Screenplays, the Three-Act Structure and Why You Would be Mad to Ignore It (hot debate in the comments!)

Screenplay 3-Act StructureLet’s cut to the chase: your 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.

Three-act screenplay structure diagram

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.

Thoughts on the three-act structure in screenplaysIn any case, 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.”

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27 thoughts on “Screenplays, the Three-Act Structure and Why You Would be Mad to Ignore It (hot debate in the comments!)

  1. Wow! You are sooo totally off the mark here!

    While I agree that today’s audience is ACCUSTOMED to a 3 act structure, but that is mainly because Hollywood has shoved it down their throats. (This probably goes with your shallow comment “If you don’t have a famous star, the first 10 minutes of your film had better be totally amazing.”)

    Nonetheless, I myself like the 3 act structure, but you can’t be a revisionist of history and rewrite it to say that Arthur Miller and even Shakespeare used a “de facto” 3 act structure! I am sure that they were better writers than both you or I, and had more reasons for 4-5 act structures than ‘Wardrobe changes’! (Those are called scenes) Let me tell you why:

    Let’s use these numbers as acts… This is called a SPINE. (and yes, if you don’t have a spine get a big star)

    1) The Set Up. (perfect world)
    2) Unexpected Change.
    3) The Rejection
    4) The Reversal
    5) The Embrace.

    Shakespeare used this spine for this, but the conventional one is: SETUP, UNEXPEXTED CHANGE, REVERSAL, FINAL BATTLE, THE REWARD. (All as ACTS) I didn’t use this one because, in Macbeth, perhaps Shakespeare wanted to thrust all of the final stuff into a compelling (and very short) Final act 5, saving all of the battles for there.

    Here’s where you failed on your above Macbeth.. You introduced Malcolm and Donaldbain in act 2, and failed at all to introduce Macduff until act 4. Now imagine sitting/watching your Hollywood movie, and the only guy on earth, that can kill your Main Character, comes out at the end of act 3! Shabamm! Magic!

    The first shot of “Dark Knight” comes to mind! The Joker standing with a mask!

    Five acts, help in depth, plots, and subplots of an engaging story. And perhaps what you should be encouraging is better writing, not lazy writing.

    The reason for the Macbeth story, is not witches. It is perhaps about ambition. (That would be our theme) So Malcolm and Donaldbain (the King’s heirs) are introduced exactly 13 lines into the play. This is important, because they are the force of opposition (hiring MacDuff) that take the throne back from Macbeth… Without opposition, there is no story. Without plots and subplots, you have… Well, ‘Big Stars’ trying to carry an ineffective story. Back to Macbeth…

    The 1st act introduces the backdrop of the play… Violent war. Again, 13 lines into the play, this is setup, and discussed with manly pride, by Duncan (the King who Macbeth kills) And Macbeth doesn’t enter until the end of scene 3! (imagine your Big Star trying to wait for that!)

    This “Violence” (albeit a general in the war) becomes Macbeth’s weakness… his humanity, (which Lady Macbeth quickly chastises him for) Shakespeare does this for a reason… Complexity of character… Something he must try to retain and keep in check when he is ‘unjustly’ passed over for a promotion rather than the Kings Sons.

    Thus the 1st act is set: On the violent backdrop of war, a King, his heirs, and his country are eeking out a win with it’s most prized possession… Macbeth… The very guy who may kill him. And Macbeth (with prodding from the ambitious Lady M.) is now struggling with his “humanity” at the very end of this act, finally vocalizing his commitment to “THE DEED”.

    But will he? Can he do it? As the lights come up in the theatre, this is the question the audience is asking? Not because the actors need to change clothes… THEATRE/FILMS ARE FOR THE AUDIENCE.

    So if you are going to simplify, and ‘dumb down’ something, at least understand the structure of what you are dumbing down. Or use “Gigli” or “Transformers” as your example.

    I’ll quickly go through the others:

    Act 2. (Unexpected Change)
    He does kill the King, and “now what?” strikes both Macbeth and the country. Sending Malcolm and Donaldbain away to regroup, Macbeth gets alienated from his friends, allies, (Macduff suspects his guilt) and his humanity, and it has brought him closer to ambition and inhumanity (the witches) ending this violent blood filled act with an Old Man talking of ‘how strange nature is these days’. End of Act 2. Whew!

    And yes… Now the actors must change their bloody clothes.

    Act 3 (The Rejection)
    Even his best friend (Banquo) now suspects him, but more importantly, Macbeth now hires murderers to kill him and does, (and here’s the clue) They are also hired to kill Macduff! Lady M, starts to reject him for his ‘dispositions’ and all of his collogues leave town and suspect him. Rejected!

    Act 4 (The Reversal)
    Macbeth feels lonely now and seeks advice from the witches, and they empower him! But with a caveat, that an ambitious man can’t really hear… And he thinks he’s invincible, WE THINK HE’S INVINCIBLE! But he fails to kill Macduff, yet succeeds in killing his family (now he has a REAL enemy) And That Real Enemy, REJECTS THE AMBITIOUS ADVANCES OF MALCOLM (the Heir who is now living in relative squander like a fugitive) until someone informs Macduff, that his family has been slaughtered like chickens by Macbeth… End of act.

    Lights up! Will Macduff succeed? Macbeth has supernatural power on his side! Now this act is really important, because not only do things in Macbeth’s life reverse… But the oppositions’ life is now COMPLETELY reversed!

    Act 5 (The Embrace)
    Macbeth’s ambitions have overwhelmed him to point that he’s unrealistic (he’s drinking the Kool-Aid), Lady M. is now crazy, MacDuff and Malcolm have formed an alliance and built an Army, And we see Macbeth’s last gleaming sliver of humanity; He almost sheds a tear when his wife dies, but rather says he will shed one “Tomorrow…” And the battles begin! Macbeth meets Macduff, thinking he’s invincible… Armed with that one dropped clue from the witches (without reading the small print) And VOILA!

    Macduff wins the battle! Yay!

    WAIT!! Can Malcolm trust that Macduff will give him the kingdom? Are his ambitions in check? Yes! And humanity is restored! (“Gladiator” & “Dark Knight” come to mind) I challenge you to look at those two.

    Wow! Now THAT’S a story! Who wrote that!? Who were the Stars? (yes, I know Burbage)

    So I end with this: It is the importance of subtlety that makes a great story or even a great joke… Understanding human nature… It is nuances, not oversimplification.
    And dividing the story into “ACTS” is building its nuance.

    If you must inspire people, (And we must!) inspire them to be their best, by not teaching them the bad habits of the worst of us.

    In all fairness… I have directed Macbeth several times as well as played the title role in many other productions before that. It has always been divided into two acts for the convenience of today’s audiences and the misrepresentation of act structure. (“Honey do we go home now?”) mentality.

    Thanks! Good luck with the book! You even have five “Acts” listed above on the contents of your book BTW! Hmmmm!

  2. I couldn’t agree with liberalpoet’s comments more. The only reason the three-act structure myth persists in Hollywood is because it’s the only way the non-creative execs (money people and marketers) can understand a script. They are incapable of actually knowing whether the story and writing is any good, so they just count pages. Syd Field has done more to ruin Hollywood’s creativity than anyone else — a man with no film credits of his own has given industry execs a crutch.

    How can writers fight back? Use the structure that works for your story, no matter how many “acts” it has. You only have to be able to convince some non-creative type that it is in three acts. Are your analyses of Macbeth and the Crucible wrong? Most definitely. However, would they be necessary in order to convince a major Hollywood studio to make a film out of either work? Absolutely… and that’s the sad part.

    Incidentally, although the film intermission has become very rare recently, I have never seen a movie with two intermissions, which would imply three acts. I have only ever seem films with one intermission, though — meaning that those films have either two or four acts, not three.

    • Thanks for the comments guys — I do appreciate them. My analysis of the three-act structure went beyond the expediency of Hollywood execs and actually argued that it is a fundamental property of the human brain’s model of the world. In other words, my arguments were based on cognitive principles rather than artistic ones. It is only a hypothesis, but it is founded on some circumstantial evidence that I have personally experienced.

      How is my analysis of the The Crucible and Macbeth incorrect? I used a tabular format to make a clear argument and I would love to hear why you think my analysis is incorrect. I ignored the act subdivisions imposed by the playwrights, analyzed the stories and I saw the three-act structure in all its glory, in these and many other examples.

      I do not think the act subdivisions of the those plays should be changed — far from it! I love them just as they are. But they are fundamentally three-part entities, in my view.

    • One more quick point, LA writer…execs respond to and demand three-act screenplays because they know that is what works, which in turn is explained by how the human brain interprets the world! They may not be consciously aware of this, but that is my hypothesis for why (a) three-act screenplays work and others usually don’t, and (b) why execs therefore demand three-act screenplays and trash those that don’t conform.

      I certainly don’t wish to pass off my cognitive-science hypothesis as a well-established model — it is only a hypothesis — see above. For me, however, it is exceedingly compelling and useful.

      If nothing else, the three-act structure forces the writer to give serious thought to plot points and moving the story forward. I have found it a very useful construct.

      Ultimately, my contention is that if you pick as many movies as you can think of, analyze those that “work” and those that don’t, the majority of those that “work” will be found to have three-act structures, whereas those that do not have a three-act structure tend to be self-indulgent, amorphous and spineless (in the literary sense of the term). This is a field observation and not a criticism of those who attempt five-act screenplays; it is observational rather than prescriptive. By all means push the envelope — it is the only way to realize one’s potential!

      Of course we tend to forget weak movies so the second sample might be under-represented, but hopefully you see my point 🙂

    • P.S. In my opinion the intermission is (or was) used to sell popcorn, just as the play subdivisions were needed to dress the set for the subsequent act. In my opinion these breaks have no bearing at all on the story’s fundamental structure. They are just food / set breaks…if I’m writing a three-part essay and get up to have a drink, did I just add an extra part to the text? 🙂

      Thanks for the discussion…good stuff!

  3. Bobby Cleaver Junior says:

    the word “act” has lost ALL meaning.

    is it not obvious to three year old homosapiens and older that every story has THREE parts?

    beginning middle end
    problem exploration solution

    a SPINE is just the steps and attempts to solve the problem. you’re telling me if they try fifty things its fifty acts. which if related you could divided into how ever many sequences. COME ON PEOPLE. ONE STORY, THREE PARTS, BUTTLOAD OF SCENES, COWBOY SHOT AND CALL IT A WRAP

    • I agree, Bobby. I remain unconvinced by the arguments against the three-act structure. Some folks see it as an “art vs. Hollywood” diatribe, when in fact the three-act structure has nothing to do with Hollywood and everything to do with how the human brain constructs reality.

      Hollywood is fond of the three-act structure because it serves the the story well; we do not say that it works well just because Hollywood happens to like it.

  4. Julian Camara says:

    I’m sorry, but I think your deconstruction of narratives is unclear at best. How do you delineate the act breaks with a three act structure? You say that theatre is forced to breakdown acts for stage-managerial reasons, but also claim that Pulp Fiction is not three acts? I’d like to see you deconstruct Pulp Fiction’s narrative. Would you conclude that there are five acts, as delineated by the title cards that show at the beginning of each act? Is that not simply film shorthand for the classic theatrical interval or scene change? With that in mind, could you not simply restructure the scenes into the correct chronological order and then breakdown the script into three acts as you have done here with Macbeth?

    I just feel that in terms of screenplay analysis, you can find however many acts as you arbitrarily decide to look for, but in terms of writing a screenplay – which as you suggest yourself “is so important that words cannot do this issue justice” – sticking steadfastly to a basic three act structure will lead to producing scripts and stories that over simple and predictable and uninteresting. Three acts are “The hero lives in a world. The world changes and the hero responds. The hero is victorious in the end”. Clearly a feature film requires more plot than that. Even to add two points – “The hero lives in a world. The world changes but the hero refuses to act. Someone close to the hero is directly affected by the changing world. The hero finally answers the call to arms. The hero is victorious in the end” improves matters, but depending on how efficiently the story is written, and how much action is involved, can still barely fill an hour long TV slot.

    I’m sure you’ll conflate some of those story beats to fit it into your three act structure, but as a writer there are worlds of difference between the two breakdowns. Even as a director or an actor these are important considerations. My point is, if you have to spend as long as you do to describe the many different actions that occur within your “Act II” in the Crucible or Macbeth, then the writer most likely did not write that sequence of events under one heading on their whiteboard that simply said “The Confrontation”.

  5. Seriously says:

    I’ll have to agree with LiberalPoet. The beginning, middle and end structure has always been the basics for teaching children how to write stories. It is also how I taught roommates and friends how to get easy A’s on their writing assignments in college. They key words here are children and easy.

    The truth is, this structure is easy and works because it’s easy but it’s a mere template. Yes you can get away with that every single time. So the question becomes… should you? It’s about personal growth and wanting to do more than the basics.

    I write stories without structure and people love them (it is my understand of the basics that allow me to do this). I make documentaries with no conflict and people buy it. The point is, we should try to take our art beyond the basics when we can.

    I also don’t agree that this is how the human brain is hard wired. The human brain is very capable of abstract thought (have you ever watched a video on computer programming and understood it?) Our natural instinct to find patterns does not apply here, I’m sorry. When the average viewer is watching a film, they aren’t looking for or recognizing a pattern. Only filmmakers/writers do because we tend to have a hard time becoming a “viewer” once we become filmmakers. The same phenomena exists for wedding professionals who have a hard time enjoying weddings as a guest after they’ve become a wedding professional. They don’t experience weddings the same way after that.

    What viewers do know is if they have been taken on an emotional journey or not. So now when I teach people how to write, I come for a different perspective… an emotional one with the basics (structure) in mind but not the primary method for delivery.

    Anyway, it’s very sad that folks can make blatantly incorrect statements about how human beings are “hard wired” without seeing all of the ways in which this can’t possibly be true.

  6. Does the traditional structure of film reflect the human brain or the western brain, Videofilmmaker? Do films from other cultures follow the 3 act pattern? I’m a novelist and interested in the structure of stories, particularly the way we internalize the structure of storytelling. (Assuming the structure is not inherent.) I always figured that one reason Americans have a problem with foreign films (aside from the subtitle thing) is that those films follow a pattern we’re not used to. When it comes to writing, I know that the traditional story telling structure of the Middle East, for instance, is more layered than ours- like 1001 Nights, stories within stories. Wouldn’t that also be true of films? I like your idea of the 3 acts representing a model for the human brain’s way of organizing information, to paraphrase you, but don’t different cultures have different storytelling traditions/patterns?
    Thanks for your blog. Interesting.

    • Hi Alison,

      My hypothesis is that the three-act structure is intrinsic to the human brain in general, not to the Western mind in particular.

      What the other commenters in this thread also ought to understand is that I am an observer, not an activist: I have no personal interest in pushing the three-act structure, but I do have an interest in understanding why it is so fundamentally important in screenplays.

      Thanks for commenting!

      Ed

  7. sachin sharma says:

    Hi Videofilmmaker, You rock man. Your analysis about hit movies is right, they do follow 3 acts rule. and you are also right about human brain being hard wired for this model. Infact human life itself consist of three acts, you are born at some place(act one), how you live your life(act two) and because of that, how you die(act three).
    To put in other words you are child in the beginning(act one) then the young man (act two) then the old man(act three). Keep up the good work bro. all my best wishes with you.
    Can you help me with one thing? In our country we have intervals in the movies and the normal length of the movies are between 2hrs to 2 hrs 20 mins. can you tell me what should the ideal length of the first half of the movie?

    • Hi Sachin,

      Thanks for the kind words. Your options are limited, because the interval must be placed approximately half way through the movie: it cannot be too close to the beginning or the end. I would recommend placing the interval after the midpoint of Act 2, when the attention of the audience is high.

      Thanks for following my work!

      Ed

  8. Sorry, I have to disagree. You’re dividing the story into “the stuff that happens at the start,” “the stuff that happens in the middle,” and “the stuff that happens at the end,” and then reading meaning into your divisions. You’re not following the development of the story, you’re trying to impose a different order of development on it.

    It’s like butchering a body by chopping it at the breastbone and thigh, top, middle and bottom, and insisting these are the natural breaks in the story, instead of observing where the bones actually meet. And the result is the same–a bloody mess.

    • Blue-

      Some people disagree, and I’m okay with that.

      My point is this: I am not arbitrarily imposing the three-act paradigm on stories. I am advocating for the three-act paradigm because almost all effective narratives happen to have the three-act structure. Do you see the difference?

      I support the three-act paradigm because practical experience has shown it to work exceedingly well as a narrative framework. I am interested in how things are, not in how I think they ought to be, in the same way that an engineer accepts the reality of Newtonian mechanics and gets on with building bridges without worrying that the world would be so much cooler if F=ma were not the case 🙂

  9. My opinion is, yes, storytelling does follow these 3 steps, it doesn’t matter how many words you add to it, it doesn’t matter in how many parts you divide this basic 3 act structure, it will always come down to “beginning, middle, end”. We should focus on how we can use this structure in a way that can make it interesting, innovative, different, outstanding, and not on how to make it sound more fancy or complicated.

  10. ReaverKing says:

    You argue that there are “cognitive principles” behind the three-act structure and all the evidence you have to offer is an excessively reductionist view of what an “act” is to make all films artificially confrom to the 3-act structure.

    Now I’ve taken quite a bit of psychology and sociology along with my English Degree and since I don’t have my sources to hand I won’t misquote them, but I’d like to hear this “circumstantial evidence” you claim to have.

    As far as I can see you’re just repeating information without demonstrating understanding to prop up a very weak argument.

    “i.e. I have evidence that says its true, therefore its true. Your evidence doesn’t count because my evidence says its true.”

    “Three Act Structure” is just a way of describing the bare

    Instead of magic numbers, I’d put forward that humans look for character-driven, engaging stories and you can’t do that with the pandemic of “Act 2 wheel-spinning” in most screenplays these days. The wheels spin because many writers don’t even WRITE a real Act 2 and just try to set up Act 3 and fill time.

    As a very basic way to examine a story, 3 Act structure works. But its a pretty incomplete template for TELLING one. The three-act structure is a template, a tool, an artifact of modern storytelling, it is not something “the mind craves”. Arguing a specific Act structure is the best way to tell every story is like trying to argue the best way to serve roast beef is with a Jell-O mold. It just doesn’t work for every occasion and pretending it does just wastes resources.

    • Hi ReaverKing,

      I appreciate your comment and I read it with great interest. I think I have made my case and posted my rebuttals to all objections, and don’t have much to add at this point, other than to reiterate that I am interested in learning from what works — I have no preconceptions and am not emotionally invested in any particular model.

      If you find that the 3-Act model lacks merit, I hate to imagine what you must think of my 10-Element Screenplay Blueprint or my opinion that the first 10 minutes of one’s screenplay had better be totally amazing.

      Am I being excessively prescriptive? My view is that success requires discipline; there are innumerable ways to fail, but success requires skill and care. One needs to learn from successful movies and learn; one cannot pursue an arbitrary model and feel entitled to success.

      Make no mistake: if the first 10 minutes of a screenplay are not preternaturally amazing, it goes straight in the bin, long before I can tell whether a 3-Act structure was used. If I ever post a call for screenplays — which I might well do — I will warn prospective entrants that if the first 10 pages are not mind-blowing, you’re done. That is because I want to make films that buyers will fight over, not films that buyers abandon after 10 minutes.

      Indeed, I may well restrict entries to only the first 10 pages. Nothing like a healthy reality check! It is tough love from me, totally free of charge.

      I want commercial success, I want to touch hearts: I have no desire to write/direct failures, and I allocate considerable thought and work to averting that sort of disaster.

      Would someone among the 3-Act skeptics please post an example of a movie that achieved mainstream success without a 3-act structure? I mentioned “Pulp Fiction” in my post when I published it five years ago, so that’s out (and how sensible is it to encourage rookie screenwriters to imitate Tarantino? I love Tarantino, but am wise enough not to attempt to out-Tarantino him. He is a genre unto himself, and I really mean that.)

      When I write mainstream success, I mean it. No over-intellectualized failed experiments as examples, please.

      Commercial success; repeated viewings; a huge number of fans. Nothing else will do for me.

  11. I have to show my appreciation for your website. It’s truly amazing and I love what you’ve discovered as a filmmaker and have been ever so kind enough to simply share. I’ve lived every one of your “10 things in 10 years” to great similarities. Your posts have left me utterly agreeable to the filmmaking world we try to survive in everyday. I’d like to hopefully finish up this ongoing argument over story structure by saying that, yes, people are right in the sense that not all stories need to be directly correlated with the 3-Act structure. BUT…. In the film world it does matter. It matters 110%, because if you do not follow these guidelines, such as the 3-act structure, then one would assume that you have the means to produce your own damn film/art house film, because NO legitimate investor, exec, prod, etc is going to spend a minute thinking it could be done otherwise. Unless you happen to be Tarantino. (assuming that you aren’t). In the business, 3-act structure is what works. That’s what the people buy, which generates money for the industry, that keeps people like us having conversation like these in the first place. Was that just a 3-act structure itself?!?!? BOOM!!!!

    Again… Awesome site! I’d love to get coffee and meet you in person.

    Cheers.

    • Hi Alex,

      Solid comment! I agree wholeheartedly. You clearly understand the practical and commercial implications of real-world filmmaking, which will stand you in good stead for the future!

      If we ever happen to be in the same town at the same time, coffee would be great.

      Thanks for following my work!

  12. You are close to the mark, and btw, you have one heck of a good web page!

    But I feel you are skirting the true essence of movies, music, stories, etc., and the reason the 3 parts work.

    It’s all about tension and release.

    You build tension, and then choose to release it or not release it, and to what degree and how many times.

    Without tension, a story is nothing. You can pass over or skip the release of the tension if you wish to leave that feeling in people, or you can grant the release and leave the audience relieved.

    This is the whole point of your 3-part story. Once you have a character or characters and place, It doesn’t have to be 3 steps, it can be more/repeated bumps in the road, and these are good as it’s hard on the audience to maintain tension for too long. As long as you somehow build the tension, however strong or weak, all at once or in waves, that’s the thing.

    The tension can be positive or negative, depends on your goal.

    You are right though, it’s what we are hard-wired to, and the formula is useful doing this. I guess it’s all tied to our biology, but the basis for this but it’s not really important.

    This is why the long pulling and pushing scenes by Kubrick were so powerful, and even why his wide angle, brightly lit scenes work so well too, they build tension and grant release…

    It’s enjoyable and uncomfortable all at the same time, and eventually quite a relief to the viewer.

    This is just my opinion, from a wannabe director. Curious about your opinion.

    Maybe I’ll make a real movie someday and not just some film school junk… ;0)

    Great page, I really enjoy your insights!!

    • Hi David,

      Thanks for the kind words!

      You are absolutely right on the tension and release issue. However, in my opinion that does not absolve us of the need for a beginning, a middle and an end. Each of those acts can (and should) be its own emotional roller coaster, but always in the service of the overall three-act structure. Some people think they can get away with 7-chapter films, but usually those attempts fall into two categories:

      (a) the film still has a de facto three-act structure, even if they did their level best to divide it into 7 conspicuous segments;

      (b) the film does indeed have a 7-chapter structure, as a result of which it fails, feeling more like a newsreel than anything else.

      (“Pulp Fiction” is an awesome film — one of my favorites. But Tarantino is a genre onto himself, not to mention something of a genius, and is best admired from afar.)

      -Ed

  13. I think you’re making a key mistake in assigning arbitrary labels and what is essentially a visualization idea as some sort of key feature of human cognitive ability. It isn’t. The idea that things have “a beginning, middle and end,” is as useful as saying the planet is composed of earth, air, and water. Yeah, great, but you know, those three things alone, a planet does not make, right?

    Back to the main point, the reason that it is not useful to describe Shakespeare’s structure as three acts is that your “subdivision” actually matter, structurally, in setting up the confrontation and resolution – and to ignore them, or a general idea of them, and just kind of lump them together as “conflict” is to ignore the plot devices that make the conflict compelling and the resolution relevant.

    If you want to talk about human mind, talk about psychology, and why we care about a story – empathy. The things that help a writer create empathy can’t simply be broken out as “set-up, conflict, resolution,” though that may be the underlying aspect of the dramatic elements.

    What is conflict and why do we care about it? Cannot the second act of a three act structure be broken out in order to structure it further, in order to make it compelling? If this were the case, and if it allowed for better writing, wouldn’t it be advisable to do so? Wouldn’t following, what is essentially, a five act structure, be better, in terms of pacing and establishing a relationship between the characters and the audience, than a three act structure, where you’re just supposed to dick around with conflict for the bulk of the story until you wrap the damn thing up?

    It’s undeniable. Arguing that the brain’s perception of a “beginning, middle, and end” is completely missing the point. The way the brain interprets narrative from a completely general sense – your trees, is useless as a guideline in actually creating a compelling narrative – your forest.

  14. Pulp Fiction does indeed follow a structure – 3 acts; Michael Hague’s 6 points – whatever you want to call it – it is a structure. He did however edit it in a non-linear fashion and there are three stories in the movies with the one person who appears in all three stories that hold it together – but structured it is. Even ancient stories told in the oral AFrican tradition follows the three acts.

  15. Bruce Winsloe says:

    This article is a total joke. Telling writers you need a three act structure is like telling someone who has never driven a car in their life, “Push the gas to make it go, push the brake to make it stop.” What the **** kind of nonsense article is this?

    You don’t even go into any specific details about the necessary stages making up each act. All you do is lazily say there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end and you call it ian article. Are oyu kidding me? You should be ashamed . . . that is unless, of course, you are such a ****ing moron that you really DO consider advice such as “It has a beginning, a middle, and an end” sound advice for writing.

    Your article is a joke, and so is your attempt at pretending you know anything beyond the very basics about writing. And yes, this is coming from a multi-published author. If you’re going to give advice on plot and writing, at least know what the **** you’re talking about first :-/

    • Dear Mr Winsloe, please calm down. This gentleman is just giving some advice on basic principles, admittedly he is battling away in defence of those principles but for people such as myself who are new to this field it can be helpful to have a starting point. Once the basics are mastered then one can start to push at the boundaries of those fundamentals and hopefully break some new ground. Even if you disagree with him there’s no need to pullout the asterisks. You could take someone’s eye out with those!
      By the way, congratulations on your successful writing career. Well done you.

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