How to Create A Screenplay Design Plan

Last week we learned about how to plan and structure a screenplay by creating a Screenplay Design Plan.  This week we will be learning about how to develop the structural outline of a Screenplay Design Plan by going through each of its Key Structural Points. Although this screenplay design plan is primarily for a short film, you can expand each of the points to fit a full-length screenplay.

1. The Opening Image

The Opening Image is the most important part of the film as it sets up the overall theme/genre/style. So begin with a strong and memorable image. You could introduce the hero or the setting for the film. Some films use ambiguous images that don’t mean much when they first appear on the screen but they create intrigue. Remember the black top hats in the first scene of The Prestige. At the beginning, they seemed strange and unusual, but we knew they were important, and it wasn’t until the film progressed that this unassuming pile of black hats became a significant part of the film.

2. Statement of the Theme

In this part of the film-5-10 minutes in- the theme should start to take shape, the Major Dramatic Question (MDQ) is raised, and there is some dialogue between the characters who provide some details on what is to come.

3. The Set-Up

The Set Up usually occurs in the first ten pages of the screenplay. We meet the hero and his universe; we see his problem, his frustrations and the beginning of his quest. Questions are raised and we wonder how they will be answered. We see the villain and he is getting ready for battle.

4. The Catalyst

The hero is poised and ready to embark on a quest. But still he is uncertain, there are too many obstacles. But then an action or an event occurs (the catalyst) or the antagonist/villain strikes and the hero is compelled to take action, but what action he will take remains to be seen. We see and feel his reticence. What will his action be?

5. The Hero’s Deliberation

The Hero’s Deliberation is when the hero knows he must take up the quest and take some action to solve his problem or to answer the MDQ, but he is still uncertain about how to move forward. He still may want to just walk away and refuse the quest, and he teeters between the ‘fight or flight’ response. But we are not disappointed as he finally makes the decision or the deliberation to act.

6. The Transition Point Into Act II

This is where the film really takes off. The hero has made his decision and has accepted the call to action. His quest has begun. Something has to be done and he is the only one to do it. The first tentative steps of his journey have begun.

7. Introduction of the Main Sub-Plot

Once the main plot of the film is underway, the sub-plot can be introduced. The audience is familiar with Part A or the first half of the film and now it is time for Part B – the second half to commence. Part B may highlight the sub-plot of a love story which works in with the main plot or Part A. We start to bring in some new characters – a love interest (if they haven’t already been introduced in the first few scenes) like the comic light relief – the helper.

8. Playing around with the Characters and the Premise

In this section, the screenwriter can start playing around with the characters, their relationships and the complications that ensue – dramatic and/or amusing. This section of the screenplay forms the heart of the film and acts as the major draw card for the audience.

9. The Midpoint

The Midpoint is the halfway point or may even work like an anti- climax. This is the part of the story when the hero has reached his zenith or his world begins to fall to pieces around him.

10. Dark Forces Closes In

This is when the protagonist and antagonist start to clash with a new vengeance. The hero may find himself deserted by friends and family and he has to face the ‘dark forces’ all alone. He is standing on the edge of the abyss looking into its dark and murky depths and the audience is right there with him wondering what his next action will be. Will he turn back and return to the safety of home, or will he surge forward and embrace his destiny?

11. All is lost, or Victory Is Mine

This is my favourite part of a film. The hero is faced with total or seemingly total devastation. He has lost everything. He is abandoned. Something or someone dear to him dies, a partner, an animal, his family. But this death or destruction will prove to be useful for his growth. This is the moment where the old hero must die so that the new hero can emerge bigger and better than when he first embarked on his quest.

12. The Dark Night of the Soul

Although The Dark Night of The Soul only takes up a brief part of the film, it is still important as this is where the audience must experience the full impact of the hero’s devastation, his loss. A close-up on his face with no dialogue works well here. A good example would be Mel Gibson in The Patriot when he witnesses the death of his eldest son, or Russell Crowe in Gladiator when he arrives home to find his wife and son murdered. The hero has to walk through the ‘valley of the shadow of death’ and the audience must be able to feel his pain. All hope is not lost, but it needs to come across like it is.

13. The Transition Point Into Act III

This part of the film is where the hero rises out of the ashes of his fiery destruction like a phoenix. He has not been abandoned. His helpers/the princess arrive to help him solve the problem, battle the villain/s, and help him answer the MDQ.

14. The Finale

The Part A and Part B of the screenplay/film have now come together. The story has come full circle. The hero has gone through hell, he has experienced great personal loss or faced great challenges. But he has also grown stronger. But now he has to face the final battle and dispose of the villain once and for all. This is the climax of the film. If it’s an Action or Science fiction film, the finale will go off with a bang. If it’s a Romance film, then it will be sweet and satisfying.

15. The Closing Image

The Closing Image will be a mirror image to the Opening image, instead, there has been a dramatic change. The evil that was present at the beginning has been vanquished. The problem that the hero was presented with has been solved. The hero has learned an important lesson. He may appear outwardly as battle scarred, bloodied and bruised, but he has emerged from the battle a new person. He has experienced great loss but has also gained something valuable.

In some films, all the loose-ends are shown to be all tied up, questions that have been raised throughout the film will be answered here, but there may be some ambiguity as well. The audience may still go away with some questions, but there should still be that feeling of fulfillment that comes with the Closing Image.  

By learning how to develop the structural outline of a Screenplay Design Plan, you will then be ready to start writing your screenplay.

Happy writing!

NEXT WEEK: Formatting the Screenplay.


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


Unsplash. Pixabay

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