FILM 101: Three Act Structure
For my first FILM 101 session, I figured I would start with something I refer to frequently in my film writing: Three Act Structure. I want to preface all of this by saying that Three Act Structure is not a perfect science. There can be disagreement on where an act breaks, or whether the structure is bucked altogether. Often, writers write in Three Act Structure without knowing it, heck all of my previous (terrible) script writing endeavors used it just because I was copying the model of what I saw on-screen: Build character, give them some problems which get increasingly worse, and then get them out of there. Easy as 1, 2, 3.
First off, I am borrowing these images from around the web. So if anyone owns any of these and I am using them inappropriately, I apologize. I can take them down. There are MANY such images to be found in a typical Google images search, and these were the ones I felt did the best job of showing what a three act structure looks like.
WHAT IS THREE ACT STRUCTURE
Simply, the Three Act Structure is a way of talking about how a movie breaks down. The first act, roughly the first 20 to 30 minutes of a film, serves as our introduction to characters and gives us a typical day in the life of. This isn’t an unbreakable rule, nor does it mean the introduction must be boring. The James Bond films, for instance, typically use the first act to show just how special an agent James is. But it has little or nothing to do with the ultimate driving story the film will take on.
The second act is the heart of the film. It begins after an inciting incident changes the world of the film. Often, this is very clear. I just watched CABIN IN THE WOODS, so let us use that. The second act begins when the kids chant some Latin in the basement an awaken the dead. The major conflict of the film will be the survival of these kids. The first act worked towards putting them in danger, and that escalated when things started crawling out of the ground. In the graph above, we see the building mini-crises. In CABIN IN THE WOODS, each ensuing attack is a bigger and bigger build to the giant climactic attack (which CABIN IN THE WOODS takes VERY seriously).
The final act, act three, begins with that last twist towards the resolution. There is some argument as to whether we should begin calling it the third act before or after the climax, but most theorists will call the turn at the moment which makes the climax barrel towards us. A more simple graph looks like this…
(My issue with some of these graphs, is that calling it a plot point is a little convoluted, when it is simpler and more clear to refer to it as a major twist.)
Since revealing the second major twist of a movie is often akin to giving the whole thing away, I’ll go ahead and use something everyone knows. In GHOST BUSTERS, the final act begins the moment that dickless, here, shuts down the power to the containment grid. From there, the rest of the movie has no choice but to hit a climax and resolve. The third act is the shortest act, roughly 15-20% of the movie.
As an overview, a generic movie works like this:
ACT ONE: Travel to Mars.
ACT TWO: Meet nasty aliens.
ACT THREE: Defeat aliens. Go home.
DOES THREE ACT STRUCTURE ALWAYS APPLY?
Well, you can always force a movie into the three act structure, even if it doesn’t necessarily want to fit in there easily. I think the bigger question is: Can you always identify it as the movie goes along? (If only I had put that question in bold! Argh!)
A prime example for this is the film FUNNY PEOPLE. In that movie, a Judd Apatow comedy, the audience has a certain expectation for what they will see. The trailer tells us that a comedian (Adam Sandler) will get cancer and question his life while palling around with another comedian (Seth Rogen). When audiences exited FUNNY PEOPLE, I kept hearing about how it was too long, unbearably long. At 146 minutes, it certainly is a bit longer than most comedies. But 40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN ran 116, and KNOCKED UP ran 129. So an Apatow comedy, regardless, tends to run a little longer than normal.
What was different about this film, is that it seems to buck the Three Act Structure as we go along. The setup: This comedian is mean. The problem: The guy has cancer. He has a hard time dealing with it. The resolution: He softens up a bit, and finds out he is going to live.
Except, the movie then wanders into another act, it seems, about Sandler trying to get back with the woman he loved and lost (Leslie Mann). It threw people off, because a “normal” movie ends after the cancer resolution, but this one moves on. Audiences are subconsciously trained to know when a movie is wrapping up. FUNNY PEOPLE keeps on going on for another hour after that radar goes off. So, I would argue, we are all aware of Three Act Structure even if we don’t know we are.
WHAT ABOUT MOVIES WITH A TWIST OR MOVIES WHICH AREN’T CHRONOLOGICAL?
You could argue that a lot of thrillers are playing on our expectations of the three act structure by running with a last second twist. THE USUAL SUSPECTS comes to mind, of course. But, really, if you consider how that movie goes, the last moment is a reward for how much you have paid attention to the rest of the film. The problem of the film, I would argue, is whether or not these guys survive. The question of ‘Who is Kaiser Soze’ is a red herring, though an entertaining one. Said another way: Would we care who Kaiser Soze was if we didn’t care about any of the characters?
PULP FICTION follows a strangely logical Three Act Structure, even if it does so in a non-linear film. Part of the brilliance of Pulp Fiction is that we get a bunch of little three-act films within this one, larger, Three Act Structure. We still get introduced to characters, we give them problems, we resolve them. By placing the story with The Wolf last, even though it is not chronologically last, the structure still fits if you consider this a movie about Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson. The other characters have their own important world and story, but we walk about from that movie thinking about the two hitmen.
Here’s another interesting one to consider: RETURN OF THE KING. How many people said that the last bit of that movie went on far too long? If you look at the third act of just that movie, it takes up something like 30-35% of the movie rather than 20%. But it makes perfect sense if you look at LORD OF THE RINGS as one, long, twelve hour movie.
SO WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN? WHY SHOULD I CARE?
Well, whether or not you care is less important. Is it helpful to recognize Three Act Structure? It is for me. The reason I stopped watching trailers is that they almost always operate on the idea that it is okay to give away that first twist. Teaser trailers tend to not do so, but full length trailers often use that first twist as a means to showing action.
Think about that.. we go into most movies knowing what the first 30% will hold. That’s crazy. I find myself enjoying a film much more if the first act twist catches me off guard. I can not think of an instance of when a trailer made me appreciate the film more. The closest would be INCEPTION, which brilliantly used its trailer to make you think that the moving world was the major twist, rather than it just being some exposition. But for every INCEPTION trailer, there are a dozen trailers like QUARANTINE which literally show you the very last moment of the film in the trailer. Ugh. Dumb.
SO WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Can you think of movies which stick out in your mind as being married to the structure, or which attempt to buck the structure? Next time you watch a movie, see if you can identify that twist as it happens. You’ll be surprised at just how similar most films are in their basic structure.
Before we go, here is one last image. This comes from Syd Field, who writes some of the absolute must-read books for any aspiring screenwriter: