screenplay here.

A quick tip: FYC or “For Your Consideration” screenplays can be helpful when you’re learning screenwriting. They are generally very, very close to the released movie, so you have a chance to see how what you see on screen is conveyed on the page.

It seems like Disney and Pixar movies are used a lot as teaching examples because they generally have such strong structure and hit the standard beats so faithfully. I think that’s true of Encanto, too, but it might not seem that way at first glance. So let’s figure out why.


Structure pop quiz

If you look at a list of the events that happen in Encanto‘s Act 1, I suspect the Major Plot Points are less obvious than you would expect.

Give it a shot and see if you agree. Here are the events of Act 1:

  1. 5-year-old Mirabel learns about her family’s history and how they became blessed with the “miracle” that has provided them a magical home and bestows a special, magical “gift” upon each family member. Tonight is Mirabel’s ceremony, where she’ll receive her gift.
  2. Jump forward 10 years. Now 15 years old, Mirabel tells the village kids all about her family, the Madrigals, and the magical ability each one has. When pressed, she admits that she didn’t receive a gift. She is giftless.
  3. The family preps for tonight’s ceremony, where Mirabel’s cousin Antonio is due to receive his gift.
  4. Mirabel’s sister Isabela tells her she’s always in the way. Her parents are worried about Mirabel; dad Augustin (who married into the family) tells her he knows what it feels like to be an un-exceptional person surrounded by exceptional, gifted Madrigals.
  5. Mirabel helps by decorating for the celebration. Her Abuela tells her that everything must go perfectly tonight and the best way for some (ungifted) people to help is to step aside and let the rest of the family do what they do best. Mirabel then overhears her say, “If tonight’s ceremony doesn’t go well this time, it will be hard for us all.”
  6. Mirabel finds Antonio hiding under her bed. He’s nervous about things not going well tonight, like they didn’t for her.
  7. Crowds of townsfolk arrive. Still nervous, Antonio insists Mirabel accompany him in the ceremony. Every step is hard as Mirabel remembers the worst night of her life, but she does it for Antonio. He gets his gift.
  8. Seeing Abuela so proud of Antonio makes Mirabel feel alone and unworthy. Mirabel sings “Always waiting on a miracle,” about how she may not be special like the others but she can still contribute to the family.
  9. When Mirabel finishes, she sees cracks forming throughout the house. The magic candle flickers and grows weak. Something is very wrong.

And that’s it! Can you identify the Inciting Incident and Break into Act 2?

Okay, the Break into Act 2 might be a gimme since I just said this is all of Act 1, and you know the turn from Act 1 to Act 2 is going to be right there at the end of Act 1 and launching us into Act 2.

But the Inciting Incident is trickier. Any guesses?

“What’s the problem?” is the Inciting Incident

Every story is unique, and sometimes it’s easier to think about a story with one particular frame of reference than another.

For example, most often the Inciting Incident is described as a big, unexpected intrusion into the protagonist’s life. Something happens to throw their life into upheaval.

You might also have heard the Inciting Incident described as the “why now” of the story.

I tend to describe it as a problem or opportunity that the protagonist MUST deal with. The “must” is how it starts the story. (If the protagonist could ignore it and be okay, there wouldn’t be a story.)

Each of these descriptions are true and are really getting at the same thing: the function of the Inciting Incident is to force the story into motion in some way. Not just any story, but this particular story that we’re about to watch.

Movies are generally stories of on one particular cause-and-effect pathway. That’s the story that the Inciting Incident kicks off.

Alright, so. Looking at Encanto, if you were trying to find an Inciting Incident that looks like a big, unexpected intrusion into Mirabel’s life, you’d probably struggle. You might think, “Well, the most unexpected thing is when cracks start forming throughout the house.”

But that’s the end of Act 1, so how could it also be the Inciting Incident?

Know the purpose, forget the formula

Remember that the whole point of structure is to create direction, momentum, and pacing in your story – to deliver a satisfying experience to the audience.

The audience doesn’t care if your Inciting Incident fits the parameters of any screenwriting structure paradigm. They just want it to feel right.

It feels right when when we sense the story getting started. And for the audience, it is very much a feeling, a sensation.

It’s often an, “Oh no! What’s the protagonist going to do now?” But it doesn’t have to be. The feeling can be more of a, “Oh, that’s the problem (or situation). What’s the protagonist going to do about it?” Similar, but different. Both rely on context to create that effect.

Ready for your pop quiz answer?

In Encanto, when we learn that Mirabel didn’t receive the gift of a magical power, this story is kicked into motion. That’s the Inciting Incident in this story.

How / why does it work? It fulfills the function that the plot point (structure) needs, even if it doesn’t look like a typical Inciting Incident.

But it can’t fulfill it’s function without the right context.

From Page 1 the story begins to establish how important the family and its legacy are to Mirabel. “Together our family’s gifts have made our home a paradise.” She is told, “Make your family proud,” and it’s a duty she takes to heart.

We jump forward 10 years and immediately see a big musical set piece all about the “Magical Madrigals” and just how special and admired Mirabel’s family is.

And then the surprise is revealed – that Mirabel doesn’t have a special power like the others. This is Mirabel’s “problem,”. It’s not a new problem to her (she’s been dealing with it for 10 years), but it’s revealed to us on Page 12, so it’s new in the sense that it’s introduced to the story here. It creates the feeling it needs to in the audience.

We know that Mirabel feels unworthy, like she doesn’t belong, even like she’s let her family down by not being magical. These feelings are further exacerbated (and established for the audience) throughout the day’s festivities. But this problem — Mirabel’s being unworthy of her family — is what the rest of the story will aim to solve. That’s the cause-and-effect pathway that the story is built on.

Structure without context is formula

The movies or screenplays you’ve seen that manage to “hit the beats” without really nailing the purpose of each part of the story are the ones that give structure a bad reputation. Because really, structure isn’t about one thing happening on a specific page. It’s about the story progressing in a way that fulfills the audience’s expectations and desires for entertainment.

It’s not just the event, it’s the context around it. Context creates meaning. When we get information out of context, we don’t always know the full import or impact or meaning of it. And sometimes we need more context than other times. It depends on the story, the events in play, and the type of story you’re working with.

Ultimately, your screenplay’s structure is only as strong as its context.

Structure isn’t a formula, but with the right context it is a formula for success.


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.