Screenwriting: Three-Act Structure

Ok, the last few posts have been extremely technical, so it’s time to get back to the basics; story structure. When D.W. Griffith invented the feature-length film, it took eight separate reels to hold the entire movie. In order to keep audiences seated while the reels were changed, he and his peers created a cliffhanger moment at the end of each reel, and found that they could best divide the film into two reels for the first act, four for the second, and then two for the third act climax. Even today, three-act features often aim for eight strong climactic moments distributed roughly evenly throughout the film.

In the 1970s, scriptwriter Syd Field was asked to teach a course on scriptwriting in Los Angeles. He began analyzing great scripts to see if there were any recurrent forms and noticed a consistent organization similar to the three-act structure of plays. In 1979 he published his findings in a book, which explained how to use this structure as an organizational tool to build stronger films. It cuts a long script into small, manageable chunks: beginning, middle and end. The most basic organizational concept delegates roughly 30 pages to Act I, 60 pages to Act II, and 30 pages to Act III, as you can see in the following diagram. A good writer will also use acts to manage his plot points, the story arc, and his characters’ growth.


On this graph, the dotted line charts the arc of an anti-hero. Not necessarily a villain, but a protagonist who is simply not heroic. This is called out-of-balance structure, and many films today try to use this to create “realistic” stories of ineffectual characters. The plot meanders along with the protagonist’s circumstances and then in Act III he winds up lower than before. This is depressing and boring. However, the solid line represents a strong character arc. The first act is exposition, not much conflict. Then in Act II the fight begins, and our hero is up and down, taking the audience on a roller coaster ride of success and defeats, until the third act, where he recovers from some crushing blow and rises to victory.


Typically, the first act introduces the main characters, shows the audience a fascinating setting and gets the plot rolling with the “inciting incident.” During the course of the act, the subplot is laid out, the ingredients for the main plot are assembled, and then we have a little mini-adventure, which probably, by introducing the villain or some personal strength, subtly foreshadows the hero’s triumph in the climactic third act. And then, “complications arise.”

Act II encapsulates the jeopardies and tensions that fill out the drama and contains almost the entire story of the film. Here the hero is in for a rude shock as he is run up against the machinations of the villain(s). His tests are often moral as well as circumstantial. If he’s human, he stumbles or fails several times. This is so that he can succeed only by persevering and making the right, difficult moral choices. This is what makes him a hero. Let me repeat that because it’s such an important definition. The hero is heroic because he chooses morality over compromise. This is real heroism.

Then evil lands some cruel blows, and at the end of Act II, the protagonist is shattered in defeat. A lesser man would give up, roll over, or die, but our hero has got guts. Act III begins when he hauls himself off the canvas one last time, passes the tests, and climbs to success. But just prior to the resolution of the film, there is usually a twist, or “false ending.” The jagged line on our chart plunges, but only momentarily. The story is resolved in the climactic moment. The hero wins and the villain is stopped. The hero’s arc finishes higher on the chart than ever.

Now, here’s the Botkin Formula. Imagine that the first sentence is Act I, the next two are Act II, and the last line is Act III. The four events described define the story and what you must have in each of the acts:

A flawed but sympathetic protagonist
summons moral courage to face and then overcome
increasingly difficult, seemingly insurmountable moral tests
to achieve a compelling desire.

Now, before I get jumped on for reducing screenwriting to a simple formula, let me assure you that I believe that every story will have its own requirements. That said, films built on a solid formula will have stronger storylines than those that prefer a meandering stream of consciousness approach. At the moment it’s very trendy to hate the structured act-designated model because of its restrictions, but good restrictions can keep stories focused. However, not all stories fit into the three-act mold. Raiders of the Lost Ark is in fact a seven-act film. This is a good example of the old adage; artificial rules are there for you to break, but only if you know how to break them.

This post is largely an except from Chapter 7 of Outside Hollywood.

  1. Hi, I’m trying to create a chart that plots the emotional arc of the hero, just like you have shown in your article on the three act structure, but I’m struggling trying to understand how to do this. A chart needs to pull in data. So what data do you use and how do you determine if it’s so high or so low on the chart?

    Thanks
    Joseph

    - Joseph

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