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March 9, 2022

The Three-Act Structure in Screenwriting

The three-act-screenplay structure is a story-telling model that goes back to Aristotle's dramatic theory as outlined in Poetics. It is loosely defined as a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end. We can also think of the three-act structure as the Setup, the Confrontation, and the Resolution.

This article will explore the key ingredients of the three-act structure, the long history of this ancient dramatic theory, and how you can use a three-act structure to make your screenplay stand out.  

If you are already well-versed in some aspects of the three-act structure, feel free to jump ahead. Otherwise, sit tight and we'll explain all the details.

In this article:

What is the three-act structure?

The three-act structure is a narrative model that separates stories into three distinct sections or acts.

Act I is the setup or exposition. This establishes the main characters and their goals.

Act II raises the stakes culminating in the confrontation between the hero and the villain.

Act III resolves the story. The hero returns home, has changed somehow, and the final sequence can serve as a setup for a potential sequel.

three act structure screenwriting
Act I sets the stage for the audience with a time and place and an introduction to the most important characters, notably the hero.

Why use the three-act structure for screenwriting?

The most important takeaway from Aristotle's theory is that the three sections are not just the beginning, middle, and end but individual events that logically follow each other.  

The three-act-structure structure is there to help you construct a compelling story full of suspense and tension.

Remember, you can plot all this out using the storyboard features of Arc Studio Pro. That way, you'll never get lost as you write. Act I sets the stage for the audience with a time and place and an introduction to the most important characters, notably the hero.

History of the three-act structure

Much of the narrative theory we use today has its origins in Ancient Greece. Aristotle's Poetics first established the difference between verse drama (what we would call narratives), lyric poetry, and epic poems.  

Dramatic verse and tragedies must have a plot he describes as an "organization of incidents" that takes us on a journey. More complex plots have multiple reversals and resolutions.  

Aristotle was the first theorist to commit to paper the idea that a narrative had to be organized logically for it to make sense.

Act I – The Setup

What to include in Act I

The first act should feature the following:

  • Hero: The protagonist deserves special attention, so you show them what they are about to leave in their everyday circumstances.
  • Setup: This is the who, where, and when of your story – an introduction of the primary and secondary characters and their world.
  • Theme: An allusion to the transformation your protagonist will undergo, a hint of what the movie is really about.
  • Call To Action: This inciting incident is the catalyst that will send your hero off into the unknown.
  • Resistance: Your main character shows some reluctance to accept the call and go on their journey.

The structure of your screenplay in Act I sets the stage. It should set up the time and place and introduce the most important characters, notably the hero.

The action starts with confronting the hero with an external problem, often connected to the hero's internal situation. Therefore, the first act poses the dramatic question: how can the hero solve these problems? The premise of your story is that after Act III, the audience will know the answer.

Opening Image: painting the blank canvas of the mind

At the beginning of a movie, the audience's mind is open as they haven't yet formed a frame for the story. Events of pure luck or chance seem much more plausible in the first than in the second act. This can be a thematically powerful image or an early, exciting scene that grabs the audience.

Setup

What kind of person is your hero, with what advantages and flaws? Show the goal your character wants or is pursuing. Any crucial characters in the beginning and for this phase of your main character also need to come into play. The hero usually faces a problem or character flaw, or even more than one, to create dynamics between them. Here, you are setting up the different world of the second act.

Theme

Your first act plants the seed for what will grow into the theme of your story. Your hero wants one thing but needs another, which differs from their goal and is universal. By the movie's end, they will be more independent or responsible, less fearful or selfish, or have found love, faith, forgiveness, trust, or acceptance.

Call To Action

Once you've introduced your hero with their goal and theme, it's time for the call to action. This inciting incident is the catalyst that sets everything in motion. It needs to break the status quo of your main character and prevent them from going back to normal afterward. This event is an action that happens to the hero; they don't cause it.

Resistance: should I stay or should I go?

Not many characters accept a life-changing event just like that. They assess the incident and consider their chances, but they are reluctant to go. So either they debate back and forth if they should go, or the call has to be repeated a second time to make them embark on their journey. If your hero is not yet ready to leave, they must gather tools or learn skills before going.

Act I checklist

Do you think your first act has everything it needs to create a compelling beginning for your story? Check your screenwriting with these points:

Hero

  • Show your hero in their everyday surroundings.
  • Do you have an opening image and hook?
  • Is there a hint at how your main character will change?

Setup

  • You've introduced the secondary character(s).
  • The audience knows the main character's goal.
  • You've shown your hero's problem or flaw.

Theme

  • The theme relates to what your hero will learn or how they will change at the end.
  • A character or thing introduces the theme, not your protagonist.

Call To Action

  • The inciting incident happens to the main character in an action scene.
  • The call to action makes it impossible for your hero to return to normal.
  • The status quo is broken.

Reluctance

  • Your hero ponders a (dramatic) question, i.e., should I stay or go?
  • If your protagonist needs to prepare, what for and why?
  • Your hero is reluctant to follow the call, and you show how that affects their life.

Act II – The Confrontation

What to include in Act II

The second act of your screenplay structure isn't called confrontation for anything – this is when you get to throw all sorts of problems and obstacles at your hero. To have enough rising action and a complete character arc for your protagonist, you'll need to include these elements:

The second act of your screenplay structure is the confrontation – this is when you throw obstacles at your hero. The action rises, and your character is tested. You'll need to have fully fleshed out a character arc for your protagonist.

You'll need to include these elements:

  • Crossing The Threshhold: Your hero finally decides to accept the call to action. They venture outside of their status quo as outlined in Act I and face a complete reversal in Act II.
  • B Story Character: A new character comes into focus. They will accompany the protagonist for part of the journey. The B Story character can be a friendly helper, a love interest, a mentor, a foe, or even a thing.
  • Fun and Games: In this long stretch, you get to fulfill the audience's expectations according to the genre. Your hero is making progress or repeatedly fails in many action scenes – car chases, explosions, and fights; here we go!
  • Midpoint: story brings a premature victory or defeat for your hero. Either way, you raise the stakes and let the audience know the journey is far from over.
  • External to Internal: A trajectory opposite to the one leading up to the Midpoint begins for your main character. They have to face their internal problem(s) before real change is possible.
  • All Is Lost: As the name implies, your protagonist hits rock bottom. Together with their internal struggles, an external event makes them despair.
  • Dark Night of the Soul: In their darkest hour, your hero reflects on everything that's happened so far. Can they – will they – go on? If you will, it's a mini cliffhanger before Act III.

Act II includes the rising action of the story.

three act structure screenwriting
Act II includes the rising action of the story.

Crossing the threshold

Your hero pursues what they want and makes a conscious, proactive choice – the hero's journey has begun, and they have stepped into a new environment. Katniss Everdeen enters the Capitol (The Hunger Games), Cooper leaves his family to join NASA (Interstellar), and Forrest starts running (Forrest Gump).

B Story character

In the first act, you introduced secondary characters connected to the external story. Now it's time for a helper figure, the B Story character. The B Story character will come to play a significant role later. Still, you must introduce them early so the audience won't have the feeling they appear out of nowhere as an instant solution to help your main character fix their flaws or problems.

Arc Studio Pro has a suite of features that keeps track of character relationships for you, making it easy to figure out when to bring side characters in and out of the action.

Fun and games

Now it's time to deliver and fulfill the premise's promise; in other words, give the audience what they want. In a nutshell, your hero has to try and fail, then do it again and again. But, of course, there are many ups and downs along the way, but you either put your protagonist on an upward or downward trajectory, headed for success or failure.

Midpoint

Your story's pivot point comes roughly in the middle of your script. The previous path of your hero leads to either a false victory or defeat as a culmination of their trials and tribulations.

The purpose is to raise the stakes and begin shifting from an external to an internal journey. From now on, the hero will have to address their need. This is when the countdowns start, love stories become severe, and significant plot twists occur, or a public outing makes it impossible for the main character ever to go back to how things were before.

External to Internal

Another name for this part of the second act is "Bad Guys Close In" – they've been foiled and now come back stronger than before after the Midpoint.

But your hero's struggles are not only external at this point; they are also internal. However, your main character still hasn't entirely changed and is dealing with the same problems or flaws you've outlined in Act I.

As for the direction of this shift from external to internal, your protagonist will now be on a downward path towards rock bottom after a false victory at the Midpoint.

All is Lost

Your hero needs another push, this time towards transforming themselves. Something big happens to the main character that takes everything away from them. It's the point in the movie where a mentor or helper character dies or a love interest leaves. Your protagonist is facing their inner demons alone.

Dark Night of the Soul

Remember your hero's resistance to the call to action at the end of Act I? The Dark Night Of The Soul is the same: your hero assesses the situation and thinks about giving up. But as your main character ponders their past failures, they realize the common denominator. They always stood between them and achieved their goal. To fix that, change is necessary.

Common problems screenwriters face in Act II

Second-act problems are the most common ailment that plagues screenwriters. Fear not; we have some fixes for what you might be struggling with in Act II.

Act II is boring

Yes, the second act sucks: after a great setup in Act I, you want to get to the finale in Act III as quickly as possible. What's in between is drudgery with neither glory nor romance. Your hero's struggles have become your own. They have to exercise will and find the strength to continue. Your job is to show what keeps them from skipping forward.

Even if your hero has superpowers, something keeps them from going straight to the final fight. They have to face their character first, as we all do. Your second act won't be tedious if the audience can relate to that.

What goes where

If you don't know how to begin Act II or have written a bunch of scenes that all seem to come later, you might have a structural weakness. The second act is a chain of events: cause and effect lead from one activity to another.

If you can't write in chronological order, assess each of your scenes.

For example, how close is the hero to their goal? How far are they from where they've started? What is happening externally and internally? Place the scenes under one of the story beats in Act II and see how the result flows like a narrative.

Weak story foundation

It's common to enter Act II and begin to doubt the strength of your story's foundation. Assuming your hero is a well-rounded character, you can test the foundation by looking at the Midpoint and working outwards in either direction from there. Remember, the false defeat or victory in the middle informs the hero's trajectory before and after. From there, you check the Threshold and the rock bottom at All Is Lost: your hero needs to be primed for the coming acts in these sections.

Act I goes on forever

If you don't have a clear break between Act I and II or have a run-on first act on your hands, you might be too busy world-building to kick off your story – or your call to action is not strong enough, so your hero remains in the status quo of the first act. Remember that you can continue to add to the world in the second act and that your first act only needs to include a few essential elements, which we've outlined in the previous installment of this series.

Not thinking visually

The adage show doesn't tell holds for Act II. But, of course, the dialog is a necessary interaction between characters that you can use to convey information to the audience. Still, the film is behavior: your hero and other characters reveal who they are through their actions. This is especially important in Act II when the hero needs to understand who they are.

My main character isn't on-screen

Whose story are you telling? If your protagonist doesn't have enough scenes in the second act, you might have the wrong hero – or you've locked them up in a predicament too early.

Only in the All Is Lost should they reach the end of their wit; a false defeat at the Midpoint raises the stakes and makes them continue.

Screenwriting a series

A horizontal series sustains an arc for your main character(s) across an entire season. Naturally, each episode requires its story arc with ups and downs, but when does the second act begin and end in the grand order?

Act II makes up the bulk of a movie or series at roughly 50 to 60 percent. As a rule of thumb, Crossing The Threshold occurs at around 20%, and the third act begins more or less at about 80% of the total runtime.

In a series of ten episodes, your second act would therefore stretch over episodes three to eight.

Act II checklist

Even if your struggles and problems Act II were not listed above, you could troubleshoot your script with the following Act II screenwriting checklist:

Crossing The Threshold

  • Your hero leaves the status quo of Act I (if they're not physically on the move, they at least try something new).
  • There is a clear break between the first and second act, showing your hero enters an inverse world in Act II.
  • Your hero follows what they want and decides to heed the call to action.

B Story Character

  • You introduce a new character (or thing) that represents the theme.
  • Because of the new world in Act II, your hero takes note of this character.

Fun and Games

Even though things go up and down, your hero is headed for success or failure.

  • It's Fun And Games for the audience: deliver on their (genre) expectations!
  • Continue to show the difference between your hero's world before and after the call to action.

Midpoint

  • Your hero experiences a false victory or defeat, which raises the stakes.
  • You set up the shift from external to internal (or A Story to B Story).

External to Internal

  • Your hero's internal flaws are working against them.
  • The path is now opposite to the one before the Midpoint.

All is Lost

  • Another significant inciting incident happens to your hero.
  • Your main character hits rock bottom.
  • You set up your hero's character transformation.

Act III – Resolution

What to include in Act III

Writing Act III is easy; you simply need to resolve your story, tie up all the loose strings of your subplots, answer the dramatic question raised in Act I and complete the transformation of your main character, end your story – and there should be a killer climax in there! Sounds daunting? We'll coach you through the elements of Act III:

  • The Fix: After their epiphany at the end of Act II, your hero now realizes how they can fix everything, their problems, and their character.
  • Finale: This is the big moment to which you've been building up all along – the final battle. In terms of The Hero's Journey, this is the fight where the hero dies and is resurrected again transformed.
  • Closing Image: A shot that mirrors the opening on your hero, only now you show them as a reborn person after their transformation.

Act III includes the resolution of your story.

The Fix

Remember your hero's epiphany at the end of Act II, where they realized that their inner struggles were holding them back? In a breakthrough moment, they learn how they can overcome that. The Fix represents the acceptance of the hero's flawed self and a resulting decision towards a solution. You can do this in a single scene that sets up the more extended finale.

Finale

If Act III is roughly 25 percent of your movie, the finale takes up most of that with nearly 20 percent screen-time. So it's essential not to rush to the climax or deliver a straightforward, predictable win for your hero.

Break the finale down into these steps: the hero gathers their strength or otherwise prepares; the plan is put in motion; a twist reveals the program as it cannot work; the hero (figuratively) dies and is resurrected; after which they alter the plan to succeed at the end.

In the approach to the climax, your hero prepares by gathering the necessary tools, which can mean weapons, maps, supplies, or information depending on your genre. If they don't face their last battle alone, they need a team. At this point, your main character makes amends with A Story characters they've alienated before.

Enter the final surprise or twist: the hero has stepped into a trap or detects an oversight in the plan. This can be a big reveal (Malcolm Crowe in The Sixth Sense was dead the whole time!), a dramatic plummet of the winning odds (Mark hears from NASA that the ascent vehicle is too heavy in The Martian), or any other "Your Princess Is In Another Castle" moment.

What follows must be a reaction by the main character. Once more, they assess their situation, however briefly: defeat or giving up are real possibilities. The theme of your story comes into play. What is it that your hero needs to do or realize? They overcome their internal problems and demonstrate their inner change, completing their transformation.

At the climax of the finale, the hero triumphs. They've altered the plan, put it to use, and succeeded. The ultimate reward awaits. As a screenwriter, making that reward metaphorical or literal is up to you.

Closing Image

In the first act of your screenplay structure, you've shown the hero in their status quo before the journey, their world before they changed. Now, all the tension from the climax has dissipated. So let the audience see the transformation.

The Closing Image can be a single scene or a series of scenes, but the mirror effect between Act I and III works best if you dedicate an equal amount of screen-time for opening and closing images. For example, in K

three act structure in screenwriting
Act III includes the resolution of your story.

Act III checklist

Not sure if the conclusion of your screenplay is a complete resolution? Check your screenwriting:

The Fix

  • Your hero learns the theme and makes a decision.
  • The Fix will change the hero the right way.
  • You set up Act III as a synthesis of Act I and Act II.

Finale

  • Your finale has ups and downs and isn't a straightforward race to the finish line.
  • After the twist, your hero demonstrates how they've changed.
  • Your external and internal story cross during the finale.
  • You answer the dramatic question(s) posed in Act I.

Closing Image

  • You show (don't tell!) the completed transformation of your hero.
  • This final image is a mirror of the hero in Act I.
  • The closing image offers indeed closure (or leaves with a cliffhanger).

Three-act structure film examples

Moana

Disney movies have a phenomenal grasp on the three-act screenplay structure and function like meticulously crafted swiss watches delivering theme and plot in perfect harmony. Each plot point is carefully designed to maximize pay-off while hiding the machinery under a heap of charm and humor. Here's how Moana works.

Act I: Moana on her island

Opening/Setup: The opening of Moana gives us necessary background information of the world before introducing us to Moana herself. She's intelligent and adventurous but is expressly forbidden by her father to go beyond the island's limits.

Inciting Incident: However, a blight hits the island that threatens to starve everyone who lives off its vegetation. Moana's grandmother tells her that to stop the blight; she needs to restore the heart of Te Fiti, an ancient God, by finding Maui, a long-lost demigod.

Turn to Act II: Moana breaks from the tradition and takes a defiant step towards adventure and away from the life she knew to save her island. Like many transitions to Act II, this is a literal step away from the location of Act One and is the encapsulation of one of the movie's most famous songs, How Far I'll Go.

Act II: Adventuring out to Sea

Premise/Fun & Games: As Moana is a musical, we hear some of the more comedic songs and are introduced to the secondary character of Maui. Moana and Maui run afoul of Kakamora and try to retrieve Maui's hook from a giant crab.

Midpoint: Moana and Maui bond, and as such, Maui teaches her how to sail, which helps him regain control of his powers. The two seem like unstoppable forces.

Descent to Darkest Moment: However, when they reach their destination, Moana refuses to heed Maui's call to retreat, resulting in his hook being damaged. Maui abandons Moana leaving her alone and sad. Here she has her "come to God" moment by communing with the spirit of the ocean.

Turn to Act III: Inspired by her encounter with the spirit of the ocean, Moana perseveres and sails back to the island to restore the heart of Te Fiti.

Act III: reuniting with Maui and confronting Te Ka

Finale: In a final conflict with the main antagonist, Moana realizes that Te Ka, the antagonist, is Te Fiti, the goal of her quest; Moana restores the heart, and the blight is healed.

Closing Image: Moana returns home to reunite with her tribe, who return to their adventuring ways.

Casablanca

One of the greatest movies of all time that still holds up to this day and unsurprisingly has a firm grasp of screenplay structure. Inspiring and profound are perhaps the reasons it's still beloved today.

Act I: Introducing the main players

Opening/Setup: Through an opening monologue, we are told about the state of Casablanca as a city for refugees fleeing the Nazi regime. In Casablanca, we meet Rick, the protagonist, at his cafe, which hosts both liberation figures and envoys of the Vichy French regime. Rick is sad and now considers himself neutral on all things.

Inciting Incident: One of Rick's many criminal friends, Ugarte, entrusts Rick with two letters that guarantee safe passage to neutral Portugal, a precious commodity in a town where everyone wants to get out. However, Ugarte is arrested before he can retrieve them.

Turn to Act II: To make a sticky situation worse, who should walk into Rick's bar but Ilsa, his former love, alongside her now-husband Victor Laszlo, a famous resistance leader. They need the letters to escape, and the Nazi Major Stasser is here to ensure they fail, all while Rick's stuck in the middle. How long can he stay neutral?

Act II: Navigating a sticky situation

Promise of the Premise/Fun & Games: Rick starts to navigate his precarious position by refusing to sell the letters to Laszlo because of the internal grudge Rick still holds towards Ilsa for as yet undisclosed reasons.

Midpoint: But Rick can't stay neutral forever. In his bar, a group of German officers starts singing a patriotic German song to some silent animosity. Laszlo asks the band to play La Marseillaise, a french anthem, in defiance. The band looks to Rick, which is a crucial act of defiance; he gives a nod of approval. The bar erupts in song and drowns out the German officers.

Descent to Darkest Moment: Of course, the German officers don't take kindly to this and forcibly shut down Rick's bar. In the wake of this stress, Ilsa confronts Rick, where we get the crucial backstory that details Rick and Ilsa's love affair the previous year in Paris.

Turn to Act III: Rick realizes that he was likely in the wrong the entire time, and we start to see the old gun-runner he used to be.

Act III: Rick Decides to Act

Finale: Rick helps Ilsa and Lazslo escape Casablanca with the letters he was given, killing Major Strasser in the process. In a noble sacrifice, Rick lets Ilsa go knowing that he must sacrifice his love in the name of a greater good. A far cry from the neutral state he began in.

Closing Image: Rick walks away from the airstrip with Renault, suggesting a fully-fledged return to resistance against the Nazi regime.

The Dark Knight

Of course, superhero films are no exception to the 3 Act structure. They're particularly well suited to it in some ways, considering their mythic roots. Yet, despite The Dark Knight's relatively complex plot, it follows the three-act structure brilliantly.

Act I: Joker Arrives in Gotham

Opening/Setup: The opening introduces The Joker, an element of chaos that will send Gotham into mayhem and challenge the structures of justice it currently operates under. Shortly afterward, we're introduced to Batman, reckoning with his influence over other do-gooders in Gotham.

Inciting Incident: Batman allies with Jim Gordon and Harvey Dent with the secret hope that Dent will be able to protect Gotham so that he can hang up the cowl.

Turn to Act II: The Joker makes his debut in the crime world, forcefully taking over one of the prominent crime families and promising to kill Batman in exchange for half the mob's money.

Act II: Batman and Joker Spar

Premise/Fun & Games: Batman chases the mob's corrupt accountant to Hong Kong, returns him to justice, Joker plays maniacal and sadistic games with Batman by murdering justice officials and learns that Rachel, his ex-girlfriend and Dent's current partner, is going to be the Joker's next target.

Midpoint: Just as Bruce is about to reveal his secret identity, Dent lies and says that he is Batman in a bid to stop The Joker's rampage. This ploy lures The Joker out into the open, where he is taken into custody after an attack on a convoy carrying Dent.

Descent to Darkest Moment: However, it looks like The Joker planned for all this. In an interrogation, The Joker reveals that he organized the kidnapping of Dent and Rachel. The bombs go off, killing Rachel and permanently scarring Dent, disillusioning him with the entire idea of justice. To make things worse, The Joker escapes, turns Dent to the side of supervillainy and takes a bus full of hostages.

Turn to Act III: Batman resorts to extreme measures of privacy invasion to bring The Joker to justice with grave consequences on the horizon.

Act III: Final Confrontation with Joker and Two-Face

Finale: Batman tracks down The Joker, rescues the hostages, and beats him in the fight, but not before he realizes that the plan was always to turn Dent to the side of chaos. Batman and Jim confront Dent, who falls to his death. Batman convinces Jim to blame him for Dent's spree of murders to preserve his image of being Gotham's protector.

Closing Image: Batman runs from the police, his reputation ruined, having made the ultimate sacrifice to keep Gotham from falling into chaos.

Ready to start writing?

After reading this blog, you should feel prepared to start writing your three-act structured screenplay! There's no need to read another blog or book about the three-act structure! Get your story ideas down on paper (or a computer). Start writing with Arc Studio Pro, the optimal choice for both novice and professional screenwriters.

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The Three-Act Structure in Screenwriting
Jakob Straub

Jakob is a freelance writer and storyteller. He publishes creative fiction in English and German and assists other writers with the development of plot and characters to shape their manuscripts into compelling stories.

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David Wain

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