3 Ways Screenplay Formulas and Story Structures Can Work for You
How can you use screenplay formulas and story structures to your advantage without writing a paint-by-the-numbers screenplay?
Let's get this out of the way first. Despite what you've read in the endless array of guru screenwriting books that claim to have the ultimate formula, beat sheet, or structure that all successful screenplays adhere to (or must adhere to), there's no single way to develop, write, formulate, or structure a screenplay.
The worst thing that you could do is have a copy-and-paste mentality when developing the structure of your screenplay.
Hitting Story Point A by Page X isn't going to do you any favors if you're trying to write an original screenplay that will turn Hollywood heads. Make no mistake, that is what it takes to make it — writing an original spec script that stands out amongst the rest. And so many of those other screenplays out there are following specific structures, beat sheets, or formulas because some book or guru told them to.
With that said, there's something to be learned from these perspectives.
As a screenwriter, you should be reading every possible screenwriting book that you can — the good, the bad, and everything in between. There are so many different interpretations of story structure and so many different perspectives that you can cherry-pick from. And that is precisely what you need to be doing as you learn more and more about screenwriting — finding what applies to you, your process, and your cinematic story.
Learn the best way to structure your screenplay with this free guide.
Here we feature a popular screenplay formula, a legendary mythical structure, and a simple three-act guideline to breakdown what you can learn from them, what you can apply to your approach, and what you can ignore as well.
1. Blake Snyder's Save the Cat Beat Sheet
The late Blake Snyder wrote what became one of the most popular screenwriting books for any new screenwriter coming onto the scene — Save the Cat. Originally published in 2005, Snyder wrote the book in an attempt to explain and break down the various beats that he felt most successful screenplays should have.
His first spec screenplay sale was in 1989 for the script Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot. Snyder’s script sold for $500,000 after a major studio bidding war. He went on to sell 12 more original screenplays during the screenwriting boom of the 1990s, and was named “one of Hollywood’s most successful spec screenwriters.”
In his book, Snyder put significant emphasis on the importance of structure with what would become celebrated as the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet, which includes the 15 essential “beats” or plot points that all stories should follow.
The book takes that specific beat declaration to the next level by showcasing what script page numbers such beats should occur on.
StudioBinder breaks these beats down very well. Use that link as an easy reference.
So that means that every successful screenplay in Hollywood is 110 pages long and adheres to these directives, right? No. Far from it.
Again, there's no secret formula to success, and most screenwriting formulas and theories out there benefit from hindsight, which is always 20/20. But for every example that Snyder used to support this formula, dozens of others succeeded without adhering to these beat sheat directives.
However, there's something to be learned. This beat sheet can help you understand the importance of hitting certain beats within your spec scripts to keep the story moving.
Stating the theme within your opening pages is vital because it offers the reader information they need to ascertain what type of story to expect, and what the writer intends to say between the lines of their story and characterizations.
The setup is also necessary to introduce early on in your screenplay. As an unknown writer, you have very little time — which equates to very few pages — to keep the studio reader engaged. Remember, they have a stack of scripts each week. If you don't capture their attention within the first ten pages, their interest is going to lag, and they're going to start scanning through the script so they can get to their pile to find a more worthy cinematic tale.
So within the first ten pages, the reader wants to have an idea of the genre, the premise, the tone, the theme, and the atmosphere.
The catalyst is also known as the inciting incident — this is what captures the reader's attention and launches the protagonist into the central conflict of the story. Your spec scripts need to introduce this early on to engage the reader and let them know what the main conflict is going to be.
As you go through the rest of the beats laid out within Snyder's beat sheet, you'll see a common trend. Every few pages require added and evolving conflict that is thrown at the character. You don't have to worry about what specific page you use to throw that conflict at your characters, but you must be doing that to create a compelling story.
Should you follow this beat sheet to a tee? No. But can you cherry-pick from these beats to apply them to your screenplays with added benefit? Yes.
2. Chris Vogler's Twelve Stages of the Hero's Journey
Joseph Campbell's 17-stage Monomyth was conceptualized over the course of Campbell's own text, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and then later in the 1980s through two documentaries, one of which introduced the term The Hero's Journey.
The first documentary, 1987's The Hero's Journey: The World of Joseph Campbell, was released with an accompanying book entitled The Hero's Journey: Joseph Campbell on His Life and Work.
The second documentary was released in 1988 and consisted of Bill Moyers' series of interviews with Campbell, accompanied by the companion book The Power of Myth.
Christopher Vogler was a Hollywood development executive and screenwriter working for Disney when he took his passion for Joseph Campbell's story monolith and developed it into a seven-page company memo for the company's development department and incoming screenwriters.
The memo, entitled A Practical Guide to The Hero with a Thousand Faces, was later developed by Vogler into The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screenwriters in 1992. He then elaborated on those concepts for the book The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure For Writers.
Christopher Vogler's approach to Campbell's structure broke the mythical story structure into twelve stages. We define the stages in our own simplified interpretations:
- The Ordinary World: We see the hero's normal life at the start of the story before the adventure begins.
- Call to Adventure: The hero is faced with an event, conflict, problem, or challenge that makes them begin their adventure.
- Refusal of the Call: The hero initially refuses the adventure because of hesitation, fears, insecurity, or any other number of issues.
- Meeting the Mentor: The hero encounters a mentor that can give them advice, wisdom, information, or items that ready them for the journey ahead.
- Crossing the Threshold: The hero leaves their ordinary world for the first time and crosses the threshold into adventure.
- Tests, Allies, and Enemies: The hero learns the rules of the new world and endures tests, meets friends, and comes face-to-face with enemies.
- The Approach: The initial plan to take on the central conflict begins, but setbacks occur that cause the hero to try a new approach or adopt new ideas.
- The Ordeal: Things go wrong and added conflict is introduced. The hero experiences more difficult hurdles and obstacles, some of which may lead to a life crisis.
- The Reward: After surviving The Ordeal, the hero seizes the sword — a reward that they've earned that allows them to take on the biggest conflict. It may be a physical item or piece of knowledge or wisdom that will help them persevere.
- The Road Back: The hero sees the light at the end of the tunnel, but they are about to face even more tests and challenges.
- The Resurrection: The climax. The hero faces a final test, using everything they have learned to take on the conflict once and for all.
- The Return: The hero brings their knowledge or the "elixir" back to the ordinary world.
This structure works especially with fantasy and action-adventure stories. But you would be surprised how often this structure applies to all genres in many, many successful and critically-acclaimed movies and award-winning screenplays.
Vogler doesn't go the route that Snyder's Save the Cat beat sheet approach does by dictating specific page-count stipulations for each beat. And that is what is nice about twelve stages of Vogler's The Hero's Journey.
In Vogler's text, he specifically states, "The Hero's Journey is a skeleton framework that should be fleshed out with the details of and surprises of the individual story. The structure should not call attention to itself, nor should it be followed too precisely. The order of the stages is only one of many possible variations. The stages can be deleted, added to, and drastically shuffled without losing any of their power."
And that is where this structure deems the most respect. It's not being passed off as a surefire secret formula to success. Instead, he's pointing to the fact that these stages are found in fictional literature, mythical poetry, and cinema throughout the ages.
Once again, you'd be surprised how many of these stages can be found in most movies today, including dramas and comedies.
Not every protagonist has a mentor. Not every story offers the protagonist a reward that helps them through their final conflict.
In Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Roy's mentor isn't as defined as most hero journeys. It's Roy's embedded visions that can be interpreted as his true mentor. The alien beings that he came across have implanted some psychic connection within his mind — as well as the mind of others that have encountered the UFOs. This connection creates some sort of pull to the Devils Tower location.
In Dances with Wolves, Dunbar doesn't attain some physical reward that helps him deal with a threat. Instead, his reward comes when he wins the ultimate respect of the Sioux after the attack on the tribe. They welcome him as a hero and savior of the village. He and Stands With A Fist are married.
The twelve stages that Vogler shares are common narrative threads that most stories have. Sometimes they are evident in literal fashion (In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker has Obi-Wan Kenobi as a mentor, and the Death Star plans are the reward that the Rebels use to defeat the Empire). Other times they are metaphorical like the examples mentioned above.
You can use The Hero's Journey as a tool to find your structure, your narrative, and your protagonist's character arc — without feeling the need to hit every beat of that twelve-stage structure.
3. 30/30/30 Three-Act Structure Guideline
There's much debate about the comparisons of three-act structures, five-act structures, and many other variances. But there's no escaping the fact that all stories are told in three-act structures.
Beginning. Middle. End.
This has been the story structure followed by humankind since the days of telling stories around the village fire or etching cave paintings on stone walls depicting worthy stories of hunting for prey (beginning), confronting the prey (middle), and defeating the prey (end).
The three-act structure in cinema is the most basic and pure structure that most films — no matter what gurus and pundits say — follow.
There is the setup, the confrontation, and the resolution. Four-act structures, five-act structures, and the seven-act structures for television movies — as well as many other variations — are just additions to the core three-act structure.
Even the core story structure of screenplays that utilize Save the Cat beat sheets or the twelve stages of The Hero's Journey can usually be broken down into three acts.
When you choose to use the basic three-act structure for your screenplay, you’re offering perhaps the most accessible story design for audiences.
Sure, the continuity of some stories doesn't fall in line with the beginning, middle, and end structure (Pulp Fiction, Memento, Reservoir Dogs, Dunkirk). But when you arrange those stories into a linear structure, they do.
Within the notion of a three-act structure is a helpful guideline we call the 30/30/30 rule.
It offers a simple trick to avoid the trap of overwriting your screenplay.
Most novice screenwriters struggle with their page counts. They overwrite their screenplays for several reasons.
Read ScreenCraft's 5 Easy Hacks to Cut Your Script’s Page Count!
Before they know it, they've written 130 pages, which is far past the general industry expectations of 90-120 pages.
If you use the 30/30/30 rule as a guideline, you can embrace the idea that your basic three-act structure (beginning, middle, and end) will offer you 30 pages for each, equalling a total of 90 pages. This will force you to be ever-aware of where you’re at in your script’s story. If you’re on page 29 and you’re still introducing your characters and their world, there’s a problem. If you’re on page 60 and you’re not starting to get to your final act, the warning bell should be going off.
Now, this isn’t a formula by any means. And you don't want it to be because adhering to a specific formula doesn't work. We all know that there’s more to it than that.
However, this 30/30/30 rule will keep your mind set on some goals for your story and characters. No, you likely won’t hit just 90 pages for every script. But with this rule in mind, even when you slightly go over that goal — hitting 100 or so pages — you’re exactly where you need to be.
There is no secret formula or structure to success. Don't believe anyone trying to tell you so. But you can learn from all of these perspectives and disciplines.
It was Bruce Lee who once wisely said, "Absorb what is useful, discard what is not, add what is uniquely your own."
Read ScreenCraft's 10 Screenplay Structures That Screenwriters Can Use!
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies