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Screenplay structure, part 2

There's a pattern behind the madness

What is Three Act Structure?

Different authors and teachers use different terminology, and even disagree on whether there are three acts, or actually four acts, or even more. I have tried to steer a mid-course to give you the basics you need to understand and sound knowledgeable in a conversation with a screenplay writer or to properly structure your own screenplays.

The First Act of a screenplay consists of the first 25% of the story and is sometimes called the Setup. In a 100 page screenplay it would be the first 25 pages.

Toward the end of the first act there occurs a Plot Point, an event that turns the story in another direction.

The Second Act, also called the Confrontation, continues for the next 50% of the story until a second Plot Point occurs.

There is almost always a Turning Point in the middle of the Second Act.

The second plot point takes us into the Third Act, or Resolution, for the final 25% of the story.

If you like visual aids here is a graph of what it looks like.

Three Act Structure

Act 1 introduces the characters and the world of the story.

If the world of the story is the present world and a place much like where we all live then the job is easy. Everyone will assume what they know of their own world. If the world is a foreign land, an historical time or a science-fiction or fantasy time and place then extra effort must be devoted to explaining this to the audience.

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There are always at least two characters: a hero or protagonist and a villain or antagonist. In simple terms the hero is the character we most closely associate with in our minds and want to root for because they represent what we believe to be good, the antagonist is the bad guy. The hero and villain aren't always human. For example the hero could be an animal and the villain could be a force of nature.

A story usually contains more than two people, but in any case, they should all be introduced in the first act, if only by a reference or innuendo. We need to learn enough things about the characters so that their later actions will make sense.

An important point, and a frequent amateur mistake, is that once the world and characters are established you can't change them without disconcerting your audience. You can't present your hero as a wimp then have him beat the villain to a pulp in the last minute.

In the movie Titanic the story begins by introducing all the characters including the three most important: Rose is the protagonist and Cal, her fiance, is the antagonist. Jack is also introduced. He will be the important catalyst for the Plot and Turning Points. Jack is a poor but happy steerage passenger. Rose is an unhappy daughter of wealth who is engaged to the crass and bullying Cal.

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The world of Titanic is also introduced by showing both the splendors of the ship as well as the behavior and attitudes of the time.

The First Plot Point is something that shakes up the protagonist by presenting them with an opportunity to act on something. It could be anything that alters his or her day-to-day existence and presents a challenge. The hero often resists the urge to act but they will eventually be forced to take a stand. The hero begins to change.

In Titanic the First Plot Point occurs when a depressed Rose panics and decides to commit suicide by jumping from the back of the ship but is talked out of it by Jack. He shows her a possibility of a different life. The conflict of the story is introduced at this time in the form of Cal's jealousy vs. Rose's growing interest in Jack.

Typically Rose resists at first but gradually her relationship with Jack grows more and more irresistible.

The Second Act presents escalating conflict from the antagonist and the protagonist is pressured to act.

The Second Act of Titanic continues to build the conflict as Rose spends more and more time with Jack and Cal goes into fits of jealous rage.

The Turning Point is something dramatic that finally forces the hero's total commitment to try solve the conflict.

The Turning Point of Titanic happens in the middle of the second act when Rose brings Jack to her stateroom to sketch her in the nude. This soon leads to them making love. Rose is fully committed to her relationship with Jack.

The rest of the Second Act is now an all out battle between the hero and villain with each fully committed and prepared to fight to the finish. The hero is being forced to become a different person than they were when we first met them.

The rest of the Second Act of Titanic continues the build-up of conflict with Cal trying to separate Rose and Jack by having him falsely arrested for stealing a precious jewel. Rose is fully committed to leaving Cal and must use everything she has to outwit him. Jack is chained to a pipe and is certain to die when the Titanic hits an iceberg. Cal tries to force Rose to escape in a lifeboat.

The Second Plot Point starts the final confrontation between hero and villain. Only one of them will get his/her way.

The Second Plot Point of Titanic is when Rose manages to elude Cal by playing on his jealousy and goes to rescue Jack.

The Third Act is the hero's final struggle to win. It is usually followed by a brief denouement where we can glimpse how the characters' world has been changed. The hero and his/her world has been somehow transformed.

The Third Act of Titanic includes a final confrontation between Cal and Rose which she wins, and a confrontation with the freezing ocean where she loses Jack. But in the end she has escaped from Cal's influence. We find out that she will go on to lead a brilliant and happy life.

THE END

Nearly any feature length film you might name, and all the of the major successful films, fit rather neatly into the three act structure. Even a film told in reverse such as Momento fits very neatly into the classic three act structure on close analysis.

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Even the timing of the acts and turning points of films is remarkably consistent. Watch almost any movie with your eye on your watch. If you know the total time of the film and divide it by four you will know when to watch for each "point" and will rarely be more than a couple of minutes off. Once you know how to spot the acts and turning points they will become so obvious you won't be able to see films the same way again.

A good method to begin writing a screenplay is by starting with a document containing the elements of the three act structure and gradually fit in the pieces of your story around them as short paragraphs describing the action of each scene. When you are done you will have a properly structured treatment to start formatting your screenplay.

An important note about short films is that although they also follow a structure of three acts it is often better to think of them like telling a joke where you have a Setup to prepare the audience for the Payoff or Punch Line. Short films don't usually allow time for full character development and escalating conflict before a final resolution.


What is the Hero's Journey?

The visual model for the Hero's Journey looks like a circle rather than a straight line.

Hero's Journey Structure

It begins at the top of the circle with the Ordinary World, moves counter-clockwise through a series of stages and eventually returns where it started at the Ordinary World.

The Hero's Journey is different from the Three Act structure in that all emphasis is on the hero and there doesn't have to be a clear villain. There will be other characters that at times may be helpful or at times may hinder but the emphasis is always on the hero's point of view. In fact characters in the Hero's Journey structure can shift to different roles at various times in the story.

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Ordinary World is like the beginning setup of Act 1 of the Three Act structure. This is where the audience meets the hero and learns of his/her life, personality and surroundings.

In Titanic this is where the audience first learns of Rose, Cal and Jack and the ordinary world of being rich and poor in the first years of the 20th century.

Call to Adventure is where the hero is presented with a challenge or opportunity to undertake a quest or solve a problem. To take up the quest the hero must leave the familiarity of his or her Ordinary World.

Rose is being forced onto a literal journey and what will soon be a spiritual journey as she sets sail on the Titanic and on the first step toward becoming Cal's wife.

Refusal of the Call is the typical reaction to want to avoid risking the adventure and the changes that will result.

Rose rebels against her mother and Cal. She doesn't want to accept the changes being forced on her. When she can stand it no more she decides to commit suicide.

Meeting with the Mentor usually occurs now in the form of someone passing on some knowledge to the hero. The mentor isn't necessarily a good guy or a bad guy but receiving the knowledge is necessary for the hero to take the first step.

A mentor appears in the form of Jack who tells her that there are other worlds and possibilities for her if she just has the courage to try to find them.

Crossing the First Threshold is equivalent to the start of Act 2 in the Three Act structure. This is the first step on the journey.

She invites Jack to dine with her wealthy peers and he invites her to learn about his world. She likes what she sees and begins her journey.

Tests, Allies, Enemies is the hero's next step. The hero has entered a new and strange special world. They will learn, change and be tested.

As she goes farther into Jack's life she is challenged by Cal and her mother to return to her old world.





Approach to the Inmost Cave is like the second act turning point of the Three Act structure. The hero must now face the greatest test and must be fully committed to meeting the challenge they were given in the Call to Adventure.

Rose asks Jack to draw her in the nude and they end up making love. She is confident of the rightness of her choice and is fully ready to enter the final battle.

Ordeal is the central crisis of the story in which the hero faces his/her greatest fear and risks death. In a sense the hero is now reforged in the heat of the battle and is forever changed.

Rose struggles with Cal for control of the new life she has chosen for herself.

Reward is the moment when the hero has achieved the break through and can now begin the journey back to their ordinary world. The journey is not over and many other perils may be faced but the hero is now armed to face the final challenges.

Rose breaks free of Cal's control and is committed to acting independently.

The Road Back starts what would be the 3rd act in the Three Act structure as the hero uses his/her newfound strength and knowledge to complete the adventure and begin the return to his/her Ordinary World.

Rose eludes Cal to rescue Jack but she still has an additional challenge to survive the sinking of the ship.

Resurrection is the final proof and accomplishment of the mission in the Call to Adventure. The hero is now master of his/her world.

Rose loses Jack but she survives and continues to elude Cal and her mother. She is now the master of her future.

Return With the Elixir is the denouement where we learn how the hero has returned from the tests of the journey and how the hero has been transformed, what they have gained and how it will benefit them, their friends, family, community and the world.

Rose goes on to lead a full, rich life of her choosing. The story, and the hero, have come full circle.

THE END

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A great way to learn about and compare the two popular story structuresis by viewing a 3 DVD set The Hero's 2 Journeys with two top screenwriting gurus presenting a seminar describing and comparing the two views. They use the great film Erin Brockovitch for examples.

The Three Act and the Hero's Journey structures are time tested patterns for stories. You may find them a good starting point for your own stories. Use them as you would any other tool. If they work for you then use them. If they don't work then use the approach you feel most comfortable with.

You are the filmmaker. You are the artist. Learn from these, then do it your way.

Whatever the case you need to be able to deliver emotion and entertainment in your stories.

We'll work on those in the next section.

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