Screenplay Structure Theory

(not “to scale” on how long each moment takes)

SCREENPLAY STRUCTURE - personal theories (03-15-17) new structure FOR PDF EXPORT.jpg
 

The diagram is meant to have a rhythm to it. Showing how each act has a cadence to it, similar to music. 

The Opening presents one flaw, which immediately ignites the idea in the audience on how this could be a story. While it may not be shown in this first act, underneath the flaw there is actually a misguided belief system that is causing this flaw. That’s where the real story and change will eventually occur. At the core. 

The flaw is seen in action over and over in different scenarios. It has infiltrated all the most important areas of the character’s life. 

The Catalyst happens to the character. It’s a singular challenge. It’s the OPPORTUNITY to confront the thing they have been putting off fixing, or the opportunity to confront the piece of their life that’s holding them back. It holds the potential solution to the flaw, to permanently test this initial belief. But it’s a big one, and comes with the option to either say YES and forever be changed for better or worse, or say NO and continue life as is. Even if the flawed belief isn’t shown in Act 1, this “all knowing” Catalyst still is actually there to confront the true core to that flaw.  

The character Debates all the options. They see at one moment the potential for future Failures if they say no. They must take the challenge. 

Each Yes is directed towards this Catalyst, this challenge. It’s saying: 

  • “Yes, I will be brave and fight for my freedom.” (Braveheart)
  • “Yes, I will uncover the truth beyond the matrix.” (Matrix)
  • “Yes, I will study the emotions in the brain from the inside out and bring balance.” (Inside Out)
  • “Yes, I will make an effort to restore the relationship with the one I love.” (The One I Love)
  • “Yes, I will use the magical repetition of the day to fix my selfish way of life.” (Groundhog Day)
  • “Yes, I will let everyone know how amazing I am.” (Napoleon Dynamite)
  • “Yes, I will find true happiness by joining forces between myself and Maude.” (Harold and Maude)


The title of the film also talks directly about the Catalyst, because the Catalyst is what the movie is about.  

In each act, the Yes moment, or the attempt, is different. It creates a major change that brings us to the next act.  

  • A the end of Act 1, the YES attempt is more physical and superficial. This makes Act 2A fun. With no real change there isn’t much at risk. It’s like putting on a costume and role playing for an afternoon.  When the character fails at this, they see the potential to go back to the beginning.
     
  • At the end of Act 2A, saying YES is fully spiritual, taken closer to the core. The journey in Act 2B has the character dig deeper because they don’t want to return to the character they were before. This time saying yes was more serious because it’s changing the core. It’s the grown up moment. 
     
  • At the end of Act 2B, when they fail at this challenge, it brings them back to the person they were from the start. They feel as though they have learned nothing. They fully realize here that it’s their belief system that is incorrect. They’ve been wrong all along. A guru gives a piece of advice to set them on one last attempt towards eternal change. This time they fight the flaw by combining both heart and mind, body and soul, left brain and right brain, analytical and instinctive, to make a permanent change. They’ll use their new understanding, their updated belief, to fight the flaw. Sometimes at this point the flaw itself doesn’t matter anymore, as the belief lets them know what’s truly important. All of Act 3 has them executing their new plan on how to defeat the Flaw once and for all. 

In the Closing, we see that the initial flaw is gone or rendered harmless because of the new belief (or in a down ending, we see that the flaw will never be defeated, even though we fully understand it now). 

IN SUMMARY

A movie is about a character with one surface level flaw. Underneath there is the true source of this flaw, there is a misguided belief. A Catalyst moment arrives, which is a defined moment or action that comes to give direct conflict to this flaw, or more accurately, to the core belief. It’s here to test and challenge it. It’s a chance to change forever. The character says YES and takes the chance. Through a series of renewed and deeper commitment towards the challenge, the character changes first on the surface, then from the core, then in a holistic and eternally committed way. The character may no longer try to change the flaw, because they now understand it’s the belief beneath it that was mistaken all along. They realize it was never about the flaw, but rather about the belief. So the character changes that belief, and their life permanently improves (or is permanently flawed in a down ending) from the inside on out.