Anatomy of a Screenplay


Here are some notes I took during An Introduction to Screenwriting. The course breaks down the standard film screenplay format and helps conceptualize the process of writing one yourself.

The pitch

Before moving from idea to paper you'll need to clarify your intentions. Use these five points as the baseline:

  1. Genre
  2. Main protagonist
  3. Goal
  4. Obstacle
  5. Why this story is important

Draw special attention to point 5. What makes your story unique, what theme are you trying to portray? That theme will guide the rest of the screenwriting process.

Once you've got a good pitch nailed down it's time to write your logline.

The logline

Take your pitch and throw it into a one-sentence summary. Here are some examples:

Apocalypse Now: During the U.S.-Vietnam War, Captain Willard is sent on a dangerous mission into Cambodia to assassinate a renegade colonel who has set himself up as a god among a local tribe.

The Matrix: A computer hacker learns from mysterious rebels about the true nature of his reality and his role in the war against its controllers.

Reservoir Dogs: After a simple jewelry heist goes terribly wrong, the surviving criminals begin to suspect that one of them is a police informant.

Don't stress out about this step, you'll likely tweak and revise as you write.

Flesh out your story

Build upon your pitch with more details. Film is all about character and change, use those principles to string together your story beats.

What's a beat?

A story event that transforms the character and story at a critical juncture. A beat is at the heart of every scene.

Three act structure

A three-act story maps to a 25-50-25 rhythm, delivering a 100 minute screentime. The broad strokes of a three act structure are as follows:

  1. Protagonist and goal introduction (25min)

Introduce the setting, genre, characters, themes, and protagonist. Set the tone for how the audience should consume the movie.

  1. What's the obstacle? (50min)

Obstacles force the character into new situations, relationships, and circumstances.

  1. Resolve the story (25min)

Does the protagonist get what they want? How have they changed?

Save the Cat Beat Sheet

The Save the Cat Beat Sheet is a well-known boilerplate structure for your average screenplay. Take bits and pieces of it to help structure your story beats.

  1. Opening image: make the look & feel of your story immediately apparent.
  2. Theme stated: communicate your story's theme. Often in a way that your protagonist doesn't quite grasp.
  3. Set-up: establish setting, character, status quo. Who is your character now so that we can recognize their change?
  4. Catalyst: disrupt your protagonist's status quo. They may not be ready to make a choice, but the story doesn't wait.
  5. Debate: the protagonist has doubts about leaving routine behind.
  6. Break into act II: it's time to set out on adventure.
  7. B story: subplots ensure, often concerning romance.
  8. Fun and games: the protagonist has fun in their new reality.
  9. Midpoint: the protagonist closes in on their goal.
  10. Bad guys close in: the protagonist may be close, but antagonist forces/obstacles don't make it easy.
  11. All is lost: dire circumstances lead to loss.
  12. Dark night of the soul: the protagonist grapples with change and reminisces on their old reality. Hope is lost.
  13. Break into act III: with misery comes a revival.
  14. Finale: climatic resolution of conflict.
  15. Final image: a bookend that re-invokes the central theme.

Writing the script

Time to put your hard work to paper.

  1. Write down your pitch.
  2. Develop a logline.
  3. Draft up a summary (a few pages in length).
  4. Lay out the major story beats (~15). Index cards are a great tool for this purpose, one beat per card.
  5. Write your scenes.

Screenwriting and film

There's nothing revolutionary here but it's interesting to see the guts of a movie exposed. Where do films deviate from these structures, and to what effect?

Campbellian archetypes tell us that storytelling is fundamental to humanity and that the stories themselves often map to a common structure. It's interesting to explore such structures and relate them to our own experience. Whether or not the monomyth is the beginning and end of storytelling doesn't dismiss its ubiquity in modern media.

Here we see the same base structures in the form of the Save the Cat Beat Sheet. Perhaps part of the enjoyment we get from watching movies and listening to stories is the recognition of common patterns, conflicts, and themes. I suppose more generally that's a trait in all art. Patterns are comforting in their familiarity, alarming in subversion.

Recognizing these meta-structures is one of my favorite techniques of analysis. With a good understanding of patterns and archetypes a story can be broken into its base components. Those components reveal the author's intent, emphasizing deviations and reinforcing themes.

Thanks for reading! Send your comments to [email protected].