(SPOILERS: Ocean’s 11, There’s Something About Mary, Children of Men)
One thing I sometimes find when reading my students’ treatments or outlines is that they don’t have enough story to fill a feature film. (With short films the opposite problem often occurs.) Once you’ve written several scripts you start to get a better sense of this, but sometimes I still discover that what I thought was a fully fleshed out sequence doesn’t actually have enough happening in it.
We expect a feature to have a fairly dense story. If you follow three act structure you’ll have several events in Act I and Act III, but Act II can seem like a vast, intimidating stretch of time. You need to make sure you fill that with significant events, obstacles, twists and turns. You can’t just rely on the midpoint to sustain 50-60 pages of story. Using the stages of the mythology structure can help, but probably won’t give you everything you need.
One thing to consider is that the average screenplay will have about 50-60 scenes. That means you need 25-30 scenes in Act II. Your treatment or outline doesn’t have to spell out every one, but you should be able to imagine what they’ll be. If you can't, you need more story.
Next consider set pieces. I define set pieces as those big scenes that pay off the genre of the story – the outrageously funny scenes in a comedy, the terrifying scenes in a horror movie, the moving emotional scenes in a drama. You should have at least five of these, and preferably more like eight. One or two should occur in Act I and you’ll definitely want a set piece for your climax in Act III. But that means you’ll want at least three in Act II. Identify them to make sure you have enough.
If you find your story is thin in Act II what can you do? First, make sure that there are multiple stages to your hero achieving their goal. I’ve seen many students trying to write a mystery story where the hero finds one clue that reveals everything. In a good mystery the clues need to be a path – one leading to the next and that one to the next until the truth is assembled like a jigsaw puzzle from all the multiple clues.
Similarly, if your movie is about a robbery then there better be several steps the character has to take to prepare. Consider the Ocean’s 11 remake (screenplay by Ted Griffin). Before the big heist Danny has to get financing and recruit his team, which involves several mini-capers such as getting Basher out of jail. They also have to build a replica of the vault to work out the plan, and commit other tricks to get inside info on the casinos. All of this provides the meat for Act II before we get to the heist in Act III.
You also need to make sure you have multiple obstacles for the hero to overcome. In There’s Something About Mary (story by Ed Decter & John J. Strauss, screenplay by Ed Decter & John J. Strauss and Peter & Bobby Farrelly), Ted wants to win Mary’s heart. That would be pretty easy to accomplish if it weren’t for Healy and Tucker trying to sabotage the relationship. And they don’t just try once… they escalate their attempts through Act II leading to multiple obstacles for Ted.
Escalation is key, as are reversals. If your character is simply checking off unrelated obstacles or to-do items on his plan, then your story will feel episodic and lack forward momentum. In Ocean’s 11 Danny’s plans are thrown off by his secret agenda with his ex-wife. That keeps things from progressing in too linear and predictable a fashion.
What you want is a feeling of “but… so…” instead of “and then...” The character does A but B happens, so the character does C, but D happens and so on. Consider Children of Men (screenplay by Alfonso Cuaron & Timothy J. Sexton and David Arata and Mark Fergus & Hawk Otsby):
Theo’s mission is to get Kee to a boat where she'll be safe. They start out on their journey but are ambushed by a gang, so they go to a safe house run by the Fishes. But Theo discovers the Fishes actually set up the ambush, so he and Kee and Miriam flee to Jasper’s. But now they’ve missed the first meeting point with the boat, so Jasper hatches a plan to break them into a refugee camp where they can make a back-up meeting. But the Fishes find them and kill Jasper so Theo, Kee and Miriam go to the camp on their own. But then a riot breaks out… and so on.
But… so… The story builds and builds with each twist and obstacle, gaining momentum and depth.
Another thing to look for is subplots. Feature films typically have four storylines (we usually refer to them by letter). The A story is the main focus of the film – your dramatic question. The B story is often the romance (if the A story is not a romance) or relates to the internal arc of the character. Then we need two more storylines to flesh things out.
What should these other subplots be about? Often they illuminate the theme of the move, demonstrating alternative philosophical approaches that our main character could be taking. Or they could serve to add dimension to the character in the way that Danny’s desire to win his ex-wife back gives him heart in Oceans 11. That subplot also becomes an obstacle to the A story when it threatens the unity of the gang.
What if your Act I or Act III don't have enough story? In Act I it probably means you haven’t adequately set up the character’s status quo before the Catalyst, or your character hasn’t eliminated alternate solutions before taking on the problem. A short Act I really isn’t bad unless it fails to set up the rest of the film. You’ll probably realize what you’re missing when you try to write Act III.
If Act III seems too simple then you probably haven’t made your Act II Turning Point big enough. At the end of Act II we should think there is no way the ultimate resolution could possibly happen. If you’ve achieved that, then it should not be a problem to fill up 20-25 pages of the hero overcoming that failure. If the character can rebound from the turning point quickly, it means the failure wasn’t big enough. (For a film where the hero fails in the end, replace “failure” with “victory” at the end of Act II.)
The purpose of outlines and treatments are to make sure that you’re prepared to write a complete, coherent first draft. And making sure you have enough depth to your story to fill 90-110 pages is a big part of that!