First Draft: A New Alternative to Three-Act Story Structure

In partnership with Creative Screenwriting and ScreenCraft, we present “First Draft,” a series on everything to do with screenwriting. New articles, first published by Creative Screenwriting and ScreenCraft, will be posted frequently.


One common problem is when aspiring screenwriters cannot separate the creating process from the drafting process.

Many beginning writers sit down at the keyboard, type “FADE IN” and rush directly into their first draft. But most advanced writers know that the actual writing of any screenplay takes up only the last 10-20% of the entire process. Before that comes the research, planning and development of the premise.

However, even before that comes the exploration of the ideathat wandering, searching process that accesses the imagination and brings forth those images which become the seeds of any story. Writers often discount this portion of the process, only to later on stumble and falter in the middle because they can no longer see the images and feel the emotions which drew them to the premise in the first place. When done well, the writer finds s/he is able to stay in greater contact with the original concept and more accurately portray the story as imagined.

It is a part of the process which needs to be more respected.

Barton Fink

Problems with the Three Act Structure

Many screenwriting authorities introduce their personal take on screenwriting by teaching the three act form because modern Hollywood films are often falsely believed to be framed within what’s known as the Restorative Three Act (RTA) Structure,

That is:

A story divided up into three parts—Setup, Confrontation, and Resolution—where the protagonist progresses in a manner which restores, in some way, the status quo to the story world by the end of the script.

The fatal problems of using the RTA as a guide for writing are many and varied:

  1. It is not an actual story structure—you do not find it in myths or legends.
  2. It is far too simplistic; the basic units of any story are not acts but scenes and beats.
  3. It is subjective and arbitrary.
  4. Its designations, such as midpoint change, rising action and act turns are as general as they are meaningless. Change in what way? Rise by what standards?
  5. It fails to deal with characterization at all.
  6. And it identifies but then fails to address the morass that is the middle of any screenplay.

In the end, while the RTA might be a useful way of analyzing a story, it really doesn’t tell us much about just how a story was created in the first place.

The Restorative Three Act Structure, copyright Syd Field.

Wise Words from the Pros

What the audience remembers from any story-telling experience are the individual moments (or key images) that moved us, those images that sparked a reaction or emotion within us, both when we hear them the first time and when we remember them later. These are also the same moments which draw writers to a concept in the first place. And they tend to be great moments of character illuminating plot. 

A New Approach

So that’s where we’ll begin considering a new way to construct a story.

For this exercise, do not worry about what you may have been taught. Forget for a moment all story structure, acts, beats and technical terms. Forget the guru and screenwriting experts.

Imagine, instead, a screenplay as a string of pearls—each pearl a memorable moment within the story, each pearl in the strand more lovely and more perfect than the last.

Your job, with your premise clearly in mind, is to identify and develop each pearl in the strand.

So let’s start with the first pearl.

  1. Concentrate on the one image or scene that first comes to mind when you think about your story, the one that excites you the most.
  2. Imagine then that you are seated in the audience in the theatre and the scene is playing out in front of you on a stage or screen. The experience is perfect—you can take all the time you need to examine and describe the scene. For example:
    • Describe the setting. What’s the location, time of day, etc.?
    • What exactly is taking place? Be as specific as you can.
    • Who are the characters? What exactly are they doing? What are they saying?
    • What feelings do you get from the scene? What are you emotionally reacting to?
      Be there in the moment. Truly come to understand the scene.
  3. On an index card/blank sheet/WP file, start writing what you see and feel. Write as fast as you can for at least five minutes, seeing the scene as clearly as you can, writing down everything you see and, perhaps most importantly, everything you feel. Take as much time and space as you need. Don’t stop until you’re sure you’re done.
  4. Now that your juices are flowing, choose another scene in the story and do the same.
  5. Do this for every scene you can imagine for your story. By the end, you should have a small stack of index cards or pages of notes.
  6. Now, as Terry and Ted suggest, start to arrange them in the order that they would appear in the film. Do whatever seems natural to you. Nothing’s written in stone, so be flexible. Group related scenes together.
  7. As time allows, take these pearls/scenes and visualize those scenes which:
    • Lead into these moments—the scene that must come just before, and
    • Result from those moments—the scene that must come just after.
  8. Add them to the stack or file.

What you have now created is a story outline that is natural, organic and rhythmic. This is the beginning of a spine of your screenplay which doesn’t require the training wheels of a strict three act structure approach. Continue to fill in the scenes that make the most sense to you.

Now you have something you can work with.

Be Clear About This

I am not saying that you do not need structure to your story. There is plenty of time to use your knowledge of structure as you now write your first draft. This is all about exploring your idea fully, making the bricks with which you will build your script.

In the end, screenwriting advice is only valuable if it works for you. Beginning the creative process with anything akin to a formula or pattern often eliminates your ability to create freely.

Keep in mind that you already inherently understand story—it is the way that we as humans communicate—so don’t discount the native ability within you.

Create freely. Draft with passion. Edit with structure.

…But take the training wheels off. MM

This article fbbanner (2)originally appeared on the website Creative Screenwriting. Creative Screenwriting is “the best magazine for screenwriters” (the Los Angeles Times), publishing daily interviews and craft articles from the foremost writers in film and TV.


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1 Comment

  1. Heidi Haaland

    September 15, 2016 at 6:37 pm

    Hat tip!

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