Monday, April 14, 2008

Screenwriting 101: Act and Scene Construction

Strap on your hardhats! This week, we’re going to talk about two different kinds of construction in screenwriting.

The Act structure is a throwback to theater and to Aristotle. Shakespearean plays had five acts, but most films are said to have three acts, Act 1 being about 20-30 pages (the beginning,) Act 2 being the bulk of the script (60 or so pages, the middle) and Act 3 winding up within 15-20 pages, depending on who you ask (the end.) More accurately, I think, all scripts have a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Why the Beginning of Your Story is Important

You have to get your audience interested. If they lose interest in the beginning there’s little chance of winning them back later on. So, you need to construct a solid hook to draw your audience in, get them fast and hold on to them as long as possible.

Why the Middle of Your Story is Important

Middles have a tendency to be ignored in favor of wrapping up a good ending or setting up a good beginning, but if you can’t maintain the levels of excitement throughout, you’re going to end up losing your audience. This is generally important because the bulk of your story happens here.

Why the End of Your Story is Important

Your story has to end. Eventually. No matter how great your beginning and your middle are, an audience will not forgive a bad ending the way they might a bad middle (even then, a middle that just drags on and on won’t be winning friends and influencing people either.)

Why Scene Construction is Thus So Important

Each part of your story is made up of these smaller segments called scenes. A scene is typically consigned to one location, although things a montage (an interconnected series of very small scenes,) might take place in multiple locations (like, for example, a shopping spree in multiple stores.)

This is my scene construction checklist of things I think about when writing scenes:

* What is the theme again?
* What’s the plot? What needs to happen right now in the story?
* How long is this scene supposed to be? (1 page? Half a page? 2 pages? 3 pages? More? How much more? I usually ask myself this while outlining [which also gives me a rough idea about my acts. I can always adjust this later, especially when rewriting.])
* Where are the characters?
* When does this take place (in the narrative and in chronological time. Is it a flashback? A flashforward?)
* Now what needs to happen and how can the characters make that happen?
* Check your dialogue, make sure your characters seem the same from the last scene (or the last scene they appeared in.)

Next week, we’ll discuss outlining. Good writing!

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