Writing a Screenplay: Three Acts
The first step of writing a screenplay is finding a storyline. All the storylines have been told before—you need to find a new and interesting way to tell your story.
Create a one-sentence concept that sums up your story. This is called a logline. Don’t underestimate the importance of your logline—this can make or break a screenplay sale.
Then, create an outline. This serves as a path for the story. It will help you write the screenplay. Many writers use index cards. Write a scene on each card. This allows you to shuffle the scenes around until they make the most sense and flow the best. This also helps prevent you from running into dead ends for your characters or story flaws when you’re ready to write.
Screenplays have a unique structure meant to systematize the drama and conflicts in an organized fashion. Each of three acts has a purpose it serves in a general amount of time (page count).
Act 1: (pages 1-30)
Establish your characters and situation. You have to grab the audience’s attention right away. You have to get them interested in the story so they want to follow through the rest of the action and the resolution. There’s a mini crisis at mid-act that leads us to a dilemma.
In Wedding Crashers, John and Jeremy attend several weddings they aren’t invited to for the free food and drink and easy access to women. In the first act, the friends decide to abandon the territory they know best, wedding receptions, and follow the Cleary family to their Maryland homestead for a weekend. John becomes interested in the bride’s sister and wants to spend more time with her.
In Mr. & Mrs. Smith, married couple John and Jane each find out that the other has been living a lie and is actually a paid assassin.
In both movies, the main characters find themselves in unfamiliar situations. This drives the action and makes the audience interested to see how they will handle themselves when out of their comfort zone.
Act 2: (pages 30-90)
Develop the story in the second act. For the first half, the main character accumulates exploits, reacting to the established dilemma, and it seems like nothing can stop him.
John and Jeremy go through several humorous experiences at the Cleary home while they try to maintain their cover as brothers distantly related to the family. John and Jane Smith go through several attempts to kill each other until they finally realize that they are in love.
In the middle of the second act, also the midpoint of the movie, the story changes gear. Passive characters become active.
Jeremy realizes that he has fallen for wacky sister Gloria. Meanwhile, Claire’s evil fiancé has discovered who they really are and they are kicked out of the Cleary house. John embarks on an effort to show Claire who he really is and that her fiancé is not the right guy for her.
John and Jane have missed the deadline to kill each other and now there is a hit out on each of them. They must kill or be killed.
Act 3: (pages 90-120)
Resolve all the conflicts are resolved and show how the characters are changed due to the events they’ve just gone through.
Jeremy marries Gloria and John gets the girl. John and Jane escape from their killers and have a reinvigorated marriage.