We've had quite a few scripts coming in lately where we've had to review basic structure. This is not a ding against anyone, since we all have to start someplace, and God knows my first couple dozen scripts were pretty amateur-hour. But when I started 20-plus years ago, there were precious few resources for writers beyond Syd Field's Screenplay books, which provided a good but fairly insubstantial structural template. Nowadays, there's really no excuse for anyone not to have access to the info they need.
So we assembled our own Coverage Ink Magic Movie Formula for our CI Spec Formula and Style Guide (our own indispensible and dirt-cheap -- $3.95 -- go-to reference for screenwriting awesomeness.) Our Magic Movie Formula is coalesced from several sources, in particular Blake Snyder's Save the Cat!, Chris Vogler's The Writer's Journey, as well as what I call "The UCLA Method"-- the structural paradigms taught by Kris Young and Tim Albaugh as part of the UCLA Professional Program in Screenwriting.
Basically, if you follow this template and hit all these way-points, you can't go wrong. Well, you still can, but it makes it a bit harder to go off the rails! Most features made today more or less follow this template. Now a word of warning. Yes, this is FORMULA. And as I like to note, you've gotta know the rudiments before you can solo. But the best musicians are known for pushing the envelope, and so should you. Do Elvin Jones, Herbie Hancock, David Gilmour and Stevie Ray Vaughan, to name a few, color inside the lines? Damn right they do, but they also cut loose and bring their own thing, which makes their music unique and brilliant. This formula is not the be-all and end-all. Break the rules when you have a good reason for doing so. Learn to anticipate that others will anticipate the formula, and change it up when we least expect it. Boom! You'll win over readers every time.
But above all, realize that formula is formula because it WORKS. So embrace it, and use it as an important tool in your screenwriting arsenal (and a way out of the corner we all inevitably paint ourselves into in Act 2.) So here's the formula. If you're interested in checking out the other 80 pages of our Style Guide, just click here.
A complete screenwriting how-to book in a page or so? We proudly present you with our Movie Formula. I’m sure many of you out there hate formula, and don’t want it anywhere near your movie. That’s fine, unless you want to someday be paid for your work. This formula applies for many kinds of movies, and these benchmarks are fairly universal. Make sure your script hits these marks. Page numbers are approximate.
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1) THE HOOK. Pages 1-3. A cool or visually interesting scene that grabs us and makes us want to know more. Could be a precredits action or horror or comedy sequence, or showing the protagonist doing what he does best. Above all, set the TONE for rest of the movie here, and once you establish the rules of the world, stick to them!
2) GETTING TO KNOW YOU. Pages 3-9. Showing the protagonist in his or her KNOWN WORLD. The everyday life before the storm hits. Also in these pages indicate the main character’s PROBLEM. For example, “If only John wasn’t so arrogant, maybe he’d get that damn promotion.” Whatever he is NOT able to do here, he should be able to do at the end of the movie.
3) INCITING INCIDENT. Page 10-12. AKA “The Catalyst.” This is the monkey wrench that comes along and sends the protagonist’s world spinning. After this, life cannot remain the same. This then forces the character to make a decision: accept the challenge or not. Remember STAKES! In movies, the stakes must always be high. If the protagonist does not succeed in his mission, the consequences must be DIRE for the protagonist. If the hero can just go back to life as it was, then you shouldn’t be writing this movie.
4) HERO REFUSES THE CALL. Pages 13-17. Per myth, the hero doesn’t WANT to risk everything to set off on this dangerous adventure and has to be convinced into doing it by a MENTOR or other forces. The hero likely has to overcome his fears. Or another event occurs that gives the hero no other option but to take on the danger.
5) HERO PREPARES. Pages 18-25. Accepting what he must do, hero prepares—rallies friends, gathers necessary materials, etc.
6) END OF ACT ONE. Page 25-30. Hero debarks on The Journey, accepts the call to Adventure and sets out from the safety of his known world into the unknown new world of the second act. Note that this can come as early as page 22 or so, but not much earlier.
7) ACT TWO FIRST HALF. Pages 30-55. Several things happen here. First is we pay off the premise and have some fun. So if your movie concept is about a man dressing up like a chimp and going to live with apes at the Zoo, then these scenes show fun antics of what that’s like. Think ‘trailer moments.’ Secondly, here we need to again emphasize the protagonist’s dramatic flaw, which others are aware of, but HE is not—yet. Third, the protagonist makes allies here—new traveling companions or others met along the journey who could come in handy. And finally, the bad guy steps it up and tries to stop the hero. All the while, the hero is actively pursuing his or her quest. A passive hero makes for a lame flick.
8) MIDPOINT ACT 2. Page 55-60. The high point of the second act. Here we have a huge twist or change or a big set-piece. This is also generally where the hero finally begins to become self-aware—he finally starts to comprehend and accept what his problem is, although he still can’t fix it yet. The hero makes a move to take control of the emotional dilemma—generally followed by an immediate reversal to challenge that decision.
9) ACT TWO SECOND HALF. Pages 55-75. Fun and games are over. The conflict suddenly amps up. Bad guy strikes back. Hero is forced to zig when he wanted to zag. The conflict expands and escalates.
10) THE FALSE ENDING. Page 75. It appears the protagonist is going to pull it off. He’s within sight of his goal. He’s overcome obstacles and is about to win. But, no such luck…
11) THE BLACK MOMENT. Page 85-90. As we roll into the end of Act 2, everything starts going wrong. Allies abandon the hero. Hero’s plans fall apart. Perhaps he, or an ally or love interest, is captured. By the end of act 2, the hero should be at the farthest possible point from his goal. Despair and as Blake Snyder puts it, “a whiff of death” here.
12) ACT 3. Page 90-110. After the hero hits rock bottom, he has to pick himself up by his bootstraps. This often comes in the form of a mentor character imparting sage wisdom that enlightens and empowers the character. Thus the character CHANGES, and overcomes his dramatic flaw. In so doing he is now finally able to see how to defeat the menace. Also here allies met along the journey come back to help the protagonist succeed. Finally, and this is a MUST, is the showdown—the confrontation between the good guy and the bad guy.
13) TAG, YOU’RE IT. End of script. The protagonist succeeds and returns back to his known world of Act 1 a changed and better man, bringing with him “the elixir,” or in other words, the spoils of his successful quest. He is now able to do the thing he was NOT able to do in the first few scenes of the movie.