When you watch a lot of film and television, you begin to sense a pattern. In the beginning, you meet characters. In the middle, you see them struggle. At the end, you watch as they succeed or fail. Storytelling, from the dawn of time, has followed this configuration. It’s called the “three-act structure,” and when you learn to embrace it, you can take your writing to a whole new level.
“Knives Out” Credit: Claie Folger
The three-act structure is a narrative model where a story is broken into three acts. Each act has a particular theme and set of expectations. They are commonly defined as:
- Act 1: The setup
- Act 2: The confrontation
- Act 3: The resolution
While stories have naturally followed a three-act structure since the beginning of recorded history, the concept as a defined template was popularized in screenwriting professor Syd Field’s 1979 book, “Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting.”
“Braveheart” Courtesy Paramount
Audiences have expectations when it comes to watching movies and TV shows. We want to meet characters and see dramatic situations evolve. We want to laugh, cry, have thrills, and even see some spills. If you are unsure where those plot points in your story should go, refer to the expectations of each act, which will help you line up your story into its natural form.
In order to fully understand this concept, here’s what should happen in each act of your story:
Act One: The Setup
In a typical 110-page feature screenplay, the first act usually covers pages 1–35. Here, you build out the details of your world and characters. We want to know where and when this story takes place. We want to meet the characters involved. We should understand the pressure points as well: What does your character want, and what are the obstacles keeping them from getting it?
The first act is where you pose the dramatic question of your story. This is the big thrust of your movie or TV show. Will the couple fall in love? Can the hero save the universe? Will the workers overthrow the tyrant boss? Wanting to know the answer to your dramatic question is what keeps a reader moving through your screenplay.
Midway through the first act, you introduce the story’s inciting incident. This is the moment that upends your main character’s everyday existence: An inciting incident, no matter how big or small, takes them from “normal” to “something new.”
Plot point 1 transitions us from Act 1 to Act 2. This is the point of no return. Your character officially sets out to achieve a goal.
Act Two: The Confrontation
In a typical 110-page feature screenplay, this act usually covers pages 36–80. The second act is concerned with putting the characters through the wringer. You want to test them with a lot of obstacles. This is where all your “movie trailer” moments happen. If you have big action set pieces, hilarious gags, or grisly murders, this is where it goes down.
The obstacles you put in your main character’s way are also known as rising action because the stakes and hurdles should, literally, get bigger and bigger. For example, if your second act starts with a murder, it’s hard for the audience to get invested in the threat of a petty theft.
The second act is also where you see your characters win and lose. We want to see them get close to answering the narrative question, only to fall just short. This is your midpoint. Think of it like the top of a roller coaster hill—it’s a moment of brief elation before the story suddenly drops in an unexpected, new direction.
Plot point 2 launches us into the final act. This usually comes at your main character’s lowest point, but they can only go up from here—a new viewpoint, a new way of thinking, a new plan.
Act Three: The Resolution
In a typical 110-page feature screenplay, this act usually covers pages 81–110. The third act is where the story gets wrapped up. You have to make a decision: Will your characters succeed or fail? The third act takes everyone to the brink. Your characters are up against the final boss in the climax—everything is at stake, the final antagonist must be overcome, and the dramatic question is answered.
Decide where you leave your characters. Has their world changed? Did they get what they wanted? No matter what, the third act must answer the dramatic question. If you do it right, the answer to that question not only wraps up the external story, but also completes your main character’s internal arc. Whatever was holding them back in Act 1 has changed—for better or worse—by Act 3.
“The Wizard of Oz” Courtesy MGM
Sometimes, the best way to really understand the three-act structure is to break it down using a key example. This is how “The Wizard of Oz” fits into the mold:
In the beginning of “The Wizard of Oz,” we see that Dorothy is a farm girl with big dreams. Her world is literally in black and white, devoid of color. When she gets stuck in a storm, she travels to Oz, where she lands on a witch, thus incurring the wrath of her sister, the Wicked Witch of the West. Dorothy’s life gets some color, and she sets off on a journey.
- Inciting incident: The tornado transports Dorothy to Oz.
- Plot point 1: Dorothy sets out on the Yellow Brick Road to meet the Wizard of Oz in the Emerald City.
- The dramatic question: Will Dorothy ever get back to Kansas?
In the second act of “The Wizard of Oz,” we follow Dorothy on her journey as she picks up friends—the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion—along the way. The whole time, our antagonists—the Wicked Witch and the fantastical, unfamiliar land of Oz—put obstacles in her path. Because of the dramatic question, we’re invested in what could happen to Dorothy at each step.
- Rising action: Dorothy saves the Scarecrow. Together, they help out the Tin Man. As a trio, they’re initially scared by the Cowardly Lion, before learning he also has a defining wish. With the team assembled, they face ornery sentient trees, the Wicked Witch’s fire, and a field of poppy seeds that threatens to lull them to sleep.
- Midpoint: Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion finally reach their destination, the Emerald City—only to learn the price of the Wizard’s help is stealing the Wicked Witch’s broomstick.
- Plot point 2: Dorothy is captured by the Wicked Witch of the West.
The third act of the story follows Dorothy and her friends as they defeat the Witch and, in the process, learn to look at their own personal flaws differently. They also realize that the Wizard is just a regular man using parlor tricks. Dorothy is let down by the con artist wizard but is able to figure out a way home thanks to a good witch, Glinda, she had met in the beginning of the story. We see her friends wrap up their own quests, and eventually, Dorothy is back in Kansas, answering the narrative question.
- Climax: Dorothy confronts the Wicked Witch, killing her with a nearby bucket of water.
- The answer to the dramatic question: Dorothy does make it home, and in the process, she learns to love all the things she took for granted about her life in Kansas.
“The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” Courtesy New Line Productions
In a word, no—there are other forms of act structure available. Sometimes longer movies, such as each entry in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, are written in a seven-act structure in order to handle all their characters.
Television is a very different animal from film. In TV, your act structure depends on the channel you’re on, as well as your story length and the showrunners’ preference. There are some pilots that follow a three-act structure, but many follow a five- or seven-act structure. Sitcoms with commercial breaks can also follow a four-act structure when the traditional second act is broken into two parts.
Here’s how two very popular TV shows broke down their acts:
The “Grey’s Anatomy” pilot:
- Teaser: 3 pages
- Act 1: 11 pages
- Act 2: 11.5 pages
- Act 3: 8 pages
- Act 4: 9 pages
- Act 5: 8 pages
The “Breaking Bad” pilot:
- Teaser: 3 pages
- Act 1: 14 pages
- Act 2: 13.5 pages
- Act 3: 11.5 pages
- Act 4: 14 pages
Before you sit down to write a TV episode, you have to decide on your act structure. If you choose the three-act structure, just follow the same breakdown we use for movies.
One thing you should keep in mind about screenwriting is that there are no rules, only guidelines. You can buck the system and shake things up anytime you want. But it’s good to consider what the audience expects, especially as you are honing your craft. Experiment and learn what works for you.
Remember: Introduce the world and your characters. Add a narrative question. Take them through hell and back to see what they learn and how they hold up. After that, it’s up to you to decide what happens in the end.
Now that you understand three-act structure, it's time to get started on that screenplay.