Screenwriters have a tendency of defining the three act structure by either vehemently opposing it or swearing by it. Some define it entirely differently than others. How is that possible? Well, let’s answer ‘what is the three act structure,’ learn its original intention, and see if we can find some middle ground between the many perspectives.
Defining the 3 Act Structure
What is the three act structure?
The true three act structure isn’t a formula, it keeps your beginning separate from your middle and your middle separate from your end.
Well, thanks to other screenwriters, that’s actually not it. For some reason, writers believe there is some kind of formula to the three act, but it’s really just a form of basic organization. It is not the same thing as story structure.
And this is where discrepancies emerge.
THREE ACT STRUCTURE DEFINITION
What is the three act structure?
The three act structure is a narrative model that divides stories into three parts — Act One, Act Two, and Act Three, or rather, a beginning, middle, and end. Screenwriter, Syd Field, made this ancient storytelling tool unique for screenwriters in 1978 with the publishing of his book, Screenplay. He labels these acts the Setup, Confrontation, and Resolution.
Some writers label these three acts the setup, build, and payoff. Both are correct. But the basic point of each of these acts is that they have their own set of guidelines to develop, build, and resolve a story.
On a basic level, Act One sets up the world, characters, the character’s goal, as well as the conflicts or obstacles that are preventing them from achieving their goal. Act Two raises the stakes for the character to achieve the goal, escalating the conflict. Act Three resolves the story with either an achievement of that goal or a failure.
This is not the same thing as story structure, it is an organizational tool to help build your story.
WHAT DOES A 3 ACT STORY STRUCTURE CONSIST OF?
- Act 1 — Setup
- Act 2 — Confrontation
- Act 3 — Resolution
History of the 3 Act Structure
Brief history of the three act structure
Now that we've defined the three act structure in film, I want to rewind to the early days of storytelling. No, not Syd Field.
Aristotle’s Poetics is the first book any aspiring screenwriter should read. It’s the first playwriting manual on record.
But that’s not why you should read it.
Often considered as a theoretical text, his fancy phrased words do not veil the most critical insight that lays the foundation for all of storytelling. All stories (or using his language, tragedies and comedies) must have a beginning, middle, and an end. These represent the three acts in the three act structure.
This is important to note before we define what the three act structure is considered to be today. Some screenwriters get much more detailed with the requirements of what goes into each of these acts.But the most important takeaway of the 3 act is understanding that one event must lead to another and then to another — this unifies actions and meaning and creates the semblance of a story.
A beginning, middle, and an end, isn’t a formula. It brings cohesion to otherwise random events. It’s what makes a story, a story.
Today, when writers discuss three act structure, this is the model they’re typically referring to:
This is pretty standard. We’ll go over each act below, but this should be used as a guideline, not a rule book.
Act I: Setup
The setup involves introduction of the characters, their story world, and some kind of ‘’inciting incident,” typically a conflict that propels us into the second act. It’s usually the first 20-30 minutes of a film.
Act II: Confrontation or Build
The middle of your story should raise the stakes, you want the audience to keep watching. This is the main chunk of the story and often leads us to the worst possible thing that can happen to the character.
Act III: Resolution or PayoffAnd the end should bring some kind of catharsis or resolution, (regardless if the ending is happy or sad).
WHY SOME SCREENWRITERS DISAGREE
Making sense of the 3 act structure
So again, each act has their own set of guidelines that help develop, build, and resolve a story. How strict these guidelines are determines the level of resistance amongst screenwriters. And rightfully so.
Look at this other diagram floating around the internet, supposedly describing the same thing.
This one looks a bit more involved, doesn't it?
Do I really need two obstacles halfway through the second act? Will my story suffer with three or five, or one?
Of course not. You also can have as many of these “plot points” as you need to, to tell an effective, meaningful story.
One such structure that can help make sense of a traditional 3-act structure was developed by Blake Snyder and it's called Save the Cat! Snyder's Save the Cat! structure takes a traditional 3-act structure and breaks it up into 15 story beats.
Watch as we take this beat sheet and run Avengers: Infinity War through to see how they gave Thanos a complete protagonist character arc.
Infinity War Beat Sheet • Subscribe on YouTube
There is no predetermined formula for knowing exactly where and when these critical events should occur within each act.
Most of the time, big events like the inciting incident or resolution will obviously, and naturally, happen in their intended acts, but the specifics should come from the organic nature of your story, not a formulaic page count or act break.
Real story structure has less to do with where and when things happen and focuses more on why they happen. Our next post dives deeper into this idea. Dan Harmon’s story circle is up next, and that my aspiring screenwriting friends, will help you focus on what really matters.
Dan Harmon's Story Circle
Professional screenwriter and creator of shows like "Community" and "Rick and Morty," Dan Harmon, gives his two cents on how to build a story from the ground up, instead of breaking down what already exists. It still follows a familiar structure but it's another exciting way to approach breaking and developing story.