Three Act Structure: Breaking Down Acts One, Two, & Three in Movies
The idea of writing an entire screenplay can be daunting, but if you break it into pieces, it can be easier to picture in your mind and on the paper.
That’s where the three-act structure comes into play. Most movies made today are based off three-act screenplays. And the three-act structure has its roots in performances of old. Why does everyone use it?
Because it works, it's time-tested. And best of all?
It's easy to master.
We've posted a host of comprehensive screenwriting tips, mainly how to write internal and external conflict to make your plot dynamic or how to sell a screenplay once you've finished the challenging writing process.
But THIS post on how to utilize and master the three-act structure is the key to a reliable foundation for your storytelling process.
Today we’ll take a look at a three-act structure and go over what to expect from act one, act two, and act three. We’ll also give examples of AND provide a checklist for each act so you can tell if your story is on track.
Okay, let’s fade in...
What is the Three Act Structure?
The definition of three-act structure is a narrative model that divides a plot up into three sections.
Makes total sense.
These sections represent rising and falling action. They’re commonly referred to as the setup, confrontation, and resolution.
Three act structure is the basis for almost every Hollywood movie, and it’s a critical theory to master for screenwriters at every level.
How Does the Three Act Structure Work?
Three act structure sets up a strong foundation in act one, allows you to explore the world and stakes in act two, and then gives you time to wrap up the emotional arcs in act three.
One way to look at it is that act one is "inspiration," act two is "craft," and act three is "philosophy."
But there’s more to each act of the three-act structure. Act structure takes time and careful planning.
Let’s jump into our act breakdown!
Having a solid act one lets the person reading your script know they’re in good hands.
We cannot overstate the value of this. It will keep them reading.
And not putting your script down.
There are lots of things to look for early on, like character introductions and strong scene descriptions. Mainly what act one is supposed to do is set up our world, and get our story moving.
Act one has to be tight; you want to grip the reader from the opening pages and keep the story moving forward.
A meandering act one will make the reader’s mind wander, and then you're dead in the water.
Sure, there are exceptions to every rule. Inception (read about Inception’s ending!) has an incredibly long first act but generally act one should feel economical.
In our article from an Acquisitions Executive, we learned that controlling the reader and their expectations are paramount for a successful first act.
Act One Examples
Now that you know what people are looking for in act one let’s check out a few movies that do it well. I’ll try to pick some movies from different genres.
First up, let’s talk about the Tom Hanks classic, The Burbs.
Act one in The Burbs introduces us to everyone in the neighborhood and sets the scene. We’re in a quiet, suburban, cul-de-sac where nothing happens.
Ray, a family man, has a week off work and his big plan is just to laze around the house. His wife has a list of chores, his kid wants to play, but his buddies instead convince him into spending his days spying on his new neighbors, the Klopeks.
We also spend the majority of act one setting up the interpersonal neighbor relationships so we can pay them off later. One guy’s dog poops on people’s lawn, one kid is home alone, Ray lies to his wife, and the Klopeks keep to themselves.
Let’s stay on the Tom Hanks train and check out the act one from Saving Private Ryan.
Everyone always talks about the Omaha Beach scene at the opening of Saving Private Ryan, but the first act of this movie does so much more than just that scene.
First, it sets up the bookend of the film. We see an old man, and his family, at the cemetery. From there we get the storming of the beach and meet our characters. We see that Hanks’ character is a leader thrust into responsibility.
We also learn the stakes. The Ryan brothers have died, and they've got to get the last surviving Ryan brother back from a remote part of France.
As act one ends, Hanks leads his group out into the country to retrieve Ryan. We also learn about all the men along for the journey, and that they have a bet about what Hank’s character's life was before the war.
A man with a vendetta, a coward, a grunt with a hero complex, a leader, and a right-hand man. This is our team.
These are details that matter later, but only because we set them up in act one.
Act One Checklist
Think you’re ready to write act one? Let’s see if this act one checklist can help you along.
Now that you’ve got act one together let’s see what you can do with...
Act two is the “confrontation” portion of the three-act structure. Many writers, including myself, have the most trouble writing act two of their screenplays.
And I’m not talking about Sister Act II.
I’m generally good at coming up with a concept for a screenplay, and sometimes I can see the ending in my head, but act two is the map for how to get there.
And that map doesn’t always line up easily.
So what do readers, and viewers, expect from act two of your screenplay?
Act two is when the meat of your story happens. We’re thrust into the forward motion of the story, and our characters have to start trying and failing, to achieve what they want.
In my opinion, act two ends the moment your character suffers the worst loss imaginable.
Blake Snyder calls it “the dark night of the soul,” but I prefer to just classify it as the “Oh crap” moment.
For the “Oh crap” to land, you need act two to continue to raise the stakes, and make us fall in love with the characters so that when you punch us in the gut... it hurts.
Your characters spend act two going deeper into the mystery, learning more about why they love each other and get pretty far into their road trip.
I like to deal with act two by sussing out what each character wants and having them fail over and over again to get it.
The other crazy thing about the second act is that it’s also where you’ll explore your B story (and C, D, and E if you’re a Lord of the Rings movie).
The second act is super important and does your script’s heavy lifting. It’s where you get answers that you pose in act one, and get to ask more questions that can pay off in act three.
Act two always frustrates me, so I take it out on my characters.
Let’s take a look at a few act two examples to see how these ideas play out on the page.
Act Two Examples
So act one just ended, and you’re moving the story forward. Your characters have a mission, but you’re not sure how to get them to complete it.
Let’s start with a movie whose act two is dictated by a map. The Goonies. Where The Goonies succeeds in act two is building out the idea of the map taking them where they need to go.
When The Goonies moves into the second act, the kids find the entrance to the secret tunnel and head out to find One-eyed Willy’s gold.
The second act of The Goonies follows along each point of the map. It takes them through set pieces that are not only exciting, but they’re based around things each character has to overcome. After all, this is OUR TIME.
The traits we set up about the kids in act one have now come to fruition in act two.
What’s nice about The Goonies is that act two feels incredibly natural. The audience is guided, along with the characters, via the map.
But The Goonies’ B-story doesn’t have the luxury. Instead, it’s a series of foibles as Chunk tries to escape the Fratellis. Chunk works to get help, gets captured, and ultimately comes after his friends with the support of Sloth.
Every time the A story moves forward, we also walk the B-story forward in act two. We cut back and forth between these two, and the script creates a driving force that takes us to act three.
But what about a movie whose second act is less prescribed...but still relies on some messed up kids? I’m talking about The Ring!
The Ring is a horror-thriller. Its second act follows Naomi Watts’ character as she searches for what killed her niece after she watched a video. The second act of that movie is dedicated to looking for and following clues.
Instead of having a map to follow, the audience is treated to a few clues they have followed. The second act of the ring also works to deepen the relationship between the main character and her surroundings. We learn more about her, her ex, her son, and what’s driving her.
Simultaneously, we’re uncovering the mystery of Samara. So we have to follow the clues. There aren’t set pieces, but we do visit various locations and are forced to deal with things like people killing themselves, a horse jumping off a barge, and eventually pulling back the floorboards on the whole mystery.
The Ring handles its second act but making us build out the origin of the fear in this movie.
We always feel like we’re coming toward act three because the movie also utilizes a countdown. We have a time lock, seven days, in which things need to happen.
This time lock provides the audience with a little extra excitement.
So let’s take a look at the act two checklist and see if you have your ducks in a row.
Act Two Checklist
Now that you have a clear act two, it’s time to land the plane in act three!
Oh man, you are so close to the finish line. Act three is where everything comes to a head. Characters have to confront their feelings, desires, and goals. What’s awesome about act three is that it’s where you start to see all your hard work pay off. Emotional beats are all about to hit home.
Act three is about tying up loose ends and sending your characters off into the sunset. Or killing everyone off and letting the bad guy escape.
It’s up to you!
In the start of your third act, your characters should face their biggest challenge, or at least run into a huge problem that they can’t possibly surmount. This has to tie naturally into act two and should reflect the theme set is act one.
It’s where Jack is handcuffed to the pipe as the Titanic sinks; Mary finds out Ted came to Florida and is best friends with Woogie, and the kids in Scream decide to all have a party while a serial killer is on the loose.
Once you get into act three, it’s all about consequences. We have seen these characters make choices and try and fail; now it’s about them dealing with it, coming to terms with those consequences, and then leaving the audience with their changed world.
Let’s take a look at a few examples and break it down.
Act Three Examples
What are some of your favorite movie endings? How did the story take us there and deliver something great? Was it the payoff of a twist? Or just a great emotional release.
Let’s start with one of the greatest third act twists AND emotional payoffs of all time.
I’m talking about The Sixth Sense.
When we get to the third act of the movie, Cole knows the only way to make the ghosts go away is to help them find their peace. We’re also set up this great B-story where his therapist is dealing with the crumbling of his marriage.
By the time act three rolls around, we find Cole headed to a ghost’s funeral. While there, the ghost shows him why she died. Cole and Malcolm (his therapist) can point the finger at Kyra’s killer. Her stepmother. This renders Kyra’s spirit fulfilled, and Cole knows that if he just helps what scares him, he can move on. At the beginning of the third act, Cole is doing great in school and no longer bullied.
But he still craves his mother believing him. So while in traffic, Cole tells her he can see the dead woman from the accident. He can see her ghost. She doesn’t believe him, but Cole then tells her about talking to grandma and reveals a secret that only the mother would know.
This is Cole’s emotional arc completed. He loves his mom, she believes him, and he’s there for her. But what about Malcolm’s crumbling marriage?
Spoiler alert ahead…
Malcolm returns home. He talks to his wife while she sleeps, and leaves his wedding ring behind...but as she awakes he discovers that he’s a ghost, and his wife isn’t over him, she’s dealing with his death.
Malcolm then comes to terms with his journey. He had to help Cole to find peace on this earth. It’s a major mic drop moment, and in my opinion, maybe the greatest movie twist of all time.
More importantly, The Sixth Sense leaves the audience with closure. We understand that the arcs presented in these movies are done. Cole won't stop seeing ghosts, but he knows how to deal with them now. And Malcolm has peace.
But what about the third act with something a little less twisty? But still deals with love, loss, and the...ghosts of relationships past. Okay, that’s a stretch, but any chance I get to incorporate When Harry Met Sally, I’m gonna do it.
In act two of When Harry Met Sally we see two characters realize they’re in love with one another. It’s the most beautiful thing in the world. So it has to crumble so we can get to act three.
When Harry Met Sally builds its third act on us praying they’ll get back together, or, at least, talk again. God, they talk so well.
But it’s about two people getting over the past so they can have a future together. Our B-plot, a tiny romcom in its own right, has evolved into another couple rooting for them. So most of the landscape of act three is about pushing these two together. This movie works almost perfectly like that. Thrusting us toward... New Year’s Eve.
But even then we need to see more failure.
The building blocks of any great movie aren’t about characters succeeding; it’s about them failing over and over again until that last-ditch effort pushes them somewhere they never thought would happen.
It’s Andy Dufresne in the rain, the Bad News Bears throwing trash at the Yankees, and it’s Harry and Sally making out as the New Year begins.
Much like The Sixth Sense, When Harry Met Sally is about two people getting closure on past relationships, and then being able to move on to the healthiest and best relationship they could have ever asked for in this life.
Damn, did you know those movies had so much in common?
These are some of my favorite third acts, but leave your favorites in the comments. I want to know who you think uses the space on the page to create the best endings of all time.
Act Three Checklist
Okay, let’s finish that script! Here’s your act three checklist to help you get there!
Alright, if you’re here...you might have a completed screenplay? Congratulations!
Check out our blog on rewriting, so you know where to go from here.
Summing up Three Act Structure In Movies
Now that you understand all three acts, you can comprehend why three-act structure is a screenwriter’s best friend. Sure, there are exceptions to every rule, but you have to master act structure before you attempt to subvert it.
If you know the rules, it’s easier to surprise audiences as well.
I hope these act breakdown checklists have solidified your screenplays. I’m excited to see what you put on the page.
If you think it’s good enough to get an agent, we have some advice for that endeavor!
If you have suggestions or questions, please leave them in the comments!
And I want to hear about some movies that defy all this logic.
Let’s debate it all!