Screenwriting Blog
Posted on by Tyler M. Reid

What is Screenplay Structure?

Screenplay structure is the backbone of any successful film, serving as the blueprint that guides the narrative from start to finish. At its core, screenplay structure organizes the story into a coherent and engaging sequence of events, ensuring that each scene builds upon the last to create a compelling journey for the audience. Among the various structure tools used to understand and teach screenplay structure, the classic three-act structure, Blake Snyder's "Save the Cat," and Syd Field's paradigms stand out as foundational elements in the craft of screenwriting.

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Before diving into the examples of some of the most commonly used structures, it is important to understand why screenwriters should look at well-used structures and how they can create a unique story because of them.

What is Screenplay Structure?

I find cooking to be a great analogy to writing a screenplay. When you first learn to cook you will use a recipe. That recipe will give you the exact ingredients and step-by-step structure of the dish. Most recipes are designed to be, in essence, universally appealing, and because of that, they may lack flavors or tastes that you enjoy. However, after you have learned the recipe backbone, you can begin to add your own flavors to it, maybe you take elements of the recipe out and put your own in. You create a dish that is uniquely yours - to do that, you first need to know the basic structure of the recipe.

Screenplay Structure Examples

Three-Act Structure

The three-act structure divides the screenplay into three distinct parts: Setup, Confrontation, and Resolution. In the first act, the story and characters are introduced, setting the stage for the drama to unfold. This act establishes the main characters, their goals, and the obstacles they face. The second act, often referred to as the "rising action," is where the protagonist encounters a series of challenges that test their resolve and push the story towards its climax. The third and final act brings the story to a close, resolving the central conflict and answering the key questions raised throughout the narrative. This structure, rooted in Aristotle's poetics, provides a simple yet effective framework for storytelling, ensuring a satisfying narrative arc.

Syd Field's Paradigm

Syd Field's paradigm emphasizes the importance of plot points — significant events that propel the story forward. According to Field, a well-structured screenplay consists of three acts, with two key plot points dividing them. The first plot point occurs at the end of Act One, thrusting the protagonist into a new direction, while the second plot point at the end of Act Two leads into the final resolution. Field's approach highlights the dynamic nature of storytelling, where each act flows seamlessly into the next, driven by the protagonist's journey and the evolving narrative stakes.

"Save the Cat" by Blake Snyder

"Save the Cat" by Blake Snyder offers a more detailed approach to screenplay structure, breaking the story down into 15 beats that outline key moments in the narrative. This method goes beyond the basic three-act structure to offer specific milestones that a screenplay should hit, such as the "Opening Image," "Theme Stated," and the "All Is Lost" moment. Snyder's beat sheet provides a roadmap for screenwriters, ensuring that the story maintains momentum and keeps the audience engaged from beginning to end. The titular "Save the Cat" moment, where the hero does something endearing to win the audience's empathy, underscores the importance of character development within the structural framework.

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Tyler is seasoned film and media professional with over 20 years of diverse experience, specializing in production management and creative direction, with a rich portfolio spanning music videos, films, and documentaries, and a global network from the US to Sweden. Reach him on his website, LinkedIn, and X, and gain access to his free filmmaking templates when you sign up for his newsletter here.

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