Let’s cut to the chase: your spec screenplay is unlikely to get very far without a 3-act structure.
Some folks disagree — see the comments at the end of this post. This is my take on screenplay structure.
People watch movies because they want a journey, human warmth, character arc and catharsis. If your screenplay has a believable, compelling character who has a difficult problem to solve, you’re in good shape.
Structure is the key to a successful screenplay. Almost a century’s worth of practical filmmaking experience has shown that effective screenplays have a three-act structure: Act 1 is the beginning, or the set-up; Act 2 is the middle, or confrontation; and Act 3 is the end, or resolution.
Set-up, confrontation, resolution: movies that capture our hearts tend to have this structure. The three act-act paradigm is nothing new and was masterfully explained by Syd Field in his book “Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting,”which I strongly recommend you read.
The major turning points, or plot points, occur at the end of acts 1 and 2. The midpoint is an important reversal approximately half way through the second act: it has the very important job of preventing the second act from feeling too long and slow.
The duration of each act is not cast in stone, but typical lengths are half an hour for the first act, an hour for act two, and half an hour for act three. In practice, however, if your film doesn’t have name actors or another major selling point, the first act had better not be longer than twenty minutes, unless the premise is so exciting that it buys you time for a slightly longer set-up. If you don’t have a famous star, the first 10 minutes of your film had better be totally amazing.
The three-act paradigm is sometimes criticized, especially in indie circles, for being a construct imposed by the Hollywood film industry. Critics of the 3-act structure like to cite famous plays as examples of successful scripts that deviate from the model by having a different number of acts.
I wholeheartedly disagree with this viewpoint. It is quite clear to me that these plays do in fact conform to the three-act paradigm, and do so at a fundamental level; their two, four, or five acts are not true acts, but merely artificial subdivisions that the playwright had to impose for set-design and stage-management purposes (i.e. to allow the opportunity for set changes and intervals).
I contend that good stage plays that appear to have one, two, four, five or any other “unconventional” number of acts do in fact conform to the three-act structure, even though the playwright may not have been aware of it. To illustrate my point I will use two famous and immensely effective plays that appear to deviate from the three-act structure: Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” (four acts) and William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” (five acts). These plays are sometimes cited as evidence in arguments against the three-act structure. Let’s take a look at what is really going on:
“The Crucible” True Act Subdivision
|Play subdivision||True underlying structure|
|Act 1 – News of the witch trials reach Salem. A witchcraft expert, Reverend Hale, arrives in town to assist the court. John Proctor is extremely skeptical about the whole thing, but Act 1 ends with the girls hysterically confessing to having indulged in witchcraft.|
|Set-up: Act 1|
|Act 2 – John Proctor is as skeptical as ever. Tension is uncovered between Proctor and his wife, Elizabeth. Mary Warren, their servant, brings news of the bizarre witch trials. She also mentions that Elizabeth ‘s name was “somewhat mentioned” in court. The court marshal arrives and arrests Elizabeth Proctor, who has been charged with witchcraft.|
|Act 3 – John Proctor turns up in court with Mary Warren, who promised him to tell Deputy Governor Danforth that the girls’ hysteria was fake and that the whole witchcraft affair is a farce. Danforth brings Elizabeth Proctor in to test Proctor’s claim that Abigail Williams is immoral and not to be trusted. Elizabeth misinterprets the situation and lies, hoping to help her husband, when in fact it is the truth that would have saved him (a sublime example of dramatic irony). Abigail forces Mary Warren to cry out against Proctor, who denounces the court in a fit of rage. Proctor is arrested and taken away.||Confrontation: Act 2|
|Act 4 – Reverend Parris convinces Deputy Governor Danforth to extract a confession from John Proctor, which would save him from the noose. Elizabeth Proctor is brought in to convince him and Proctor reluctantly agrees to confess, but when Danforth demands a signed confession, Proctor tears up the document and declares that he would rather die than sell his name. Proctor is taken out and hanged.||Resolution: Act 3|
“The Crucible,” then, has a three act structure, just like last summer’s blockbuster, and its four-act subdivision is an artifact. But why did Arthur Miller divide it into four acts? The answer is simple: the action happens to take place in four distinct locations, at four different times. It was not physically possible to divide it into three acts without compromising the script or causing major inconvenience to anyone attempting to stage it. This has no bearing on the play’s de facto three-act structure, which I hope I illustrated above.
Incidentally, one of the things that make “The Crucible” interesting and unusual from a structural point of view is that the set-up – the true “act one” – takes up approximately half of the play’s running time (acts one and two in Miller’s subdivision). It works beautifully in this instance, but it is not advisable to have such a long first act in your screenplay. In a movie script the first act should achieve its mandatory aims in the least possible amount of time – twenty or thirty minutes at the very most for a feature-length screenplay. Mandatory aims include making the audience as interested as possible in the characters and explaining what their problem is.
Let’s take a look at “Macbeth,” a play in five acts by William Shakespeare:
“Macbeth” True Act Subdivision
|Play subdivision||True underlying structure|
|Act 1 – Three witches tell Macbeth that he will become king of Scotland. It occurs to Macbeth that this may mean having to kill the current king, Duncan. Lady Macbeth persuades her husband to kill Duncan in order to speed things up.||Set-up: Act 1|
|Act 2 – Macbeth kills Duncan. Malcolm, Duncan’s son, begins to suspect him.|
|Act 3 – Banquo strongly suspects that Macbeth has become king by foul means. Macbeth commissions Banquo’s murder. Banquo’s ghost makes an appearance during a banquet, throwing Macbeth into a blind panic. Faced with this circumstantial evidence, Macduff’s suspicions are confirmed and he goes to the king of England to ask for military assistance in removing Macbeth from power.|
|Act 4 – Macbeth orders the massacre of Macduff’s family. Malcolm and Macduff form an alliance, joined by Ross when he brings news of the massacre. Macduff marches on Scotland with Malcolm, Ross and the English army.||Confrontation: Act 2|
|Act 5 – Lady Macbeth loses her mind and talks in her sleep, unwittingly disclosing details of her plots. Macbeth is defeated by Malcolm’s army at Dunsinane. Malcolm enters with Macbeth’s severed head and a new age starts for Scotland.||Resolution: Act 3|
There you have it: three acts. Exactly the same analysis could be applied to Shakespeare’s other plays, all of which have a de facto three-act structure.
The reason for the ubiquity of this model is that the three- act structure is intrinsic to the human brain’s model of the world; it matches a blueprint that is hard-wired in the human brain, which is constantly attempting to rationalize the world and resolve it into patterns. It is therefore an inevitable property of almost any successful drama, whether the writer is aware of it or not. Shakespeare was not influenced by Hollywood executives who pressured him to conform to the industry standard. The three-act screenplay structure is reverse-engineered from practical experience; it was not imposed for arbitrary reasons. If you write a screenplay without a three-act structure, the audience is likely to perceive it as incomplete or nonsensical.
Even jokes have a three-act structure. Analyze the first joke you can think of and I guarantee it will have three acts (set-up, complication, resolution).
Remember that these considerations do not apply to novels, although quite a few novels have three-act structures. If you’re writing a book you can do pretty much what you like – if the writing is good and you have some mildly interesting thoughts to share with us, that in itself will make it very palatable to many people, myself included.
But movies don’t work that way. Movies need structure, compelling characters, jeopardy, reversals, resolution and catharsis.
Although ignoring structural considerations is usually a recipe for disaster when writing a screenplay, there are some exceptions to the three-act paradigm that have been very successful. “Pulp Fiction,” perhaps the least linear of all non-linear movies, is a good example of this. That movie works extremely well, arguably because Quentin Tarantino is so good at interesting us in delectably irrelevant things that a three-act structure would not have helped, and might even have ruined the movie.
Finally, don’t forget that the three acts don’t necessarily have to occur in chronological order – as Jean-Luc Godard said, “every movie needs to have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order.”