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Media in Minutes | Essential Concepts | Three act structure

Three act structure is one of the most important things you’ll learn about storytelling. To put it simply, stories have a beginning, middle and end.  Screenwriters refer to these stages as Act 1, Act 2 and Act 3. Better understanding the structure and beats of three act narratives, will make you a more articulate about the films and TV you consume while giving you the tools to hammer your own stories into shape.

There are heaps of books and models that describe three act narrative structure. Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey orDan Harmon’s Story Circle basically describe the same thing. As a Media student, you should become familiar with all of them to develop your understanding of what constitutes an effective and engaging story.

First, and most importantly, we need to talk about character. At the heart of every story there is a character who wants something badly, they just have quite a bit of trouble getting it. Characters take action to achieve their goal, face obstacles of increasing difficulty before, finally, they narrative reaches its most dramatic scene and the story is resolved. Along the way, characters develop and change—screenwriters call this change a character arc.  

So let’s take a look at three act structure. 

Act 1, the opening of the film, typically accounts for about 25% of a story. It establishes the main characters, including their traits, goals and motivations, and always includes some kind of catalyst or inciting event that compels the character to seek out their goal. Act 2, what I often refer to as the development of the narrative, is characterised by rising tension, multiple storylines and typically takes up half of the film. Act 3, which includes the climax and resolution, accounts for the remaining 25%. 

A question that I’m often asked at this point is, “Do all stories follow this structure?” The answer is pretty simple. Most of them do. What’s more, these three acts have become such familiar and fundamental parts of storytelling, that audiences crave this structure. We feel cheated when a story doesn’t fulfil these expectations, when it fails to hit these story beats—maybe the protagonist’s goals aren’t clear, maybe there isn’t sufficient tension in the second act, maybe Act 3 is anticlimactic or lacks sufficient resolution. When I look back on films I love, they often use this structure to tell tight, well-paced and engaging stories.

Let’s take a closer look at each of these acts. 

Act 1 typically sets up characters—including their traits, goals and motivations. It builds empathy for these characters,  establishes the setting, as well as the genre and tone of the narrative. There’s a catalyst, or inciting event, that compels the character to take this journey. By the end of the Act 1, the main character reaches a turning point where they commit to the action.

Character establishment is one of the most important parts of Act 1. 

Let’s take a deeper look at character. The first act establishes the protagonist’s traits. Maybe they’re a diligent and skilled police officer (Hot Fuzz, 2007), a talented photographer (Get Out, 2018) or someone willing to sacrifice others to achieve success (Nightcrawler, 2014).  Establishing a character’s motivation is also important. Remember, a narrative is about a character who wants something. It’s this motivation that drives them to pursue their goal despite adversity. A character’s wants are often tied to the story’s external conflict. In The Hunger Games, Katniss wants to survive a terrifying bloodbath and return home. In The Last Jedi, Rey wants to enlist the help of Luke Skywalker to defeat the First Order. In The Big Lebowski, The Dude wants to be compensated because someone peed on his rug. While the character struggles to achieve this goal. they often have to deal with internal conflict as well. Part of the setup in Act 1 involves establishing the problems, flaws or weaknesses that form the basis for their internal conflict. In Hot Fuzz, Sergeant Nicholas Angel is obsessed with his job and can’t switch off. In the Bourne Supremacy, Jason Bourne struggles with the memory of killing someone. In Bird Box, Malorie Hayes is ambivalent about becoming a mother. In each of these cases, the story forces the characters to grow and change, allowing them to resolve this internal conflict. Nicholas Angel’s epic bromance with Danny Butterman teaches him to switch off. Jason Bourne apologises to the daughter of the murdered politician. And Malorie Hayes adjusts to the idea of being a parent by giving her children actual names. In many cases, characters realise what they want isn’t what they actually need to achieve fulfilment. Act 1 is absolutely crucial when it comes to establishing a character’s traits, goals and motivations.

Building empathy is another important part of Act 1. The audience is encouraged to empathise with the point of view of the main character. Most narratives build this identification by showing events through a character’s eyes, throwing the audience into their world and giving the characters worthwhile problems to grapple with. Remember that characters don’t have to be likeable or good for an audience to identify with them. There are plenty of narratives where the protagonist is unlikeable but we identify with them regardless.

The first act of a narrative also establishes the setting. While setting can simply be defined as where the narrative unfolds, it often plays an important role in character motivation or conflict. In Green Book,  black concert pianist Don Shirley tours the deep south of America in 1962 with his Italian American driver and bodyguard  Frank Vallelonga. The racism and prejudice of this setting is what motivates the character in the first place and, on their journey, is a source of external conflict. Sometimes setting also performs a metaphorical function. In Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, the architecture of the reclusive billionaire’s house contrasts with the surrounding wilderness to highlight the difference between what is natural and what is artificial. It also helps that its incredibly isolated and claustrophobic. 

The opening of a narrative plays an important role in establishing genre and tone. By establishing genre and tone, screenwriters are entering into a contract with the audience. If a story doesn’t deliver on these promises or deviates from them in unsatisfying ways, the audience might be disappointed. Wes Craven’s Scream is a great example of a film that establishes its genre and tone within the first few minutes. The events of the opening scene clearly convey that the film is a slasher flick, while the dialogue suggests that it’s going to be a witty commentary on the conventions of horror films. Hidden Figures is a great example of a film that establishes is genre in the first few scenes. Early in the film, three black, female mathematicians breakdown on the side of the road while travelling to work at NASA. A police cruiser pulls up behind them. Despite the sense of foreboding that develops, the scene ends on a positive note as the police officer gives them a high speed escort to work. The film is quite obviously an historical drama but what this scene does best is establish tone: despite racism and bigotry, the film is an optimistic story about three characters who will make a groundbreaking contribution to the space race.

Act 1 also features a catalyst or inciting event, something that throws the character’s world into turmoil. In The Big Lebowski, The Dude becomes embroiled in a mystery when two men break into his apartment and pee on his rug. In 127 Hours (Danny Boyle, 2010), Aron Ralston is trapped underneath a boulder at the bottom of a ravine. In Star Wars: A New Hope, Luke Skywalker discovers a message stored in his newly acquired R2 unit.

In most narratives, the protagonist doesn’t immediately pursue their goals or commit to the narrative. They go through a period of indecision. People don’t like change and characters are no different. Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat calls this stage The Debate while Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces calls this stage refusing the call. In Aliens, Ripley initially refuses to join the team sent to investigate why Weyland Yutani lost contact with LV426. In Braveheart (Mel Gibson, 1995), In Get Out, is ambivalent about visiting the parents of his white girlfriend. In Green Book, Frank doesn’t want to take the job with Don Shirley because he’s a bit of a racist. 

At the end of Act 1, there is a turning point where the character commits to the action. In Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell calls this moment ‘crossing the threshold’. It’s the part in story when the a character commits to the action, when they enter a dangerous or unknown world, the moment where there is no turning back. In Star Wars: A New Hope,  Luke Skywalker discovers that his aunt and uncle have been murdered by stormtroopers and decides to follow Obi-Wan to Alderaan and rescue the princess. In The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo Baggins leaves The Shire with Gandalf the Grey. In Skyfall, James Bond agrees to help M track down a terrorist behind the devastating attack on MI5. 

Act 2 is characterised by rising tension. Do our characters get what they want? Hell no. They pursue their goal but encounter setbacks and obstacles of increasing difficulty. Things get really bad and, just when it seems like all hope is lost, they find a solution to their problems that propels the story into its final act.

Act 2 usually includes multiple storylines, subplots or b-stories that complement the main action. This b-story often involves a relationship or some kind of inner conflict. In Aliens, Ellen Ripley—grappling with the death of her own daughter—becomes a surrogate mother to Newt. In Unbreakable, David Dunn tries to rekindle the relationship with his wife. In Mad Max: Fury Road, Nux fails to capture Immoten Joe’s wives and actually falls in love with one of them.  

Rising tension is a really important part of Act 2. The middle of the film often includes what screenwriters call the ‘mid-point disaster’, a dramatic event that raises the stakes. If you skip to the middle of any film, I can guarantee that you’ll find yourself in the middle of an incredibly suspenseful or dramatic scene. This can be a defeat or a victory. If it’s a victory, it often turns out to be a false victory that makes things worse for the characters. In Skyfall, James Bond capture Raul Silva which turns out to be part of his plan all along . In Aliens,  the wiley xenomorphs destroy the drop ship, stranding the characters on LV426.  In The Force Awakens, the First Order activates Starkiller Base destroying  the Republic capital and its fleet. 

After the midpoint disaster, do things get better for our characters? Hell no. The narrative pushes relentlessly towards the end of Act 2 as the characters encounters their biggest obstacle, setback or defeat yet—making their goal seem virtually unattainable. In Jaws, Chief Brody realises they might have underestimated the size of the shark. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Nazis take the Ark of the Covenant aboard their submarine. In The Avengers, Agent Coulson is stabbed by Loki and the team is in disarray. 

From this setback or defeat, with their goal more elusive than ever, that the characters, the characters often find the solution to their problem, reaching another turning point that tips the narrative headlong into its final act. In Notting Hill, William Thacker realises he’s made a terrible mistake by turning down a world famous actress, prompting a desperate dash across London before she leaves the country. In Skyfall, Bond realties that Silva has been one step ahead all along, and resolves to lure him into a trap. In Mad Max: Fury Road, after discovering the Green Place is uninhabitable, the characters realise their only hope is to return to the Citadel. 

Act 3 is features the climax and resolution of the narrative. Deciding on a course of action to achieve their goal, the stakes are high as the characters face their most difficult obstacle. Maybe they’re desperately trying to clean a mud-caked revolver while an enormous crocodile is bearing down on them (Black Water, 2009). Or professing their love for someone in a room full of reporters (Notting Hill, 1999). Or confronting a corrupt and ruthless lawyer (Michael Clayton, 2007).

After the climax, the storyline is resolved. The end of a story doesn’t have to be happy but it must be satisfying. The resolution of a narrative – happy or sad, triumphant or bittersweet – should deliver on the promises of genre and tone established in Act 1. Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow is a terrific example of how all the subplots and storylines are closed off at the end of a film: everyone is rescued, the homeless guy and his dog live happily ever after, the two nerdy librarians hook up, the private and public school boys become friends, Jake Gyllenhaal and Emmy Rossum are in love, and Denis Quaid learns how to parent…oh…and the superstorm cured global warming…yay! 

Keep in mind that storytelling is a complex art. Three act narrative structure gives us the framework to dissect our favourite films and become more effective storytellers.

Check out this handout to breakdown the structure of a narrative that you’re studying.