Screenwriters often talk about three-act structure, but do you need to use it when writing a feature screenplay? Few topics have become so controversial in the writing world. But if you’re serious about becoming a screenwriter, you’ll need to learn about three-act structure before you make up your mind.
A breakdown of three-act structure
Conventional Hollywood films are often broken down into three acts with a ratio of 1:2:1. So for example, if your screenplay is 120 pages (which would translate to 120 minutes on screen), Act One would take place from pages 1-30, Act Two would take place from pages 31-90, and Act Three would take place from pages 91-120.
This ratio can be used with any page count; in a shorter, 100-page screenplay, you can use the model of Act One (1-25), Act Two (26-75), and Act Three (76-100).
What three-act structure means for your story
Below is a breakdown of the typical things that happen within Act One, Act Two, and Act Three of a feature screenplay:
Act One of a feature screenplay sets up the main character’s world and relationships. But you shouldn’t think of it as just “setup.” Make sure that the plot is moving forward as you establish the character. A character might get a new job very early in Act One but then not get an important job-related assignment until Act Two. It just depends.
Something should happen to the character in Act One that sends them on a new journey, gives them an exciting opportunity, or presents them with a pressing problem to solve.
By Act Two, the character is actively trying to solve a problem or achieve their goal. They might change location or meet a new character by this point.
Often, at a screenplay’s midpoint, the main character stops trying to achieve one goal and starts trying to achieve another. In Legally Blonde, for example, Elle Woods stops trying to win back her ex-boyfriend and fit in at law school and starts trying to exonerate her new client. The midpoint of a film, which takes place in Act Two, might also represent a new problem, higher stakes, a revelation of information, or a new opportunity. It can also be a shift to a new location. Many screenwriters suggest that the midpoint of your feature screenplay is just as important as the end of Act One or the end of Act Two.
The end of Act Two often sees a defeat in which a character fails to achieve a goal set forth earlier in the script. In a romance, the main couple might break up at the end of Act Two. In Jurassic World, it’s when dinosaurs attack visitors at the park and they have to evacuate amid chaos.
In Moneyball, the end of Act Two is when the Athletics lose a playoff game and it seems that Billy’s mathematical approach to coaching is faulty. In a war movie, the main character might surrender after a bloody battle. In other cases, the end of Act Two is a bittersweet victory; the character might get what he or she wants but realize it doesn’t matter to him or her anymore.
Act Three sees the character rally to continue going after their goal (often with new information, a new plan, or a new outlook). The character might also to achieve a different goal now that values have changed. In The Social Network, all the court cases are resolved in Act Three. In Brooklyn, Eilis tells her mother about her secret marriage and goes back to America to be with her love.
Goals can be both tangible and intangible: one character might want to catch a thief or win a child custody case, while another might attempt to move past their grief or accept their identity.
Different films approach three-act structure in different ways. In some road trip movies, the characters are on the road in the middle of Act One but make some meaningful decision by Act Two; in other road trip movies, the characters might not get in the car until Act Two. The “journey” of what the trip means is not always the same.
Study your favorite films and write down what happens at these points to learn how the end of Act One, Two, and Three can mean something different in a comedy versus a horror movie.
Can you ignore three-act structure?
Some writers feel that sticking to a rigid formula stymies creativity and results in too many cookie-cutter movies. “Why do I want to do what everyone else is doing?” asks screenwriter Jeff Nichols. “I’m not trying to build a system here. I’m not trying to build a conveyor belt that spits out these things that we’re used to.”
The book Save the Cat by Blake Snyder is probably the most controversial when it comes to the question of whether you need a rigid structure. It features a specific and simple guide that many writers swear by but others despise for its strict formulas. Some writers want more flexibility.
Another approach to screenplay structure is Dan Harmon’s story circle, which some writers find too complicated but others praise for the way it ties story elements together. Some writers even go back to the classics of Shakespeare, Aristotle, or Cervantes when they think about structure. You might find you need to divide your script into more than three or four parts. Read different books and perspectives on the topic so you can decide for yourself!
Writers often have different ways of looking at things. One might see a movie as adhering to a conventional three-act structure, while another might watch it and see five or six acts. Ultimately, you might just need to find the approach or method that works best for you.
Be wary of ignoring all structure completely. Many writers feel you should master some kind of basic structure in your own writing before you write a more experimental or unconventional script. Also, following three-act structure doesn’t mean that you have to copy common plot points. The challenge of screenwriting is adhering to structure while still being inventive and original.
Finally, if a professional writer says in an interview that he or she doesn’t write outlines or think about structure, it might mean that he or she has internalized structure after years of study and work. Learn the basics first! You’ll also want to be able to speak the language of producers and development executives who often discuss features in terms of three acts.