Screenplay structures

screenplay structure

The assignment for the first module on Screenwriting was to “produce a written Story Breakdown, including premise, controlling idea and character breakdowns”. A key task for this Creative Writing class was to be able to come up with a structured story; luckily Syd Field, in The Screenwriter’s Workbook, gives guidelines that successful Hollywood screenplays nearly always adhere to, what he calls ‘the paradigm’.

As traditional stories have a beginning, a middle and an end, Field classifies these as Act I, Act II and, of course, Act III. Given that the average Hollywood movie now lasts around two hours it’s not only possible but preferable to structure the screenplay to a tight timetable. So, if a page of screenplay approximates to a minute of screen time, the one hundred and twenty-odd pages of the film can then be precisely divided up into the three acts that the paradigm demands. Here’s how it might work:
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Screenplay principles


I mentioned some time ago that I’d signed up to a short course on Screenwriting, part of an ongoing series of Creative Writing classes. This was not necessarily because I wanted to complete a screenplay but because writing for film is part of that tradition of composing narratives that includes drama, oral tales and, of course, novels.

Here I only want to briefly outline a few definitions when it comes to the ideas from which a screenplay is born. In class we were introduced to Robert McKee’s 1999 text Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting (Methuen Film), in particular the part in which he outlines the three basics which every good screenplay needs. These basics are Premise (what the story is about, in other words a general description of the story); Hook (what grabs the attention of the viewer, rather like a riff or chorus in a popular song); and finally Controlling Idea (in other words, the main themes of the movie).

To try and get under the skin of these basics we were asked to identify them in a mainstream film; I chose The Bourne Ultimatum. This thriller from 2007 (which seems to be showing on one digital channel or another most nights of the week) was directed by British filmmaker Paul Greengrass and starred Matt Damon. See what you think. Continue reading “Screenplay principles”