Screenwriting Structure: Expanding the Beginning, Middle, and End

by Jill Remensnyder

Let’s be clear: there’s no magic formula for a great screenplay. I’ve yet to find a genie in a lamp granting wishes for some “secret” template. However, a basic understanding of screenwriting structure will give your story the elements it needs to keep your audience engaged from beginning to end.

Your audience subconsciously expects certain things to happen at certain points in a movie. Your job is to reveal the information so seamlessly they forget it’s coming and are hooked to keep watching more. Pacing the release of information is critical to keep your audience on the edge of their seats. Remember, every great film (even comedies) has suspense. Don’t think of suspense in terms of its genre, think of it in terms of keeping your audience glued to the screen.

How do we start?

The 3 Act structure can be credited to Aristotle’s Poetics. He identifies the key factors that make drama. We first introduce the characters and location, then comes the conflict and obstacle the character needs to overcome, and finally, there’s the resolution. So…you need a beginning, middle, and end – or 3 Acts. But beyond that cut and dry, simplistic structure, what do each of those 3 Acts need to include?

For the sake of simplicity, I’ve stuck with the beginning, middle, and end structure for this article. Was the following summary handed down to me on stone tablets as the final word? No. Hopefully it will make you take a second look at your story and see what’s working, could use improvement, or needs some major development.

The Beginning

Every story has to start somewhere. It’s important to introduce your protagonist (hero) and establish the world they live in. Your audience also needs to meet, or at least learn about, the other players. What event brings your characters together in order to introduce them to the audience? One of the best examples (or at least my favorite) is the dinner table scene in the beginning of Little Miss Sunshine. Everyone’s gathered and we learn more about who their characters are based on their interactions with one another.

Now something needs to disrupt the protagonist’s world, something must push them to take action. This is usually what’s referred to as the “inciting incident” or “call to adventure.” Your protagonist needs to be committed to doing whatever it takes to restore the balance and normalcy of their world.

As you transition to the next section of your story the audience should be able to identify the protagonist, what the story is about, the antagonist (villain- not always a person, but represents the opposing threat), and what’s at stake if the protagonist doesn’t succeed at their goal. Once the protagonist emotionally commits to their decision they need to take physical action. The protagonist sets forth into unfamiliar territory.

The Middle – Part 1

The story unfolds. The middle of your script is full of conflict. Here your protagonist will be faced with challenges and setbacks. Allies will be introduced who will accompany your protagonist on their journey. As they work toward their goal they will have small victories and defeats along the way, each one outdoing the next. During this first half of this mid-section your protagonist will learn lessons and gain the knowledge they will need to overcome the antagonist and achieve their goal.

A classic example of this is Luke’s journey to Dagoba in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back where he meets Yoda and learns about The Force.

screenwriting structure star wars

We’ve built up the hero’s victories- they’re unstoppable! They’re ready to move forward and fight like there’s no tomorrow for their goal. It appears they’re on the right track, but there are unforeseen obstacles ahead…

The Middle – Part 2

When life appears to be going well it’s inevitable someone or something will pull the rug out from under you. It should be no surprise your hero needs to suffer a major setback. What seems to be a point of defeat really turns out to be a blessing in disguise. The hero can refocus their energy, realizing there’s still hope, but they really need to change up their game plan. The hero can also realize that there’s another way to reach their goal- all hope is not lost!

Your protagonist needs to go full steam ahead, fighting harder than ever against challenges they never saw coming. The hero will question whether or not he can face the final challenge and might be ready to give up once and for all. This low point is necessary for your protagonist to have a rebirth of sorts. There comes a time when they debate whether or not to throw in the towel. Basically, that action they committed to in the beginning of the story proves to have been a gamble and they lost. Out of this moment of darkness is born the beginning of enlightenment.

Let’s pull from another classic example here, The Lion King. Simba sees the devastation of his homeland and realizes it’s time to step up and help his pride.

screenwriting structure lion king

Your hero has a new perspective. Their old way of doing things doesn’t work anymore. That’s the realization they’re making right about now. Your protagonist understands they need to give up on the ways that aren’t working and try something new- most likely an action that signals that they’ve transformed as a character. If they begin your story as a coward, it’s an act of courage that will save them. If they were cold and unloving, perhaps it’s an act of compassion.

The End

This is what we’ve been waiting for! At the climax of your story, the protagonist will use all the lessons and experience they’ve gained throughout their journey to face the biggest fight yet. The outcome- whether victorious or tragic- will reflect the true character of the hero. Now that they’ve defeated the villain and achieved their goal, their world returns back to normal, but the hero is forever changed. All loose ends are tied up. Your characters have reached their goals and hopefully learned some sort of lesson.

Sometimes Rocky wins…

screenwriting structure rocky wins

And sometime’s he loses…

screenwriting structure rocky loses

Storytelling goes beyond just making sure you hit specific milestones on certain pages. Whether you gravitate towards one approach over another, following “formula” and hitting your plot points and beats is no guarantee of a killer script. The concept needs to be interesting, the characters compelling, the dialogue believable. Just remember the old adage “no one knows anything.” Rules are made to be broken, but in order to break the rules you must first know them.

I highly reccomend the following reading on screenplay structure:

The Anatomy of Story by John Truby *There’s a reason this book is listed at the top of my list. Required reading, in my opinion.

The Hero’s Journey by Christopher Vogler

Save The Cat! by Blake Snyder

Screenwriting in the Land of Oz by Richard Krevolin

Read more from Jill…

11 Invaluable Screenwriting Tips Worth Repeating
Putting Your Best Script Forward
How to Write Compelling Characters
Your First Draft: The Easiest Hardest Draft You’ll Ever Write
How to Get Script Feedback That is Actually Helpful
How to Write Dialogue
Writers + Directors: A Working Relationship
Writers + Directors, Part 2: Working With a Director
Writing What You Know (when you know nothing at all)


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About the Author

My name’s Jill Remensnyder and I’m a freelance writer and producer based in Portland, Oregon. I dove into film production headfirst in 1998. One term shy of earning my BA in Theater Arts, it seemed logical to put everything on hold in order to write, direct and produce a feature film. The following year I took my finished film to the Cannes Marketplace and doors started to open for future writing and production opportunities.


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