Outlining the Four Acts of a Screenplay

A typical 120-page screenplay represents two hours. If you divide it into four equal parts, you’ll get four 30-minute segments as follows:

  • Act I — Exposition
  • Act IIa — Positive rising action
  • Act IIb — Negative rising action
  • Act III — Climax

Act I introduce the problem and the characters. Act IIa is where the hero successfully pursues a goal and achieves it by the midpoint.

Act IIb is where things turn against the hero and Act III is where the hero faces the villain and either wins or loses once and for all.

To simplify structuring your screenplay, divide your story in half. In the first half (Act I and IIa), the hero successfully pursues and achieves a physical goal. In “Die Hard,” this physical goal is where the hero finally contacts the police about the terrorists holding the hostages in the skyscraper.

Unfortunately, achieving a physical goal still doesn’t solve the hero’s emotional need for two reasons. The villain is still alive and the hero hasn’t changed.

That’s why the second half of your screenplay is about the hero pursuing his or her emotional need because the hero realizes achieving the physical goal isn’t enough.

In “Yesterday,” the hero’s physical goal is to become a successful musician, which he achieves after he pretends The Beatles songs are his in a world that has suddenly forgotten about The Beatles.

Yet after achieving this physical goal, the hero isn’t happy because he knows these songs aren’t his and he’s slowly losing the woman he loves. That’s why the second half of the story is about the hero suddenly pursuing this emotional goal.

The problem is that the physical goal is getting in the way of the emotional goal, and the only way the hero can get the emotional goal is to give up the physical goal.

Sometimes giving up the physical goal gets the hero just the emotional goal, but sometimes it gets the hero the emotional goal and the physical goal too.

In “Tootsie,” the hero has to give up his physical goal (being a successful actor on TV) to get his emotional goal (winning the love of an actress).

Yet in “WALL-E”, WALL-E gets both his physical goal (the love of Eve) and his emotional goal of no longer being lonely (by bringing the human race back to Earth).

Think of the two halves of your story like this:

  • Act I — The hero has a physical goal and an emotional goal
  • Act IIa — The hero pursues the physical goal and appears to get it
  • Act IIb — The physical goal is keeping the hero from getting the emotional goal
  • Act III — The hero changes and risks losing the physical goal to gain the emotional goal

If your hero only has a physical goal, your story risks feeling flat and two-dimensional. Your hero needs an emotional goal because this is what makes a story worth seeing over and over again.

Make sure your hero has an emotional goal. Then it’s easy to add a physical goal that gets in the way of the emotional goal and forces the hero to make a choice:

  • Keep the physical goal and risk losing the emotional goal
  • Change and risk losing the physical goal to gain the emotional goal

It’s this doubt that drives the tension of any story and keeping audiences glued to the edge of their seats is what good stories are all about.

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