Every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. This is what Aristotle thought and taught and it seems to be embedded in every storyteller’s brain, even unconsciously. This is the 3 Act Structure.
When applied to screenwriting, this structure seems to mutate into much more detailed forms, dividing the whole story into pieces as small as beats. However, seeing the bigger picture first comes way easier when we’re stepping into the world of screenwriting. So before you can dig into these more exhaustive approaches, let’s take a look at the basic, 3 Act Structure.
The Three Act Structure:
Act 1 (Pages 1-30)**
This is where everything begins (bet you didn’t see that coming!). We introduce our characters and the world they live in, we also present the object of desire. That thing (physical or not) that our main character wants and will do whatever it takes to get. This is key not only for Act 1, but for our whole story. It is what sets everything in motion, the reason our protagonist will do everything throughout the story. As we introduce this object, we need to show why it is so important for our protagonist and how his* life will be different if he gets it. We also get to know the people, places, and things they coexist with.
- In The Wizard of Oz, we start off by meeting Dorothy and everyone on the farm. We see that there are no parents but Auntie Em and Uncle Henry. We learn that Dorothy helps out, that Toto is adorable and that their neighbor is a horrible person. We also see that Dorothy is kind and dreams of a magical land where trouble melts like lemon drops.
Once we’ve presented our people and places and the audience has stepped into this world, it’s time to shake our protagonist up. We’ll do this by giving him* something that will change his life forever. Even though they still need to decide on whether they let this affect them or not, their life cannot possibly be the same after this something happens.
Imagine winning the lottery. Your life will never be the same again. Even if you (are absolutely bonkers and) decide not to collect the prize. You will either be rich and turn your life around, or be the person who threw the chance away and has to live with it. Either way, there is no going back to what you used to be.
- The tornado hits. Literally. There’s wind and whirls and a flying house. Dorothy loses consciousness and is headed to Munchkinland. Even if the twister stops and Dorothy lands back safe, her life wouldn’t be the same again. I mean, she’s seen her neighbor as a green cackling witch, this has to take a toll on people!
And so, we fly into Act 2 (pun intended).
Act 2 (Pages 30-90)**
You’ve put your protagonist on the road to something and Act 2 is that road. What is he* going to do to get that object of desire? To make his dream come true? To defeat the bad guys? This is all Act 2.
Act 2 is where you show off and get creative, this is where you put your characters to the test. Think about anything you’ve ever tried to accomplish. There were steps to follow, complications, obstacles, and smaller victories. You went through thick and thin and in the end, got what you wanted (or not). That’s what your protagonist needs to go through.
Raise the stakes! – Don’t be afraid of making it too hard on your characters, that’s what you want. They need to lose, recover and get that object once and again, through different obstacles and sub-conflicts.
In Act 2, we also find the famous sub-plots. These are additional, smaller stories that live around the main narrative and are intertwined with it. The love story, another goal, another conflict, etc.
- Dorothy is not in Kansas anymore. She meets new characters and sees new places (hell, there’s even a different color!). She finds new conflicts, getting through the scary forest, losing the yellow brick road, falling asleep in the field of poppies, and signing a song or two on the way. This is a very clear example because it’s literally about following a road. This is what your second act should look like. A road full of obstacles and challenges that get more and more complicated as they go along.
Act 2 closes with the lowest (or highest) point of our story, where there seems to be nothing left to do to reach our goals… Only there is, it is ACT 3
Act 3 (Pages 90-110)**
With almost no hope left, your characters take one last stand, as the last, biggest conflict comes to them. This takes us to the final step of the 3 act structure. The moment where our protagonist decides whether he* tries one more time or moves on. If he tries, he will come up with a new plan and act on it, to win. If he decides not to, then we will see how his life will be after the defeat. In Act 3 we will find the climax. The most exciting moment, and the one that will determine the ending for once.
- While Dorothy is trapped in the witch’s castle, her friends set out to save her. They fight the flying monkeys as Dorothy kills the witch with a bucket of water. They’ve succeeded and it’s time to go back to the Emerald City and claim their reward.
Your protagonist gets what she* wanted all along and everything falls into place. She has changed and her journey is complete.
- Dorothy and Toto go back to the farm and now have a new understanding of life. Dorothy apologizes to her aunt and uncle and knows that adventure and dreams are right there with her family. After all, there is no place like home.
Keep in mind that your protagonist doesn’t always have to get what she* wanted. She might also come to realize that what she thought she wanted isn’t what she really needed, or discover that what she got instead is in fact, her true desire. Either way, this has to give closure to her journey and the story.
Act 3 is also the time to close every other character’s narrative. Make sure not to leave any loose ends.
Now, as I pointed out initially, this is a very simple explanation of the basic 3 Acts Structure. However, you can learn more about how this structure breaks into beats in this other article. Remember, the best way to learn and understand structure is by watching movies, so go on and take a look at your favorite picks.
*I use he/she pronouns indefinitely
** Based on a 110 page script
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