Movies are a visual medium so it’s far more important to see something interesting rather than hear dialogue. Too often, novices use dialogue as a crutch to explain the story or motivation of the characters. What’s far more impactful is when audiences see the story rather than be told the story through dialogue. After all, what’s more interesting? Watching Luke Skywalker blow up the Death Star or have a character tell us he blew up the Death Star?
By showing the major action, audiences can feel like their participating and living out the story. The key to making the audience feel they’re living the story of the hero is to provide at least dramatic scenes in each major Act where each Act represents 30 minutes in a typical two hour film.
Act I needs to show the hero’s dead end life, a hint of the villain, the hero’s introduction to a Symbol of Hope, and the hero’s decision to leave his or her dead end life based on the villain’s actions.
Act IIa needs to show the hero meeting an ally, the hero’s mentor helping the hero, the villain threatening the hero, and the hero achieving a goal related to the pursuit of the Symbol of Hope.
Act IIb needs to show the villain attacking the hero, the villain nearing a milestone to his or her goal, the hero getting isolated, and the hero finally admitting the truth about his or her flaws.
Act III needs to show the hero’s mentor encouraging the hero to try one more time, the villain threatening someone the hero loves, the hero facing the villain, and the hero changing to defeat the villain.
In “Die Hard,” these dramatic scenes look like this:
- Act I
- The hero’s dead end life – John McClane lands in Los Angeles to get back with his wife.
- A hint of the villain – The terrorists shoot the security guard to allow the other terrorists to sneak into the building undetected.
- The hero’s introduction to a Symbol of Hope – John McClane runs for his life after the terrorists take over the Christmas party.
- The hero’s decision to leave his or her dead end life based on the villain’s actions – John McClane witnesses the terrorists killing the company president.
- Act IIa
- The hero meeting an ally – John McClane actually meets his wife earlier in Act I but she’s concerned about where he might be when all the hostages are rounded up but he’s not there.
- The hero’s mentor helping the hero – John McClane calls the police and Officer Powell is sent to investigate.
- The villain threatening the hero – The terrorists hunt for John McClane after he kills some of them and taunts them.
- The hero achieving a goal related to the pursuit of the Symbol of Hope – John McClane finally gets the police to understand the terrorists have taken over the skyscraper.
- Act IIb
- The villain attacking the hero – Hans, the villain, accidentally runs into John McClane but pretends he’s just a scared person.
- The villain nearing a milestone to his or her goal – The terrorists nearly break open all the locks to the vault.
- The hero getting isolated – The villain shoots out the glass, cutting up John McClane’s feet and leaving him bleeding and isolated in a restroom.
- The hero finally admitting the truth about his or her flaws – John McClane admits over the radio to Officer Powell that he’s to blame for his marriage not working.
- Act III
- The hero’s mentor encouraging the hero to try one more time – Officer Powell convinces John McClane that he’ll tell his wife in person that he loves her.
- The villain threatening someone the hero loves – Hans, the villain, holds John McClane’s wife hostage.
- The hero facing the villain – John McClane kill the last terrorist, leaving him to face Hans.
- The hero changing to defeat the villain – John McClane relies on his wife to distract Hans so he can shoot him, then John McClane saves his wife.
Notice that by just following these basic scenes, you can understand the overall story. When writing a screenplay, it’s easy to get lost in writing scenes that don’t help your story. By focusing first on these basic scenes, you can focus on making your story work. Once your story works, then you can fill in the details.