Monday, October 12, 2009

What is the Three Act Structure, and why should you care?

Now that you have some idea of your core premise (I hope!) and a list of stories in your own genre to compare your own structure to, I'd like to review the key concept of the three-act structure. Anyone who is familiar with theater will know this, but many beginning writers don't realize that the three-act structure is the classic structural format for fiction and screen and TV, as well, and the shape of your own three acts is one of the most important things you can know about your story before you actually start to write it.

So here’s a little – very short! - practical history of how the three-act structure developed, so you can start watching for that structural rhythm in the books you read and the films you watch and in your own stories.

Three Act dramatic structure comes from theater, which was around WAAAAAY before novels, film, and television; the golden age of Greek theater was, oh, 500-300 B.C., and in this period was developed the dramatic structure on which plays, novels, film and television are based.

Dramatists would be the first to point out that three-act structure is really the natural structure of a story, period, and has been employed since cavemen came back from the hunt and insisted on recounting their huge life-threatening adventures out there to the cavewomen (who naturally had great adventures of their own during the day, but were wise enough to understand even back in those cave days that there are some things men just don’t need to know).

It is often said that the essence of dramatic structure is: “Get the hero up a tree. Throw rocks at him. Get him down.”

That’s three acts right there. A little simplistic for my taste, but it does give a basic rhythm: Introduce a main character and a problem, intensify the problem, then solve it.

Another bare-bones structure summation that you hear a lot is: Someone wants something very badly and is having trouble getting it (but eventually does.) Again, three parts: a heroine with a desire, opposition to the desire, and eventual triumph (or failure).

Well, that basic three-part rhythm of storytelling was set into a standard form by the ancient Greeks and is still largely the same today, not just in plays, but in all dramatic media.

Now, wait a minute, you may be saying. Shakespeare’s plays have FIVE acts.

Well, yes. But if you look at Elizabethan plays, their Acts I and II constitute what we’ve been talking about as Act 1, their Acts III and IV comprise our Act II, and Act 5 is Act 3 (shorter than the others, remember?).

Plays were THE form of storytelling for thousands of years, because most of the populace of any country couldn’t read, and there was no television yet. So, until the invention of the Gutenberg press (1436, and yes, there was moveable type in China century in 1041, but it didn’t have the world impact that the Gutenberg press did), which made the printed word available cheaply, plays were THE entertainment (music and sports are different media). The novel wasn’t even invented until – well, that’s up for debate, but anywhere from 1007 to 1740: you decide:

Candidates for the world's first novel in English
The Tale of Gengi

So because they were the reigning form of dramatic entertainment for thousands of years, plays have had an indelible influence on ALL of the dramatic media. And what’s important to understand about the structure of plays is that they’re based on how long human beings can reasonably sit in one place without getting bored, restless, hungry, thirsty, and just numb in the posterior - and walking out on the show.


Same with movies. Admit it – anything over two hours and you’re going to start looking at your watch.

So plays built in the concept of intermissions, so that people could have breaks and go out and – uh - refresh themselves, and sponsors could hawk their wares and make money off the show. Commercials have history, too.

But the trick about intermissions is that once people are out in the lobby drinking and flirting and smoking and doing what they do on a Saturday night, their natural tendency is to want to keep drinking and flirting and all those things that drinking and flirting hopefully lead to.

So it was absolutely crucial for the playwright to end that first act and second act, before the intermission, with something so great that the audience would come right back into the theater when the lobby lights blink, and not just go carousing into the night.

And that’s how the cliffhanger was born. The “curtain scene”, or just “curtain”, had to be so explosive – such a startling revelation or reversal, such a dramatic shift in the power dynamics of the characters, that the audience would want to come back in to the theater after intermission to find out what happens.

And that curtain scene is alive and well today as ACT CLIMAXES. In movies it’s not quite so evident because the film doesn’t actually stop for a break at the act climax, but that rhythm is definitely there. In network television, you do actually have a curtain and an intermission, called a “commercial”, and woe betide you if you want to work for television and don’t understand the concept of a cliffhanger before the act break, or “act out”. (I am not a TV writer, and this is not a TV writing article, and I’m being horribly simplistic, but the actual timing of these breaks varies according to where the commercials are set, and internet delivery of shows is going to change that drastically. For further information, is a great resource for aspiring TV writers.)

Now, when you’re reading a book, you can take your intermission any time, and you do. But as an author, you still have to lure your reader back to your book. My point here is – why not understand the concept of the curtain and possibly use the tricks that have kept audiences coming back into the theater, and back from commercial breaks, for thousands of years?

So I implore you – see a good play once in a while. No one does cliffhangers and reversals and revelations better than the great playwrights. Shakespeare, obviously, but any good playwright understands how to do this. For example, I find Lillian Hellman’s curtains just breathtaking – the whole power dynamics of a ruthless family can turn on a dime, and you can’t wait to get back into the theater to find out WHAT HAPPENS NEXT.

And that – is what we’re after, right?

So when you're mapping out your own story, it's important to know - at least roughly - what your three acts are and what the climaxes of those acts are. Those are the tentpoles of your story (and by the way, Syd Field called these "plot points". It's all the same thing.)

In my next post I'll talk more about Act Climaxes and how to identify them in movies and books.

Question for the day – can you give me examples of great curtains or cliffhangers – theatrical, filmic, or novelistic?

And of course - what do you think your own Act Climaxes (act breaks, plot points, curtain scenes, revelations, cliffhangers) are? Do you know them?


All the information on this blog and more, including full story structure breakdowns of various movies, is available in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks.  Any format, just $3.99 and $2.99.

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If you're a romance writer, or have a strong love plot or subplot in your novel or script, then Writing Love: Screenwriting Tricks II is an expanded version of the first workbook with a special emphasis on love stories.

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Jeffe Kennedy said...

Classic one: the chandelier crashing down at the end of Act I in Phantom of the Opera.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Oh, yeah. I just got chills thinking about it!

Greg James said...

Okay, I'll have a crack at this with one of my favourites, Alien.

Act One Climax: When Kane gives birth to the chestburster.

Act Two Climax: When the dying Ash informs them they're all going to die.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hey Greg! I think you're right about ACt II, but I believe the Act One Climax of Alien is when the Alien first attaches itself to Kane's face.

Sequence One is the setup of the crew on the ship, Sequence Two, ending in Act One Climax, is the whole exploration of the derelict ship, climaxing in the thing attaching iself to Kane's face and the argument between Ripley and Ash about whether to bring him on board again.

But I don't have it in front of me, so I won't swear to it!

Greg James said...

No, you're probably right. I was umming and ahhing about whether it was that scene or the chestburster scene.

Patcannistan said...

Act 1 breaks are characterized by a point of no return so in Alien it would be when the ship takes off. No escape.