Stories have a beginning, middle and end. These story conventions are a fundamental element of all narratives. Screenwriters refer to these stages as Act 1, Act 2 and Act 3.
- Act 1. The opening of a narrative typically establishes characters, setting, themes and engages the audience. It features a catalyst that sends the character on their journey. By the end of the Act 1, the main character reaches a turning point where they commit to the action.
- Establishing character. All stories are about a character trying to achieve a goal. Narratives always establish characters – their traits, motivation and goals – within the first act. To become involved in a story, the audience needs to know who the characters are and what they want. Establishing character also means establishing their flaws. In Save the Cat, Blake Snyder calls these the ‘Six Things that Need Fixing’. By the end of the narrative, the character has usually resolved these problems. Characters always change. Screenwriters often refer to this change as a ‘character arc’.
- The catalyst. At the beginning of a narrative, something occurs that throws the character’s world into turmoil. Most people don’t like change. Characters are no different. Something dramatic happens that starts their journey. This is often called the ‘inciting incident’. In The Big Lebowski (Joel and Ethan Coen, 1998) 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.
- Debate. In most narratives, the protagonist doesn’t immediately pursue their goals or commit to the narrative. Most go through a period of indecision. In Save the Cat, Blake Snyder calls this stage The Debate. In Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell calls this stage refusing the call. In Aliens (James Cameron, 1986), Ripley initially refuses to join the team sent to investigate why Weyland Yutani lost contact with LV426. In Braveheart (Mel Gibson, 1995), William Wallace wants to continue being a humble farmer and refuses to take up arms against the British.
- Turning point. In Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell calls this moment crossing the threshold. It’s the moment when a character commits to the action and enters a dangerous or unknown world. In Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977), this is the moment that Luke Skywalker discovers that his aunt and uncle have been murdered by stormtroopers and decides to follow Obi-Wan to Alderaan and learn the ways of The Force like his father. In The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (Peter Jackson, 2001), Frodo Baggins crosses the threshold when he decides to leave The Shire with Gandalf the Grey.
- Act 2. Act 2 of a story is characterised by rising tension. Your characters pursue their goal but encounter setbacks and obstacles of increasing difficulty. When it seems all hope is lost, they find a solution to their problems which propels the story into its final act.
- Multiple storylines. Act 2 in a narrative usually involves multiple storylines. These subplots help to engage the audience in what is often referred to as the ‘sagging middle’ of a story. In narratives, the main storyline often deals with the main external conflict in a film whereas subplots often deal with relationships or romance.
- Rising tension. Act 2 is characterised by rising tension. Stories are fundamentally about characters who want something. In the second act, they go about achieving that goal but run into obstacles and setbacks of increasing difficulty. The middle of the film often includes what screenwriters call the ‘mid-point disaster’. It’s a dramatic event that raises the stakes. It can be a victory, defeat or combination of the two. If you skip to the middle of any film, chances are that you’ll find yourself in the middle of an incredibly suspenseful or dramatic scene. As the narrative pushes relentlessly to the end of Act 2, characters often endure what Blake Snyder refers to as the ‘Dark night of the soul’. This is the moment when, after suffering a terrible defeat, it looks like their goal is as elusive as ever. From this desperation, the character often finds the solution to their problem and the narrative hurtles into its final act.
- Act 3. Act 3 is the most important part of a story. It is when the story reaches its most dramatic and most intense point, and the story is resolved. Typically, the resolution includes two important parts: the climax and the resolution.
- Climax. The climax is the most dramatic scene in a film. The stakes are high and the character takes action to achieve their goal. What will they do to triumph? In a horror film, this is the most suspenseful scene. In a comedy, it’s the funniest.
- Resolution. Following 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 – often delivers on the promises of genre and tone established in Act 1.
The diagram below demonstrates how Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse uses these story conventions to tell a compelling story. Download as. PDF here.