Any good screenplay has a clear sense of structure, but what exactly does that mean? Do a little research and you’ll quickly learn that everything has kind of… already been done before. This isn’t a bad thing, though! You need to learn the rules of storytelling in order to know how to break them.
There are many different kinds of approaches to storytelling out there, so here are a few of the main ones:
1. Aristotelian Poetics
The O.G. storytelling structure, Aristotle’s Poetics is the earliest surviving work of dramatic theory. While many of Aristotle’s theories relate to the form and content of tragedy, he emphasizes that any well-constructed story must be an organization of incidents that lead to a catharsis and dénouement (resolution). The main differences between the two main phases in the story are: the complication, where the protagonist finds trouble and the unraveling, where the conflict is resolved.
In this way, Aristotle compares a story to a knot, where the trouble is when the knot is tightest, and the unraveling is when it, well, unravels!
2. Freytag’s (5-Point) Pyramid
Gustav Freytag, a German playwright from the 1800s, built upon Aristotle’s principals to establish 5 major narrative acts in a drama. These acts comprise a full dramatic arc, which are: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement.
First, exposition is considered to be the portion of the story where characters and important background information is established. These elements can be conveyed through dialogue, flashback, narration, etc.
Next, the rising action creates conflict that leads to a point of greater interest. These events typically come immediately after the exposition, and build tension until the climax. These events are the most important of the story, since they comprise the majority of the plot, and the story relies upon them to set up a satisfying ending.
After the rising action comes the climax, which is the big culmination of the plot, and the turning point for the protagonist. This climax usually relies on genre conventions: for a comedy, the misfortune in the protagonist’s life begins to turn around, and for tragedy it’s vice-versa.
After this, the falling action requires that the relationship between the protagonist and antagonist begins to unravel, and the outcome of the conflict is called into doubt.
The denouement, which comprises the events following the falling action to the final scene of the script, is the ultimate resolution of the narrative. Conflicts are resolved, there is a sense of catharsis, and the protagonist’s arc comes to an end. In a comedy, the protagonist is better off than the story’s outset; in a tragedy, the story ends in a catastrophe, where the protagonist is worse off than the outset.
3. The Hero’s Journey
The Hero’s Journey was named by anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor’s observations on common patters expressed in the journey of a hero, ranging from Buddha to Jesus. It can be boiled down to a departure, an initiation, and a return. The term was popularized by Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth, which outlined seventeen steps in The Hero’s Journey.
These are: DEPARTURE – The call to Adventure, Refusal of the Call, Meeting the Mentor, Cross the First threshold, Belly of the Whale; INITIATION – the Road of Trials, The Meeting with the Goddess, The Woman as Temptress, Atonement with the Father/Abyss, Apotheosis, The Ultimate Boon; RETURN – Refusal of the Return, The Magic Flight, Rescue from Without, The Crossing of the Return Threshold, Master of Two Worlds, and Freedom to Live.
4. The Story Circle
The Story Circle, popularized by Dan Harmon of Rick and Morty fame, takes the elements of The Hero’s Journey and expands them into a fully fleshed out, eight-point storytelling structure. They comprise of:
YOU: the hero of the story. Who are they? Where do they live, who is their family, their loved ones? NEED: what does the protagonist want, and what is preventing them from having it? GO: the inciting incident of the story, which is an active conflict sets the story into motion. SEARCH: the bulk of the story, this is the journey that the protagonist goes on, and sets up the arc of the story. FIND: the hero has found what they want, except it isn’t enough; they’ve found what they want, but now they need to find something else, something more important. TAKE: you have what you want, so take it and escape! RETURN: the hero has returned home, and is brought back to the real world with what they took, except… CHANGE: the hero could have changed, or it could be their outlook on the world around them. Either way, they’ve returned from their journey with a valuable lesson.
5. Three Act Structure
Popularized by screenwriting gurus like Syd Field, who advocated for the Three Act Structure in his book Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, this is the go-to structure for Hollywood screenwriting. If you’re writing a feature that you want to market widely, this is the structure most people would recommend.
The Three Act Structure is comprised of three main phases: exposition, conflict, and resolution. Within each phase are a number of plot beats that are established. Within exposition, the protagonist encounters an inciting incident which sets them on their journey, and makes a choice that they cannot return from before moving into the second act. The second act, establishes elements that flesh out the conflict, including subplots, rising action, and a midpoint that serves as the turning point of the plot. At the beginning of the third act, the protagonist encounters a ‘big gloom’, or a kind of loss that builds on the stakes of the story, leading to the climax where the main tension of the story is brought to its most intense point. This leads to the resolution, where the protagonist gains new insight into themselves, or their world.
Outside of dramatic theory, there are a number of storytelling structures that relate to mediums outside of the aforementioned. These are:
- The two act structure of theatrical dramas: typically consist of exposition in the first act, and conflict in the second. The most classical example of this structure would be operas, such as Mozart’s The Clemency of Titus.
- Vladimir Propp’s Propian Theory, explained in his book The Morphology of Myth, which is a theory of analysis for fairy tales that ends up looking a lot like an overwhelming math equation.
- The two act structure of TV Sitcoms: much like theatrical dramas, the first act is for exposition and conflict, and the second is for resolution. Unlike theatrical dramas, however, the length of a sitcom is only a half-hour, as opposed to two hours, and each act is meant for a commercial break.
- The three act structure of TV Comedies: Some half hour comedies have three acts, which follow the typical three act structure of exposition, conflict, resolution, just with shorter acts. A good example of this would be The Good Place.
- The Five Act structure of TV Dramas: most dramas follow a five-act structure, which utilizes the first act for exposition, the middle three acts for conflict, typically ending the fourth act with a climax, and the final act for resolution. An example of this would be police procedurals like Law & Order: SVU.
Think you might take a pass at applying one of these structures to your own writing? Why don’t you go ahead and send your screenplay to one of WeScreenplay’s coverage services, where a vetted script reader will tell you how your structure is coming along!
Thomas Blakeley is a screenwriter, playwright, and musical theatre lyricist based out of Los Angeles and New York City. A graduate of The New School, he is passionate about the arts, social justice, and all things nerdy. He can usually be found scouring the horror section of a local bookstore.