Screenwriting: Understanding the 3 Act Structure

April 16, 2019

Post 95

Ben Kesp Academy

 

Beginning                                                 Middle                                     End (Event)

Act 1                                                           Act 2                                         Act 3

The Build up                                            The Adventure                       Resolution

First Quarter of the Story                      Middle Half of Story              Last Quarter of Story

Act 1 Plot Twist (End of Act)                  Act 2 Plot Twist (End of Act)                              

Act 1 Plot Twist – Routine Killer           Act 2 Plot Twist (Halfway Point)

Changes the Status Quo

 

 

A script is split into 3 acts: Beginning, Middle, and End

 

Start with the end called the EVENT.  Even if you do not know the event completely, have a temporary event and this will help you keep the story on track.  Even with short films, an event needs to be something that can be shown. If your script has no typical type of ending it still requires having an event (Ending).   

 

On looking at the above table, there can be more than 4 plot twists however these are the 4 fundamental plot twist points that divides the screenplay into 5 sections.  From here you can work towards writing one plot twist at a time. If you are wring a 2 hour script (120 minutes) then it is 10 pages to PLOT TWIST 1, 20 pages to the Routine Killer, 30 pages to the Halfway Point, 30 pages to the PLOT TWIST 2 and 30 pages to the EVENT. These page counts are not fixed in stone and are only meant as a guide.

 

Act 1 – The Build Up

 

The beginning of Act 1 should be very different from the ending of the story (Act 3).  A change must happen to bring about drama, which will also change the STATUS QUO that is seen in the opening act.

 

During Act 1, introduce the protagonist who should remain central to the main narrative of the story.  Introduce the other main characters. Create the Status Quo. Define the characters by showing the age, what kind of house they live in or clothes they wear.   If there is no job for the character show the character doing something else which is routine for them in their daily lives like playing sport, spying on their neighbour, drinking, etc, but keep it interesting and keep the character active. If the character does not have a partner or none is introduced as having one they will be seen as single.

 

If you use a prologue to begin the movie, it is separate from the main drama life of the character that is currently in the character’s status quo life. Prologues are good to set the mood and give exposition.  Opening the movie is different from how the drama opens as this opens with the status quo.

 

Act 2: The Adventure

 

The protagonist’s goal/mission must be clear at this point as it sets about the beginning of Act 2.  An adventure can range from anything to learning how to dance or taking a trip to a jungle to discover a lost artefact – it all depends on the script and movie genre.

 

The environment/scene will now be different to the comfort zone scene from the beginning of act 1 as a new status quo is being developed for the character.  They are now doing something they had not done before. Act two is the longest part of the movie so it needs to be mapped out with plenty of material and plots. Ensure all scenes are filled in which are relevant to the main story line.

 

OBSTACLES:

During Act 2, ensure you introduce many obstacles.  If the viewer can ask, why did the characters not just take the easy route? – Then the creation of the obstacle was not addressed correctly in the script. Physical obstacles are easier to overcome, but emotional obstacles are more difficult to clarify. There are two types of obstacles:

 

  1. Impossible ones to overcome (Prevents the character from overcoming the situation)

  2. Those that must be overcome (These ones must be overcome by the character and make them difficult to create more suspense)

 

STAKES:

How high are the stakes?  A viewer can also ask - so what is the big deal?

 

The stakes in your story should be high to create tension and tension leads to SUSPENSE. This is much easier for action, horror or war scripts. For a quiet script (Non Action), firstly find out what is the most important thing in your protagonist’s life?  What is it that it wants to hold on or what do they want to gain? Then put that very thing at risk.

 

STATUS SHIFTS AND REVERSALS OF FORTUNES:

There are 2 types of status

 

  1. Universal Status - This is how the world sees your character in terms of the story setting

  2. Relational Status - This can change regularly throughout the script and is based how each character relates to each other.  Who has the upper hand in a particular scene

 

Act 3: Resolution

 

All lose ends of the script/story must be tied up.  There can be several resolutions.

 

THE DECISIVE CONFRONTATION: Even if it is not action, the protagonist must stand his/her ground and stick to what he/she believes in or wants.

 

Lack of conflict or obstacles set up throughout Act 2 can lead to an overly simplistic Act 3. If there is not much story to wrap up, dialogue or action scenes can become boring. Make it as suspenseful as you can and make it complex.  Keep the stakes high.

 

ENDING ACT 3:

Give your characters a moment to adjust to their new surroundings.  

 

  1. If it happens after the last scene = aftermath

  2. If it happens along time after = epilogue

 

Make that final scene emotionally satisfying.

 

Suggestions:

  1. Maybe there was an amusing character in act 1 that got left behind or had no place in act 2, now is a good time to bring that character back in

  2. Some minor unfinished business from act 1 – conclude it

 

TWIST ENDING: It does not change the structure of your script. The twist ending is the EVENT.  Make sure it feels like a logical conclusion to your story.  You may trick the audience into believing it was to end some other way.

 

Get writing and be creative, and as always enjoy the experience!

 

Discover more on Ben Kesp, author and writer on the Ben Kesp Website.

 

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June 24, 2019

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