Exploring the Three-Act Structure

Imagine going bowling. 

Bear with me here.

You arrive at the alley with a set amount of preconceptions: there are going to be pins, there are going to be lanes, there are going to be big heavy balls that sometimes create a suction around your fingers that makes you panic for the second it takes for you to pull your thumb out.

What you don’t do is show up to a bowling alley expecting a speed dating party. Unless some kind of weird event is on.

A bowling alley is designed for people who want to bowl. A film, in the same way, is structured for people who want to be entertained.

This is where the Three-Act Structure comes in. This narrative model has existed since Greek tragedies were written and is fundamentally rooted in what the majority of people find enjoyable to watch. It’s a method of arranging a story’s main plot points, or beats, into relatable and engaging moving parts.

Exceptions can be seen in experimental cinema. These films explore filmmaking as a medium and often blur the line between cinema and art. They’re like the bowling alley that shuts down for speed dating – the people who show up to bowl are going to be disappointed.

Now, let’s put on some disgusting communal shoes and get into it!

Bowling Speed Dating

Act One: The Setup

At the start of a story, writers are pinsetters. You know – those big machines at the back of the lanes that set up the pins. If pinsetters don’t do their job, there’s no game to be played. Simple.

If a writer doesn’t lay the foundations of their story before launching straight into a battle sequence, viewers won’t have everything they need to properly engage with the text.

Using a flash forward sequence might seem like an exception to this, but it isn’t. Because with the flash forward comes great responsibility. It’s a little promise to viewers that every burning question they have from this scene will eventually be answered. Many nonlinear scripts, for this reason, are still in line with The Three-Act structure. Yes, even Memento.

Act One introduces the main character or characters, their goals, the world and setting, antagonists and more. This hook gives them something tangible to cling to for the rest of the viewing experience.

Act Two

This is where writers turn from pinsetters to flies, spilled drinks, people talking, a sore wrist – anything that inhibits a bowler from getting a strike. 

Act Two is the middle portion of your story. It comes after the pins have been set and typically makes up the bulk of a script. It’s full of action and obstacles and can be viewed as the transitional period between the protagonist deciding what they want and then getting – or not getting – it. The protagonist has a lot to overcome and get used to, and Act Two is where they figure all that stuff out. 

Throughout Act Two, the film’s protagonist – the bowler – is making incremental progress despite the obstacles that are setting them back. Towards the end of this act, they’re going to swat the fly and get serious. They might be hit with a false victory – a spare when they could have sworn they made the strike. But they can’t give up now: they’ve got one pin left in the game.

Act Three

Act Three is the end of your story. Your protagonist needs to face the main antagonist of the narrative so they can finally become changed, for the better or worse. The bowler’s wrist is aching but they need to land that spare. The pressure is on. The final throw is the crux of the game – the climax of the film.

Now, does the bowler get their spare? That depends. Maybe they get what they want. Maybe they don’t. Maybe they lose the game but decide they had fun anyway. Or maybe their wrist actually snapped under the weight of the ball and they now need medical attention. Oops!

Regardless of how the story ends, everything you introduce in Act One and all the main beats of Act Two should be wrapped up with a neat little bow. A pinsetter doesn’t put another pin down while you’re nearing the end of your turn. A screenwriter, therefore, shouldn’t introduce a crucial element of their story at their end – unless they’re planting the seed for a sequel.

game over

Final Thoughts

It’s easy to get bogged down in technicality, especially when so many structure guidelines exist. But if you’ve ever written a story with a beginning, a middle and an end, then congratulations! You’ve followed a three-act structure. We’re so surrounded by storytelling at every stage in our lives that narration comes naturally. 

Having beat prompts in front of you, though, may aid the writing process and get your creative juices flowing. The below may help you if you ever find yourself lost in your story.

Plot Beats to Consider

Act One

World building: where is your protagonist and why should we care about them? What about them is relatable or watchable?

Inciting incident: what happens in those first few moments of your story that shakes up the ordinary life of your protagonist? What gets them thinking about straying from their normal life? What do they want?

Overcoming hesitancy: what’s stopping your protagonist from leaving their ordinary world? Is an external force needed here to encourage your protagonist to take the first steps of their journey? A person? An object? A soft wind from the south that smells like their long-lost sister’s perfume, maybe?

Act Two

Obstacles: what’s getting in the way of your protagonist achieving their goals? Are these obstacles big or small? Obstacles have an overall upwards trajectory in terms of intensity; building towards a crescendo will make your protagonist’s growth feel earned. 

Progress: what is your protagonist learning after each obstacle? These are the little “wins” that you reward them with for pursuing their goals and pushing through the tough times. 

False Victory: this progress point is a big one. It feels like the win. But it isn’t! False victories are often referred to as “midpoints”, though they don’t need to take place in the dead-center of your story. 

Low Point: your protagonist has realized their victory was fleeting. They probably want to give up. What is it that gets them down, and what happens to reignite their passion? 

Act Three

Climax: does your story have an antagonist that needs to be dealt with? Who or what is that antagonist? This is where that battle takes place – internal or external.

Resolution: did your protagonist get what they wanted? Or better yet, did they get what they needed? Maybe they realized it was all about the journey rather than the destination. Or maybe it’s a tragedy, where your protagonist’s growth comes too late to save them.

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