Episode 1 is an introductory episode that lays out the basics of screenwriting and the terminology that will appear in this podcast. If you have never read a screenplay, or if you don’t know screenwriter terminology, you might want to listen to this episode.
This also describes the screenplay models that we’ll be using to analyze screenplays. Those are primarily Three Act Structure, Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, and the Hero’s Journey. So if you don’t know those, you might want to listen here.
The following is the script of this episode. Note that this is not a transcript, but the script I used when recording the episode. It will not be a word-for-word match of the podcast, but it will be close.
Hi, I’m Joe Dzikiewicz, and welcome to the Storylanes Podcast, the podcast where every week we do a deep dive into a movie or TV episode. And to go along with this analysis, every week I publish a graph of the story we’re covering on the storylanes.com website, a graph I produced while doing the analysis. You don’t need to look at that graph – the podcast is standalone. But if you’re interested in diving a little deeper, check it out at storylanes.com.
This week is a special introductory episode. I’m going to give you an introduction to screenwriting and some of the ways that screenwriters think about story. This is information that will be useful when you listen to future episodes, especially if you’ve never read or written a screenplay. In particular, I’ll introduce you to some of the language I’ll use when I’m talking about screenplays.
If you know your way around a screenplay, you can skip this episode. But if you’re a beginner, or you haven’t spent much time reading books on screenplays, you may find this information of use. And in case you’re wondering if this will be useful for you: if you understand three-act structure, have read “Save the Cat,” have been on the Hero’s Journey, and know the works of Robert McKee, by all means, skip to the next episode.
Still here? Good, then let’s get started.
First off, screenplays. A screenplay is the template for a film. It tells what happens and includes the dialogue that the characters speak. But it’s not meant to be an end unto itself – its purpose is to be brought to life in a movie.
That said, there’s a lot of value in reading a screenplay, especially if you ever want to write one yourself. And lucky for us, a lot of screenplays are available on the web. Just google your favorite movie’s title with “screenplay” stuck on the end and chances are better than even that you’ll find the screenplay.
But note, screenplays go through many revisions. And sometimes even the final revision isn’t exactly what appears on the screen. Sometimes the filmmakers will change things the day of shooting. Sometimes they’ll make changes in editing. So don’t be surprised if you read a screenplay and see something that’s not in the final film, or that there’s something in the final film that’s missing in the screenplay. That’s all just part of the process.
Of course, screenplays also go through many revisions before making it to the screen. Sometimes there can be dramatic changes. Sometimes minor. You will occasionally come across an early draft of a screenplay. They can be fascinating – you get to see an early version of the final film. Sometimes the final film gets better, sometimes worse.
For example, you can find online an early draft of “Groundhog’s Day.” Here you’ll find a reason for why Phil Connor is stuck in this loop. Basically, he offended a previous girlfriend who turned out to be a witch. But they left that out of the final film. And here’s the thing – I think dropping it made for a better movie. It didn’t really matter, and having that explanation somehow minimized things. It turns what seems like an unexplained miracle into just a trick.
But sometimes later drafts make things worse. There’s an early draft of “The Last Action Hero” available online. It lacks many of the sillier touches that made it into the final film, things like the animated cat. I wish I could see that draft put to the screen – I think it would have made a better movie.
Sometimes the screenplay changes dramatically. There’s an early draft of “Alien” available. It still has the alien and all the major story beats. But the characters are entirely different, and there’s some minor changes in story structure. You can see why people were drawn to make this movie – the lifecycle of the alien is just as powerful in this original script as it is in the final movie. But you can also see why they rewrote it – the characters and details are a lot better in the final.
So read a few screenplays. It’s fun, and you will get a better understanding of the film.
And if you read a screenplay, you’ll see that it’s in a strange format. I’m not going to go into details of that format here. Suffice to say, it’s a rigidly defined format, pretty much every screenplay that’s produced is in that format, and if you want to write a screenplay, learn the format – nobody will take your screenplay seriously if it’s not in the right format. But there’s plenty of online resources describing the format, and plenty of tools available to produce that format. So I’m not going to go into detail on it here.
One thing that I will mention is that a screenplay is broken into scenes. Each scene shows events in one place at one time. A scene starts with a slugline, a line of text that tells where the scene takes place. It usually says either INT or EXT, for interior or exterior, followed by the name of a location, and finally by the time, usually either DAY or NIGHT. The slugline helps people producing the film keep track of what the scenes are – and remember a screenplay is a blueprint used by lots of different people to help make the film.
Within the slugline, there’s a mix of action descriptions, which describe the setting in more detail and tell things that are seen to happen, and dialogue, the words spoken by the characters. That’s all pretty straightforward.
So a screenplay is broken into scenes. And a typical screenplay for a feature film will run 100 to 120 pages. There’s variations, of course, but that’s the standard. And there’s a general rule of thumb that one page of screenplay will map to one minute of film. You need to know this rule of thumb. But you also need to be suspicious of it. It doesn’t apply in a lot of cases.
A page that is full of action sequences can fill several minutes of film. A page that is full of dialogue, especially if the dialogue is meant to be spoken quickly, can take only a fraction of a minute on screen. A page of dialogue written by someone like Aaron Sorkin, who is known for his fast-paced dialogue, could easily be no more than half a minute.
But remember that one-page-is-one-minute rule of thumb. Because if nothing else, a lot of filmmakers believe in it.
But when screenwriters are thinking about story, they need bigger blocks to organize their thoughts. That gets us to ACTS and SEQUENCES.
The bigger of these blocks are the acts. So what is an act?
I really wish I had a better answer for you. But the answer is, it depends.
An act is a major chunk of the story of the film. Something big should happen in the act. It should lead to a major turning point. But beyond that, there’s a lot of different definitions of act out there, and a lot of people use the term without ever bothering to define it.
The term itself comes from theater. It’s much easier to understand what it means there. An act is what happens between intermissions. You have two intermissions? It’s a three-act play. No intermissions? It’s a one-act.
As it happens, that also works in commercial television. And if you read a TV script, which are also available online, you’ll often see explicit act breaks. That’s where the ads run. Not always, though – streaming shows with no ad breaks will often not have explicit acts.
But movie scripts rarely specify the act breaks. So we the reader are often left guessing at where they are.
I’ll try to describe what different screenplay models mean when they speak of acts. But for me, my rule of thumb is this. Tell the story of your favorite movie in one paragraph. Don’t leave out anything of major significance, but don’t bother trying to tell all the details and subplots. And keep it to one paragraph.
The sentences in that paragraph are the acts.
Want an example? Here’s the WIZARD OF OZ. There’s spoilers here, if you are worried about spoilers for a movie that was released over 80 years ago.
A young farmgirl in Kansas, troubled by a mean neighbor who wants to kill her dog, is caught in a tornado. She wakes in a strange land where she goes on a quest to ask a wizard to send her home. He agrees to help, but only if she kills a wicked witch. After a series of adventures, she kills the witch. Although the wizard tries to fly her home in a balloon, she needs the guidance of a good witch to get back.
See? That took five sentences. So I’d say that the Wizard of Oz has five acts. And if you think of the story, that structure works out fairly well, with five major sections of the film.
But note how much was left out. I didn’t even mention the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion. At a high level, they just weren’t needed, even if they do add a huge amount of charm to the story.
There’s a lesson there. The key points of a story aren’t necessarily the things that make us love it. Just like it isn’t the skeleton that makes someone worth looking at – it’s eyes and hair and skin and shape. But the skeleton better be there!
Of course, not everyone uses this method to define acts. In fact, I don’t know offhand of anyone else who uses this method. But I like it.
And also of course, the breakdown of a story into acts is subjective. You might think that the Wizard of Oz has four acts, or six, or something entirely different. I’ll call it as I see it, in a way that I find useful to understand the story. But feel free to disagree – make a good case and I may even come to agree with you!
After acts, the next level of breakdown is the sequence. A sequence is a collection of scenes that together tell a key part of the story. Not as big or key as an act, but still something whole and entire.
Let us again use the Wizard of Oz as an example. So look at the second act, from Dorothy’s arrival in Oz to her arrival at the Emerald City.
I see this as broken into three sequences. In the first, Dorothy arrives in Munchkinland, is greeted by the Munchkins, and meets Glinda and the Wicked Witch of the West. This is a full sequence: things of consequence happen, but it stands apart from the rest of the act.
Of course, in this case, it’s also one continuous scene. That’s okay – a sequence can have multiple scenes, but it doesn’t have to.
The next sequence does have multiple scenes. This is Dorothy’s journey to the Emerald City, where she meets her three great friends, the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and the Cowardly Lion. Each of those meetings is a separate scene. There’s also other scenes in there, such as the encounter with the apple trees. But they all fit together in one sequence.
And the third sequence is the Wicked Witch’s attempt to keep Dorothy from the Emerald City, most notably in the poppies scene.
Here too we can apply the paragraph rule. If you were to prepare a synopsis of a movie in one page, each act might be a paragraph. And in each paragraph, each sequence would be a sentence.
Accordingly, we might describe Act Two of the Wizard of Oz like this:
Dorothy lands in Oz where she is greeted by the Munchkins, meets Glinda the Good Witch, makes an enemy of the Wicked Witch of the West, and is sent off wearing the magic Ruby Slippers on the road to Oz to meet the Wizard who can send her home. On the way to Oz, she makes three friends: the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodsman, and the Cowardly Lion. But before they reach the city, the Wicked Witch of the West tries to trap them with magical poppies, a trap that they escape with the help of Glinda.
See, three sentences, three sequences.
Below the sequence sits the scene. And here finally things are well-defined – the screenplay explicitly marks the scenes.
Now, you can go even deeper and break a scene into beats. A beat is a significant moment in a scene, often a moment when something changes. I won’t often talk about beats in these podcasts, but I will occasionally use the term. Just be aware that when I speak of beats, I mean the significant moments in a scene.
But “beat” is an overused term. It can also mean the major turning points in the story. And to complicate it further, the term “beat” is also used to indicate a small pause in an actor’s delivery. The context will generally make it clear what kind of beat we’re talking about, but get ready to hear the term.
One key thing to note is that most screenplays do not specifically identify acts and sequences. They are elements of structure that we impose as we analyze the screenplay. The screenwriter may also have them in mind while writing – some screenwriters report using them, some say it’s more intuitive for them. When I’m writing a screenplay, it can be either: sometimes I know where the act breaks are, but sometimes I write a screenplay and only realize afterwards where the acts break.
The exception, as I mentioned, is some TV scripts, which often identify acts, especially for commercial TV. And in the case of TV scripts, there is one more element worth noting: the teaser. A teaser is a 3-10 page opening that teases the audience for what is to come. Some TV scripts have an explicit teaser.
For example, think of the opening sequence of a James Bond movie. It’s typically a big action sequence that gets the audience excited. It may be related to the plot of the movie, but it may be entirely standalone. And it ends with the title sequence.
This is a teaser. Not every movie has one, but some do.
Okay, that’s my view of how a screenplay is structured. How do some other analysts and gurus talk about structure?
Well, there’s a lot of different views. There are an astonishing number of books about writing screenplays, and each seems to have its own way of looking at things.
In doing these analyses, I’m going to focus on a few key models. These are approaches that you’ll often hear screenwriters talking about. So when I analyze a script, I’ll give my own view of how it is structured. But I’ll also try analyzing it using these key models.
And a warning here. There are tons of screenwriting books. There are many screenwriting gurus. Some of them will tell you that there is only one way to write a good screenplay. And some will tell you that every great screenplay fits their formula. Often they will go through painful contortions trying to fit a given film into their formula. These books drive me up the wall.
I believe that story is incredibly complex. And given that complexity, you will never find one formula that fits every great story. A given screenplay model can be useful to construct a given screenplay, but there’s almost always other ways of doing things that might work better for some stories.
That said, let’s dive into some of these structures.
The first is three-act structure. This was largely popularized in a book called “Screenplay” by Syd Field, first published in 1979. This was one of the first books on screenwriting to gain popularity, and the model that it presents came to be adopted by many.
As you can guess by the name, Three-Act Structure states that every screenplay is broken into three acts. Roughly, these are the beginning, middle, and end. Or, as Field writes, the Setup, Confrontation, and Resolution. The beginning sets up the world, the protagonist, and the central problem of the movie. In the middle, we get a series of escalating complications and confrontations where the tension rises throughout. And the end resolves the complications, solves the problem of the movie, and sets the protagonist free to live his life – assuming he survives the film.
Very roughly, the beginning should take about a quarter of the screen time, the middle half, and the ending another quarter. Obviously, your mileage may vary.
Field goes into more detail about the moments of transition in these sections. The first part of Act One sets the status quo, the world where the protagonist lives. Then, somewhere in act one, comes the Inciting Incident. This is the event that kicks off the action of the film.
In the Wizard of Oz, Miss Gulch appears with the order to take Toto. This leads Dorothy to run away, which in turn starts the action of the film.
But note: sometimes it can be confusing to decide what exactly is the inciting incident. We’ll see many examples in the films that we cover where there are different possible inciting incidents. Take the Wizard of Oz as an example: is the inciting incident really when Miss Gulch takes Toto, or is it when the tornado sends Dorothy to Oz?
Field also talks about key plot points. The first plot point happens at the end of act one, and it launches the film into act two. This is a key moment that sends the protagonist on the adventure. The hero has accepted the challenge given by the inciting incident and is off and running.
In the Wizard of Oz, this is clearly when Dorothy lands in Oz. We’re now in act two, and the adventure has truly begun.
The second plot point happens at the end of act two, and it launches the hero into the resolution. All distractions have been removed, the hero has committed to a course of action, and now the hero just has to see things through to the end. We now move into act three, where the hero comes face-to-face with his biggest challenge.
In the Wizard of Oz, this is the moment when Dorothy has killed the Wicked Witch of the West and gotten her broomstick. She now has the item that the Wizard sent her to get, and she’s ready to resolve the plot by getting the Wizard to send her home. There’s still one more challenge – the Wizard tries to refuse her. She has to overcome that resistance in order to win the day.
So that’s three-act structure according to Syd Field. But a funny thing happened after that. A lot of screenwriters wrote a lot of screenplays using Field’s model, and they ran into a problem. There just wasn’t enough complications to fill up act two. Their act twos started slowing down, getting boring. This was common enough that it got its own name – an act two problem.
To help solve this, at some point someone added another element to three-act structure. That was the midpoint. The midpoint is an event that happens at around the middle of the movie that suddenly makes things more serious, that drastically complicates events. Where before the hero seemed to be on a fun little adventure, now things get real. And often, the midpoint can be a major event that changes the course of the entire film.
In the Wizard of Oz, this is the moment when the Wizard says he will help Dorothy, but only if she brings him the broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West. Essentially, the Wizard has told Dorothy to kill the Witch, because we know the Witch isn’t just going to give away that broomstick. This is a major complication, and it sends the film off in a different direction – literally, in this case, as Dorothy heads off to Winkieland to confront the Witch. Things have truly gotten real.
So when we speak of Three Act Structure, I’ll discuss these major points in the film. The Inciting Incident. The First Plot Point, where we break into Act Two. The Midpoint, where things get real. The second plot point, where we break into Act Three.
I will note this, however: I’m not a three-act structure purist. For one thing, I don’t understand why a three-act film with a midpoint isn’t really a four-act film, with the midpoint being the break between acts two and three. That makes more sense to the way I think of acts.
And I often believe that movies have more than three acts, that there are some films where there are more than three major parts of the story. Major hurdles that the hero has to leap before reaching the end.
And clearly, in my mind, there’s nothing magic about three acts. As I noted, hour-long TV shows typically have four to six acts, sometimes with a teaser on top of that. A Broadway musical typically has two acts. You can tell a story with a different number of acts.
Three-act purists will often argue that those cases really have three acts. I think sure, but only if the act itself is meaningless, little more than beginning-middle-end. So I’ll pay some heed to three-act structure in some of my analyses, but I don’t really take it to heart.
Because while I believe that you can make a great script using three act structure with a midpoint, I also believe there are other ways of structuring a great script.
I will give an aside. There’s a lot of screenwriters and gurus out there who say,
there’s lots of ways to structure a story, and here’s one way I do it. They often go ahead and present some variation of three-act structure. I have the greatest respect for those people. I find that approach a lot different than saying that every great story has to follow the same formula.
And talking about the people who say that every story has to follow the same formula, let’s talk about Blake Snyder’s “Save the Cat,” a book about screenwriting that came out in 2005. “Save the Cat” has a whole lot of interesting and useful tips on screenwriting. An example is the tip found in its title. Snyder says you want to get the audience on your protagonist’s side from the beginning. The best way of doing this is to show the protagonist doing a good deed early in the film. Snyder’s example is saving a cat. If the protagonist saves a cat early on, we’ll like the protagonist – thus the title of his book.
In addition to those tips, Snyder presents what is probably the most detailed screenplay outline. He has a list of 15 story beats that he says should be in every screenplay. And not only does he present the beats – he tells us the page numbers where each beat should appear!
Snyder’s beats build on top of three-act structure. He even refers to Syd Field in presenting his beats. Snyder just adds to them. So there’s some key similarities. And with that said, here’s Snyder’s beats.
- The Opening image. This is the opening image of the film, the first thing we see. It encapsulates the beginning world of the film, what is going to change by the end.
- Theme stated. This is a clear statement of the theme or meaning of the film. We’ll talk more about theme later.
- Set-up. This is roughly the first ten pages. It sets up the world of the film, the status quo that will be changed by the events of the film.
- Catalyst. This is Snyder’s term for the inciting incident.
- Debate. This is a period where the main character decides whether to act on the catalyst, a moment of uncertainty in which the protagonist chooses to act. Because if he didn’t, there wouldn’t be a movie.
- Break into two. This is Syd Field’s first plot point, where the film moves from act one into act two.
- B story. This introduces the B story, the main subplot of the film.
- Fun and games. This is a period of 25 pages or so where the protagonist goes on adventures, but the stakes are still fairly low.
- Midpoint. This is the same as the three-act structure midpoint.
- Bad guys close in. This is a period of roughly 20 pages where things start getting hard for our hero.
- All is lost. This is a moment when it seems like the hero will lose.
- Dark night of the soul. This is a period when the hero faces the possibility of losing, reaches deep inside, and finds the inner resources to go on.
- Break into three. This is Snyder’s term for Syd Fields’s second plot point, where we move into act three.
- Finale. This is the final confrontation between hero and villain.
- Final image. This is the final image that should show what has changed. It pairs with the opening image.
Now, not all great films have all of these beats, though Snyder claims that they do. We will discuss which beats are present and which are missing as we analyze specific films in future episodes. But this is Snyder’s view of the world.
Note that Snyder actually goes so far as to give page numbers in which all these beats should occur. Which seems ridiculous – I have to wonder if Snyder meant it seriously.
The third and last screenplay model that we’ll look at for every film is the Hero’s Journey. The Hero’s Journey has a much different history than these other models. It’s the work of Joseph Campbell, a literature professor and expert on world myth. Campbell found that myths from different cultures tended to have a similar structure with similar story beats. He wrote about this in a number of books, most notably in “the Hero with a Thousand Faces.”
Campbell’s views were adopted by George Lucas. “Star Wars” follows Campbell’s beats fairly closely, and the two became friends. Which led to Campbell becoming quite popular in the filmmaking world.
But note: Campbell was not trying to create a formula for writing a story. He was describing elements that he found in many great stories. And he was clear that not all elements were present in all stories – he was an academic describing something that he found, not prescribing an approach.
That said, Campbell’s beats are similar in a lot of ways to those of both three-act structure and Save the Cat. Generally, if a film is a good match for one of these structures, it’s a good match for all of them. (Though not all films are a good match for these.)
The other thing to note about the Hero’s Journey is that it is definitely focused on the hero or protagonist. This works best when looking at stories about an individual protagonist who becomes the hero. Which is no surprise, if you consider that it’s called the Hero’s Journey.
So let’s look at Campbell’s beats. For more info on these, I suggest you google Hero’s Journey. There’s lots of online resources discussing this, some with variations in the list of beats.
First, Campbell breaks the hero’s journey into three main stages. These correspond to the three acts we’ve been discussing. In Campbell’s view, they are:
- The Departure, in which the Hero leaves his ordinary world.
- The initiation, in which the hero undergoes a set of trials and emerges as a champion.
- The Return, in which the hero returns to his original world, often finding and facing some major challenge when he returns.
A pretty clear correspondence to three-act structure.
But it also has a strong geographical component. The Hero’s Journey definitey has the idea of going someplace where the adventure happens, then coming home again. Which works in the myths that Campbell analyzed.
That also works well in a lot of movies. Think again of the Wizard of Oz. Dorothy leaves home for the magical world of Oz. Then at the end she returns home again, having learned an important lesson.
But a geographical transition doesn’t apply to all movies. Sometimes the movement is only metaphorical. Sometimes there isn’t even that – the Hero’s Journey doesn’t need to apply to every film.
But back to the Hero’s Journey. Within those three sections, the hero goes through the following beats:
- The ordinary world, in which we meet the hero’s status quo. This is similar to Snyder’s set-up.
- The Call to Adventure, when something happens that calls the hero to go on the adventure. This is the Hero’s Journey equivalent of the Inciting Incident or Catalyst. But note that this is specifically about the hero – it isn’t just that something happens that starts the action going, it’s that something happens to call the hero on that adventure.
- The Refusal of the Call. In this beat, the hero initially refuses the call to adventure. It won’t last, of course, or there wouldn’t be a story. But for a moment, the refusal is there. This maps to Snyder’s Debate section. Note that a lot of stories don’t have this beat. And in a lot of stories, this beat is minimal. Famously, Luke Skywalker refuses the call for about 30 seconds in Star Wars. Blink and you’ll miss it.
- Meeting the Mentor. A hero in myth usually has a mentor that provides guidance and training that he’ll need for the adventure. This is Merlin. It’s Gandalf. It’s Dumbledore. Again, not all heroes have mentors, but it’s a common beat.
- Crossing the first threshold. The hero now accepts the adventure and enters the world of adventure. This is the move into Act Two.
- Tests, allies, enemies. The hero undergoes a series of tests and meets allies and enemies. This is where the meat of the story begins.
- Approach to the inmost cave. The hero gets close to his goal. It seems like he’s about to succeed.
- The Ordeal. This is the big battle in which the hero proves himself.
- The Reward. The hero wins the battle and gets the reward. It can be something physical – a bit of treasure, a magic sword. Or it can be something that the hero has learned or some other intangible gain.
- The road back. The hero starts back home. This is the move into act three. But the hero discovers that there is one last challenge that must be met – the road home will not be an easy one.
- The resurrection. The hero meets and overcomes the final challenge. This is the climax of the story.
- The Return. The hero is now back with his reward and the challenges met.
And that’s the hero’s journey. It works fairly well when analyzing a certain set of scripts, not so well with others.
Another author that I’ll occasionally discuss is Robert McKee. He wrote a book called STORY, first published in 1997.
I like McKee. He’s my favorite of the screenwriting gurus. That’s largely because he recognizes that there are different models to screenplays. His screenplays can have various numbers of acts. He recognizes that some stories don’t match the standard format. He even has a definition of an act – an act is a part of the screenplay that produces a major shift in one of the key values of the film. So I like his approach, and I may mention it sometime.
But because it’s loosely defined, something I appreciate, it’s not as easy to identify the McKee structure of a screenplay. So I will often skip past it.
But note, my own views are strongly influenced by McKee. So you may hear some of him coming through in my analysis.
Now, another term that you’ll hear me throw around a lot. That’s stakes. The stakes of a film are what’s at stake. What will happen if the hero loses?
A good story must have stakes. What happens has to matter. Because otherwise, why should the character care?
But different films can have radically different stakes. In a vast superhero movie, the stakes might be the survival of the universe. In a rom-com, the stakes might be whether the protagonist will find love and happiness. The key thing is that stakes are present, and they matter in the context of the specific film, both to the protagonist and, more importantly, to the audience.
And finally, we come to theme. What is the story about? This can be a moral or message at the heart of the story. It might be possible to encapsulate it in a sentence. For example, you have the Wizard of Oz and “There’s no place like home.” Or maybe it’s something a bit larger and vaguer. ALIENS is a movie about motherhood, but it doesn’t make one clear statement about motherhood. Some movies may not have a clear theme at all. If there’s enough action and great characters and plot twists, you can get away without a theme. But it’s always worth looking for the theme, and every episode will discuss the theme of the movie that we’re examining.
So those are the basic things you’ll need to know when listening to these podcasts, the terminology I’ll use when analyzing these films. I’ll also put a glossary on storylanes.com to allow quick access to some of these terms.
Now, ready to dive into an actual analysis of a film? Then listen to the next episode, the first true episode of the Storylanes podcast. Which is about “Die Hard”, the great 80’s action film. See you then!