The truism in Hollywood is that you can't make a great movie from a bad screenplay. But you can't have a good screenplay without certain narrative fundamentals and emotional building blocks that, when expertly deployed, add up to a good story well told, with none of the strut work showing. "It all starts with Aristotle," says screenwriter Lew Hunter, who teaches the craft at his Screenwriting Colony in Superior, Neb. "You've got to have a beginning, middle and end."
Along the way, the hero or heroine will undergo a profound change of character. The cynic finds his idealism. The coward finds his courage. The scullery maid finds her inner princess.
And with any luck, transcendent theme emerges: what the movie's about.
Screenwriting gurus from Robert McKee to Syd Field have fine-tuned their own versions of the formula, but most hew to the principles that we list here.
Opening image: The visual and aural statement that will define the ensuing movie's time, place, theme and emotional tone. The black-and-white cityscape set to Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" in "Manhattan." The gliding underbelly of the star cruiser in "Star Wars."
Inciting incident: The event that sets the plot in motion. A tornado hits Kansas. A woman comes into a Casablanca restaurant looking for letters of transit. The Joker robs a bank in Gotham City. War breaks out during a barbecue at Twelve Oaks! (Usually happens within the first 10 minutes, preferably five.)
First turning point: The event that sets the Hero on his journey of transformation and self-discovery. (Joseph Campbell fans also call this "the call to adventure.") Luke's family is killed by the Empire. WALL E leaves Earth to follow Eve. The first turning point marks the end of Act 1.
Confrontation and conflict: The Hero accepts the call to adventure, setting in motion the long slog through the second act (longest example: "Lawrence of Arabia"). He faces obstacles but forges ahead rather than returning to the comfort of his previous life. Up to this point, says Hunter, "The hero has been a reactor. During the second half of the movie he's an actor." Charles Foster Kane decides to run for president. The Dude decides to get restitution for his defiled rug. Juno decides to choose her baby's parents.
Defeat: The point at which all hope is lost. After the Hero has faced down enemies, narrowly avoided disaster, even skirted death, a (seemingly) final blow is dealt, plunging the Hero into despair. Woody and Buzz are left behind the moving truck. In "Groundhog Day," Bill Murray's despondent character drives his car off a cliff. After Mr. Big ditches her at the altar, Carrie has a fight with her best friend.
Second turning point: The life-or-death event that will test the strength, resolve and moral courage the Hero has been developing throughout the story. Dorothy battles flying monkeys, the Wicked Witch and the Wizard himself in a lonely castle atop a high mountain.
Resolution: The payoff in which the Hero either triumphs or sacrifices himself for the greater good. Rick turns over the letters of transit to Ilse and her husband, Victor.
Denouement: The coup de grace that gives the audience closure, reassurance, a knowing chuckle or a spine tingle. Hannibal Lecter telephones Clarice Starling to talk about his dinner plans. At the end of "Up," the old man and the little boy sit on a curb eating ice cream. Dorothy wakes up to find it was all a dream.