I don't know about you, but once in a while, I have an idea that feels epic. I'm talking much longer than the usual 90-110 page screenplay I generally write.
Sometimes, with so much information and story to cover, I get overwhelmed by the idea of beating it all out and discovering its act structure.
That's when I return to one of the fastest-paced movies I have ever seen, the three-hour-long Martin Scorsese film The Wolf of Wall Street.
I know it doesn't make sense, but those three hours feel like half the time to me. And a large part of that is the impeccable 138-page screenplay written by Terrence Winter.
So I thought today we could go through that script and movie and talk about how it actually fits into a three-act structure and learn some other screenplay lessons too.
Before we do all that, feel free to read and download The Wolf of Wall Street script pdf here!
Now, let's dive into Jordan Belfort's world.
Typical Screenplay Structure
A traditional three act structure
Three-act structure refers to the three sections of a film defined as the beginning, middle, and end. These sections represent rising and falling action. They’re commonly referred to as the setup, confrontation, and resolution.
Three-act structure sets up a strong foundation in act one, allows you to explore the world and stakes in act two, and then gives you time to wrap up the emotional arcs in act three.
One way to look at it is that act one is "inspiration," act two is "craft," and act three is "philosophy." The definition of a three-act structure is a narrative model that divides a plot up into three sections. Three act structure is the basis for almost every Hollywood movie, and it’s a critical theory to master for screenwriters at every level.
The Wolf of Wall Street's Screenplay Structure
The screenplay structure of The Wolf of Wall Street generally follows a three-act structure, with some variations. Here's a breakdown of the structure:
Act 1: Establishing the World and Characters
- Introduction to Jordan Belfort and his ambitions as he starts working on Wall Street.
- Establishing his mentorship under Mark Hanna, who introduces him to the world of excess and corruption.
- Establish his family.
- Establish his quest to be rich.
- The stock market crash of 1987, leading to Jordan's unemployment and his subsequent discovery of a job in a small brokerage firm.
- Jordan starts his own brokerage firm, Stratton Oakmont, and quickly realizes the potential for enormous wealth through penny stock manipulation.
Act 2: Rising Success and Excess
- Jordan recruits his friends and a team of brokers to work at Stratton Oakmont.
- Jordan gets a taste for being rich and his greed and lust become unchecked.
- The establishment of the "pump and dump" scheme, where they artificially inflate stock prices and sell them for profit.
- Introducing the lifestyle of excess: parties, drugs, prostitutes, and reckless behavior.
- The conflict with the FBI and the introduction of Agent Patrick Denham, who starts investigating the firm's activities.
- Jordan's personal life and excesses escalate, leading to tensions within his marriage and family.
- Jordan gets a new wife and a new lifestyle.
- The FBI closes in on him and his operation
Act 3: Fall and Consequences
- The FBI's investigation intensified, leading to arrests and legal troubles for Jordan and his associates.
- Jordan's personal life unravels further due to his addiction to drugs and strained relationships.
- The downfall of Stratton Oakmont, including the company's downfall and Jordan's eventual cooperation with the FBI.
- Jordan's sentencing and realization of the consequences of his actions.
- Jordan loses his family and almost hurts his child.
- Jordan's speech during his sentencing, where he demonstrates a lack of remorse and a focus on his personal gain.
- Jordan's time in prison, where he reflects on his actions and the consequences of his choices.
- The aftermath of his release, including his motivational speaking career and attempts to rebuild his life.
- This scene implies that Jordan continues to profit from his notoriety, suggesting that he hasn't fully learned his lesson.
Lessons From The Wolf of Wall Street's Screenplay Structure
'The Wolf of Wall Street'
Credit: Paramount Pictures
I remember seeing The Wolf of Wall Street at The Grove in Los Angeles and being stunned at the twists and turns inside the story. I find the story fascinating.
Belfort is such an antihero and the way the story plays out on screen asks us to side with the villain in the first act and then makes us feel more and more guilty as he slips into depravity and does some reprehensible things.
That's masterful storytelling and there are many other lessons we can learn as well.
- Character Development and Flaws: The screenplay effectively introduces Jordan Belfort's character and flaws early on. He's driven by ambition, but his unchecked greed, excesses, and ethical shortcomings lead to his downfall. This highlights the importance of creating complex and flawed characters that drive the narrative through their actions and decisions.
- A Clear Inciting Incident: The inciting incident—Jordan starting his own brokerage firm—establishes high stakes and a clear goal - get rich at all costs. It immediately engages the audience and sets the tone for the rest of the story.
- Conflict:The screenplay presents internal and external conflicts for Jordan, from his internal struggles with addiction and morality to the external conflict with the FBI. This dual conflict keeps the story engaging and multi-dimensional, showcasing the importance of weaving various conflicts to maintain tension.
- Midpoint Shift: The midpoint shift signals a turning point where Jordan's personal life begins to crumble, creating a shift in focus from success to consequences.
- Themes: The film explores themes of excess, corruption, and morality. The screenplay's structure emphasizes the consequences of unethical actions, allowing audiences to reflect on the moral implications. Writers can use theme-driven storytelling to create thought-provoking narratives.
- Unique Voice:The Wolf of Wall Street stands out due to its unique narrative style. Writers can learn to experiment with structure, tone, and pacing to create a distinctive storytelling experience.
- Balance of Tone: The screenplay balances comedic moments with dramatic consequences, enhancing the narrative's impact. Writers can understand how to weave humor and seriousness to keep the audience engaged emotionally and intellectually.
The screenplay structure of The Wolf of Wall Street offers a treasure trove of valuable lessons for aspiring storytellers and writers.
This cinematic masterpiece masterfully employs a three-act structure, while also embracing a fast-paced, episodic narrative style that keeps audiences engaged from start to finish.
Let me know what you learned and what you love about the movie in the comments.
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