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Understand the Three Act Structure

The Three Act Structure is screenwriting 101, many of you understand it well and can skip this section. For those that don't, read on as understanding this structure is crucial to screenwriters.

What is the Three Act Structure?

It's the most widely used technique to plan out and implement screenplays. The basis three act structure has been used by screenwriters since the birth of Hollywood. It has evolved since, but the core is largely unchanged.

Core

At the heart of this structure are three acts:

Some writers prefer to breakdown the structure further into separate and distinct stages.

Script Analysis Three Act Structure

Timelines

Approximate timelines are:

For the stages, the approximate timelines are:

Stage Timeline (approximates)
I: Setup 10% i.e. to page 11 of a 110 page script
II: New situation 15% i.e. pages 12 to 27 of a 110 page script
III: Progress 25% i.e. pages 28 to 55 of a 110 page script
IV: Complications & Higher Stakes 25% i.e. pages 56 to 82 of a 110 page script
V: Final Push 15% to 24% i.e. can be 16 pages to 26 pages long
VI: Aftermath 1% to 9% i.e. can be 1 page to 10 pages long

Or if you prefer diagrams:

Script Analysis Three Act Structure with Plot Points

Act I: Setup

The First Act is the setup - the main characters, dramatic premise and situation (what does your protagonist have to overcome?) are introduced. Your protagonist should not be perfect, they should have some failings, fears or weaknesses), these are typically introduced in the first act also. The story will of course force your protagonist to confront (and hopefully overcome) their failings/fears/weaknesses.

The Inciting Incident will take place - this incident is critical for your story, it will set things in motion that cause (even force) your protagonist to respond, try to overcome or defeat it.

It is generally advisable to introduce all your lead characters within the first ten pages. Make sure no central character drops out of the script for a lengthy period of time.

It is common for some writers to throw additional obstacles at their protagonist during this act - their protagonists tend to overcome these early obstacles.

Act II: Confrontation

The Second Act takes up the bulk of your screenplay, typically around 50% (so around 55 pages of a 110 page script). It should be a rollercoaster ride for your protagonist - highs and lows. Everything should get more intense for them, the dramatic tension (or threat) should steadily be amped up until your protagonist either springs into action or is forced to take action.

They will make some progress but they will not succeed. A major setback, or new complications should be thrust their way, the stakes getting ever higher.

This act typically ends with your protagonist at their lowest point, often all but defeated, spent, sometimes unwilling or unable to go on...

Many writers throw a number of obstacles at their protagonist during this act - the protagonist overcomes most but not the last one, suffers a huge setback which so severely knocks them back that they cannot continue (but read on), or are plunged into turmoil, even despair.

Act III: Resolution

The Third Act is the end game (aka resolution). It will commonly take up the last 25% of your screenplay.

It commonly starts with your protagonist rising: they somehow find the energy or will to rise up, keep battling. Often they will form a new plan, implement it against whatever confronts them. The confrontation is incredibly hard and difficult but (against the odds and expectations) they will overcome, win through.

The third act ends with a wrap-up aftermath scene or scenes - the Aftermath stage can be as short as a single page or up to ten pages. Keeping it short (1 to 3 pages) is typically best as you don't want your readers (or the audience) to come down too much from the highs just recently achieved.

Caveat

Some scripts ignore parts of the three act structure, extend it or change it in some other way - that's fine providing you're very content with your choice and implement it well.

However, for most non-pros, it's best to stick with this structure.

Give yourself time with the Three Act Structure

A lot of professional screenwriters spend days, even weeks, working out their three act structure, plot points and general storyline for their scripts. Paper Sticky Notes can be a great add here.

Crafting a great story is at the heart of professional screenwriting so work on your three act structure and give it a lot of time. You will be exponentially rewarded for it.

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External links

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Wikipedia: Three Act Structure