The 3 Act Structure

T H E 3 A C T S T R U C T U R E


ACT ONE — THE SITUATION

In every great film opening, step one is never boring. 

Open the film with the most passionate, exciting, funny, or tension filled scene you can think of. 

Most often, it's best to begin with an event. 

1. Unpeeling the Onion

  • Begin to reveal the layers of your story and characters scene by scene.

  • Reveal more and more about your characters as your story unpeels. 

  • Remember NOT to blow out everything up front, and tell your audience all the information. 

  • Withhold as long as you can in Act One. 

2. Pace Yourself

  • A frequent problem with young writers is that they cannot wait and start jamming much of their information upfront. 

  • You must learn to pace yourself. Be patient. Tease the audience.

  • (EG) Tease them with your backstory knowledge, revealing it gradually through your character's actions.

      


ACT TWO — THE COMPLICATIONS

Now, get into the information. Plot. Subplots. Action, reaction. Cause, effect. Complications. 

Be most attentive to character development in Act Two. If you must err, err on the side of being too thin in your plotting. It's easier to add meat and twists later on. 

Great stories have powerful simplicity. 

The A to Z straight line with zigzags crossing back and forth. Think simple and profound. 

Plot = simple and profound. 

Steps with profound simplicity. 

1. Scenes without Words

  • Unfold your simple, profound second act through action as much as possible. 

2. Scenes with Words

  • Still, there are times when your characters should let it out. 

  • You have to know fine dialogue writing or work with someone who does. 

3. Obligatory Scenes

  • Whatever the Act One situation is, somebody somewhere in Act Two has to tell someone else that ET wants to go home. That the little girl, despite having bonded with the pedophile, will have to testify against him. 

  • These are Obligatory Scenes.

  • In bad movies, they're done in talking heads, or are just predictable. They're done with little invention, with little to no audience surprise. 

A TECHNIQUE

  • Identify your obligatory scenes. 

  • Examine them. Analyse them. Also examine and reexamine what the audience expects. 

  • You can then add surprise, twists, and invention using unusual or unexpected locales, dialogue, situations, etc. 

  • Disguise your obligatory scenes. 

4. Disguising Exposition

  • Show, don't tell. You're writing movies. Make them move. 

  • Let the story unfold through action as much as possible. 

  • Humphrey Bogart once said that whenever he had to deliver exposition, he hopes that they'd put two camels behind him fucking so the audience will have something interesting to look at. 

  • Even simple motion like opening and closing doors, or walking down halls is preferable to no action at all.

  • Always better to let something take place and unfold through action for the audience's eyes than through a mere expository dialogue. 

  • Try to sandwich exposition in with action, action, and more action. Or better yet, just show it through action. 

  • Often, this will not be done in the step outline level. But here is where you should identify those potential problems and start thinking of putting car chases, arguments, people having sex, etc. in the scene. 


ACT THREE — THE CONCLUSION

The conclusion includes the climax, the resolution, and the catharsis. 

Remember to drive the theme home. 

The 3 Types Of Act Three 

1. Action Act Three

  • The second act ends. The protagonist is going to take physical action to finally resolve the problem or achieve his goal.

  • Here's where the chase scenes are cued: the world racing after ET and the children, the car chase madness at the end of Fast and the Furious, the gun battles that conclude Butch and Sundance. 

2. The Talk Act Three

  • The second act ends. The protagonist is going to take verbal action.

  • Eg. The dialogue war between 2 characters, the destructive verbal action of Charles Foster Kane, or the lawyer's summation in the court. 

  • Achieving a catharsis with talk is the most difficult. Your writing skill must be at its best. 

3. The Talk and Action Act Three

  • You don't have to tie up every ribbon and bow at the end of Act Three. 

  • Till this day, audiences continue to talk about whether the kids flew off with ET or come back? Did Butch and Sundance really die after the freeze frame? This technique gives the audience something to talk about and wonder on their way home. 

  • However, this technique does not advocate obscurity or ambiguity, it just means you don't have to explain every action and reaction at the end.