Peter Suderman writing for Slate on the 2005 screenwriting book that’s taken over Hollywood—and made every movie feel the same.
It’s not déjà vu. Summer movies are often described as formulaic. But what few people know is that there is actually a formula—one that lays out, on a page-by-page basis, exactly what should happen when in a screenplay.
- Opening image (p. 1): Sets the tone for the story and suggests the protagonist’s primary problem.
- Theme is stated (p. 5): A question or statement, usually made to the protagonist, indicating the story’s main thematic idea.
- Set-up (p. 1-10): An introduction to the main characters and setting—the background.
- Catalyst (p. 12): A major event that changes the protagonist’s world and sets the story in motion.
- Debate (p. 12-25): A question is raised about the choice now before the protagonist. Often this section lays out the stakes for the journey ahead.
- Break into Act II (p. 25-30): The hero definitively leaves his old world or situation and enters a strange new one.
- B-story (p. 30): A secondary plotline that often fleshes out side characters—frequently a mentor or a love interest—who assist the hero on his journey.
- Fun and games (p. 30-55): Snyder says this section offers “the promise of the premise.” It’s an exploration of the story’s core concept that gives the story its “trailer-friendly moments.” It’s usually lighter in tone, and it typically builds to a big victory at the midpoint.
- Midpoint (p. 55): The A and B stories cross. The story builds to either a false victory or (less often) false defeat. New information is revealed that raises the stakes.
- Bad guys close in (p. 55-75): After the victory at the midpoint, things grow steadily worse as the villains regroup and push forward.
- All is lost (p. 75): Mirroring the midpoint, it’s usually a false defeat. The hero’s life is in shambles. Often there’s a major death or at least the sense of death—a reference to dying or mortality somehow.
- Dark night of the soul (p. 75-85): A moment of contemplation in which the hero considers how far he’s come and all he’s learned. It’s the moment in which the hero asks, “Why is all this happening?”
- Break into Act III (p. 85) A “Eureka!” moment that gives the hero the strength to keep going—and provides the key to success in Act III.
- Finale (p. 85-110) Relying on all he has learned throughout the story, the hero solves his problems, defeats the villains, and changes the world for the better.
- Final image (p. 110). A mirror of the opening image that underlines the lessons learned and illustrates how the world has changed.