Six Tips for Creating a Dynamic Screenplay Design Plan

Last week I began a series on How to write a dynamic screenplay. This week I will provide six tips for creating a dynamic Screenplay Design Plan.

An effective screenplay is the product of good planning and design. Although there are many ways to approach screenwriting, I believe that if you want to produce a dynamic screenplay that will win the attention of your audience, then a Screenplay Design Plan will help. Just like an architect draws up his plans before attempting to build a house, a screenwriter needs to draw up a plan or blueprint before a film is made.


A Screenplay Design Plan will allow you to achieve the following:

1. Explore the overall premise /controlling idea or the MDQ (the Major Dramatic Question).

The MDQ is the question that is raised at the beginning of the film and is answered in some fashion at the conclusion of the film. The MDQ extends from our hero’s journey, and is subject to his moral choices, his battle with his inner demons as well as his battle with the antagonist/villain.

Here is a rough example of an MDQ. “When a young Hobbit is given the mammoth task to take a magical ring to a dark land that is ruled by an evil Lord, will he fulfill his destiny and destroy the ring in a fiery volcano?” I think you get the idea here.

2. Plan, select and organise the arrangement of the Key Structural Points in the screenplay from beginning to end.

These Key Structural Points contain scenes where the hero is faced with some sort of challenge like a character conflict or a stumbling block during his journey. Each level of conflict can be caused by a person or by the hero’s own inner frustrations or inadequacies. But regardless of whether these conflicts are small or great, they must always provide an opportunity for the hero to grow.

As you will see in the Screenplay Design Plan template that is available below, every scene must have some level of conflict leading up to The Finale.

Screen-writing Tip: Conflict is necessary for effective drama.

3. Design your screenplay like a puzzle the audience must solve.

The Opening Image establishes the mood, genre, story, and the hero of the film. From this Opening Image the structure of the film’s plot will start to unfold. The design plan also helps the writer to decide when to withhold information from the audience and when it should be revealed. A little ambiguity is always good. Keeping your audience in suspense (while providing little gems of information now and then) ignites their imagination and intelligence, and keeps them riveted to the screen until The Closing Image. 

4. Provide an overall structure that allows you to craft individual scenes that build with intensity.

As you plan each scene within the Design Plan, you can decide when and where your levels of intensity (creating and building tension) will take place. Being able to create and build tension that captivates an audience is the key to a dramatic screenplay and an award-winning film.

Good structure also allows your audience to follow the hero’s journey as it unfolds. An example of good structure is when the plot contains an ensemble of successes and failures right up until the story’s climax and its final resolution.

Screenwriting Tip: When you are crafting your individual scenes think of how you will engage the emotions of your audience. Strong action + strong emotion = a rewarding filmic experience.

5. Organise character relationships and answer the MDQ.

A design plan helps a writer to decide on how the hero’s primary and secondary relationships will intersect and play out. And once these relationships are sorted, the MDQ can be answered. The Major Dramatic Question is worked out primarily by the hero, but it is also the villain and the other secondary characters that provide the action and the conflict that is necessary to answer this question.

As well as the MDQ there are other important questions:

Will the hero accept his quest?

How will the villain react to the hero when the quest is accepted?

How will the villain stop the hero from fulfilling his quest?

Who will be the hero’s helper/s? How will the hero react when Dark Forces Close In, and will he survive The Dark Night of the Soul? The Screenplay Design Plan will help a writer answer these questions before writing the actual screenplay.

Of course the hero will take many actions during the course of the film, and the antagonist will provide many reactions, but there is one overriding action that provides unity. The many actions and reactions (big or small) that take place during a film should always point back to the arch-arching MDQ, the one major dramatic question that the hero is trying to answer or the driving action that motivates him and determines everything that happens in the film.

6.  Finish your screenplay with a dynamic action and image.

When we think of the MDQ and the hero’s driving action – remember Frodo in the Lord of the Rings.  Frodo’s most important and dynamic action was arriving at Mount Doom to finally destroy the ring.  There were many events and great actions that took place during this film but it was this one action that would determined the fate of Middle-earth.

Of course, Gollum had an important role to play in the all important and compelling scene of The Return of the King.  I find this scene (when Frodo arrives to destroy the ring in the fires of Mount Doom) very interesting as it kept us in suspense. It seemed that maybe our hero (Frodo) was not going to destroy the ring after all.  If he did not complete his mission who would answer the MDQ? Someone has to! But with a little twist we still got our happy ever after and our answer.

Although the film had not yet been completed, this scene where the ring is destroyed is one of the most dynamic scenes in the movie.  Frodo had peaked in his character arc, and Sauron’s ring had finally been destroyed.  The screenwriter had created a dramatic and pivotal scene and image, which will continue to linger as one of those iconic moments in film history.  

So how you organise your scenes, explore the MDQ, and determine the levels of intensity, character actions and reactions, will depend on your Screenplay Design Plan.


What does a Screenplay Design Plan looks like?

Most feature films run between 105-110 minutes and one page of a screenplay equals to one minute of film. If you are writing for a short film then you would skip over certain points, but still address the Key Structure Points as indicated in the Design Plan below. The following Screenplay Design Plan is for a 110 minutes film and also provides a plan for a 15 minute short film.

You can view a Screenplay Design Plan here: Screenplay Design Plan Template for Creative Destination


Next week: More information on the ‘Structural Outline” of a Screenplay Design Plan.



Screenplay Design Plan, Griffith University, Drama Screenwriting Study Guide 2012.



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