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Structuring Your Screenplay

It’s easy to lose your way when writing, especially in Act II. Here’s the diagram that I use to help me control the plot and structure of a full length feature film. This technique is all courtesy of Syd Field, the master of screenwriting. I would encourage everyone to read his books “The Screenplay” or “The Screenwriter’s Workbook”.

Do the story arc.

syd field paradigm

ACT ONE This is the setup act, where we learn what the story is about, who the characters are, and why we care about them. Your main character is normally in every scene, and we go through “a day in her life”. So for instance, in this story we could portray the unhappy marriage with a scene of them eating breakfast in silence, sleeping in separate bedrooms, arguing etc. The woman, let’s call her Mary, is a painter, so maybe we could see her releasing her frustration through painting. The TP1 (Turning Point One) occurs when she enrols into the art class. This is the inciting incident; the moment where your main character’s life could never be the same. If we’re writing a 100 page script, then Act One should be approx. 25 pages.

ACT TWO So Act Two is the hardest act to write, because its so fricking LARGE! There are approx. 50 pages to cover here, and so that’s plenty of pages for a writer to have pointless plots, unnecessary scenes and babbling characters. Syd Field suggests that we break it down, first by having a Midpoint. Act Two is all about confrontation; where our poor Mary encounters this sexy art instructor, (imagine spicing up your script by having him pose when the nude model doesn’t show 🙂 ). The Midpoint can occur when Mary has sex with the art instructor for the first time. For me, the midpoint is one of the most exciting points in your script…where your main character thinks they get everything they want – which may not be what they need.

So we know Mary and the art instructor (let’s call him Joe) are going to have sex. The first half of Act Two should be focusing on Mary’s relationship with Joe, preparing the audience for the midpoint. PINCH ONE is like a small compass guiding us along our way. At PINCH ONE, maybe they decide to go out and have dinner, maybe they almost kiss and Mary pulls away? This occurs at approx. page 38.

Now that they have had sex, what happens? Well, more sex…but they also fall in love. The second half of Act Two should focus on the affair and falling in love. Here’s where we have our montage of the couple feeding each other chocolate, painting next to one another, another steamy sex scene parked in a car etc etc. PINCH TWO, which occurs on approx. page 63, can be when Mary tells Joe she loves him, or you can have another big argument with the husband BUT with makeup sex, or the condom breaks. It is all preparing us for TP 2 on approx. page 75, when Mary finds out that she is pregnant. Turning point 2 is the lowest moment in the screenplay for your main character, where all hope seems to be lost.

ACT THREE Be thankful when you reach here because the hard part is over. Act Three is all about the resolution/climax, and how Mary solves her dilemma. We already know that she leaves her husband and the teacher and raises the child by herself. We have the remaining 25 pages to show how this happens.

So in conclusion, make sure that you have the Turning Point One, Pinch One, Midpoint, Pinch Two, Turning Point Two, and the Climax before you start writing. During the writing process you may come up with even better ideas for each scene, and that’s great! Having these guidelines, though, just makes writing easier and decreases the likelihood of the dreaded writer’s block.


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