Ideas can be hard to pin down. Even when you’ve got time off, everything’s going your way and you have zero distractions, it can feel impossible to get this idea to a finished script. Or, at least, a script that you don’t mind showing other people.
So today we’re cutting out the overwhelm and diving straight into the script structure that’s going to make your writing life so. much. easier.
Why you need a script structure
This isn’t about limiting creativity. It’s actually allowing you to be more creative. The structure lets you give your ideas a framework, which means they won’t get stuck in what’s professionally called development hell.
Having a structure for your idea means you’re going to be able to fully develop it and write the script without stop starts and the occasional day of worrying if you’ve lost the original message of the film… No one needs those days.
Structuring your idea will also give you more time and creative headspace to develop more ideas, which is exactly what you’re going to need when you’re chatting to other filmmakers.
Read more: Why you need a slate as an indie filmmaker
The simplest script structure for short films
There are several different types of script structures, but the easiest and most common is the three act structure. The reason it works so well is because every film idea has a beginning, middle and end. It’s stable enough to support other structures as well, and works naturally with lots of different types.
You could start with a simplistic three act structure and add a circular structure on top, for example. Or else set your story in real time, follow that structure and add the three act structure as well.
But before we go crazy, let’s dive into the three act structure.
There is the establishing act, the confrontation act, and the solution or resolution. Four or five-act structures are also common, and are variations on that core three-act structure. The key to this structure is to showcase a clear beginning, middle and end. Your story also needs to consistently progress towards the resolution.
Because this is the most common storytelling technique, it is the most easily accessible for your audience.
Applying this structure to your idea
The first step is to break down your idea into the three parts.
Think of Act 1 as the introduction and set up. How are you going to introduce your character, and what will start them on their journey?
Act 2 is all about conflict and drama. How can you test your characters and put them through hell? It sounds cruel, but your characters need to bleed. That’s where powerful, truthful storytelling happens.
Luckily for your characters, everything is alright again by Act 3. How are you going to resolve the conflict and show how your character has grown and developed throughout the film?
This exercise is a great way to develop an idea and get a sense of clarity. You now know what’s going to happen to set your character on their journey, how they’re going to be tested, how the situation will resolve itself and how your character will have developed since we first met them.
All of these answers are the key to creating a great film that people will remember. And powerful storytelling is how you uplevel as a filmmaker.
You can have the biggest budget but if you don’t have a strong story with a clear sense of development, every single $ will be wasted. And you’re probably going to struggle to get that kind of budget again…
Dive deeper with a beat sheet
A beat sheet is a great way to test an idea, and break it down even further. I’m going to show you Blake Snyder’s template, but I’ve updated it for short films.
|ACTS & BEATS||DESCRIPTION||PAGE (approx)|
|Act One||Introduce your protagonist, hook the audience and set up the main conflict||1 – 4|
|Inciting incident||What event starts the lead on their journey?||1 – 3|
|End of the beginning||The character makes a choice which begins their journey, for better or worse||3 – 4|
|Act Two||The lead now faces the consequences of making their choice and reacts to the new goal||5 – 12|
|Pinch point #1||Add more conflict||6|
|Midpoint||The lead is faced with a choice||8|
|Pinch point #2||They make the wrong choice||10|
|Crisis||They suffer with the results of their choice||12|
|Act Three||Your protagonist overcomes their obstacles and faces the antagonist||12 – 18|
|Climax||What event pushes your character to change?||13 – 15|
|Resolution||Show how they have changed since page 1||16 – 18|
Following this structure is the fastest way to developing your idea in enough detail to create an engaging pitch deck and an exciting script that has people begging to read more.
It also means no more time lost staring at your screen wondering what you need to write next.
Merging with other structures
You’ve developed your idea ✔️
You’ve broken it down with a beat sheet ✔️
You know every detail of your story ✔️
Now it’s time to take it up a level.
Of course, you can always stick to the three act structure without adding in any others. If it’s enough for your story, then you can get to writing the script.
But if you want an added layer of interest and drama, merging another type of structure with your three act story is the way to go.
Structures that work with three acts
The structures that work really well with a three act story are circular, real-time, hyperlink, fabula/syuzhet and rashomon.
These stories often start and end in the same way. It’s a great option for time travel stories, but is often employed by all kinds of films.
There are no strict rules for this structure; the circle can be as loose as you like. If it’s a time travel film, then returning to the same time zone is the circular ending. The circle can also be represented visually, such as showing the same or a similar shot.
This is one of the easiest structures to merge with a three act story, which also adds depth and an extra layer for the audience to think about.
Just like circular, this is exactly what it says on the tin. But unlike circular, this script structure has pretty strict rules.
Everything in your film must happen in real time. No flashbacks (or flash-forwards), no skipping, just everything minute-by-minute.
Your three act story might struggle to fit into a real-time structure, because you have to hold the audience’s attention for every second of the film. You can’t skip the boring bits, and you have to pay more attention to how you build and maintain tension.
But it’s a powerful structure when it’s done right.
Think Love Actually. This is multiple stories that all link together and are all consistently progressing toward the resolution, which is why it merges so well with a three act structure.
It’s a brilliant way to hammer home the theme and message of your film, and adds an extra layer of intrigue for your audience. I sometimes think of it as the people-pleaser structure, because with so many stories woven together, there’s something for everyone.
It can be difficult for short films, because that’s multiple protagonists with their own stories that you have to introduce and resolve, and that takes time. So it’ll just take more planning and development.
This structure might sound uncommon but it’s actually much more popular than you’d think.
Fabula is the bulk of the story itself while the Syuzhet is the telling of the story and how it is organised.
It’s a good option for true stories or any films that need narration. Fight Club and Forrest Gump are examples of this structure, as is A Private War, which is based on a true story.
Usually in American cinema the Syuzhet is showing the end of the story first, and then showing the audience how they got there. The focus is on the how, rather than the what.
In Shakespeare, for example, we all know that Romeo and Juliet die at the end, so we watch to discover how it happens.
If you know your film needs narration, this is the script structure for you, as it’ll mean your narration adds depth and feeling, and won’t feel like an add on.
This structure was coined by the classic Akira Kurosawa film of the same name. It involves telling the same story but from different perspectives.
As a writer, you get to showcase multiple sides of the same story, which is engaging for the audience. You can add in tension and even suspicion with this structure, whilst sticking to the three act structure that keeps your story continually moving towards resolution.
The Rashomon effect describes the unreliability of witnesses, and how each individual will remember an experience differently. Films will have a crime-based storyline or based on a single, life-changing event, can use this structure well.
But remember, like the hyperlink structure, that’s multiple characters you have to introduce and that the audience has to understand. It’s also important that every character you showcase matters. You have to know why the audience has to see or hear each person’s side of the story.
How to layer script structures
If any of those structures took your eye and would work best with your idea, the easiest way to integrate them is to go back to your beat sheet.
You need a solid storyline to serve as the foundation before you can add another structure, so go through your beat sheet to check it’s concrete.
Look at the structure you want to add. What are the key elements? Make a list, then all you need to do is integrate each element into your beat sheet.
A caveat: this is slightly harder if you’re going with hyperlink or rashomon – you usually need to get back to basics before you can update your beat sheet.
But if you’ve gone with circular, fabula or real-time, you can add in those elements to your already developed idea.
And of course, don’t forget that key elements of structures can be shown visually. You can open and close with the same shot or with the same line of dialogue.
Creatively, it’s all up to you.
Back to basics
- Split your idea into beginning, middle and end
- Get clearer and deeper with a beat sheet
- Decide if you want to merge another structure with your three act
- List the elements in your added structure
- Integrate each element into your beat sheet
Now all that’s left to do is write the script, pitch the film and get it to the big screen!
Okay yeah, easier said than done. Want more support with the idea to screenplay process? You can grab the custom workbook here.