Structure is so important when writing a screenplay. Every beat has to tell us something about character and story. Set-ups established in act 1 have to pay off in act 3. The challenge, however, is reigning in all of those ideas and making them fit into a proper structure.
Every writer has his/her methods for crafting a screenplay, whether it's writing an outline, or writing each scene on index cards. The point of these methods is to help the writer get a bird's eye view of the entire story and to know exactly where he/she has been and where he/she is going.
One of the methods I learned years ago at a screenwriter's workshop is the Grid Method. It's very simple to set up and use and it might help on your next screenplay project as you work on mapping out the entire story.
- Take a regular piece of notebook paper and turn it sideways so you're working with a landscape view, not a portrait view. This will give you more room to write.
- Create four columns across the page. Label the first column Act 1, the second Act 2A, the third Act 2B, and the fourth Act 3.
- At the bottom of your first column write, "Inciting Incident," at the bottom of the second column write "Midpoint," and at the bottom of the third column write "The Fall." If you're unfamiliar with these terms, here are some definitions:
- The Inciting Incident is the singular moment in the film that starts the hero off onto his/her journey. It usually occurs in the first 10-15 minutes of the film.
- The Midpoint is the moment during Act 2 when there's no turning back. The Hero is fully invested now. He/She has to keep moving deeper into the cave in order to find his/her way out.
- The Fall is the point at the end of Act 2 when everything seems lost and the Hero is down for the count.
- As you move down each column (using a numerical or bulleted) list, write down every major story beat for each act in your screenplay. Make sure that each beat is logically leading you up to the Inciting Incident, Midpoint, and Fall. Note that you are just writing down plot points. Don't worry about dialogue, character traits, motivations, goals, etc. The purpose of this exercise is to give the plot of your screenplay structure.
When finished, you will have the entire story arc spread out on a single page for easy reference. You can see which moments in Act 3 were set up in Act 1. You can see if you've raised the stakes high enough for your Hero in Act 2. It's a great system for evaluating story and determining what works and what doesn't.
This system may work for you, but you may find some other technique that works better. Here's another system I found a few months ago that looks incredibly useful for structuring story. It's called the Storyclock Notebook. Be sure to check it out. The important thing is that you find a system right for you.
What are your writing habits? What technique works best for you? Be sure to leave your tips in the Comments section.