The 3-act structure is an old principle widely adhered to in storytelling today. It can be found in plays, poetry, novels, comic books, short stories, video games, and the movies. It was present in the novels of Conan Doyle, the plays of Shakespeare, the fables of Aesop, the poetry of Aristotle, and the films of Hitchcock. It’s older than Greek dramaturgy. Hollywood and Broadway use it well. It’s irrefutable and bullet-proof, so to speak.
Though quite simple, the 3-act structure has proven to be a valuable weapon in the arsenal of any screenwriter. Yes, there are alternatives to telling a story. But the 3-act structure is a highly accepted and greatly successful method.
In a nutshell, the 3 acts are labeled as:
Act I: Setup
Act II: Confrontation
Act III: Resolution
Some people like to call them beginning, middle, and end, which is not inaccurate. The point of the acts is to make sure that the story evolves and the stakes get higher.
All acts have their own sets of guidelines and rules that make the foundation of story development. The next sections will go over the differences of one act and the other, plus the obvious and the obscure dos and don’ts of the craft.
Act I: The Setup
The first act is where all the major characters of the story are introduced, plus the world where they live in, and the conflict that will move the story forward. In Act I, the writer has the freedom to create any setting and reality that he so wishes. It’s in the first pages of the script that he defines the reasoning and logic of the story. This early in the script, anything is possible.
The story may happen in the distant future or long time ago in a galaxy far far away. It may take place in downtown New York or in an African jungle. The first act also establishes genre. It may be a drama about a widow that struggles to re-encounter love, or a suspense about a young trainee summoned out of the FBI academy in a special assignment to interview a dangerous psychopath.
The writer may even distort reality or create his own. Toy Story (1995) opens with a young boy, Andy, playing with his toys. As soon as Andy exits the bedroom, leaving the place unsupervised, his toys promptly gain life. Yet we don’t frown or disapprove of it. At the movie’s very beginning, the audience has their mind open for practically anything. As the movie progresses, the viewer unconsciously forms a frame for the story, and their suspension of disbelief narrows, limiting what they will accept as plausible and congruent.
Ideally, your main character can never be lucky further down in the script. But while the story is introduced, this gimmick is acceptable if done right. In Three Days of the Condor (1975), CIA employee Joseph Turner (Robert Redford) survives a massacre that kills all of his colleagues while he steps out of the office to get lunch. In Dances With Wolves (1991), Lieutenant John J. Dunbar (Kevin Costner), learning that he must have his injured leg amputated, decides to commit suicide. He steals a cavalry horse and runs it into the infantry of the Confederate army. In doing so, he incites his fellow Union soldiers to rally, which leads to an unexpected victory. His plan to die fails, but he becomes a hero.
Act I must also present a strong hook – an exciting scene early in the script that grabs the audience’s interest and hooks them. Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) starts with an action-packed, attention-grabbing sequence that introduces Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) performing acrobatic stunts while penetrating a cave and lost temples to find a valuable artifact.
Part of that hook is the inciting incident that takes place somewhere in the beginning of Act I. This inciting incident often provokes a change in the protagonist’s routine – something new they experience that could either challenge or encourage them. In The Silence of the Lambs (1991), FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) meets with Dr. Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter (Anthony Hopkins). The confrontation of both parties is nerve-wracking.
Act I ends with the first plot point of the movie. In Thelma & Louise (1991), Plot Point I happens when Louise shoots dead a man who was on the verge of raping Thelma. This action completely changes the course of the story . Thelma and Louise were up until now just trying to have some off-time away from their tedious lives. But when Thelma kills that guy, they become criminals. Quickly, the police are brought into the picture.
Act II: Confrontation
The second act is by far the longest, encompassing half of the movie and taking place between the first and third acts. For some screenwriters, Act II is the hardest one to squeeze out. This happens because after the initial boost of a new story, the writer is left without plot elements to introduce. The story, its characters and conflict are all established. At this point, the writer has created a solid frame for his narrative. Yet he’s still roughly sixty pages away from the ending.
With so many blank pages remaining, the writer faces the challenge of keeping the story moving forward and not boring the audience. One device to accomplish this feat is the creation of subplot. The subplot is a minor story layered under the main narrative. It often adds a three-dimensionality aspect to the characters by allowing them to engage in a behavior that is not necessarily connected to the main plot, but still relevant in the overall narrative and often linked to a central theme.
In Peter Weir’s Witness (1985), the main storyline follows Philadelphia policeman John Book (Harrison Ford), as he investigates the assassination of a fellow police officer. His only witness is an Amish boy (Lukas Haas), who saw the murder happen at a train station restroom in the big city. When Officer Book discovers that someone from his own precinct ordered the killing, his life is in danger, and, after being shot, he runs away to the Amish countryside of Lancaster. During the second act of Witness, John Book and Amish widow Rachel Lapp (Kelly McGillis) engage in a brief courtship that fails to evolve into an affair. Also during Act II, Book befriends many members of the Amish community – an event that foreshadows the resolution in Act III, when the community comes to Book’s rescue .
As epitomized in Witness, the second act may be a moment in which the hero leaves his comfort zone, which fuels the writer with another set of possibilities. In The Lion King (1994), after Mufasa dies, Simba runs away. Timon and Pumbaa save him from the desert, and Simba has to live in the Jungle, eating bugs and beetles! During Act II in Toy Story, while Andy’s mom’s fills up her vehicle, Woody leaps out of the car in order to rescue Buzz. But before Woody can convince Buzz to climb back in the car, Andy and his mom take off, leaving Buzz and Woody stranded in the gas station. Before the movie’s resolution, the two toys find themselves into an even worse setting – Sid’s creepy bedroom.
In the second act, the stakes escalate. If the hero is “on the fence” or confused about what he should do, then something must happen by the midpoint of the script to make his goal clear. In Thelma & Louise, the two protagonists realize that, with the police on their tail, they cannot return home and live a normal life. They have to keep driving towards Mexico.
A pivotal element of this escalation inherent to Act II is Plot Point II, which catapults the story into the third and final act. Much like Plot Point I, Plot Point II also affects the main character by changing the direction he’s headed. The difference is that the stakes are much higher. This is often a moment of crisis, in which all hope seems lost.
Act III: Resolution
The last act, Act III presents the final confrontation of the movie, followed by the denouement. This act is usually the shortest in length because quickly after the second turning point of the script, the main character is face to face with the villain or just about. Showdown ensues and then conclusion.
In The Silence of the Lambs, the third act kicks off when Agent Starling enters the house of Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), the criminal who she’s been trying to find. This moment is tension-packed because little does Starling know the identity of the man that’s welcoming her. When Starling finally finds out, she’s inside the serial killer’s domain and unable to call for back-up.
As illustrated by The Silence of the Lambs, Act III contains a moment often labeled as mandatory – the confrontation between hero and villain, the clash between good and evil, a duel. In the moment that Clarice Starling walks into Buffalo Bill’s house, the writer fulfills a promise made by him in the first act, when he set up those two opposing forces.
The spectators are smart, so don’t underestimate them. Whenever the writer establishes a prince, a princess, and a dragon, the audience will urge for a confrontation in which the prince slays the dragon to rescue the princess (like in Sleeping Beauty). You can always tweak the formula (like in Enchanted), but if the dragon is not dead by the end of the film, your audience will walk out dissatisfied, even if they can’t pinpoint the reason.
The third act is also when the writer ties up any loose ends and offers a resolution to the subplots. In Witness, the third act takes off when the corrupt cops find John Book hidden in the Amish community. The mandatory confrontation between the opposing forces takes place, and then Book and Rachel meet. Both have to make a choice. Either Book stays to be with Rachel or Rachel leaves to be with Book.
In the final moments of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, the audience learns what “rosebud” means – a questions asked in the first act.
The resolution can also give extra information for a more elaborate character arc. In Titanic (1997), after revealing what happened to the Heart of the Ocean, we cut to Old Rose’ bedroom. The movement of the camera shows her nightstand with photos of adventures she did when young – promises kept to Jack.