Movie Basics: Three Act Structure

So, nearly all movies are based around the Three Act Structure. It’s the basic and logical dramatic scheme for a story- a beginning, middle, and end. The formal application of the concept dates back at least to Ancient Greece.

Act I is the introduction, the setup for the story. We’re introduced to the main character and setting, as well as the premise and the circumstances surrounding the main character.

Act II is the bulk of the movie. It’s a series of obstacles and complications that the main character must overcome. As Act II progresses, the obstacles get tougher and the tension rises.

Act III is the resolution. All the complications of Act II lead to the major confrontation as the main character finally faces the opposition. The disparate storylines are resolved and the tension that has been building since the beginning of Act II is released.

At the beginning of Act I, usually within the first ten minutes, is some sort of hook to grab the viewer’s attention and keep them watching. It’s got to be something that promises excitement once we get to Act II while the groundwork is laid in the rest of Act I.

Between Act I and Act II is Plot Point 1. This is the moment where the main character is taken from the “normal” situation in Act I and spun in a new direction. It’s the point at which the overall storyline begins to come clear.

Halfway through Act II there is usually the Point of No Return. It generally manifests as the main character’s struggles leading them toward self-doubt where they have to make a conscious decision to continue or where the decision to stop becomes unfeasible by resulting in death, humiliation, pain, etc.

At the end of Act II is Plot Point 2. The story twists in an unexpected and final direction and the main character’s last, most difficult challenge is presented. The main character must gather up all the energy and resources remaining and charge forth, even though all appears lost. All the struggles of Act II have given the main character the skills and strength to continue through this bleakest of moments.

Thus the Three Act Structure goes:

The Hook
Act I
Plot Point 1
Act II
Point of No Return
Plot Point 2

    Generally speaking, Acts I and III are each a quarter of the movie and Act II is half. For a two hour movie, 30 minutes for Act I, one hour for Act II, and 30 minutes for Act III. It’s a time tested, audience approved structure.

    For an example, let’s look at Raiders of the Lost Ark. We open with booby trap sequence and narrow scape from the natives- The Hook. Then we are introduced to Indiana Jones and start to hear about the Nazis looking for the Ark of the Covenant- Act I. Jones meets Marion and gets the headpiece, after fending off the Nazis- Plot Point 1. Then we enjoy the escalating struggles as Jones tries to find the location of the Ark and keep it away from the Nazis- Act II. Halfway through, Jones believes Marion is killed and he’s ready to sacrifice his life to get revenge on Belloq, but he’s rescued by Sallah and put back on track- Point of No Return. When the Nazis take the Ark to a remote island to test it’s power, Jones threatens to blow it up, but he balks and it appears he’s defeated- Plot Point 2. Then the climatic supernatural face-melting scene- Act III.

    Personally, the best part about understanding the the Three Act Structure is that when Mrs. Furious is watching a sappy romantic comedy and the girl has just found out the boy’s dirty secret and it looks like they’ll never get back together- it means there’s only half an hour left for me to suffer through.

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