Writing a script, as you may already know, can be a slippery proposition. By slippery, I mean scripts have a habit of running away, leaving your grasp.
It’s the patch of ice syndrome. You’re driving a car. All is well. You look down for a second and … hit a patch of ice. Suddenly the car has made a sharp left. Now, you’re off course and headed in the wrong direction, on the wrong road.
How long before you correct the mistake? How long will you stay on the road to nowhere? Ten pages? Twenty pages? Seventy pages? Fifty miles? A hundred miles?
Before you know it, you’re in Tampa when your destination was Chicago. It’s a mess! It’s almost enough to make you want to give up and try poetry.
Elements of Story are a map. I know, no one likes maps. Maps are a pain. The question is: would you rather to be lost?
Don’t fight it. The Elements of Story are your road map.
Nearly everyone fights the Elements of Story. You might think, “It shouldn’t have to be this hard.” You think they feel like rules (they are). You think, “I hate rules.”
Here are some of my favorite responses to learning the Elements:
- I’d rather just kind of wing it.
- I like to make it up as I go.
- I just sort of tap into my creative spirit and improvise.
Once, Danny Strong (Hunger Games 1 & 2, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Game Change, Recount, Empire TV series) dropped in on my class to give a guest lecture. He started by saying, “I’ll tell you what I wish someone had told me when I was starting out: structure is everything.”
The Elements of Story are structure.
Ignoring the Elements of Story is the road to nowhere.
Yes, learning the Elements is a lot like work. But this goes back to what I said about the difference between writing and typing. Typing is easier and more fun.
Typing, without learning Elements, will make you an excellent typist. Studying the Elements will make you a writer.
Writing is thinking, examining, questioning, doubling back and asking questions again. You’re right. It’s work. But it will pay off.
What are the Elements of Story?
Elements are story-beats—specifically, the story-beats that must happen within the 115 pages of your script. They give story direction.
There are 17 Elements of Story. I know, that sounds like a lot. And each of them belongs in your screenplay.
Breathe… It might be time to take a deep breath. You’re thinking, 17 Elements of Story! My script needs them all, each and every one?! That’s impossible! I was getting ready to write (or already started) and I didn’t have a clue about this elements business!
You might also be thinking that this guy—i.e., me—might be wrong. I’m not. I’ve been doing this teaching-thing a long time. This is the one and only thing I do. It’s the one and only thing I know.
And, to clarify, I know you can’t write a screenplay without the Elements of Story.
Name ‘em. Elements, coming up.
Full-disclosure. Depending on which screenwriting guru’s teachings to ascribe to, you’ll learn about different Elements. But at the end of the day, no matter what you call them, these are the core aspects of every single story.
The Elements of Story are as follows:
- Normal world
- Inciting incident
- Call to action
- Friends and enemies
- Ultimate test
- Final fight
Don’t worry, be happy… You’re going to find, very quickly, that you know more than you think you do.
You grew up on TV, film, and story. Because you’ve seen hundreds of hours of film and TV, much of this will be very familiar. The terminology might be new, but it’s in your DNA. That's good news.
What do the Elements of Story look like in a real script, you ask?
Here’s the deal: in a good screenplay, the Elements are buried. No screenwriter will ever put a red flag on their page with a banner streaming off, “HERE IS MY PROTAGONIST!”
No. They will be woven in. Smartly. Thoughtfully. You may think they aren’t there, but they are. Trust me. And—here’s the kicker—they’re usually hidden in plain sight, in a very specific place. You can pin their location down to the page. That’s right. The page.
I’ll prove it. I’ll start with the Elements and how they break down in Acts One, Two, and Three.
Is this really necessary? You learn to play an instrument by memorizing the scales. Later, you improvise. Much later, you’re Eric Clapton. Think of the Elements as the scales: master them and you’re on your way.
ACT ONE – Pages 1 to 20-25
- PROTAGONIST – hero, the person whose story we follow
- OBJECTIVE – what the protagonist wants
- ANTAGONIST – bad guy, stands between the protagonist and objective
- MENTOR – protagonist meets a father figure, best friend or confidant
- FLAW – protagonist’s character flaw
- INNER NEED – connected to flaw, the change the protagonist seeks
- NORMAL WORLD – where protagonist lives, comfort zone
- INCITING INCIDENT – moment that turns protagonist’s world upside down, nothing will ever be the same
- RESPONSE – protagonist’s moment of indecision
- CALL TO ACTION – protagonist commits, takes action
ACT TWO – Pages 25 to 90
- OBSTACLES – challenges the protagonist must overcome
- FRIENDS and ENEMIES – offer protagonist support or sabotage
- PREPARATION – protagonist prepares for big battle or Ultimate Test
- ULTIMATE TEST – protagonist confronts greatest fear and challenge
- RESOLUTION – protagonist conquers fear, corrects flaw
- FINAL FIGHT – confirm the protagonist has grown and changed
ACT THREE – Page 90 to 115
- REBIRTH – protagonist is transformed
- RETURN – protagonist returns home, literally or metaphorically
- Elements of Story are a story map. Use the map, avoid getting lost.
- Understanding and applying the Elements is necessary work.
- Analyze your favorite films and understand the Elements of Story: how they happen, when they happen, why they happen.