Four Stories in One

Most screenwriters come up with a story and then try to write it down as a screenplay. Inevitably, they run out of ideas about halfway through and wind up with a 50 page screenplay that goes nowhere. Here’s what you can do to fix this problem.

Every movie is about a big story, but it’s also about four mini-stories as well. Take the 1991 French film “Le Femme Nikita,” which is about a French woman who’s given a second chance to work for the government as an assassin. The big story is whether this woman will survive as an assassin, but what makes the story flow are the four mini-stories buried in between.

First, every screenplay is divided into four acts:

Act I — tells us who and what the story is about

Act IIa — shows us the hero learning new skills in a new world

Act IIb — shows the hero struggling with problems

Act III — shows the hero confronting the villain and answers the big story once and for all

In “La Femme Nikita,” Act I is a mini-story that shows us a woman in a gang, which breaks into a drug store, gets caught by the police, and shoots their way out. The police kill all the gang members but the woman, who kills a policeman before being captured.

The second part of Act I is about this woman, Nikita, being tried in court and given the death penalty. She’s injected with something and that seems to be the end of her life.

Act IIa is where Nikita wakes up and finds she’s in a government training camp. She’s supposed to be trained as an assassin, but initially she rebels. Finally when given the choice of cooperating or dying, she starts learning and eventually gets her first assignment, which goes awry, but she escapes and survives anyway.

Act IIb — Nikita is free to live as an undercover assassin. She meets and falls in love with a man, all while continuing to work as an assassin without her boyfriend’s knowledge. Her work takes her away from him and their relationships gets strained.

Act III — Nikita is given the job of stealing an ambassador’s secrets. Their mission appears to go well but suddenly there’s trouble and they’re thinking about calling it off when the agency sends in a man to clean up their problems by killing all the evidence and destroying the corpses with acid. Nikita and her ally carry on the mission, which falls apart under a hail of gunfire where Nikita is the only one to escape and survive.

The second part of Act III is when her boyfriend reveals that he knew what she’s been doing all along. She can’t take the pressure any more and decides to leave the agency and her boyfriend to spare him while she disappears from performing any more agency tasks.

The main point is that each Act acts like a mini-story that leads the audience along until the very end. Consider “Star Wars,” which most people are familiar with.

Act I — The big question is posed on whether Luke will ever have an adventure off his planet. The mini-story in this part of the movie is Luke anting to leave the planet, running into R2D2 and Ben, having no choice but to join Ben, and finally leaving the planet with Hans Solo.

Act IIa — Luke learns about the Force and the ship escapes into hyperspace towards a planet that gets blown up by the Death Star. Luke escapes from his planet, only to be captured by the Death Star.

Act IIb — Luke’s goal is to get off the Death Star, and he rescues Princess Leia in the process. Ben turns off the tractor beam and they manage to get into the ship and escape.

Act III — With the Death Star approaching, Luke has to join the rebels to blow it up. The rebels get picked off one by one and just as the Death Star gets in range, Luke blows it up.

As you can see, each Act is a mini-story that pulls the audience along and leads them towards the final conclusion. In creating your own screenplay, you need to pose a Big Question that drives your whole story. In between, you need four mini-stories to pull the hero along from start to finish.

Every good movie is divided into four mini-stories with their own beginning and conclusion. Telling four mini-stories to tell one big story is far easier than trying to keep the interest of an audience up in telling one long, big story. Divide your big story into four mini-stories and you’ll find your screenplay will be much easier to write.

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