Tuesday, May 11, 2010

STRUCTURE - The 9 Essential Scenes

YES, outlining can be a headache. Yes, it can seem daunting, at first. "Why do I need an outline? I know my story. Who has time to waste? Let me start writing."

Admirable ambition. But misguided. If your story isn't structured, you are likely to write yourself into a corner and have to start over. And the time you spend writing those 44 pages will be wasted. Ouch.

Doesn't outlining take the spontaneity out of your work? No. What it does is create a framework in which your characters come to life. Your characters are spontaneous. Not your structure.

The simple truth is this:

Screenwriters who do not outline, leave the bleached bones of their main characters lying in the desert of Act Two.

And this world is filled with millions of unfinished screenplays.

Here is a tool to use while outlining your script. These are the scenes that every reader is looking for. Believe me, if they're missing, they will notice.

You need to be clear on 9 scenes. These scenes are the signposts along your screenwriting journey.

1st: What is your opening? How does it set up your main character & conflicts? What is your setting, action and tone?

2nd: What is happening on p.10? Does the audience have a general sense of what this movie will be about? Does the audience have a sense of the emotional terrain in your story?

3rd: Your main character needs to “cross the threshold” into Act II somewhere between p. 15 and p. 25 (depending on genre). “Crossing the threshold” means leaving his/her “ordinary world” behind. Once passed, nothing will ever be the same. In Act II: The old world is left behind & your character enters an unfamiliar space, where s/he will meet allies & enemies.

The 5th scene you need for your outline (Yes, I know I skipped one. Be patient): The Midpoint of Act II. It is strongest if this scene occurs between pages 50 & 60. The Midpoint is where the stakes are raised in a way that changes the trajectory of the main character’s journey.

NOW, the 4th scene you need - yes, we’re backtracking - is half-way between the beginning of Act II and Midpoint. It’s called Pinch Point One. Pinch Point One raises the conflict for your main character, forcing him/her to step further into the emotional wilderness.

6th: Pinch Point Two. You guessed it - halfway between Midpoint and the end of Act II. And yes, like PP1, it forces your character to go deeper.

7th: The End of Act II. This is usually a crisis, dramatic or comedic, which makes the Climax inevitable. The End of Act II might be your character’s lowest point or the place where the final challenge has been set and there is no turning back.

8th: The Climax. You’d be surprised how many scripts don’t have one …or have too many. The Climax is where your main character must either make a choice between what s/he THOUGHT s/he wanted & what s/he REALLY wants. This is frequently a choice between an external goal and an internal, emotional goal. Or the Climax may be the point where your main character has his/her “blinders” removed to see the world with new understanding.

In either case, the Climax is the point where your theme is revealed to your main character.

And what is #9? It is the Final Scene. What is the feeling that you want to leave with the audience? The emotion of the final scene can make the difference between a sale and no sale, between a hit …and a miss.

Emotion is everything. It’s what the audience comes to the movie theater for: to feel. And by sharing it in a crowd, they feel connected.

These 9 scenes are essential. Hitting them right is your craft. Your outline is your map. You need one before you start your next journey.

Have a great writing day!


  1. I like this breakdown. My own outlines are much more general (basically I outline the Acts and Sequences). I might have to integrate these into my own process.

  2. thank you, thank you. Found a link to you from Sean M's page. Totally helpful for someone new to writing, like me:)

  3. Will - I find your information very useful and practical. I now have this on my "dashboard" as I navigate the peaks and volleys of screenwriting.

    Thank you!

  4. Man, have you ever hit the nail on the head. I've always believed outlining took the fun and spontaneity out of writing a script, *and* my agent was nuts for using one of my scripts as a doorstop. Years later I read through that script before sending it to a festival and couldn't believe the train wreck in the second act. You've presented a very good guideline.