Screenwriting Tip #2: Write a Scene-by-Scene Breakdown of Your Script

Hello, and welcome to this tutorial on breaking down your script.

Start With The Big Picture: The Structure

Let’s begin by making this as simple as we can just to break down the thinking behind the tip. Let’s say that we have a thirty-page script. In our thirty-page script we want to have a three-act structure. We can then (hypothetically):

  • thirty pages / three acts = 10 pages per act

In doing this, we’ve cleanly cut the story into three definite movements: a beginning, a middle, and an end. Or, said otherwise, a first act, a second act, and a third act. We could then proceed to define the purpose of our three acts. We can do that in this way:

  • act one = pre-existing conflict and set-up to twist/complication/point of no return
  • act two = proceeding from the twist/complication into the “new world” that the conflict created, to a second twist/complication that propels us toward our climax.
  • act three = the culmination of our previous two acts; a climactic conjoining (or unraveling) of our narrative. The absolute exhaustion of our story. We may also use the final page or two as an epilogue of sorts.

Now, let’s be honest. Three acts in a thirty page script doesn’t feel sufficient. And maybe it’s not. Actually, it feels a bit clunky and unrealistic. This is merely an example to help you see how you could possibly structure out your own work. Working from defined structures that you might read in posts like this (or in theory books, online, etc.) will help you only when you start to make them your own. If it’s me, I would probably approach the matter in a different way. I have my own page breakdowns. While not wrought in holy stone, they usually fall something like this:

  • act one = 1 – 20
  • act two (a) = 21 – 50
  • act two (b) = 51 – 75
  • act three = 76 – 93
  • act three (denouement) = 94 – 96

However, if I am writing a Lifetime TV movie, I’m going to follow an “eight act structure” in an 80 page script, which means that I’m going to have an action beat occur every ten pages (more or less). This structure is evident if you sit down and enjoy a wonderfully psychotic Lifetime TV movie. So, the main point to consider is the following:

structure your work in a way that best expresses the story you want to tell.

Scene Work

Once you’ve nailed down the structure of your project, you’re probably ready to think about what kinds of scenes will populate your story. When sketching out what you want to happen in your first act, include a series of scenes as if you’re the director. For example, you might already know that you want to start with a suspenseful opening that will last no more than three pages. Fine. Where does it take place? Who are the players? Then, following that scene, what scene will you write next? And so on. The point here is this:

the better able you are to actually **see** your script in your "movie mind," the more likely it is that you will write a compelling story told well.

Wrapping Up

To conclude, do the following:

  1. Write out your movie idea from start to finish. You can do this in one page. You could even do it as a simple arrow-based flow chart. No matter, just do it.
  2. Once you’ve structured out your work as a “big picture,” then dig deep into what scenes comprise your act beats. Can you see them? Can we feel them flow together?
  3. Watch an episode of your favorite show, or a movie. Plot it out using Steps One and Two. This will work well, because: every movie or show has been structured in advance and every scene has been thought about in advance. It’s your job now to become a detective, to open up your eyes and see the strings that are holding the puppets in place. They are there, though invisible. The better they are hidden, the better the viewing experience for those involved.

I hope this article helps you on your journey.

If you haven’t already please read my 50 Tips to Be a Better Screenwriter. It’s full of useful information that you can immediately put to use in your own craft. Thank you.

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