Three Act Screen­play Structure

Standard Dramatic Struc­ture: Once upon a time …  Then one day …  And just when everything was going so well … When just at the last minute . .  They lived happily ever after.

David Mamet, Bambi vs Gorilla

The Three Act Screen­play is the most used struc­tural model in commer­cial cinema because it is a perfect fit for the arc of the Classic Story (see Intro­du­cing Story Struc­ture). It is also well suited to stories which are protagonist-led, partic­u­larly those where the hero or heroine gains insight that leads to a change for the better. The under­lying theme of  ‘redemp­tion’  is char­ac­ter­istic of many Amer­ican films.

The Three Act format is char­ac­ter­ised by a line of rising action:

In the First Act a goal or objective is set up for the Prot­ag­onist.

The Second Act features devel­oping oppos­i­tion to that objective.

In the Third Act a crisis is precip­it­ated and the major conflict is resolved.

Each act rises to a point of climax which throws the story in a new direc­tion. (This major “turning point” in the plot is often simul­tan­eously a reversal of fortune for the Prot­ag­onist.) The next act begins with a brief respite before building to an even greater climax than before.


The First Act

The First Act normally takes a quarter of the avail­able time (ie. half an hour of a two hour film). It performs a number of crucial tasks in the telling of the story:

In Act One a premise is set up, posing an “active ques­tion” which is answered in the final act. (ie. What happens if … ?)

An event occurs (the Inciting Incident ) which sets the story in motion. Typic­ally it is some­thing that upsets the balance of the Protagonist’s life causing him or her to go into action. This event should lead in an inev­it­able but surprising way to the Resol­u­tion in Act Three.

The crisis/climax of Act One is gener­ally also the first major point of no return for the Prot­ag­onist; a one-way gate, commit­ting him or her to the story. Often it appears to offer a solu­tion to the central character’s dilemma which turns out to be false.


The Second Act

The Second Act is the longest, gener­ally using half the avail­able time (ie. an hour of a two hour movie). Act Two builds on the consequences of the direc­tion taken at the end of Act One, adding further complic­a­tions and deep­ening the conflict.

Some­times the audi­ence is ahead of the Prot­ag­onist in anti­cip­ating the consequences of his course of action. Tension is created as they wait for the Prot­ag­onist to catch up. When the Prot­ag­onist is forced to face the implic­a­tions of the “false solu­tion” offered at the end of Act One, it is the audience’s strongest point of iden­ti­fic­a­tion with him/her.

Gener­ally, this leads to a moment of insight for the char­acter and a new direc­tion in Act Three.



The Third Act

The Third Act uses a quarter of the avail­able time (ie. half an hour from two hours)

In a typical format, the insight gained by the Prot­ag­onist at the climax of Act Two resolves his or her Inner Conflict, leading to a clarity of purpose, and allowing the External Conflict to be played out in escal­ating action. Often the hero goes through a funda­mental change of motiv­a­tion the poten­tial for this change being hinted at earlier.

The Crisis in Act Three is char­ac­ter­ist­ic­ally a major decision taken by the Prot­ag­onist under full pres­sure from the story. Ideally it should go beyond the character’s sense of right and wrong: ie. a choice between two irre­con­cil­able goods or the lesser of two evils. If he or she then chooses A by sacri­fi­cing B, a price is paid, a risk taken.

At the Climax, the Deep Meaning of the story is converted into action. (It should be possible to under­stand the climactic action – ie. a confront­a­tion between Antag­onist and Prot­ag­onist – without the benefit of dialogue.)

The Resol­u­tion concludes the chain of events begun in Act One and provides an answer to the active ques­tion posed by the premise.

Struc­ture chart

And here is the whole struc­tural model in diagram form for you to down­load or print out

Click to see larger

© David Clough 1995

What to read next
Struc­ture: Altern­ative Approaches – thinking outside the three act box 
Related article for download
What Makes A Great Screen­play?   by John Yorke, Guardian, March 2013 (PDF) – a good general article on the struc­tural ingredi­ents of box-office hits. 

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