The three-act structure is a model used in screenwriting that divides a fictional narrative into three parts, often called the Setup, the Confrontation and the Resolution.
The first act is usually used for exposition, to establish the main characters, their relationships and the world they live in. Later in the first act, a dynamic, on-screen incident occurs that confronts the main character (the protagonist), whose attempts to deal with this incident lead to a second and more dramatic situation, known as the first turning point, which (a) signals the end of the first act, (b) ensures life will never be the same again for the protagonist and (c) raises a dramatic question that will be answered in the climax of the film. The dramatic question should be framed in terms of the protagonist's call to action, (Will X recover the diamond? Will Y get the girl? Will Z capture the killer?). This is known as the inciting incident, or catalyst. As an example, the inciting incident in the 1972 film The Godfather is when Vito Corleone is attacked, which occurs approximately 40 minutes into the film.
The second act, also referred to as "rising action", typically depicts the protagonist's attempt to resolve the problem initiated by the first turning point, only to find him- or herself in ever worsening situations. Part of the reason protagonists seem unable to resolve their problems is because they do not yet have the skills to deal with the forces of antagonism that confront them. They must not only learn new skills but arrive at a higher sense of awareness of who they are and what they are capable of, in order to deal with their predicament, which in turn changes who they are. This is referred to as character development or a character arc. This cannot be achieved alone and they are usually aided and abetted by mentors and co-protagonists.
The third act features the resolution of the story and its subplots. The climax is the scene or sequence in which the main tensions of the story are brought to their most intense point and the dramatic question answered, leaving the protagonist and other characters with a new sense of who they really are.
In Writing Drama, French writer and director Yves Lavandier shows a slightly different approach. He maintains that every human action, whether fictitious or real, contains three logical parts: before the action, during the action, and after the action. Since the climax is part of the action, Yves Lavandier believes the second act must include the climax, which makes for a much shorter third act than is found in most screenwriting theories. A short third act (quick resolution) is also fundamental to traditional Japanese dramatic structure, in the theory of jo-ha-kyū.
Sarah Jane Murray (SJ), an Emmy-nominated writer & producer, also professor at Baylor University, explores why the three-act structure matters in her book, Three Act What? Great Story Structure (published by Livingston+McKay, LLC in the Nibbles series).[page needed] Murray argues the three-act structure, inherited from Aristotle and adopted throughout the centuries by great writers, is essential to crafting stories of enduring value. She recapitulates the standard industry story beats and elucidates how the three-act structure (the idea that every great story must have a beginning, middle, and end) translates to writing for film. For example, she notes that act one should not be thought of in terms of exposition, but, rather, in terms of setting up the values at stake in the story world.
In Screenwriting 101, the author describes the 3 act model as "the most abominable way to both explain and instruct storytelling. So false in what it describes, so false in what it achieves, that even though the phrase is used to near ubiquity... it is essentially a myth." They question what an "act" in this model actually means, and say they usually don't get an answer, but the answers they do get basically amounts to "chunks of story that usually separate 'beginning, middle, and end.'" They go on to define the end of an act as "a point in the story where a character(s) makes a choice and can no longer "go back."... The act break can be a new and interesting plot development, a poignant character realization, a personality reveal, a new friendship, or even, if handled correctly, something as insipid as "No! The bad guys are here! Run!" ...an act break can be anything as long as it has a significant changing effect on the narrative resulting in the character choosing an action defined by that change... an act break creates propulsion." More importantly, this dispenses with the "3-act" structure, as a movie like Malcolm X can be defined as having 9 distinguishable acts. "A 3 act structure leads writers to just try to make connecting points between the beginning and ending of their story... which means your characters are not moving forward. They're just waiting around for the 80 minute mark so that they can begin the ending... As a result, we hear it all the time: "The problem's in the film's second act."
As an example of one different, more successful model, the author presents a Shakespearean 5-act structure, (noting that Quentin Tarantino, often praised as a counter-example to linear storytelling, breaks up most of his movies with 5 acts separated by title cards):
- The first act, "comprised of introductions and the establishing of a preexisting central main conflict."
- The second act, "comprised of some kind of central event that challenges or deeply worsens the main conflict... basically, this act features the main surface plot of the story coming into effect."
- The third act, containing a "spurring incident or action making the conflict infinitely more complicated." Often surprising, the middle third act is "a way to hit the audience with climax-like drama before they're ready for it." Examples of this include the slayings of Mercutio and Tybalt in Romeo & Juliet, the Death Star rescue sequence in Star Wars, or the suit-building montage and villain reveal in Iron Man.
- The fourth act, known as "the spiral" and full of character decisions that cause characters to sink toward the real climax, that are rapid, poorly-conceived, and hugely dramatic. This is the point closest to the three-act model's "second act," and it is often the shortest act, as it is, "in truth, the point where you are really arranging and setting up the climax."
- The fifth act, where the audience gets the climax of the story. "The most important thing to remember is that this last act is not just wrapping things up, but is the encapsulation of the story, and should exhibit all the points you are trying to make in your movie." In Shakespeare's plays and modern movies as diverse as Iron Man, The Wolf Of Wall Street, and No Country For Old Men, this often includes a soliloquy directed to the audience.
The author summarizes by saying the amount of acts "should be dependent on the story you want to tell... and the total number of acts you use is dependent on how much you are trying to accomplish with the story."
- Act (drama)
- Act structure
- Jo-ha-kyū, three-fold structure in Japanese drama aesthetics
- Mythic structure
- Syd Field, noted advocate of three-act structure
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- What’s Wrong With The Three Act Structure by former WGA director James Bonnet, via filmmakeriq.com
- What’s Right With The Three Act Structure by Yves Lavandier, author of Writing Drama
- A free video introduction to why three-act structure matters by SJ Murray, author of Three Act What? Great Story Structure
- The viral and free story worksheet for three-act structure, created by Emmy-nominated SJ Murray, is used by writers in over 135 countries around the world.