Screenwriting Structure – The Three Act Paradigm

By Jennie Jarvis

This month on 5writers, we’re going to be talking about structure, and what better way to kick us off than to talk about the most structured writing that exists – screenwriting! Not only do film scripts have extremely strict rules for how the script is formatted, but the underlying structure of the story has very specific and rigid rules as well. Some of the most rigid styles of structure can be so specific that they tell you what has to happen on a specific page. For example, the Blake Snyder method of structure requires specific events happening on very specific pages, regardless of which genre you want to write for (i.e. “catalyst” on page 12, “midpoint” on page 55,  “all is lost” page 75, etc.). With this very paint-by-numbers style of writing, is it any wonder that screenwriters are often called “hacks” and aren’t quite as well respected as literary writers, regardless of how great their work is?

But the truth is that extremely strict underlying structure wasn’t always the golden rule in Hollywood, even if it seems to be that way today. So where did this extremely strict idea of screenplay structure come from? Many film-writing scholars will happily point the finger of blame at screenwriting guru Syd Field. His 1979 book Screenwriting is often cited as the birth of film structure. To write this book, Field watched and analyzed the underlying structure of dozens of classic Hollywood movies, and he discovered a similarity to how the stories were built. To describe this underlying structure, he coined the term “Three Act Paradigm”, and he created the following pictorial representation.

Three Act Paradigm Screenplay Structure

Three Act Paradigm Screenplay Structure

As you can see, Field divided the story of a film into three “acts”. The first act is basically the first 1/4 of the script. The second act is the next 1/2 of the story, and the third act is that final 1/4 of the tale. While Field often breaks this down into a simple 30 pages – 60 pages – 30 pages ratio, the truth is that most screenplays bought in Hollywood today aren’t an exact 120 pages, especially from new writers. The idea page count to shoot for is 100-110 pages (95 if you are writing a family film), and so I often found that using the 1/4 – 1/2 -1/4  ratio structure is much easier to use with accuracy.

In this Paradigm, each act has a very specific function, and each act is separated by what Syd Field calls “plot points”. These are very specific external events that spin the story into a new direction, but I’ll get into that as we go along.

The first act is the beginning of the story, and it introduces the world of the movie, the main conflict and the main characters. Within the first ten pages of that first act, we should meet the protagonist in their normal world and then see some kind of external event that comes into the protagonist’s world and sets him/her after a goal. After that inciting event occurs, we get to see how the protagonist reacts to that world-shattering incident. In other words, this is where we get the set up of the story.

Plot Point One is the external event that spins act one into act two. It’s often the moment where the audience remembers the story beginning after they leave the theater, even if it really began with the external event on page ten. I like to look at this as a moment where the stakes are raised. The protagonist was already pursuing his/her goal but then this event occurs and the crap has hit the fan. Now, it’s do or die. A great example is The Goonies. Mikey’s goal is to save his neighborhood (which begins when he finds that treasure map around ten minutes into the film). When he and his friends find themselves locked in the basement of a creepy restaurant with convicted killers upstairs, the stakes are now really raised. Not only do they need to follow the map to get the treasure, but they also need to follow it to save their own lives.

The second act is where we get to see the main conflict of the story. The protagonist will try to pursue that main goal established in act one (using every tactic in his/her arsenal to try to win whatever it is that he/she is after). Also during this time period, we will get to see a number of obstacles that stand in the way of the protagonist winning the goal. As a writer, I always try to pair up my tactics and obstacles so that they work neatly together. For example, say that our protagonist is trying to get to her wedding on time. Some obstacles that could stand in her way could be: traffic, a monster invading the city, a ruined wedding dress and a broken GPS. If these are her obstacles, then her tactics could include: getting out of her car and taking the subway, shooting a ray gun at the monster, buying or stealing a new wedding dress and asking for directions (Okay, I kinda want to write that script now!).

The Midpoint is similar to a plot point in that it is an external event that spins the plot into a new direction, and many people use this to help them divide up act two. It occurs halfway through the second act and, simultaneously, halfway through the screenplay. Often, this will be a major event that starts to change the severity of the film and often, once again, raises the stakes. For example, in the first Harry Potter film (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone), the midpoint of the film is when Harry, Hermione and Ron discover Fluffy, the three headed monster that is guarding a trap door. From here on out, Harry is no longer just casually learning magic. The trio is actively looking into the mystery of Hogwarts. In Jurassic Park, the midpoint of the film is when the power goes out and the T-Rex attacks the cars. It’s not longer a fun vacation spot. Now, it’s about the guests trying to survive the theme park!

Whether a writer uses a midpoint or not, throughout act two the important thing to remember is that the protagonist needs to be actively pursuing his/her goal in EVERY scene. Characters in films need to always act selfishly and fight for that goal, even if they aren’t selfish people. If someone doesn’t actively pursue their goal then we, as an audience member, get bored by them or lose respect for them. For example, if you have a male protagonist whose goal is to win the heart of the woman he loves, then his obstacle can’t be his own low self esteem. Sure, he can think that he isn’t worthy for one scene, but he needs to be pursuing the girl in every other scene. The things that stand in his way need to be physical obstacles or other people.

Keep in mind, though, that a character can have a goal that is different from his motivation. For example, in the great 1989 film Can’t Buy Me Love, protagonist Ronald Miller tries to impress the girl that he likes by paying her to pretend to date him. He believes that this will make him popular enough to deserve her. His motivation is to be with the girl, but his GOAL is to become popular (since he thinks it is the only way to prove that he is worthy of her).  A great way to think about it is that motivation is often emotional, which the goal is more visual. You have to be able to point a camera at the subject of the goal. You can point a camera at Ronald being popular (surrounded by people, laughing, center of attention, etc). You can’t point a camera at “feeling worthy”. See the difference?

Plot Point Two is often called the Point of No Return. Once the protagonist has participated in this event, they can never go back to who they were at the beginning of the film: a character known for being a jerk at the beginning volunteers to help someone in need, an innocent murders someone that is attacking her, etc. Often, this event can be a big reveal. You’ll see this a lot in murder mysteries. The final clue or the identity of the murderer will be revealed. In an action film, it’s often when the heroes experience a really big loss (a ship sinks, an lovable comrade is murdered, a bomb goes off, etc.). This is a big moment that, if you told it to an audience member, they would consider it a MAJOR spoiler.

In Act Three, we get the conclusion of the story. This act usually starts at a point that is really high or really low for the protagonist, usually because of the event that took place at plot point two. If the protagonist is eventually going to lose his goal, then he should start this act out by being on top of the world. He thinks that he has everything, and then the rest of the act will show all of that being taken away from him. If the protagonist is eventually going to win her goal, then this act will usually start with a lowest moment, where the protagonist has pretty much given up all hope of ever winning her goal. She doesn’t spend the rest of the act feeling sorry for herself, though. She will usually get that extra piece of motivation (or firepower) that she needs in the second scene of the act to get her back up and fighting again.

A mistake that I see a lot of beginning film writers make is to end the goal before the third act is done.  Once the goal has been reached, the story is over, and nothing else needs to happen. There can be a really great emotional climax (where the villain is killed or something huge explodes), but that doesn’t mean that the film is over. The film needs to be done when the goal has been won. Often, the goal of a well-written script will be answered on the FINAL page of the script. A great example is the Sci-Fi action flick The Fifth Element. Bruce Willis’s goal is to literally to get the girl. From the moment she falls into his taxi, he is in love, and every thing he does is to pursue her. It’s not to save the world, although the great big burst of light in the pyramid is definitely an emotional climax. The climax of his goal, however, is the last shot of the film, where we see him and Lelu making out. He won the heart of the girl. The Avengers is another great example, although it’s harder to dissect because it’s an ensemble piece. The protagonist of that film is Nick Fury (Samuel Jackson), and his goal is to prove his Avengers Initiative was a good idea to his superiors. He doesn’t win his goal when the Avengers save NYC. It’s when his superiors ask him if they can get the Avengers back if they are needed again. He has proven himself, but not until those last few minutes of the film.

This all may seem like a lot of information, and it can be overwhelming to new writers. However, this is why there are entire BFA and MFA writing tracks to learn the art and craft of film writing. It’s not just about telling a story. It’s about telling it in a way that fits industry expectations. All that being said, however, don’t let these fancy act breakdowns fool you. At its most basic, the three-act structure is a glorified version of Aristotle’s belief that every story needs to have a beginning, a middle and an end.

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  1. #1 by nivaladiva on April 3, 2013 - 2:02 pm

    Thanks for the reminders!

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  3. #3 by Estela on September 30, 2014 - 9:00 pm

    Incredible points. Sound arguments. Keep up the
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  4. #4 by Stephanie on March 26, 2015 - 5:51 am

    What’s up, yup this post is truly good and I have learned lot
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  5. #5 by Tom on January 22, 2016 - 1:56 am

    Re: Field’s table paradigm:
    Sometimes tables have 3 legs…

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