The term ‘3 Act Structure’ refers to the idea that a story can be divided into 3 distinct sections. Possibly the earliest proponent of this was Aristotle who proposed that all stories have a beginning, middle and end.
The most famous theory about 3 Act structure in films comes from screenwriting Guru, Syd Field. His 3 Act Structure was: In each of the 3 sections of the plot, certain events will occur that keep the story moving and get us from section to section.
1st ACT – SETUP
This is the chronological beginning of the story. We are introduced to the main characters and the world they inhabit. This setup also establishes the verisimilitude that tells us what the rules of this story are. What we are shown is an equilibrium; the world in a stable state for the characters where they live their day to day lives. This could be a nice life, of riches, success and pleasure, or a not so nice life, like working at
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With this equilibrium established we need something to upset it. This is where our story really gets going and we see our character face an uncertain world for the first time, posing the question: how do they react?
To use Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as an example, this incident is when he finds the golden ticket. At this point we know his life is changed forever. The first act ends when the context for the characters is established and their equilibrium has been ruined by an incident. This set us up for…
2nd ACT – CONFRONTATION
This 2nd Act is where the character confronts the new situation presented by the incident in the 1st Act. They often encounter some initial success, but inevitably there will be challenges.
With these challenges we see the character’s old values and assumptions questioned. We see them learn new skills, gain new experiences, and crucially, learn about themselves, recognising their strengths and weaknesses.
This 2nd Act is the longest part of the film. This is where lots of set pieces happen, we get to see the guts of our characters, explore the new world with them, empathise with them, understand or question them. We see them change from the person we saw in act one as they come closer to…
3rd ACT – RESOLUTION
Remember those challenges we talked about? Like when the character did all that running in the snow? Or that time when they broke into the super-secret vault to get that document? This is when that stuff comes in handy.
Having seen the equilibrium, seen it disrupted, seen the character deal with the challenges, seen them acquire new skills and knowledge, it’s time to resolve this ripping yarn. They are ready for a final action that resolves the confrontation of Act 2 and establishes a new equilibrium, thus ending this particular story.
Syd Field, and others, argue that this basic structure can be found in all good films. This doesn’t seem unreasonable; it clearly outlines a way to introduce ideas, create conflict, build tension and provide a satisfying payoff. But there are vocal opponents of this 3 Act Structure idea:
- Some believe that by co-opting the idea of strict acts from theatre for films, we unnecessarily break up story in a medium where it could be much more fluid. They believe a truly good film heavily blurs any distinction between acts.
- The deconstruction of story into 3 acts has encouraged further deconstruction of those acts, leading to storytelling becoming a mechanical step-by-step process. Perhaps the most famous (or infamous) example of this is Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat. This screenwriting book goes so far as to break a film script into 13 parts and even dictates the actual page numbers for when certain events in the story need to occur. Some believe following this risk-averse approach to writing has led to Hollywood blockbusters films becoming blander.
- Choosing 3 acts is arbitrary. Why not 4?
Suck on that, Field.