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Arts & Entertainment

Three-Act Structure in Film: How to Write a Screenplay in 3 Acts

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Aug 14, 2020 • 4 min read

Traditionally, the overall story of a Hollywood screenplay unfolds over three acts. While William Shakespeare was loyal to the five-act structure when writing his plays, modern screenwriters generally adhere to the three-act screenplay structure.

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What Is the Three-Act Structure?

Three-act story structure divides a story into three distinct sections, each anchored around one or more plot points that drive the overall action. Over the course of the three acts, a complete story unfolds. The main character passes through the stations of a character arc, the main plot builds toward the realization of the protagonist’s goal, and by the end, the action is resolved, and key loose ends are tied up. In screenwriting, about 50 percent of the actual storytelling occurs in the second act, with 25 percent of the story falling in the first act and 25 percent falling in the final act.

Act One: How to Structure The First Act of a Movie

In a three-act plot structure, act one introduces the screenplay's world and main characters while also launching the characters onto their journey.

  1. The set-up: The first act typically starts with exposition—one or more scenes that establish the world of the story. The set-up should set the tone of the film and show the audience what your protagonist's ordinary world looks like before their journey starts. Use your first act to introduce your main characters, showcasing their personality traits and potential for future character development. The set-up is also the place to inconspicuously present the theme of your screenplay (which is often a lesson that your protagonist must learn).
  2. The inciting incident: The inciting incident pulls your protagonist out of their normal world and into the main action of the story. The inciting incident changes the life of a character, and the ensuing story is the fallout from that change.
  3. The debate: After the inciting incident, your protagonist has a choice to make. Do they attempt to keep living their life like everything’s normal or do they break out of their comfort zone? The protagonist may initially reject this call to action—which is a key plot point in an archetypal hero’s journey.
  4. The turning point: Also known as the first plot point, the turning point causes your protagonist to leave their old world behind for good, embarking on their journey into an unfamiliar world. The turning point is the last beat before the first act break.
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Act Two: How to Structure the Second Act of a Movie

A screenplay’s middle act consists of a rising action that leads to a midpoint, devolves into a crisis, and finally turns into a new plan of action.

  1. Introduce the subplot: The beginning of the second act is where writers introduce elements of the subplot, like a potential love interest or other secondary storylines. Often, the sub-plot contains a new group of previously unestablished characters that the protagonist meets as they embark on their journey.
  2. The midpoint: The middle of the story is where the stakes are raised, and the audience finds out the true capability of the characters and the potential drama that awaits. Obstacles, subplots, and other conflicting events threatening the hero’s overall goal. At the midpoint, the characters typically experience a false loss.
  3. All is lost: At this point in the screenplay, the world has gotten the best of the heroes, and all hope seems lost. Both internal and external conflicts are heightened towards the end of act two, and the main characters have reached a low point. The characters believe they have truly lost, and there is no hope for redemption, although in reality, it's only a temporary defeat.
  4. A new plan: It's here that the characters dig down deep inside themselves and find a new way to overcome the challenges they face. Due to that realization or a piece of new information, the characters conceive of a winning plan, or at the very least, the hero is reinvigorated enough to attempt to solve the story’s conflict once and for all. The hero is no longer hopeless, they are going to fight for their cause.

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Act Three: How to Structure the Third Act of a Movie

Act three aims to resolve all the screenplay's storylines in a satisfying manner and tie up any loose ends.

  1. The climax: The third act begins with the hero pushing forward with an attempt to save the day. This is when your main plot and subplots intertwine, the bad guys are confronted, and lessons are learned. The climax should be emotionally satisfying and pay off the thematic question you hinted at in the screenplay's set-up.
  2. The denouement: As the story comes to a close, the events of the climax wind back down into normal life. While your story should have reached a resolution, it does not necessarily mean your screenplay has to have a neat, happy resolution. Instead, aim for a sense of closure, even if there is an overarching plot that continues beyond this film’s story for future sequels.

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