by Damien Robb
If you’re a writer you’ve likely heard of the three act structure. If you’ve ever picked up a screenwriting book or attended a screenwriting course, you definitely have. We love that stuff. Yet, there’s an odd controversy around three act structure in the screenwriting world where some people love it, others denounce it completely, and yet others prefer alternative formats like the five or six act structure.
Before we get into all that however let me quickly tell you how three act structure works just in case anyone isn’t familiar with the model.
The name says a lot, it’s a form of storytelling told in three acts. It’s used primarily for screen, but can be used for prose or playwrights or really any form of storytelling. At its most basic it’s: beginning, middle, and end. Or, as that tells you nothing about how each act is used, another way to look at it is: setup, confrontation, resolution. Or my favourite, put your character up a tree, throw rocks at them, them get them out of the tree. Let’s have a look at each act.
ACT I - SET UP
Act one needs to accomplish a lot while also being fairly quick. We get introduced to our main characters, we get exposition (as little as possible), and we become familiar with the world we’re in and it’s rules. Act one also contains our inciting incident, which is an event that occurs that forces our protagonist into action. Finally act one finishes with the first plot point or the first act turn, which is when - as a result of the inciting incident - things ramp up and our protagonist enters a new world. New world can actually be a new world (think Narnia) or can just be a new world/ new reality for our protagonist. To give that some context let’s look at a couple of examples.
In The Martian the inciting incident happens when the dust storm hits, then the first act turn occurs when Mark Watney’s crew thinks him dead and leave him behind. His new world/new reality is being stuck on Mars by himself.
In Finding Nemo the inciting incident occurs when the barracuda attacks, killing Marlin’s wife and leaving him a single father to his last remaining egg, Nemo. Then when Nemo gets captured it forces Marlin into the first act turn and into his new world - the expansive ocean.
ACT II - CONFRONTATION
Act two is typically the longest of the three - taking up about half of the movie, with the first and third acts filling in the other quarters. In the second act the protagonist attempts to resolve the problem caused by the first act turn, with a result in rising escalation. Our hero repeatedly tries and fails to solve the problem and as a result find himself or herself in ever worsening situations. During the second act we have the midpoint, which is (unsurprisingly) the middle of the film. The way I view the midpoint is that it’s the point when the protagonist achieves their initial goal and now has to deal with the consequences of that achievement.
In The Martian this is when Mark achieves his initial goal of communicating with Earth, and in Finding Nemo it’s when Marlin and Dory make it to Sydney.
Act two ends with the second act turn. This is the point of highest escalation that pushes us into act three; or basically when everything goes to shit.
In The Martian, Mark has gutted the MAV and launched it only to learn it won’t reach the required speed and altitude. In Finding Nemo Marlin makes it into the dentist's office, sees Nemo, and mistakenly believes him to be dead.
ACT III - RESOLUTION
As the name suggests act three is all about resolution. It’s when the showdown happens, the people get saved, or our hero gets what they need to beat the bad guy. It generally starts with a glimmer of hope, which is the moment just after the second act turn when we realise all is not lost.
For The Martian it’s when Mark pierces his suit to propel him the last few feet towards Lewis and home, and in Finding Nemo it’s when Gill helps Nemo escape into a drain.
Things should generally wrap up pretty quickly from that point, all loose ends get tied up, and our hero finally solves the problem. This is usually followed with a brief moment showing life after the resolution.
It's five years later and Mark is shown as a survival instructor, and a less overprotective Marlin back home with Nemo and Dory.
So, now that we know the basics of three act structure, do you need to use it?
Well, chances are you’re already using it whether you realise it or not. For whatever reason three act structure seems to be intrinsically integrated into the way we tell stories. It’s present in Shakespeare's work, Aesop’s fables, and by five year olds who have never even attended a screenwriting course! Seriously, next time a kid tells a story try to break it up into three act structure and chances are good you’ll find all the elements there. If you look at any of your favourite films you’ll be able to do the same thing. Even your favourite books. Or even in your own past writing. Hell, try to tell a story without using three act structure; it’s tough. E.g.: I didn’t have milk for my cereal so I went to the shops, bought some, and came home. Inciting incident: Decided to have a bowl of cereal. First act turn: Discovered we had ran out, placing me in a new, milk less, world. Midpoint: Purchased milk. Second act turn: Need to battle my increasing hunger and make it home. Resolution: Make it home/eat cereal - one happy Damian.
We prefer it when stories are told in this format. You can find films and stories that don’t follow the three act structure, but chances are they’ll be unsatisfying experimental films that are largely unpopular. I’m not saying a movie has to be popular for it to be good, but likely it’s unpopular and unsatisfying because someone has purposely set out not to follow the three act structure. Have you ever seen a movie without a resolution? Or when a protagonist doesn’t have a clear goal? Or where not all the loose ends are tied up? It’s just about the most frustrating thing imaginable because part of us knows something is missing.
As for other structure formats, in my opinion, usually they’re just a reworking of the three act structure, a way of looking at the same thing in a different way, simply breaking it up at different points. And that’s fine, because the whole point of understanding three act structure isn’t that you rigidly enforce everything you write into set plot points; it’s that you can use it as a writing aid. For myself I don’t usually think about structure until the rewrite or when I don’t know where a story is going. It’s a way for me to look at the elements of my writing and see what I’m missing or where things have gone wrong.
The question shouldn’t be do I need to use three act structure - because it’s almost impossible not to - instead it should be do I need to be aware of it? My answer to that is no, but knowing the elements of three act structure just might help make you a better writer; and surely that’s something worth knowing.