RJ Wattenhofer

Tech writing, 3D model building and game design.

October 18, 2017

The Three Act Structure of a Screenplay

how to apply the three act structure for optimal storytelling

You're a screenwriter who's come up with a great story for a screenplay and now you must get it down on paper. Hollywood has developed a tried-and-true formula for telling stories that hits specific beats along the writing path and helps the story unfold in a satisfying and concise manner, all the while keeping the viewer riveted. We are all intuitively aware of this structure; based on past experience, our subconcious has laid out a comfortable roadmap for us to follow. And when a story is poorly scripted and/or breaks the rules, it jars us to our core.

The first thing you must do is sit down in front of your computer and begin an outline. Your basic outline will be broken down like this:

Black divider bar

ACT I

INTRO

INCITING INCIDENT

ACT II

MIDPOINT

ACT III

CLIMAX

DENOUEMENT

Black divider bar

Now you have the skeleton of your outline built. Each act has a specific length, which depends entirely on what type of story you want to tell and the genre. Most dramas are two hours long and sometimes longer. If your movie is about the history of the Civil War, you will probably be using every minute of your allotted two hours. Comedies and horror movies rarely run over ninety minutes.

Use the 1/4 - 1/2 - 1/4 rule regardless of your story genre. In the case of the drama, your structure would be thirty minutes for ACT I (1/4 of the total pages, or thirty pages), sixty minutes for ACT II (1/2 of the total pages, or sixty pages) and thirty minutes for ACT III (1/4 of the total pages, or thirty minutes). If you are writing a comedy or horror film, your structure would be twenty-two minutes for ACT I (1/4), forty-four minutes for ACT II (1/2) and twenty-two minutes for ACT III (1/4).

You have decided to write a ninety minute (actually eighty-eight minute if you do the math) horror movie. It is important now to insert some notes into your outline so that you know what part of the story falls where in your script.

The INTRO phase of your screenplay takes up approximately the first ten pages. This is where you introduce us to the "normal" world your characters live in and then to all the major characters themselves. It is important to note that every genre follows the three act structure; however, each has very specific beats that must be hit along the way that are inherent to that specific genre. In the case of a slasher horror movie (which we are writing) you would want to begin your screen play with a BANG! and hit us with a teaser: A one or two minute pre-intro of some dramatic killing that sets the tone for what is about to occur. After the brutal killing, we quickly switch to our normal world and pick up from there.

EXAMPLE: A frightened, half-naked woman wearing a Cityville Community College sweater is racing through the dark woods. She trips (of course) and the black-robed man who is following then cuts her head off with a machete. We cut to an establishing shot of Cityville Community College, with all the happy students strolling to their classes on a beautiful sunny morning.

Now that we are at the college, we are ready to meet our cast of charcters. Enter the dumbass Jock with his Cheerleader girlfriend, their token Black Friend, the Nerdy Girl and the cute Uptight Guy & Girl. For some reason they are all friends and are looking for something exciting to do over the weekend. Just then, a taxi pulls up and out leaps the Uptight Guy's family lawyer. He frantically tells the young man that his uncle has just died and left him a piece of property in the woods.

After establishing our character profiles and interjecting the problem of what they should do to fill their time over the weekend, we should be on or very close to page ten. This is when the INCITING INCIDENT is introduced: In this case, the death of the uncle and the mysterious inheritence. This is the catalyst of the script, the event that kickstarts the story. Up until this point we have a series of events (not a story) and our audience is working feverishly to connect the dots. Now you have set the course and they can relax...for a moment.

We now have twelve pages to fill up before we begin ACT II. There will be some time spent with the group arguing about whether they should spend the weekend at the property. They finally decide that they have nothing better to do, so they all climb into the Jock's cool car and head out. After arriving at the property, they do a bit of exploring and check out the hunting cabin and nearby scenic lake. We now throw in a bit of foreshadowing: The Nerdy Girl discovers a pool of dried blood on the kitchen floor. Not to be alarmed: I'm sure it's deer blood or something.

Things are going just great: They break out the beer, the girls dance to eighties rock blaring from the boombox and everyone relaxes. The Jock goes to grab some more firewood for the bonfire and screams when he sees the dismembered head in the woodpile. We have now hit plot point one: The characters' world has now been turned upside down and some serious decisions must be made.

We begin ACT II in complete chaos. The group stands around the gross head, horrified and scared. They decide the best course of action is to call the cops and then get the hell out of there. Everyone pulls out their iphones, but because they are (in a valley, beside a mountain, fifty miles out of the city, in Kentucky) none of their mobile devices work and they can't get a signal.

They run to the car, only to find that someone has set it on fire. It begins to dawn on them that someone does not want them to leave. For better or worse (probably worse) our group is trapped and must make the best of a bad situation. From the beginning of ACT II (page twenty-three until we reach the MIDPOINT (page forty-four) our characters are victims and simply react to whatever the madman in the woods throws at them. This is an opportune time to thin the herd and let our characters know that this machete-weilding freak means business. The Jock and the Nerdy Girl die horrible deaths and the remaining four are petrified until we hit the MIDPOINT.

At the midpoint, when things seem their worst, the Uptight Guy takes charge. He bolsters his dormant courage and fights back. Not effectively, mind you, as killing off our antagonist this early pretty much kills our film. He does just enough to piss off the madman and force him to change strategies. Maybe the uptight guy finds his uncle's hunting rifle and takes a couple shots at the killer, just missing him. The angry killer now knows they are armed and is forced to adapt, subsequently raising the stakes.

From the MIDPOINT through the remainder of ACT II the madman devises clever ways to kill off the Black Friend and the Nerdy Girl, circumnavigating our overconfident & emboldened Uptight Guy and his gun. By the end of ACT III the Uptight Guy is out of ammo and realizes his girlfriend is missing. The killer has captured the Uptight Girl and we have just introduced Plot Point Two. Mentally, he is ready to throw in the towel. Things can't get any worse, can they?

Now our Uptight Guy's goal and motivation have changed. His first goal was to escape the property after discovering the head in the woodpile and his motivation was fear of the unknown. After the madman killed the first student, his goal switched to survival and his motivation was self-preservation. Now that his girlfriend has been kidnapped, his primary goal is to rescue her and his motivation is her safety. Our main character has arced significantly, moving from zero to hero in lightning speed.

We now begin ACT III. The tete-a-tete starts, a fight to the death between our hero and the killer. Act three is where most new writers miss the mark and kill what was developing into a great story. You've seen it yourself in many Hollywood movies: It was a really great movie up until the last ten minutes and then it all fell apart, with you walking away feeling less than satisifed. ACT III is by far the toughest act to get right; that is why you absolutely must have a strong story prepped in your head and not write "on the fly" hoping it all pulls together in the end.

The best way to wrap up your story is to use an element you introduced at the very beginning of your script. Perhaps the Uptight Guy is teased by the Jock for being a chemistry whiz and he makes mention of some explosion in the college lab a year ago. Now, in ACT III, he has the opportunity to put his brains to the ultimate test and create a bomb out of gunpowder and fertilizer found in the cabin (also introduced earlier). It is crucial you introduce these elements early in your script to give the bomb in ACT III credibility. Otherwise, it will look like he just pulled this idea out of his ass and eyebrows will be raised.

We've reached the CLIMAX of our screenplay: The highest point of tension in the story and the final conflict before our resolution occurs. Somehow Uptight Guy lures the madman into the cabin and detonates the bomb. Madman dead, girl rescued, hero saves the day. This is a good time to dissolve back to the college and return us to normal life. How are our two characters holding up? This is the DENOUEMENT. If we ended the movie in the woods, our viewers would be left feeling cheated. They want to make sure our surviving students have returned to the "normal" world and are faring well. The Uptight Girl and the Uptight Guy are still dating and more in love than ever. The hero has donated the property to a youth organization, who plan to build a summer camp near the lake. Happy times, until they reach his car and see the pumpkin on the front seat pierced by a machete through a note that reads: "YOU."

Damn, it's not over and we have just begun working on the sequel to our horror franchise...

If you would like to read an excellent script that follows the three act structure precisely, I recommend 187. This amazing screenplay is the perfect study tool to set you on the right path & help you learn correct act structure and then apply it in a professional manner.

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