The screenplays coming from Hollywood are very structured creations. Considering the average movie costs eighty million dollars, this isn’t all that surprising. Would you risk eighty million on something you weren’t sure would succeed?
Structure succeeds, for one reason or the other. It’s not really as cut and dried as you might think. The structure of three acts formed more or less on its own over the last two thousand years. This process started with the Greeks and reflects how the human mind likes order. Movies have boxed the form of stories up a little more over the last century yet the basic elements formed themselves organically over the decades. Remember, Hollywood wouldn’t produce it if it didn’t sell.
The basic plot of a two hour movies exists in seven pieces. The pieces are as such: Setup, inciting incident, plot point 1, midpoint, plot point 2, climax, and resolution. This is called the Paradigm structure. What happens at these points varies slightly from expert to expert. However, it is agreed upon that these points exist in at least eighty percent of all US made movies.
The seven point structure, in very simpler terms: you have a main character with a problem. There are obstacles he must go through or around to solve the problem. He wins or fails. The end.
This is true of all story telling mediums including plays, movies, and books. Everything follows this with the exception of abstract works. The difference in screenwriting is there are limits to the length of each piece of the story. Syd Field, creator of the Paradigm theory has charts and useful items on his website.
The pieces explained (page numbers are given for a two-hour feature film):
Setup page 1-25
You introduce the main characters and what’s going on with them.
Inciting Incident (Initiating Action) page 9-15, sources vary
This is usually the problem the character faces. This is what gets the action of the plot going-where you initiate the action of the plot.
Plot Point 1 Page 25-27
First, what is a plot point? A plot point is a big sweeping change in the plot. It changes, reverses, or accelerates the action of the plot.
A Change : In the movie Push, Cassie gives Nick a flower (harks back to the beginning of the film) and he decides to help her putting himself in danger.
A reverse: In the movie Willow, the characters spend a lot of time getting to a castle that will be a safe haven. When they get there, the castle is cursed, hence forcing them to come up with a new plan.
An Accelerant: In the Harry Potter movies, Voldemort returning to his body makes everything ten times more dangerous.
Plot point one is the first change in the plot.
Midpoint page 60
Halway through act two, there tends to be a confrontation or a change of terms. Something to spice things back up amid the lagging nature second acts tend to have.
Plot Point 2 page 85-90
Plot point two is your second big change and what typically gets the story ready to move up to the climax scene.
Climax page 100-110
The point of the story where the height of action occurs and your character either wins or fails.
Resolution page 110-120
This is what happens to your characters post climax. Some say it’s a return to everyday life or what’s left of it.
There’s some wiggle room with the page numbers. However, if you plan to write a script to sell to Hollywood keeping as close to the pages numbers as possible is ideal. Here’s a useful tool for calculating where these basic “beats” occur (link)
Blum, Richard A., “Television and Screenwriting: From concept to contract”4th edition. Focal Press, 2001.
Chitlik, Paul “Rewrite” Michael Wiese Productions, 2008.