All About Acts

People have been writing about story structure since the days of Aristotle’s tragedies. Though some of us resist structure in life, for writing screenplays it really serves an important purpose. More often than not, The Three Acts is the one most screenwriters choose to employ in creating the roadmap of their narrative so the reader doesn’t get lost. How does it work and what do these three acts need? Let’s start putting the pieces of the puzzle together.

All About Act 1

SHORT VERSION: This sets up the story and hits the who, what, where, why and when’s of the narrative.

  • An attention-grabbing opening! It doesn’t matter what genre the script is; we want to be engaged right away. Give us action, emotion or drama and do it off the bat so we want to keep reading.
  • Introductions are probably the most important things to make clear in this act. WHO are your main characters, WHAT are they doing and what do they do for a living? WHERE are they? WHY is there a story being written about them and WHEN does this story take place? The first act establishes the ORDINARY WORLD of the characters so when things get shook up, we can refer to their past. Give us their details and develop the characters enough so we know them and are in for their journey.
  • INCITING INCIDENTS are the shake up referred to above. They come about halfway through this act and hint at what the main conflict or action is going to be for our trusty or un-trusty protagonist. In Star Wars the inciting incident is when Luke Skywalker finds his family has been killed and seeks out Obi Wan Kenobi so he can become a Jedi.

All About Act 2

THE SHORT VERSION: Action, Action, we want Action … This act is where Movie Trailers are born!

  • This act is about taking on the conflict raised by the inciting incident. This is the meat of the narrative where the writer gets to throw everything they can at their protagonist. Confrontation, movement, and character and narrative development should constantly be in the mix, in this, the longest act of the script.
  • Subplots happen here. This is a good place to bring in a subplot as well so we’re not completely focused on the main characters all the time.
  • The ever important midpoint comes – you guessed it – about halfway through the script. Here, the tone shifts, either improving life or making things worse. Sometimes, it’s a big event such as when the T-Rex attacks in Jurassic Park. Mind, if your script doesn’t have a T-Rex it’s OK. Just make sure there is a big shift in the story’s tone, which makes the characters have to literally or figuratively run for their lives into the resolution.

All About Act 3

THE SHORT VERSION: The Big Reveal!

  • The final, and shortest act. This is where the tension ramps up and the protagonist overcomes odds to a happy or tragic conclusion.
  • This act in inexorably tied to Act One! If things aren’t working in this act it’s because they weren’t built up enough in the beginning of the script. Good script notes will point out what is missing so there is a feeling of closure and all the arcs initiated are ended.
  • All is lost? About halfway through this act (give or take) is the LOW POINT of the script. This is where the mentor figure or romantic partner dies or goes away and the goal the writer set out for the protagonist seems to be impossible to achieve! Remember when Obi Wan Kenobi died in Star Wars, Episode Four? That’s a big low point for the story and for Luke’s development. The rest of the act after this point is where the protagonist gets back on his proverbial horse or dies trying.

By The Way …

One more note about three act structure for good measure. No, not all scripts have to have three acts! Some have four and some really follow little structure, which can work if you can write like Quentin Tarantino or David Lynch.

However, more often than not, the three acts are there for a reason. Feel free to allow the action, drama and emotion to spill all over the place no matter what the genre … But if you follow the basics of these three acts your script will read smoothly, hit the rhythmic story beats and likely be more appealing to those all-important execs!

Happy Writing!

BIO: Jenny Frankfurt is a former literary manager and the founder of The Finish Line Script Competition where we offer 6+ pages of story notes so you can rewrite and resubmit new drafts (as many as you like) for NO EXTRA COST. We help writers follow a studio or network development process to get your script in the best shape possible — and that includes nailing that structure! Check us out at www.finishlinescriptcomp.com.

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