Screenwriting Class - Good Info on Structure (all summarized and/or transcripted directly from the instructor, William Rabkin. He rules.)
Billy Wilder is credited for the bolded simplified Act summary headers below.
"Every story is a journey from chaos to order."
Act One (Setup): Your hero gets scared of something and goes up a tree.
Hero = Protagonist
Tree = Central Conflict (we need to see the tree and not the disorganizing event that caused chaos to begin with. To discover the central conflict, and thus the protagonist’s way of restoring order, we need to get a sense of the way the protagonist’s world is in chaos, understand what his problem is, how has he been broken, and what does he need to heal?)
Something = Inciting Incident (this doesn’t always seem to relate directly to the central conflict, or even to the disorganizing event. The Godfather is not a movie about a crime family deciding whether or not to move into drugs. But it’s the thing that sets the story’s wheels in motion. In the case of The Godfather, the question of whether or not to sell drugs leads to the mob war that pulls Michael back into the family business.)
Act One Summary: We meet our protagonist and the world he or she lives in. We learn about the character’s central conflict. And then we learn about the problem that the protagonist will have to solve by the end of the script. That seems like a pretty solid act.
Act One Story Example: Our protagonist is a nervous young man named Biff who lives in what was once a peaceful, happy village. Ten years ago, it was invaded by a tribe of Meanies. Biff’s father was the town’s beloved, noble sheriff, and he stood up to the invaders, only to be killed. Biff grew up timid and afraid of any kind of confrontation (central conflict). He has inherited the title of sheriff, but he’ll never stand up to the Meanies. So we’ve got the protagonist: Biff. We’ve got the disorganizing event: the murder of Biff’s father. We’ve got Biff’s central conflict: His inherited job compels him to stand up to the Meanies and protect his people, but his fear won’t allow it. We can quickly come up with the inciting incident: Let’s say Biff tentatively tries to suggest to a Meanie that he stop beating up one of the townsfolk, and the Meanie takes off after him. One thing Biff knows is how to evade Meanies, and he’s learned that they can’t climb trees. So he finds the highest oak around and zips up it. Now we’re probably going to have a couple of scenes in which we explore the problem. Biff expects the Meanie to get bored and go away, but he won’t. Meanwhile Biff is supposed to be hosting a dinner party, and his wife is getting the house ready, but she needs his help to put a leaf in the table. Oh, and since the wife’s inability to insert an extender into a table is hardly the stuff of great drama, there’s also a citizen in town who desperately needs the sheriff’s aid. But Biff can’t come down. Once we’ve established the parameters of the problem, we’ve accomplished pretty much what we need to do in act one. So it’s time to escalate: The Meanie, frustrated by his inability to catch Biff, looks around and sees a big pile of stones lying on the ground. He picks one up, hefts it in his hand, and then hurls it right at the sheriff’s head. And we’re into act two!
*Act One will end with a major turning point in the plot. We’ve established the central problem with the inciting incident. Now something will happen that complicates the problem and seriously raises the stakes, taking us into Act Two.
Act Two (Complication): Someone throw rocks at him, but he didn’t fall out.
To be covered next class in major detail, because of the Act Two complications involved with writing 50 pages about throwing rocks at someone. Only one crucial thing you need to know about act two: In a properly structured script, there will be a major turning point right around the middle of the act—which is, of course, also the middle of the movie. This will be a reversal that’s even bigger and more dramatic than the end of act one. Examples: Romeo kills Tybalt, the Oracle tells Neo he’s not the One, Sonny Corleone is gunned down in the toll booth and the family is left leaderless. And the big ice cube in Titanic.
*Again, you’ll find the Act Two ending to be a major turning point, complication, or escalation—actually, all three in one scene is ideal.
Act Three (Resolution): Eventually he figured out how to get down and he does.
To be covered in a couple classes from now. Need to know that at the end of Act Two, Boss Meanie kidnaps Biff’s wife in order to marry her himself. Biff has to find a way out of the tree, and then he has to sneak into Meanie Headquarters. He finds a way in, rescues his wife, and they’re on their way to safety. Biff is going to take her to a village where there are no Meanies, and where he’s been offered a pleasant, non-confrontational job. But just as they’re safe, Biff learns that the Meanies are going to kidnap and marry all the other women in town. Now he’s got to make the choice. He can sneak away and be safe and happy. Or he can finally overcome his fear and fight for what’s right. And this choice will come right before that final confrontation—the film’s climax. Which means that the story concludes where the plot finishes … at the end.
Final Takeaway: Notice that every structural decision we made came not from a set of rules or from guidelines on a chart. Every structural decision we made was determined by the story’s substance. By its meaning. As long as you know what your story is about, as long as you understand your central conflict, you’ll always have a guide through those woods. Every time you wonder whether a story point is right or wrong, you can ask yourself, “Does this directly involve my protagonist’s central conflict?” And if the answer is no, you’re probably heading in the wrong direction.
Note from me: That last part is what I fear hardest when writing.