The Elements of a Great Script

Technically a scene is anything that defines a location and some type of action. You don’t want to focus on writing scenes. What you really want to do is focus on writing mini-stories that can consist of multiple scenes that follow the four-part story structure, which looks like this:

  • An initial grabber scene that makes us wonder what’s happening
  • Someone pursues a goal
  • Problems occur
  • Someone either achieves their goal or fails

In this brief mini-story from “Die Hard,” you can clearly see the four-part story structure in action. First, a TV newscaster is trying to pry open a door (the attention grabber). Second, the TV newscaster wants to talk to the kids inside (goal). Third, the housekeeper says she can’t let strangers in (problem). Fourth, the TV newscaster hints about calling immigration, and the housekeeper looks unsure about keeping the TV newscaster out any more (achieves goal).


Thornburg’s got one foot literally in the doorway, but since Paulina still has the chain on, it’s not quite enough.

THORNBURG (to Paulina) One minute, that’s all we ask. You could be denying them their last chance to talk to their parents.

PAULINA I’m sorry…Mrs. Holly says I couldn’t let strangers into —

THORNBURG Strangers? I’m with KFLW TV, that’s affiliated with the FCC, and I’m sure you know that’s the United States government…just like the INS?

As she wavers…

This particular mini-story takes place in one location, but mini-stories can actually spread out over multiple scenes. The main point is that you no longer focus just on writing individual scenes, but you’re always creating mini-stories that create their own goals, suspense, setbacks, and cliffhangers of some kind.

What makes a story move faster is that we cut out all the irrelevant details. Notice the beginning of this mini-story catches the TV newscaster already struggling to pry the door open. That immediately grabs our attention far better than having the TV newscaster drive up, step out of his car, and knock on the door.

Also notice that the end of the mini-story suggests what happens (the housekeeper will let the TV newscaster in). We don’t need to see the actual action if the mini-story implies what happens next. By not spelling out every possible detail, we’re left in doubt, even though it’s clear what will likely happen. What’s counter-intuitive is that you don’t want to tell your audience what’s going on. Instead, you want to hint and imply what’s going on so the audience has to get engaged to follow the story. Instead of being passive outside observers, forcing the audience to make active assumptions of what’s going on makes them active participants.

When the audience becomes actively involved in following the outcome of your story, they also get emotionally involved in the outcome, which makes for a stronger emotional rush at the end of the movie. When you finish watching “Die Hard,” you can physically feel as emotionally drained as if you were running around fighting terrorists in a skyscraper by yourself. When you watch all those bad “Die Hard” sequels and clones, you get to the end, see a lot of fighting, and immediately forget almost everything you just saw. It may have been entertaining at the moment, but it’s not a great movie like the original “Die Hard.”

By structuring your screenplay as a series of mini-stories that have a character pursuing a goal, facing setbacks, and achieving it or not, you can write a more interesting screenplay. Within each mini-story you not only want to end with a cliffhanger, but you also want to plant the seeds of future events. Think of the opening mini-story in “Die Hard” where the passenger tells the hero to relieve tension by scrunching his toes into a carpet. That seemingly harmless bit of information sets up the future where the hero is handicapped by running around barefoot.

Every mini-story needs to set up a future event or pay off a previously revealed set up. Then each mini-story n reds to start with an attention grabber and end with a cliffhanger. The structure of every mini-story should look like this:

  • Attention grabber
  • Goal stated
  • Set up to future (optional)
  • Pay off of previously revealed information (optional)
  • Cliffhanger

The early part of your screenplay will be loaded with set ups. For example in the movie “Up,” there’s an early scene where the hero has a bunch of balloons tied to a cart that almost floats away. This sets up his later use of the balloons to make his house float away.

The later part of your screenplay will be loaded with pay offs. In “Die Hard,” we gradually learn what the villain plans to do with the detonators (blow up the hostages on the roof) and how he plans to open the last lock on the vault (wait for the FBI to cut the power). This information gets slowly revealed to us throughout the early part of the movie and finally gets revealed at the end.

So think of mini-stories that grab an audience’s attention. If any part of your screenplay does not grab your audience’s attention, then it’s like a chain with a broken link. It just won’t work, so revise your screenplay and make sure you have mini-stories with set ups and pay offs. You won’t be surprised that mini-stories can keep your overall screenplay moving quickly, jammed with relevant information, while remaining interesting from start to finish.

To learn more about the structure of mini-stories that make up a screenplay, look at my book series:

The Elements of a Great Script: Star Wars

The Elements of a Great Script: Die Hard

The Elements of a Great Script: Rocky

The Elements of a Great Script: It’s a Wonderful Life

The Elements of a Great Script: Back to the Future

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