The Three-Act Structure

Novelists can learn a lot from scriptwriters who have developed a number of tools for story development. One such tool is the three-act structure.

Screenwriters often use “Acts” – a concept more familiar to staged drama – to breakdown the structure of their movies into major parts. Of course there are no curtain calls in movies, and the audience need not have an understanding of the structure the screenwriter is using to appreciate the movie. It is simply a model screenwriters use to develop their story.

The simplest and most widely used structure is the three-act structure. One of the strongest advocates of this approach was Syd Field who put forward a story paradigm composed of three acts defined by their dramatic purpose: story set up (introduce the characters and set up the story), confrontation (where the main character starts his quest and the action occurs) and resolution (the climax and end). Syd Field noticed that there were two important plot points at the end of act 1 and act 2 where the story is thrown in a new direction. These he asserted were critical plot points holding the story together. He also identified that the mid-point of the movie was also often an important point of revelation, that often broke the second act into two separate sub-dramatic contexts. Most movies are two hours long and correspond to a screen script of 120 pages (one minute per page). Syd Field’s story paradigm can be mapped out as follows:img_0022The three-act structure is widely used in Hollywood, but it is not without its critics. John Truby in an article referred to it as “the biggest myth ever foisted on writers.” He argued that the division into three acts is arbitrary, and that successful Hollywood movies have a lot more than two or three plot points and quotes one film as having twelve. Truby’s answer is to have twenty-two building blocks.

However, to be fair to Syd Field, he never claimed that his two plot points were the only plot points in a movie, just that these main plot points were critically placed at the end of Acts one and two and held the context of each act together.

Robert MCKee stated that “when a story reaches a certain magnitude– the feature film, an hour long TV episode, the full length play, the novel –three acts is the minimum…If the writer builds a progression into a major reversal at the half way point, he breaks the story into four movements…” Robert McKee also claimed that Raiders of the Lost Ark  had seven acts.

The problem is that there is no universal definition of an Act. Try googling it. The best I got was “the major divisions of a play”.

Take Raiders of the Lost Ark. The first three sequences of the movie show Indie in the Peruvian jungle losing a gold idol to Baloq, Indie teaching at college where he is told the Germans are seeking the Ark, and in Nepal recovering the medallion. In my view these are all part of the ‘set-up’ process of Act one introducing us to Indie’s character and rivalry  with Baloq. The real quest starts  at Act two with Indie and Marion flying to Cairo to find the Ark. Others, however, might see these three sequences as acts in their own right.

The same problem applies in identifying  the second plot point and the content of Act three. I would say that Act three consists of two sequences; the first with Indie onboard the freighter with Marion where he loses her and the Ark to Baloq; and the second on the island where the Ark is opened and the nazis are destroyed. Others may treat these two sequences as separate acts.

Not all movies are as difficult to dissect as Raiders of the Lost Ark. In most movies, the three-act form is quite easy to identify. But does knowing that a story has a beginning, middle and end make writing a script or novel any easier?

One solution is to put more flesh on the bones of the three-act structure. Blake Snyder, for example, uses a fifteen step beat sheet to fill in the plot elements of story. This approach was first discussed in my  earlier blog and later simplified to a four part structure  here. Beat sheets can be helpful, but they have been criticised by some for being too mechanical and not giving sufficient weight to the character transformation elements of a story.

Both Michael Hauge and Christopher Vogler have sought to bring the action story and the character arc together. In Christopher Vogler’s case his model is based around the twelve steps of the mythic Hero’s Journey. Michael Hauge’s approach is simpler and more general. He maps both the inner and outer journey’s of the protagonist in six stages onto the three-act structure.

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By treating the inciting event (called the “opportunity”), mid-point (called “Point of no return”) and climax as turning points with the two existing act turning points (called “Change of Plans” and “Major Setback”) he ends up with five turning points.

Most of the captions of the ‘Outer Journey’ are self explanatory. The setup is the opening scenes introducing the main character in his ordinary world. Then something happens that changes his life: an opportunity/problem (sometimes referred to as the inciting event, catalyst, or call to adventure).  The main character finds himself in a new situation and has to figure out how to respond. He might initially be reluctant to respond, or seek counsel from a mentor, or he may be pushed into action by some further event (e.g. In Star Wars Luke finds his aunt and uncle are slaughtered), but at turning point two he moves into the new world and starts his quest.

In Act two the main character encounters obstacles but makes progress to the mid point where there is a setback or revelation such the main character realises what he is up against and resolves to continue (the point of no return). The obstacles and complications escalate as do the stakes and a Major Setback arises at Turning Point 4. Again the main character resolves to go forward with a new and, sometimes, crazy plan to reach the climax.

Much of this is familiar territory for writers using the three-act structure. What is different is that Hauge shows six stages of the main characters character arc, from “living within an identity”to “living within his essence”. In Star Wars terms, Luke moves from a frightened farm boy at the beginning to a Jedi knight at the end.

In my view, Hauge’s approach is a refreshing restatement of the three-act model. It’s sufficiently high level and generic to cover most story genres. But bear in mind, that any model is only going to provide the foundations of a story structure. A story is more complex than that. Hauge provides the protagonist’s inner and outer stories, but there are other stories that need to be weaved into the narrative: a relationship story, a nemesis’ story, which will have their own turning points, and then there are the subplots relating to the theme of the story. Each sequence and scenes will also contain turning points, which although not at the same magnitude as the turning points listed are important nonetheless to maintain dramatic tension.

As a writer should you use a structure like this? The answer is if it helps, use it or adapt it to your own needs. There are no perfect answers. Every writer needs to find what works for them. Tell me what you think.