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.
The tension of a story is often provided by a character wanting something they do not have. The tension is often increasing by different plots in a story. In the three-act structure, act one has the least tension, since it is only establishing the characters and the settings. After that, the tension will increase in act two by the confrontation or the conflict, and finally the climax in act three has the highest tension in the whole 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
- 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.