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The business of film, television & new media production in the Northeast
imagine magazine logo
The business of film, television & new media production in the Northeast

Organizing the macro-structure of your movie

Four Steps To Get Your Screenplay Moving

“If it isn’t for the writing, we’ve got nothing. Writers are the most important people in Hollywood. And we must never let them know it.”

-Irving Thalberg

From the chaos of a million ideas comes the need to pause, and to organize your screenplay. The objective is to create a structure that will support your character’s journey through the conflict. Whether you have chosen three acts or five sequences, classic structure or epic structure, good decisions, made before you sit down and write your screenplay, are essential.

The initial stages of identifying, and then organizing, the structure of your screenplay is where screenplays are made or broken. The process is fluid. Oftentimes, you will begin writing, and then discover that your story cannot be told in three acts; that it would be much better served by a five sequence structure. But, for the sake of simplicity, (if such a thing exists in screenwriting) we will deal with how one might approach this by using a three act, classic structure as an example. In three acts, two separate sets of questions must be answered.

The first set of questions involves character. They are:

– Who is this character?

– What does this character want?

– What is the character’s driving need?

– What will be the reward for their success?

– Should they fail, how will they suffer?

– How does the character change as a result of what happens?

The second set of questions involves plot.

– Where does the story take place?

– What is the condition of the character within the universe of locale where the story takes place?

– What incident takes place that motivates the character to act, or not act?

– What obstacles stand in the way of the character’s forward motion?

– How does the character negate the forces of opposition?

– By what actions do the forces of opposition push back?

– By what action does the character resolve the conflicting forces of opposition to resolve the main conflict?

– How does the condition of the character change as a result of their choices?

By isolating these questions, and then reducing each one to its essential core, a structure will begin to appear. Here’s how it works…

Answer each question at length, writing paragraphs, even pages, to answer each of them. During this early part of the process, it is still possible to stretch out your literary legs and let it rip. Go through the process of answering each of the questions at length. When you have completed the process, put it down for at least a day or two.  When you revisit your list, go over your answers. For each question, make an attempt to boil down the answer to no more than two or three sentences. Each sentence, ideally, will contain who, what and when within the answer. One sentence answers are always best.
The finished document will be a structural blueprint for your screenplay. In and of itself, it will not be the only document that you will need to write a terrific screenplay. It is not intended to be. The writing that will follow, the character histories, the treatment, the beat sheets, etcetera, will go through many changes and will require an immense amount of time and effort.  This initial stage of the process is designed to accomplish one goal; to prevent you from losing your way.

But this being screenwriting, there remains a need to tell the story in pictures. The story is told in cinematic, not literary terms and therefore needs to be told in pictures. With this in mind, there is an exercise that you can employ, using the macro structure template that you have just created, to get the visual aspects of your story moving forward.

Take each of the answers to the questions above and separate them. Using the screenplay format, experiment with them, and write a scene for each one without using any dialog.  Try to keep your descriptions short and concise and use all of the tools at your disposal for rendering the scenes. Create maximum atmosphere using minimal prose. Enter late and leave early whenever possible. Also, exit scenes with a visual question, and enter the following scenes with a visual answer. Remember, this is an exercise and its purpose is to help you to begin visualizing your story.

The result will be a very short screenplay, and when I say short, we are probably talking less than ten or fifteen pages. Being that you have not (yet) used dialog,  it will read like a silent movie screenplay. Because you have identified all of the answers to the most important questions, reduced them down to their core elements, and have now depicted them, visually, with screenplay nomenclature, you will have written a short, but very tightly woven screenplay that covers the macro view of your visual story.

Last but not least, the final step of the exercise.

Your silent screenplay looks tight, is visually crisp, and covers a whole lot of story in a very short time. The hours that you have spent in taking these steps are evident in the quality of your descriptions. Now, isolate each scene that you have written. Carefully assign a single line of dialogue to each scene. Only one character is permitted to have dialog. It sounds tough to do, and it is supposed to be. Keep in mind that this is an exercise designed to awaken the cinematic muscles in your brain. It will force you to use your visual brain, and to quiet down that literary part of your brain that you have been using to tell stories since the first day of first grade in elementary school. That part of your brain is used less and less as the process of the screenplay construction evolves. Most novice screenwriters fail because they do not see that the need for literary storytelling diminishes at the same time that the need for visual, cinematic storytelling increases during the process of preparing a story for the screen.

While you make your way through these steps, several things will occur. You will, by the process of exploration, identify solutions for some of the problems in the macro structure of your story. You will come up with ideas for additional conflicts in your story, as well as identify solutions for plot problems that are driven by visuals, not by dialog. The visual solutions are always the best ones. One of my favorite examples of this is from Christopher McQuarrie’s THE USUAL SUSPECTS. Could there have been an alternative, with dialog to the expression on Chazz Palminteri’s face at the end of the third act when he puts together that the joke has been on him?

The objective of all screenplays is to juxtapose descriptions of images placed in an ordered sequence for the purpose of telling a story. The exercise discussed here will help you to awaken that part of the brain that thinks in pictures, not words.


Peter Fox is the founder of The Inside Track Workshops
for Story and Cinematic Structure. He has lectured on Screenwriting since 2001, and has worked at Paramount, Universal, MGM and SonyTriStar Pictures. He writes for several publications and
holds a M.F.A from The American Film Institute.