Sunday, October 3, 2010

Breaking Your Story into Three Acts

I’m going to continue my discussion of screenplay structure with the Three Act concept.  This was initially popularized in the book Screenplay by Syd Field and has now become the language of Hollywood.  

It might be useful if I first point out that there are no actual act breaks in a movie.  Think about it.  A movie is a continuous experience.  In a play there often are act breaks – the curtain comes down, the lights come up and the audience goes out to the lobby for a drink.  In TV there are act breaks that are filled by commercials.  But in feature films there are no actual breaks in the narrative.

Instead, when we say “act break” we’re talking about a literary concept.  We use act breaks to discuss critical turning points in the story.  Since this is a literary concept it can be subjective.  You and I might disagree on the act breaks in a given story.  There’s no way to tell who’s right and who’s wrong.  As a writer you identify the act breaks in the way that is most useful to you in telling your story.

So, we have our Dramatic Question that is introduced in the Catalyst and answered in the Resolution.  Typically, the Catalyst comes around page ten of your screenplay.  The Resolution should probably come in the last six to eight pages.  That leaves a lot of pages in between.  We could use some structural landmarks to help us out.

As I said earlier, the First Act is the section of your story where you introduce your character, their dilemma, and what’s at stake.  This typically takes up the first fourth of your screenplay.  Sometime around page twenty-five or thirty there will be an act break – The First Act Break.  This is the point at which your character embarks on the journey of the movie, sometimes known as the “point of no return.”

The Second Act takes up roughly the middle half of your screenplay.  This is where the character tries to solve their problem but faces escalating obstacles and ideally escalating stakes.  It ends at the Second Act Break, which I discussed last time as the point of apparent success or failure.

The Third Act, then, takes up roughly the last quarter of your screenplay.  It provides the climactic resolution to your story.  In the next three posts I’m going to discuss each act in turn and focus in depth on what story beats you will find there.

But Three Act Structure isn’t just about plotting.  It’s also about character.  Your character and plot need to be interrelated to have a good story.  This is where character Want and Need come in.  The character Want is what drives them consciously through the story.  It’s their motivation.  The character Need is what they unconsciously need to be happy and successful in their lives.  Often these two things are in conflict.

I’ll repeat for emphasis – character Want and Need are critical parts of your plot.  Even if the dilemma comes from outside the character the Want and Need are driving the story forward.  They are determining what decisions the character makes at each critical juncture.

You may be wondering how this works in an ensemble story, or a buddy picture or a story with multiple interweaving storylines.  It works this way:  You pick one main character.  There can be other major characters, but only one character drives the structure of the script.  You, the screenwriter, get to pick which one.  (For more on that, read this post.)

So, next post:  Act One


Sanket said...

Cool post.

Was wondering if I can request you to use Fargo/LittleMissSunshine more for examples in your future posts for this ongoing topic?

Doug Eboch said...

Sure, I'll do that. Didn't see the request until after writing the Act One-Part One post, but keep an eye out for more in the future.