There are two skills needed in screenwriting. First, you need to tell an interesting story. Second, you need to tell it in an interesting way. That means knowing how to write a screenplay beyond the formatting elements.
To tell an interesting story, start with how you want the story to end. Once you know how you want your story to end, you automatically know how to begin your story. However, the key is to keep your story mysterious right from the start and mislead the audience so they don’t know what the true ending really will be.
For example, in “Die Hard,” the ending is when the hero defeats the villain. Not only does the hero kill the villain, but the hero also stops the villain from getting away with blowing up the hostages on the roof to mask his escape after stealing corporate bonds from a vault.
Now in the beginning of “Die Hard,” the villain takes over the skyscraper but it initially appears to be nothing more than a terrorist takeover. So the key to telling a compelling story is to know your true ending and then start your story pursuing this true ending, but disguising it as something else to misdirect the audience.
After the beginning of your story misdirects the audience in Act I (the first 30 minutes of a screenplay), Act IIa (the next 30 minutes) must have the hero fighting against the villain and appearing to succeed. In “Die Hard,” this occurs when the hero finally manages to contact the police to alert them about the terrorist takeover of the skyscraper. This midpoint or False Victory appears to solve the hero’s problem. Unfortunately, the hero (like the audience) has been misdirected as to the villains’ real goal. As a result, the hero solves the wrong problem.
In Act IIb (the third 30 minute segment of a screenplay), the villain’s true goal is finally uncovered, and it’s generally worse than we (and the hero) thought in the beginning. This raises the stakes and threatens the hero, the hero’s loved one, and innocent people all at the same time. Now if the hero fails, he or she will suffer, someone the hero loves will suffer, and innocent people will suffer as well. That makes it imperative that the hero succeed.
Act III is now about the the hero trying to stop the villain from achieving the real goal. Unlike the previous Acts, Act III is pure action that uses all the characters and information introduced earlier in the story. Now it’s a race against time for the hero to defeat the villain.
The basic four-part story structure looks like this:
- Act I – Villain initiates goal but its true purpose remains hidden. The hero (and audience) think the villain’s goal is actually something else.
- Act IIa – The hero defeats the villain in what he or she (and the audience) think was the real goal.
- Act IIb – The hero (and audience learns about the real goal of the villain, and it’s worse than everyone first thought.
- Act III – The hero fights to stop the villain from achieving this terrifying goal that threatens the hero, the hero’s loved one, and innocent people.
When outlining your story, start with Act III first, then first out how to misdirect the hero (and audience) in Act IIa. Finally, reveal the villain’s true goal in Act IIb. This easily creates a twist in your story that lets you write a 120-page screenplay instead of a 70-page screenplay that suddenly runs out of ideas.
Here’s how this four-part story structure looks in “Deadpool 2”:
- Act I – The hero (Deadpool) thinks the real problem is that a mutant kid is being abused.
- Act IIa – The hero goes to prison with a mutant kid and tries to protect him from a time traveling soldier (Cable).
- Act IIb – The hero learns that Cable really wants to kill the mutant kid because the mutant kid grows up and kills Cable’s wife and daughter in the future (the real goal of the villain).
- Act III – The hero helps save Cable’s wife and daughter by getting the mutant kid not to kill anyone so he won’t grow up and use his powers to kill others.
What happens when you ignore this four-part story structure? Then you end up with a weak story like “Solo”:
- Act I – Hans Solo gets separated from his lover, Qi’ra, by a local criminal gang. (This has nothing to do with the villain in the end, which makes the opening nothing but meaningless action.)
- Act IIa – Hans Solo joins a criminal gang. (Because there is no misleading goal of the villain that drives the story, this action feels disconnected from the rest of the story.)
- Act IIb – Hans Solo and his team steals coaxium and brings it back to the villain. (Because this villain was introduced too late in the story, his presence feels forced into the story.)
- Act III – Qi’ra (not Hans) kills the villain. (Because Hans is the hero and fails to kill the villain, it doesn’t make for a satisfying conclusion. Hans winds up killing the criminal gang leader who betrayed him, but since his goal wasn’t to betray Hans from the start, it’s not a very satisfying ending either.)
Botch the four-part story structure and you wound up with a lousy movie like “Solo” that no amount of special effects or A-list directors can salvage. Before you start writing your screenplay, outline the four-part structure of your story. This alone will help prevent you from writing a lousy screenplay like “Solo”.