Three-Act Structure is Simpler Than it Seems
This is the start of a series all about structure in fiction. Whether you outline your project in advance, or write by the seat of your pants, you need to know some terms. Because if there’s one thing every audience member thinks they’re an expert on, its:
THREE ACT STRUCTURE
Ok, not everyone knows the term, but when your mom leaves a movie and says she liked the beginning and ending but thought the middle was boring, she’s talking about story structure.
These days, the average viewer consume so much media - and so much media about media - that audiences are pretty savvy. And this leads to a lot of so-called experts over-explaining (and sometimes over-thinking) what makes for good structure.
First, some disclaimers:
I went to school for screenwriting, so I’m going to pull a lot of examples from movies. Everything we discuss here also applies to novels, plays, and even essays, but the film industry treats three act structure like a religion.
Second, there are alternatives. Even though I personally think everything can boil down to three acts, there are other ways to divide stories. Shakespeare used a five-act structure, and in fact most network TV shows a five-act structure, divided up by commercial breaks. The YouTube channel Lessons From The Screenplay found that The Avengers also fits a five-act structure, and it's easy to imagine that other films could be divided up the same way.
Third: Three-act structure is separate from the Hero’s Journey, though there’s a lot of overlap, which we’ll talk about another time.
Fourth: For the most part, these divisions are invisible, and they’re usually flexible. Except for films or books that literally divide themselves into three parts, like "Independence Day" or The Stand, the division between acts may not always be obvious.
But here's everything you need to know about act structure:
Act 1 is the beginning
Act 2 is the middle
Act 3 is the end
That’s it. It’s that simple.
Oh, there’s certainly more to explore, but on a fundamental level, that’s what you need to know. And that’s why all stories, whether they think it or not, have a three act structure.
But that’s not what most people mean, so let’s define terms.
One of my screenwriting teachers explained it to me like this:
Act 1 introduces the world of your story, and sets up all of your main characters. You can include more major characters later, but main characters need to be properly established early.
Act 1 includes the INCITING INCIDENT, the moment that gets the ball rolling. This usually pulls the main character out of their everyday lives and into the path of the plot.
Act 1 sets up the story, and by the end of Act 1, we need to be able to describe what the story is about.
In a two hour movie, where each minute of time roughly corresponds to 1 page of a screenplay, Act 1 ends on page 30.
Usually, this is when a character says something like, “But… how are we gonna get there.” That’s because all of the characters know what they need to do, but not HOW.
Act 2 is where things get complicated for your hero. What they set out to do was more complicated than they expected, and they need to try to course correct.
Act 2 is harder to define as concretely as other acts, which is why so many writers struggle with them. (It's also why I find it helpful to break it in two, like I did in my outlining videos last year.)
In a sports story, Act 2 includes the heroes training, failing, overcoming the struggles, and pushing through adversity to get to the big game. In Act 2, the hero should try to solve their dilemma, only to fail, try again, and fail again.
Act 2 is where the story takes the most twist and turns, and where you use pinch points to add complications, to circle the wagons around your hero and cut off their opportunities to escape through easy ways out.
Act 2 sets up the stakes for Act 3. Heroes can and should fail a lot in Act 2, but by the time we reach Act 3, failure is no longer an option - the stakes are too high.
In a 120-page script, Act 2 ends around page 90, usually with an all-is-lost moment going into Act 3. Someone might then say “I have a plan,” and it will be the last time we hear it in the story. Because it’s the last possible chance for our heroes to come up with an alternative - there’s no going back now.
If you are telling a mystery story, you might answer the basic question in the second act, but it’ll open up a larger conflict that plays out to completion in Act 3.
Act 3 is the climax, the resolution, and the denouement. Here’s where evil is battled and hopefully beaten, final professions of love are made, and we answer the most important questions set up through the story.
There are lots of versions of the three-act structure out there, and some have a lot more detail, breaking each act down into several parts with distinct names - for more of those details, check out Lindsay Ellis’ video on act structure.
But we’re just covering broad strokes. In its most simple form:
Act 1: Get your hero stuck in a tree
Act 2: Throw rocks at them
Act 3: Get them down from the tree
A Note About Midpoints:
None of my screenwriting teachers ever taught me about midpoints, which I consider a crime. More and more they’re becoming part of the lesson plan when discussing structure, but I never learned them in school so I struggle with them now.
The midpoint usually comes halfway though the story, though not always, and usually changes the trajectory in some way.
This is usually an internal realization made by the main characters, not always an external force. The midpoint should be the big catalyst to shift the main character’s arc.
Empire Strikes Back has two perfect midpoints - Luke receives a warning about his possible future, and Han and Leia succumb to temptation, if only for a moment.
Again, I refer you to Lessons from the Screenplay - my favorite video of theirs is about the midpoint of Collateral, and how it marks a turning point for the main character on his path of self-actualization. They are no longer the same characters they were when the story started - the journey has already begun changing them, and the midpoint is a sort of point-of-no-return.
Another term for the midpoint is the “Moment of Truth.”
Rather than thinking about the story as three semi-equal chunks divided by different names and needs, it might be more helpful to think of the important beats as twists and turns in the story.
Inciting incident - something unusual happens.
(Toy Story - "Andy’s birthday party has been moved to today.")
End of Act 1 - the set-up for the story is complete. All of the main characters have been introduced, and we ask a dramatic question that the story promises to answer.
("They’ll see… I’m still Andy’s favorite toy.")
Pinch Points - moments that divert the story in unexpected directions
("Buzz!" As Buzz falls.)
(“I’m a lost toy!”)
Midpoint turn - the story turns. We’re still following the trajectory set up at the end of Act 1, but the course of the story takes us somewhere unexpected,
(“All right, double prizes!”)
And our characters must change the way they approach the story.
(“They’re gonna eat us, Buzz! Do something, quick!”)
More pinch points keep the story moving
(“I am Mrs. Nesbit!”)
End of Act 2/All Is Lost Moment - our heroes are brought to their lowest point, and the deck has never been more stacked against them then it is at this moment.
Any remaining lessons the characters need to learn, or more accurately need to accept, should happen by this point.
(“Why would Andy ever want me… when he has you.”)
This sets the stage for the final conflict, and the real final question of the story.
(“Come on, Sheriff. There’s a kid over in that house who needs us.”)
Act 3 features the resolution, where everything set up before pays off in a surprising, yet satisfying way.
So, that’s three-act structure… but can we make it even simpler?
Well, yeah, we actually already have. We’ve boiled it down to a level that kids can use it in jokes they tell each other:
Knock-knock Jokes are the purest form of story structure.
In a knock knock joke, you have all three acts represented, plus the midpoint.
This is our inciting incident. Someone knocks on a door.
This is the end of Act 1. We have our two characters - the person outside the door, and the person inside - and our big question: who is outside?
Our midpoint turn. Yes, we got an answer, but it wasn’t satisfying. The protagonist makes a decision that changes the story, making them proactive - they want to learn more:
This is the end of Act 2. There’s only one question left to be answered, and it drives us to the end of the story.
If all the prior steps are properly executed, your finale works perfectly. Everything you’ve set up can pay off in unexpected ways. And you can elicit the intended emotional response from your audience: laughter, cheers, sobs, or sometimes...
“Mikey doesn’t work, so help me out, would you?”
… a groan.