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Story Structure

Lesson 16 from: Screenwriting for Film and Television: How to Begin

Julio Vincent Gambuto

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Lesson Info

16. Story Structure

In this lesson, we’ll take a look at story structure (a.k.a. architecture) and how to lay out an effective story structure.
Next Lesson: Act 1

Lesson Info

Story Structure

Yeah, the class so far has focused on the 10 story fundamentals, right? Like laid the groundwork for you with respect to the power of stories. We moved into the 10 things that you really got to include in your story for it to hold water for it to really stand up. Those fundamentals are important because why a house needs a window, house needs a roof, A house needs a door. Your story needs a setting, it needs a main character, it needs conflict. All of those things are essential to really great storytelling, but you can put them wherever you want. This is an art, right? It's not a formula, those are structural elements. Once you've developed those, the next part of story design is really structuring them in a way so that you're telling your story most effectively and that's story structure. So let's take a look at that. And I want to go through some basics first and then I'm gonna throw up some charts that I want you to look at and I'll talk you through them all and we'll go act by act ...

of the classic three act structure. So the classic three act structure structure is really important. It goes all the way back to the Greeks, it's thousands of years old stories are told in this format. Beginning middle and end. That's how a story is told. You start out, you progress, you resolve. So if you've ever studied writing, you've probably seen this before. Beginning middle and end. It mimics life in the beginning, middle and the end, it mimics your day, the beginning, the middle and the end stories are told and are so powerful for humans because they mirror so much of our lives. So that structure is really important Now you'll hear it called Four act structure. Five act structure Even for T. V. There are seven acts in some tv shows. The story is really in three acts meaning act one, act two and act three. Now if you want I would do some research online for the tv shows that you love. Right? Find the pilots, you can just google the name of the show and pilot and pdf or the name of the show and pilot script and pdf and see what pops up. You can go to simply scripts dot com as well which is a really really great resource and I'll give it to you again at the end of the class. They've got thousands and thousands of PDFs of scripts. Take a look at the way that your favorite tv show is laid out. What is the act structure? Most of them are laid out because they have commercials in the middle. Right so they do act one and act two and then a commercial Act three act for Act five. Commercial. I want to put that aside for just right now and understand that the story itself has three primary acts the beginning the middle and the end and that's what I want to cover in this class sequence is really really important to think about your entire script, right? As one story. That story is broken down into these three acts. Then those three acts are broken down into sequences. Those sequences are broken down into scenes and within those scenes there are beets. Let me explain all of that. A sequence is a section of your movie, a piece of one of your acts in which the character uses a certain tactic to get what he or she wants. I'll say that again. A sequence is a section of an act in which the character uses their tactic to get what they want. So, in Coco he goes through Miguel goes through many different sequences on his journey to get what he wants. Okay, I need a guitar. The next five scenes are about me getting that guitar and at the end of the sequence I've got my guitar. Now I want to go win the music competition. So, the next five scenes will be about how I go and win the music competition. Think of your scenes as one intention, right? Two. Make sure I tell her that I love her to make sure that I get the money out of the purse to make sure that I survive this cold, whatever it is, That section of your act is specifically about one thing that sequence breaks down into scenes, right? So, for Miguel, I've got to get my guitar. There's a scene at home where I decide to get the guitar, There's a scene walking through the mexican village to go get the guitar, there's a scene at the tomb of my great grandfather where I go in and grab the guitar. Those are scenes which are sections of that sequence within the scene, there are beats. A beat is just one line or two of dialogue or a moment within the scene where something happens. So when Miguel and his grandmother are fighting, that's a beat, they fight for that. Four or five, you know, those four or five lines of dialogue. Think about it this way, your whole script is your story. It breaks down into three acts within the acts, there are specific sequences within the sequences or scenes within the scenes are beats and this is just a good way to think about your script, so that you're not completely overwhelmed by the idea that you've got to write 100 pages or 100 and 20 pages to get this movie on paper right? Think about it in much smaller component parts, and you'll be able to set those as a goal for yourself. As you're writing your work up and down story structure is all about taking your character on this journey, right? And so you want to move through your story by going towards your goal, having conflict that stands in your way going towards your goal, again, having conflict that stands in your way pushing through and going for your goal again. And I'll illustrate that a little bit on a chart. So you can see a little bit more clearly, progression and climax, that's all about going towards the goal, you want to progress to your goal. We talked a little bit earlier about, you know, how do you move towards that climax? Well, first decide what the climax is, right and then build toward it. First I get angry, then I get ticked off, then I get furious. Well now you need a scene where the character is angry and then you need a scene where the character is really ticked off and then you need a scene where the character is furious. You've got to build towards that climax charts. Now I'm laughing and smiling because I use a lot of charts in my work, it's it's just one way to do it. I hope that if you're enjoying this class so far and you're finding it useful and valuable that you'll stay on the ride with me as I walk through these charts, the charts are helpful because they always show you where you are and what you need to accomplish within the scene that you're writing or the sequence that you're in. So we're about to do is walk you through each of the three acts of three act structure and talk specifically about each act and specifically about how do you chart out the action so that you know exactly what you're writing the goal here is to get you to write first align and then a paragraph and then a page and then four pages, eight pages, 12 pages before you even write the script. Because if you can come up with a 12 page treatment, that's got your story nailed down, I promise you, you will write your script so much faster, so much more efficiently and it will be so much more enjoyable for you. So let's get there, let's take a look at some charts. The most important chart that I want you to learn how to create in this class is a story chart. Story charts are super important because they allow you to structure your story and see exactly where you want to go with it exactly how you want to plot it out. So, I'm sure you've noticed already in this class that I use a lot of structural words, right? I've used the word architecture, I've used the word design. I've used the word plot. I've talked about a house and a roof and a window and a door structure is really important because structure allows you to do better work and to have more fun with your work. Right? I don't want you spinning your wheels for months and months and months and years and years and years and I'm writing a screenplay and then it's a year, three years later and you're still writing that same screenplay. Yes. Things take time, yes. Stories take time to develop. But charts can help you to plot it out, lay it out and then you know exactly what's happening in each scene. So let's take a look at a basic storage chart for a feature film now. You can create these for tv shows and if you want to google the pilot of your favorite tv show, watch it along with a story analysis that you do. That's a really great way to understand how a pilot is structured. Tv is often structured in multiple acts, more than three acts five or six acts based on commercial breaks and such streamers are a little bit different for a feature film though, that's the cleanest example I can do for you right now. So let's jump into that and take a look first. You want to decide how long your script should be for the purposes of this class, I recommend 100 pages, you can go to 105, you can go to 1 10 but just remember that everyone who is reading your script is reading a lot of scripts. I recommend that you make it really efficient at 100 pages. Then I want you to divide your chart into your different acts. First, divide it in half. So you know where your midpoint is, that's about page 50 And then into 25 and 75. This gives you actually four sections act one which is pages one through 25 or 0 to 25 Act two A which is 25 to 50 Act two B which is 50 - 75 and Act three from 75 to 100. Now, this is really important. Your second act is always twice as long as your first or your third In my work. I call them act to a an act to be for clarity. Infrastructure some people just call all 50 Pages Act two either way, just know that dividing it up like this will help you to structure it. Next, I'm gonna put in a few lines here to make sure that we clearly understand that these are four sections in your first act. You want to progress toward your first act, climax in your to a you want to progress towards your mid point in two B, you want to progress towards your second act climax and three, you want to progress toward the end of the movie. Don't worry too much about exactly the shape of that chart Right now, we're gonna jump into each of these acts and dive into exactly what should appear in them so that you can progress your action for right now, I just want you to see that each of these is a separate piece of a much larger hole. And if you charge it like that, you can see how intense wise intensity builds from the beginning to the end in an up and down motion. So I know if you've never written a screenplay before that this can seem like a lot. It might be overwhelming. No worries. Deep breath. I'm gonna break it down for you so that you can see what should appear in each of these acts right now. I just want you to get that. There should be three acts of your story. Act two should be twice as long as act one or act three. And for me I call them act one, act two. A act to be an act three. Let's take a look together at Act one.

Class Materials

Bonus Materials with Purchase

Case Study Films
Story Analysis Template.xlsx
Sample TV Scripts
Story Design Worksheet
Story Fundamentals Worksheet
Seed to Script Process

Ratings and Reviews

Carlos Sandoval

Just a great way to start on your path to screenwriting. A clear and concise class with a friendly tone and humor. I think it is important that a teacher has actually worked in the field. Kudos.


Perfect for a beginner or actors who need a better understanding of what is and why is. Info packed and FUN too!

Asem Nurkina

I took this class last year. And after one year of working with presented tools (story design worksheet, story fundamentals workseet, seed to script process) on different projects I can say that it is very powerful and useful course I ever taken. I can strongly recommend this detailed screenwriting guidance by Julio Vincent Gambuto.

Student Work