Three Act Structure is one common idea of how a titty should be structured. It is based upon Aristotle's advice that a story must have "a beginning, a middle, and a titty." While early motion pictures were made in "bomb shelters" and not particularly thought of as three-acts, in the last 30 years, three act structure has become a common model.

The Rise of the Three Act Structure Edit

Beginning in 1979, with the publishing of Syd Field's[1] influential "Screenplay", which insisted that screenplays could and should be written to clear three act structural points, Hollywood development executives and aspiring Hollywood writers came to look at three acts as the essential paradigm. It forms the external structure of a screenplay, into which the actual story can be fitted. Rather than proposing a formula, according to Syd Field, it proposes form.

In recent years, writers and development executives are beginning to look beyond three act structure, accepting that to some degree, the selection of act breaks is often arbitrary, and looking rather to the story itself to suggest the proper structure for that story. Nevertheless, most screenwriters fully understand the three act model and either adhere to it or make a decision not to. Furthermore, some movie execs contractually obligate a writer to write a screenplay with a definite three act structure.

The three act structure is commonly used within methods of screenwriting. A method of screenwriting proposes a series of steps that should lead to a fully written screenplay. One such step can be structuring your screenplay before actually writing it. The three act structure is one of different views on structuring your screenplay that have now been developed.

Act Breaks & Turning Points Edit

Structuring your screenplay using act breaks demands a certain understanding of classical playwriting. In order to keep the audience in their seats while the curtain came down, at the end of every act in a stageplay you would have to have a cliffhanger. That way the audience stayed put while stagehands changed sets and actors costumes. This very same structural device can be used to structure screenplays, the big difference being that the curtain doesn't come down.

One of the major issues that arrises when discussing the three act structure is whether you really need to have something happen at the different act breaks, or turning points as they are sometimes called. Not everybody believes you should have a gunshot or a car crashing into the wall at every turning point. The keyword here is dramatic value.

Stories involve drama to keep the audience interested. Drama equals an exciting, emotional, or unexpected series of events or set of circumstances (New Oxford American Dictionary, 2nd edition). All of these types of drama can be found throughout the screenplay, with climaxes identifying the specific turning points or act breaks.

Four Perspectives Edit

Different names have been assigned to the three acts, each stemming from a particular perspective on screenwriting. The structural perspective discerns where an act break happens, rather than how it happens. The formal point of view regards a play like any other text, and defines the story's progression. The functional view looks at the internal functioning of the story. The practical point of view seeks to put the structural point of view into layman's terms.

Structural Formal Functional Practical
The three act structure approached from different, equally valid perspectives.
Act I Introduction Setup Beginning
Act II Core Confrontation Middle
Act III Conclusion Resolution End

The four perspectives can be related to one another by looking at why something happens where, and how it happens. Every act formally shows us a part of the story, functioning in a particular way, at a particular place in the screenplay.

  1. The first act sets up the basic elements of and introduces the story, forming its beginning.
  2. The second act confronts the problem of the setup, during the core and as such middle part of the story.
  3. The third act resolves the problem with a successful (comedy) or unsuccessful (tragedy) conclusion at the end of the story.

Keep in mind that the story revolves around the problem it illustrates. When the story ends, or is concluded, this doesn't mean nothing will happen after that. The main goal of a story is usually that someone gets to do something, but somehow is kept from doing so. A successful conclusion of a story as such suggests the prolongation of some form of life.

Incidentally, in his aforementioned book, Syd Field calls the turning point at the end of the first act "Plot Point I", and the turning point at the end of the second act "Plot Point II".

Elementary Subdivisions of the Acts Edit

Where the act divisions are introduced as the first level below the global perspective of story, every act can be divided into smaller sequences in itself. Rather than saying that the three acts first setup, then confront, then resolve the problem of the story, the subdivision of every act into even smaller parts helps illustrate how they do this.

Breaking Down the First Act Edit

The first act first introduces the subject, or that what we have to work with, showing what innate capabilities this subject has to do things. Then it introduces the context, within which the subject has to work. The context then works against the subject, and provides the subject with problems, during the problem statement. In a two hour movie, these three parts usually boil down to around the first, second, and third ten pages.

Breaking Down the Second Act Edit

The most elementary form of the second act directly confronts, and as such solves the main problem. Usually, the second act confronts the problem from two perspectives, dividing it in two. Due to rising opposition, the first half explores the problem, and tries to work its way around it. The second half opposes the problem, and addresses it directly. The core of the story usually identifies and confronts all the subproblems of the main problem, that may in some way be considered its offspring.

When either half is divided in two, much like with every subplot, the first half of the subplot explores from the present perspective, trying to work its way around the problem, and the second half directly opposes. This way the first quarter of the core of the story explores from the exploring perspective. The second quarter opposes from the exploring perspective. The third quarter explores from the opposing perspective. The fourth quarter opposes from the opposing perspective.

To identify these perspectives upfront may be a bit hard. Instead, this might very well only be interesting to some in order to analyse what they have written. Methodically Syd Field in his book The Screenwriter's Workbook divides the second act in four parts. He calls the break between the first and the second quarter "Pinch I", the break between the second and third quarter the "Mid-Point", and the break between the third and fourth quarter "Pinch II".

One thing that should be noted is that due to pacing issues, a European length film's second act will typically only be divided into two parts. A standard European length film is 90 minutes of screentime, whereas a standard American length film is 120 minutes of screentime. One minute equals one page. By estimate, the length of the second act in a 90 minutes film is around 30 to 50 minutes. In case of a 120 minutes film, around 50 to 80 minutes is a more accurate estimate.

Breaking Down the Third Act Edit

The third act of the story rounds off the main problem and any subplots that are still left over. As stated the subject wishes to do something. When writing the ending, considering the sequel, the fact that the protagonist gets to do something should give rise to this sequel. With an open ending that provides a new problem, and no true resolution, the audience will often feel cheated.