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Panel thoughts on the Three Act Structure

Watch Michael Lengsfield, Molly Naylor, Tom Been and Christabelle Dilks discuss the Three Act Structure
[Michael] What we’re going to do next is look in more detail at three-act structure. Alright let’s start Christabelle does a great job with the first act. [Christabelle] Well, what’s the job of the first act? I guess the first act’s got quite a lot to do. The first act has to introduce your protagonist or your protagonists, if it’s about, if it’s an ensemble piece, or if it’s a buddy movie, but most likely you’re going to have one main character who you’re going to need to get to know at the very beginning. And you need to get to know them in their status quo, before the story starts happening, as such.
And I think it’s really helpful to introduce your main character with an action, with something - a choice or decision which establishes who they are before the story gets going. I don’t know what you think about that. Oh sorry, and you’re also introducing, of course, the world of the character, where they operate. What are the rules of this world? How do they … what goes on in the world, in general? And then you’ll have your inciting incident or a call to action. These terms are really, maybe silly, but they’re important because they’re the moment at which the character realises that there is something that they need to pursue and that’s what generates the story - going.
And then usually there’s a climax at the end of Act One where the character has
to make a decision: are they in or out? Are they going to go for this goal or are they going to step out and not take this course. I’ve another thing about one as well, which I don’t know whether this applies to all films but I think that often what a filmmaker or a screenwriter is doing the beginning of the film is telling the audience how to watch this particular film. [Molly] Yeah, explaining the language of the film. [Christabelle] Exactly. What sort of degree of sensitivity is going to be required here?
Is it a bang bang, action movie, like a Bond-style start, or is it a very quiet, subtle, gentle start like a Kiarostami movie, in which you are going to have to be attentive to the minutiae. [Michael] I think that’s great. That last statement is wonderful. [Christabelle] Thank you so much [Michael] Yeah, teaching us how to watch a film. And all of the things you mentioned before, I think, do that. It tells us who the film is about, who’s going to be important in this; what the story world is like. And then the moment we
discussed earlier: where where do you start the film? It’s starting for a reason. The why today? question, because something happens that disrupts the balance of life, and this this character makes a decision as to how they’re going to react to it and that’s going to give us our story. I like that … [Molly] So then when we’ve moved into Act Two then, which is the longest act, it’s the middle of the film. It’s half a movie. So as soon as we moved into Act Two, we know then - we know what the character’s journey is. We know what they’re trying to do. We know their wants, and we might be beginning to understand their need.
And then so throughout Act Two we’re going to see them trying to get it and we’re gonna see them constantly failing. And then there’s probably, in technical terms, there’s probably lots of sort of, moments where things are supposed to happen on certain pages that is not how I write, so I don’t know but you can probably tell us what those rules are. [Christabelle] No. I don’t agree with that either. [Michael] I’d like to just jump in and say this general format, is kind of the dominant way to do it but really, I think we’re really against the idea of writing to meet this template. [Tom] We don’t want it to be too prescriptive.
[Michael] Right, this the structure is there to help your story find a shape but don’t write a story to match the structure. [Christabelle] Well, Molly’s just said it brilliantly. The character, they don’t succeed so then they have to make further and further attempts to get what they want, and that will inevitably ratchet up the tension for the viewer and that can happen in all sorts of different ways. [Michael] Yeah. what we’d like to do is construct a story in which that happens naturally. I think usually, by the end of the Second Act, things have become desperate. [Molly] Yeah, so something’s going to have had to have happened.
We’re going to have to tick over into a new place, into Act Three. [Tom] Sure, we reach a crisis of some kind. It’s going to depend - the level of dramatic tension, the stakes are going to be dependent on genre but I think the Third Act is where we, the audience, find out whether the character - the protagonists get what they want; they don’t get want but they need, or perhaps neither, again it’s sort of depending on the creative intent, the style, genre, tone. But this is the resolution. This is going to be the denouement. This is how you end, how you leave us. What your - what the audience is going to walk out with.
[Molly] And there’s going to be a new equilibrium at the end. It’s going to be … [Tom] Absolutely. [Molly] Even, if that’s only - we see that in five minutes of the character’s life, or just a moment. we get this sense that there’s going to be - things have changed, things are different, and even if that’s a subtle shift. [Tom] Or they haven’t changed and that was the point, that they couldn’t change, or they almost changed but didn’t. [Molly] Yeah - did it too late.
[Michael] And then, in most cases, the character’s internal development is kind of, yoked to this arc of development, and the character will change along the way and at a certain point the character will realise, you know, that they’re changing. The audience is usually aware of this before the character but at a certain point the character begins to realise the changes - their priorities change; this may create more internal conflict and there, in the in the in the final act, before the resolution, often we’ll see the character come to some sort of realisation. And it could be, in this scheme, this could be redemption, it could be a rebirth of some sort.
[Tom] It could be a regression - it could be a moral epiphany, it could be anything. [Michael] It’s a real change that is really apparent to the character and that will enable them to change what they’ve been doing, and the strategy will change, and they’ll be able to to take a a different hand - to take control of this story, take it into the climax. [Christabelle] Or the character doesn’t even become aware of it but we the audience do, so we experience the catharsis even if they don’t. I think that’s important to say, isn’t it? Because there are genres in which the character is really not very self-aware or psychologically insightful. [Michael] Yeah.
And I think this is, just to wrap this up, I think this is an approach - a story approach that we see time and time and time again. [Christabelle] It works. It’s human. [Molly] It’s satisfying to us because its about cause and effect, and it’s about a concentrated version of the journey that we are all on in our lives, and it’s about being a wish fulfilment and us being able to, kind of, explore things in this in this short way. [Michael] Yeah. [Tom] It’s about giving life, giving narrative shapes that we just don’t have in real life. [Michael] And I think there is a lot of wish-fulfilment in there, this is - we wish life had these …
[Tom] Architecture … [Michael] Yeah. This architecture was filled with these epiphanies.

Our educators review together the purpose of each act in the common Three Act Structure, the dominant form of story telling for film.

It’s over to you: see if you can find the act breaks in a film. Take another look at your chosen scripts, skim through and see if you can find the setup in the first twenty-five pages. Share your thoughts in the comments.

In the next step we will turn our attention to alternative structures for story telling for film.

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An Introduction to Screenwriting

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