How to Structure Your Plot
In the previous two lessons, you learned how to create a powerful protagonist and antagonist. Now it’s time to discover how to structure your story.
Building a Foundation
You can build the foundation of your plot by answering four questions:
What is your protagonist’s external and internal goal?
The driving force of your story is the protagonist’s strong desire for some kind of goal. Here are a few typical goals you’ll see in movies, with the external goal followed by the internal one:
• solving a murder / finding redemption after a major failure
• meeting Mr. or Mrs. Right / overcoming their loneliness
• finding a treasure / testing their courage
• defeating a villain / overcoming their own darker impulses
• proving one’s innocence / having control over their fate
• defending the family / overcoming their fear
• winning a prize / proving their worth to themselves
Sometimes the goal is something your protagonist goes after voluntarily, like trying to win a gold medal at the Olympics. Other times, the protagonist is forced into the goal, like trying to find out what happened to their missing brother.
The protagonist’s quest for the external goal will be the spine of your plot, but revealing or hinting at the internal goal will help the audience relate to them.
Who or what is trying to stop your protagonist, and why?
As we mentioned in a previous lesson, a protagonist needs a strong antagonist. As you think of the steps your protagonist takes, also think about what the antagonist can do in order to stop them. Sometimes, let the protagonist lead the action, other times, the antagonist.
What’s at stake and what’s the core conflict?
For the audience to care, something important has to be at stake, and it has to be a situation where compromise is not possible. What’s at stake could be the fate of the planet or whether two people who belong together actually end up together. If you have created characters we care deeply about, we will care about what happens to them and identify emotionally with each step of their journey.
The conflict has to escalate as the story goes on. Your protagonist will make some progress and then have terrible setbacks. You have to make us believe, moment to moment, that the battle could go the other way.
How does it end?
Build the conflict to its highest point and then show us the final battle, the decisive showdown that leads to victory or defeat for the protagonist.
The ending has to come as a result of the actions of the protagonist, not from coincidence or some aspect of plot you’ve never raised before; otherwise, we will feel cheated. The “It was all a dream” ending is a good example of what to avoid!
The Three-Act Structure
You may have heard people refer to the three-act structure as how screenplays are organized. This simply refers to the beginning, middle, and end of your plot.
Roughly speaking, Act I, the beginning section, takes about 20 pages (which translates to about 20 minutes of screen time). Here, we see what your protagonist’s life is like before the thing that triggers them to pursue their goal.
Act II, the middle, takes up about 45 or 50 pages and is the escalating conflict. There is often some kind of surprise or reversal in the middle of Act II.
Act III is the showdown and its conclusion. If the protagonist gets what they need—which isn’t always what they set out to get at the start—it’s a happy ending. If the protagonist fails, it’s a tragedy. Sometimes it’s mixed—they get what they need, but they had to pay a price along the way.
In your script, you don’t actually indicate when a new act starts, it’s just a handy way of thinking about story construction.
Tip: Remember the “what if?” method. As you work out the plot, at each juncture, ask “What if?” and choose the path that creates maximum problems for your character and maximum excitement for the audience.
If you keep in mind the elements we’ve covered in this lesson, you’ll have building blocks of a great plot.
A screenplay is made up of scenes. In the next lesson, you’ll discover how to construct scenes that keep the audience eager to know what happens next.
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