The Classic Three Act Structure

Every movie tells a story and every story follows a basic structure known as the three Act structure. By understanding this basic structure, you can shape your idea into a basic story.

Almost everyone can agree on a good story when they see it, but how do you create a good story in the first place? The answer isn’t that good stories are made out of luck, having the right movie stars, or hiring the right director (although that all helps). The secret is that all good stories follow a similar structure. Just as skyscrapers may all look different, they’re all built on the same principles of building construction and stories are no different. Good stories are all built on the same story telling principles that have been around for ages.

To tell a good story, you need to understand the basic principles behind story telling, which applies to every story that you tell whether it’s a comedy, horror, drama, musical, or love story. At the basic level, every story appeals to our sense of wonder. The first part of a story must grab our attention and make us ask, “What’s it about?” The second part of a story must keep us on the edge of our seats wondering, “What happens next?” The third part of a story must finish the story with a satisfying, but unexpected conclusion.

Think back to a movie that left you wondering, “Why did Hollywood bother making that?” Think back and you may realize that lousy stories often lack one or more basic story telling techniques. On the other hand, we’ve all seen a movie that held us the entire time and seemed to end too soon. With those types of movies, we’re not even conscious of story telling structures, but upon repeated viewings, you’ll find that they’re all there.

In this lesson, you’ll learn some of the basic story telling structures that appear over and over again in stories. By understanding what these story structures are and how they work, you can insure that you build your story on a solid story telling foundation.

The Three Act Structure

At the simplest level, every story consists of a Beginning, Middle, and an End. In a screenplay, the Beginning of a story, also called the Exposition or Act I, typically lasts 25-30 minutes, which roughly corresponds to the first 25-30 pages of a screenplay. This first Act must do the following:

  • Define the type of story
  • Introduce a sympathetic hero who has a compelling problem
  • Introduce a villain

Let’s take a movie that most people are familiar with, “Star Wars.” If you watch this movie again, time it and you’ll find that within these first 25-30 minutes, we learn the following:

  • Star Wars is a science fiction story
  • Luke Skywalker is a boy stuck on his uncle’s farm, but he longs for adventure
  • Darth Vader is the villain

Act I of any screenplay must grab our attention and answer our question of, “What’s it about?” Once we know (and care) what the screenplay is about, the second part of the story must tell us “What happens next?”

This second part of every story structure is called the Rising Action or Act II. In a typical screenplay, Act II lasts approximately 60 minutes and corresponds to pages 30-90 in a screenplay.

Act II shows the hero struggling to achieve a goal. Sometimes the hero will achieve a minor goal and sometimes the hero will fail. Act II typically:

  • Shows the hero entering an unfamiliar world
  • Shows the hero meeting up with allies
  • Shows the villain nearly achieving his (or her) goal
  • Shows the hero nearly defeated

Once again, watch “Star Wars” again and you’ll notice that in Act II, we learn the following:

  • Luke leaves his home planet and enters the new world of the rebellion
  • Luke has the help of Obiwan-Konobi along with R2D2 and C3PO
  • Darth Vader tries to learn the location of the rebel base
  • Luke is nearly crushed to death in the garbage disposal unit

Act II typically consists of multiple subplots in addition to the overall hero’s goal. For many people, writing Act II can be the hardest part. Act II typically ends when the hero is finally ready to battle the villain face to face.

Act III, also called the Climax or Resolution, is typically the most action-packed portion of the movie. Act III almost never introduces any new characters or subplots. Instead, Act III wraps up subplots and settles the question once and for all, will the hero achieve his (or her) goal or will the villain successfully stop it?

The basic question of Act III is, “Who wins?” In most screenplays, the hero wins but in tragedies, the hero may lose. The whole purpose of Act III is to:

  • Set up the final confrontation between the hero and the villain
  • Show that the hero’s goal is in direct opposition to the villain’s goal
  • Show who wins

Like Act I, Act III typically lasts 25-30 minutes and appears on pages 90-120 in a screenplay. In “Star Wars,” Act III shows us the following:

  • Darth Vader finally learns the location of the secret rebel base
  • Darth Vader planning to blow up the rebel base and Luke trying to stop him
  • Luke blows up the Death Star before it can blow up the rebel base

The three Act structure roughly corresponds to the following:

  • What is the story about? (Act I)
  • What happens? (Act II)
  • Who wins? (Act III)

This basic three Act structure forms the foundation of nearly every movie no matter what its genre. “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” “Star Wars,” “The Sound of Music,” and “Shrek” may seem to have little in common with each other, but they all rely on the same three Act structure:

  • Act I grabs our attention and lets us know what type of story it is
  • Act II tells us what happens
  • Act III tells us who wins

Of course, there’s more to writing a screenplay than dividing your story into three Acts, but once you understand this basic story structure and see how it applies to movies of all types, you’ll have a structure for building your own stories.

So the lesson is simple. Watch your favorite movie and notice how the three Act structure holds true for every movie that you watch. In fact, this three Act structure holds true for any type of story whether it’s told as a novel, as a play, or as a movie. All stories share similar characteristics and knowing these characteristics can help you craft a well-structured screenplay that will grab an audience, hold their attention, and leave them with a satisfying conclusion.

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