The Three Act Structure

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Hey everyone! It’s been a while since I posted, I know, but I wanted to take a moment today and post because this writing blog is now three years old! So Happy Birthday writing blog!

I have just started teaching Screenwriting Fundamentals online at Southern New Hampshire University, and so far, I am having a blast. All of my students are so interesting and unique, and I have really enjoyed reading their work so far. I can’t wait to see what else they have in store.

In the class, we are discussing Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting by Syd Field, and this week, we are focusing on structure. As Field says, “Structure is like gravity: It is the glue that holds the story in place; it is the base, the foundation, the spine, the skeleton of the story.” I have talked before about plot structure (especially in the context of fiction writing), but I haven’t explored the simplicity of the three act plot structure. While this structure does work really well for screenplays, it could also be applied to any story, whether it’s a play or a novel, etc.

Act One

In the three act structure, act one is the set up. (In a screenplay, it is typically pages 1 – 30, give or take.) Field talks about how the first ten minutes of a film in particular are very important. In a good film, most audience members will become hooked within the first ten minutes. (This is also true of fiction, though many fiction readers I know will give books 50 or so pages to “hook them”.) In the first act, you as the writer must set up who the protagonist is and what he or she wants. You also establish the unique situation the character is in, and you set up the conflict, whether it’s with another character, an internal conflict, or a conflict with bigger outside forces.

 

Plot Points

Between the first and second act and again between the second and third act, there are plot points. According to Field, “a plot point is defined as any incident, episode, or event that hooks into action and spins it around in another direction.” This happens when there is a major event that progresses the story forward. One of the examples Field gives is in The Matrix: the first plot point being where Neo is offered the choice of the Blue Pill or the Red Pill.

Act Two

Act two in this structure is all about the confrontation. (This is typically pages 30 – 90 in a screenplay.) In this portion of the screenplay, the protagonist is faced with many obstacles that he or she must overcome to achieve his or her goal. The main purpose of act two is to expand upon the conflict and force your character to learn, grow, and find within himself or herself the skills or qualities or strengths he or she needs to achieve the desired goal or satisfy the dramatic need.

Act Three

In this structure, act three is the resolution. (Typically, in a screenplay, act three can be found in pages 90 – 120, give or take.) In this act, we see the result of the story. Does your character succeed? Does she achieve her goal or desire? Does the team win the game? Does he get home? What is the outcome of the story? It’s also important to think about how this character’s journey has changed him or her. What has she learned in this process?

The three act structure is very basically the “beginning, middle, and end” that all stories need broken down into three acts. It may seem a little formulaic, but for me, the plot structure is not what makes a good film or a good story. You do need the structure, sure, just as you need the foundation of a house if you want it to stand. But what makes a story compelling to me is the way in which it is told, the way characters draw you in, what an author/filmmaker is saying with a particular story. And what is compelling to me may not be compelling to you. That is the beauty and subjectivity of art. Every story is not for everyone, but there will be story out there for anyone.

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