Perhaps the most confusing thing about trying to learn a craft is all of the conflicting opinions. Screenwriting is one of those truly frustrating areas where everybody will present you with different techniques, tips, advice and various insidious magic formulas. I started screenwriting as a precocious 13 year old and was immediately attracted to the snake oil salesmen. The more garish the cover the better. If it weren’t dripping with hyperbole, it wasn’t going to get my pocket money. I blame these books for denying the world several ill-judged sequels to the films of Steven Spielberg and John Landis.
Over the years, especially once I moved into screenwriting teaching, I read scores more screenwriting books, some incredibly simple, some complex, most designed to motivate rather than really educate. The truth is that every writer works differently, you can only explain the basic principles and then let them work out how to utilise them.
The one fundamental that every method that wasn’t a con espoused was that of the Three Act Structure.
In terms of structure, this is the non-negotiable element of all screenwriting. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a 5 minute short, a sitcom, a dramatic mini-series or a Hollywood epic, the Three Act Structure applies.
So, what is the Three Act Structure?
Put simply, your screenplay should work as three acts of equal length.
ACT 1 – BEGINNING
ACT 2 – MIDDLE
ACT 3 – END
That all seems a little obvious and unhelpful, so the descriptions I have always favoured are…
ACT 1 – ESTABLISH
ACT 2 – DEVELOP
ACT 3 – RESOLVE
That’s a little more instructive, right? So, if we’re writing a 90 page (which roughly equates to 90 minutes) screenplay, then we have three acts of 30 pages each. The first 30 pages are for us to establish everything. We need to establish all of the characters (sometimes we might not actually meet these characters until a later act but we must establish their existence and influence). We need to establish the world in which the story takes place and the rules of that world (you might use a George Lucas-esque cheat to aid this with a spoken or written introduction). We need to understand the problems that our characters will be facing – what they can gain and what’s at stake for them.
The second act is about developing, often amplifying. This means you throw obstacles at your characters – more for them to overcome – and in doing this, we find out more about them. The second act is traditionally the hardest to write as there is no real structural road map for it beyond ‘things happen’. The secret to the second act is in the plotting – the way you tell your story. (More on plot in the novel here and here. Oh heck, and here too. And novels are a little bit the same, no? – ed.)
The third act is simple, you resolve everything. This means you look at every strand you created in the first act and tie it up neatly. Every main character deserves a resolution. These can be staggered, you don’t need to create some kind of last-scene-of-Blake’s-Seven finale (non-geeks can doubtless YouTube that one) in which every single character gets massive, ultimate resolution in one big crazy scene. But the third act is very much about tying it all off.
I often have students who impulsively kick against the concept. The very notion of an imposed structure on a creative venture seems a little draconian. I’ve played around with trying to subvert it, but never successfully. I’ve yet to find an example of anyone who has succeeded. It’s as inherent to the process as a canvas to a painter. Sure, they can play with the size of the canvas and the textile but you can’t avoid the fact that you need a surface for the paint to stick to. I can’t tell you from where it developed but it is very much here to stay and I think it’s a great thing.
The best way of explaining its importance is to get you to think about how you experience films. You know how, in the cinema, you have this sixth sense about time? There are no clocks, you can’t check your phone and yet there is a very keen sense within you about how far through the film you are. You have an absolute understanding about how long it’ll be until the credits roll. Well, that’s the Three Act Structure for you. When it doesn’t work, you tend to get angry with the film itself.
I despised the film Avatar for exactly this reason. It seemed to have a very short first act, a very short final act and a massive, almost directionless, middle act. I got fidgety because I couldn’t work out how far through the film we were. I had to try and work out how close I was to being able to leave based on merely the increasing aches in my back and rump. The Hobbit has recently been criticised for the same reasons.
If a film works, the Three Act Structure works. I often get challenged on it by people mistaking plot (which is the way you choose to tell the story) with structure. The title which always comes up is Christopher Nolan’s Memento – a film which opts to tell its story backwards, with the scenes playing in reverse order. Although the plotting is unique, the structure remains traditional in so far as, the first act still introduces us to the characters, problems they face and world they inhabit, the second act still develops the story and characters and throws us some curveballs and, by the end (plot-wise, the beginning) of the story, the mystery is solved and the whole story is tied up and resolved for us. It’s a murder mystery and we only find out the truth just before the credits roll.
Likewise the film GO which tells the exact same story three times from three people’s perspectives. Although it tells a complete story three times (Nine Act Structure, anyone?), it remains a traditional Three-acter by virtue of the fact the first telling introduces us to everything, whilst raising questions, the second telling develops it all and the third telling ties everything up.
The film I have found which really both tests to its limits and proves the theory is a great flick called 21 grams in which the plotting appears completely random and arbitrary. It’s as if the writer took a traditional story about a bunch of inter-connecting characters, chopped it up into separate scenes, threw those scenes into the air and let the story play out exactly as they fell. The narrative jumps forwards and backwards in time and place completely randomly. You might see a character die 10 minutes into the film and then, 5 minutes later, see a scene featuring them from a year preceding that, then 30 minutes later see the scene that introduces them as a character to the world. Completely random. But, incredibly, the viewer then automatically imposes a Three Act Structure on to the piece. We still spend the first 30 minutes working out who everyone is and what their problems are. The next 30 minutes are spent watching these stories develop and deepening our understanding, then in the last 30 minutes, those missing pieces all fall into place and we’re given our resolution.
The audience has a keenly developed, implicit yet completely subconscious grasp of the Three Act Structure. They expect and demand it. The structure not only satisfies them but gives you, the screenwriter, a way to simplify your writing process. It breaks it down into meaningfully objective manageable chunks.