11 Stages of a Master Screenplay
Robert Misovic | December 28, 2016
4. Change of Plans| Event | 25%
Around the quarter mark of your screenplay, we should see a grand revelation of the protagonist's ultimate outer motive.
This is that part in The Social Network when Sean Parker says to Mark Zuckerberg “a million dollars isn’t cool. You know what’s cool--a billion dollars. And that’s where you’re headed." We know who Mark is and what TheFacebook.com inevitably ends up being, but it was at this moment that Mark realizes it for himself. That’s important. He was just trolling around, flexing his genius up until this point. One meeting with Napster burnout Sean Parker lays the stage for the rest of the film.
This is right around where the jeeps stop and the power goes out in Jurassic Park, or when Tony Montana finally gets into Frank’s inner circle in Scarface. Whether we’re talking Kubrick classics like 2001: A Space Odyssey & The Shining, or recent hits like Gone Girl & Argo, they nail this stage with masterful precision.
7. Complications & Raised Stakes| Journey | 51-74%
At this point we must establish that the hero has even more to lose than originally thought. This all builds to a major setback
In Titanic, our characters are battling their class differences, but when Titanic hits an iceberg and Jack is arrested, stakes are raised. In No Country for Old Men, this would be right around when Carson Wells visits Moss in the hospital and gives a him about who is actually hunting him, giving both Moss and the audience some insight into the Anton Chigurh character. In Jaws, this is the stage where the boat is hit, and things start to unravel for our three protagonists.
This stage is the set up to the conventional third act. Stakes are rising, and our protagonist seems to be coming completely undone. If you want the audience to enjoy the film through to the end, then this is the most crucial stage in getting them to invest fully. While many films come undone right around here, as writers and directors take cheap shortcuts to tie up inconvenient plot holes, the masters of cinema truly understand the importance of raising the tension to about a level 9 by the end of stage 7.
The Grey (2011)
The Town (2010)
6. Point of No Return| Event | 50%
Full commitment to the goal. The protagonist had the option to turn back, but at this point must go all in.
Mark moves to California in The Social Network, Rocky starts training for the title shot extended to him by Apollo Creed, and Rose decides, against her mother’s wishes, that she’s leaving her wealthy fiancée for Jack in Titanic. This was the release. All that tension had to build up to something, and it’s this single moment.
5. Progress| Journey | 26-49%
This is a set-up for the final act as the hero clears the initial hurdles in this stage and shows progress.
The task for any film is to create emotion for the audience. In 2016’s The Hallway, it’s at this stage that we see the budding relationship between Damir and Elise. We grow hopeful that Elise and Damir may find a happy ending, but remain constantly aware that Elise's ex boyfriend Clarke threatens this desired outcome.
In Jaws, we see our brash protagonists venturing out to sea, armed with the tools to hunt a great white shark. Of course, as their plans continue to backfire, a safe passage home seems anything but certain.
The key here is to build tension. Even when it seems likely that we will get what we want, there must be some possibility that we won’t. Conversely, when we’re convinced we may not get the ending we want, there must be at least a glimmer of hope that we might. This is tension in a nutshell: it pulls audiences into the film, and hopefully lets them forget that what they’re watching isn’t real.
10. The Climax | Journey | 90-99%
Our protagonist must face their biggest obstacle and determine their fate. Win or lose, this stage is for all the marbles.
This is that big moment everyone’s been waiting for. Does Rocky win? Do the humans get out of Jurassic Park alive? Does chief Brody get the Shark? This climax can take a long time to unfold, as it did in a film like Deadpool, or it can happen rather suddenly, as it did in 2001 Oscar Nominee In the Bedroom.
Jurassic Park (1993)
You've heard of the three act structure. Who hasn't? You're taught from childhood that this blueprint for story telling is as old as time itself. In it's simplest form; beginning, middle and end, but I prefer to view it as Aristotle's pity, fear, and catharsis.
It isn't that film makers can't seem to grasp the basics of this formula, but rather that there's so much more to it than they realize. Films like The Godfather and No Country for Old Men are rare in their ability to carry our attention from scene to scene, never allowing us to pull our attention from the screen. What are they doing differently?
Lately, films have attempted to simulate this experience by wowing audiences with visual spectacle and films with a plethora of big names and even bigger thrills. The result is usually a forgettable film, the details of which are forgotten within minutes after the film ends.
In this article, we go through the 11 stages of a master screenplay, looking at examples from films like Jaws, Jurassic Park, the Town, Gone Girl, No Country for Old Men, Copenhagen, The Dark Knight, End of Watch, the Hallway, Rocky, Titanic and the Grey. This article will contain spoilers for many of these films, so be warned.
The article outlines the 11 stages, detailing whether the stage is an event, or a journey. It further explains where in a story these events should probably take place in order to maintain pace. These aren't hard and fast rules, and several great films have broken them. We do however feel strongly that any writer or director would benefit tremendously from understanding these steps.
The true masters don't just hit the highs and lows, but they glide you from one to the other without ever losing your attention.
2. The Opportunity| Event | 10%
Create an opportunity that creates desire, which will smoothly lead to “the New Situation”
This is the Neo meets Morpheus moment. You’ve built to this moment and you don’t want to let the audience down. This is where the average script falls apart completely, and where the all-time greats hit their mark. Steven Spielberg is the master of step 2. Think about Jurassic Park’s slow build up as we meet our key protagonist Dr. Alan Grant. What do we know about him through the first stage? Children annoy him, he’s a paleontologist who finds technology is taking the fun & funding out of his profession, and he’s developed an unhealthy obsession with dinosaurs.
So when the chopper shows up, and Hammond presents him with the offer to go to Jurassic Park, everything we've learned about him to that point makes that offer all the more meaningful. We saw a dinosaur in the opening scene. We know what’s in store for Grant-- even if he doesn’t. Imagine if the film spent the first stage at the park taking us through cool shots of Dinosaurs. We’d have absolutely no reason to care about Hammond’s offer, nor would we know who our hero is OR what he wants. In short, if you take one scene out, Jurassic Park doesn’t work. You can do this with Jack winning the poker game in Titanic, or chief Brody’s fear of water in Jaws. If stage 1 is the setup, then stage 2 is the reward.
The Godfather (1972)
11) The Aftermath| Conclusion| 100%
It's time to give the audience their long-awaited release. The character’s journey has ended for now, and we’re wondering how they’ve changed (for better or worse) because of it. One useful tip is to take the character from stage 1, and compare them to the same character in stage 11. Have they moved? Did they learn something? Did they get what they want? Are they dead? If they’re the same, with very few exceptions, you might want to go back and rethink it.
In Jaws, we see a relieved chief Brody swimming to shore. In Jurassic Park, we see a battered Ellie, Dr. Malcolm and Allan with the kids, flying home- as Hammond looks over and reflects on the errors of his way. Some films, such as The Grey, opt to save this stage for the end credits.
Gone Girl (2014)
Robert is a screenwriter and writer for Pensare Films Media. He loves cinema in all its glory. Follow Robert Misovic on Facebook for more Film Reviews and Film Festival-related goodies
The Hallway (2016)
9. Final Push | Journey | 76-89%
Beaten and near death, your hero must now push through, and risk everything with one last ounce of strength and courage to overcome all odds. Conflict is overwhelming, pace is accelerated, and everything is working against them.
Stage 9 could otherwise be known as ‘the comeback.’ Rose must break Jack out from his handcuffs and save him in Titanic. In The Town, Ben Affleck’s character must escape the FBI and get out of town, all the while making peace with the woman he loves. Stage 8 and 10 are likely to be the two most memorable moments in any film; the grand problem and the grand resolution. In some respects, that would make what you do with stage 9 the most important part of the film. It has to bridge two of the three most important moments of your story in a believable and interesting way.
3. The New Situation | Journey | 11-24%
We're excited to enter the new situation as result of the opportunity created in Stage 2. However, from 11-24% we realize the situation is deeper than the hero originally imagined.
You can use Jurassic Park for just about every one of these steps, as it’s simply a master class in how to execute stages 1-3. When Alan and Ellie agree to go to Jurassic Park, they do so due to Hammond’s offer to fund their dig. With the opening act establishing just how vulnerable their budget was with the rise of technology, it adds up that they’d jump on this wild adventure in exchange for Hammond funding their projects for a further three years.
However, when they arrive, they get to learn what the audience already knew from the opening scene--there are dinosaurs at the park! Real ones! When they learn how Hammond engineered the animals, our 2 protagonists as well as the ever-loveable Ian Malcolm, played by Jeff Goldblum, all express their concerns about the dangers inherent in what Hammond is attempting.
1. The Setup| Journey | 0-10%
Far too many films fail to hook the audience immediately, and just as many simply botch the execution. Someone doesn’t have to die in the opening credits for the movie to be interesting. The Set up, or the first 10 pages of a 100 page feature script should hook audiences in a meaningful way. This doesn’t mean you can’t start full throttle like The Omen, but in most cases, it’s best to simply use compelling visuals and smart dialogue to give audiences a sense of who the protagonist is before they’re presented with the opportunity to improve their lives.
Batman films have pushed the flashback of Bruce watching his parents murdered into overkill, and for good reason. It allows us to understand Bruce as a boy before we see him as Batman. Copenhagen shows William as a despicable womanizer with a limited capacity for human emotion. When writing a character like William that must eventually find redemption, it’s crucial that the character be relatable and human. While they can be deeply flawed, it’s best to not make them completely unlikable.
8. The Major Setback | Event | 75%
Life is over. Something has happened that sinks the audience into their seats. It's all but certain that hope is completely lost.
This is one stage that almost every film seems to get right. They fail because they didn’t do enough to build up to this point, or don’t know what to do after they get here. This is your “Oh NO!” moment in any film. In End of Watch, this is right around when our protagonists walk into the ambush. In The Town, this is when our protagonists see a fleet of cops waiting outside the stadium. If the point of stage 7 was to slowly build the tension to 9, then the point of stage 8 is to take it to 50 in a single scene or moment.
In The Dark Knight, Bruce’s only hope for a normal life is dead. In Copenhagen, 28 year old William finds out that his love interest Effy is actually 14 years old. In Titanic, the ship’s engineer emphatically claims that the ship will sink. Many stories are built with this one scene in mind. Someone dies. Something is revealed. But if you've botched steps 1-7, no one’s really invested in what you do the rest of the way.