Writing for Film: The Three Act Structure

Trying something a bit different for my writing articles since I only have so many writing books in my library. Hence I will talk about an important concept in writing, the three act structure. The three act structure is one of the most common forms of storytelling. For those who have never heard of it, the three act structure is exactly what it says on the tin. It is a structure for stories, where the story is split into three acts. The first act represents the beginning, the second act the middle, and the third act the end. The three act structure, regardless of variation, is typically used to aid the writer in plotting out the elements of plot in detail. For the purpose of this article I will be looking at the three act structure in relation to scriptwriting for film, though those of you who write prose or another form of medium may find that the lessons translate over to other forms of media.

The three act structure in question is one I picked up in the book Breaking Into Screenwriting, a book by Ray Frensham in the teach yourself series. His three act structure in turn is derived from that of Syd Field. The basics of the theory is that each stage takes up a certain portion of the act. The first act takes up a quarter of the story, the second act half of the story and the third act a quarter again. Syd Field’s three act structure is notable for its detail, with a number of narrative stages outline along the three act structure.
Listed below are these stages. Since Frensham relates the times of each stage to a 120 minute script I will also be using this format. For a script of a different length one can use mathematics to work out how each would fit.Three Act Structure.png
Hook – The hook is the event which grabs your audience’s attention. In a 120 minute script this should ideally be within the first ten minutes. It is important to establish characters, plot and the story’s genre within these first few minutes in addition to having an event which will make them want to keep watching. Some films may have a prologue scene during these first few minutes before getting into the main first act.

The Inciting Incident – The time between the hook and the inciting incident should be spent continuing to establish things such as the characters and setting, and setting up plot points for use later on in the script. Ideally the inciting incident should happen somewhere around the 20 minute mark of the film. As the name implies the story begins with this stage, and the protagonist is usually confronted with a problem which kicks off the rest of the plot. The action should gradually rise until the first turning point.

Turning Point 1 – Also called Pinch Point 1. Turning points occur at the end of the second act, at the thirty minute mark. A turning point pushes the story in a new direction and in the case of the first turning point, it must push the story into its second act by creating new stakes and creating some kind of change in the protagonist’s motivation in some way.

Focus Point 1 – After the beginning of the second act Frensham recommends giving the audience some breathing space, and using the first moment of the second act for reactions or set-ups for later complications. Focus Point 1 occurs somewhere around the 45 minute mark. This is a scene or sequence which tightens up the action, reminds the audience of the conflict and keeps the story going.

Point of No Return/Halfway Point – Following the first focus point the action tightens up. The story should reach a point where obstacles gradually get tougher as they start to tackle the story’s conflict. Halfway through the script the protagonist should reach a midpoint where they either reaffirm their goals, reconsider their quest and generally make a solid decision concerning their goals.

Focus Point 2 – As a result in the changes brought about in the halfway point the protagonist should suffer an increase in stakes and the obstacles brought against them. The second focus point should test the protagonist’s new character development and reinforce the raise in stakes. This should occur around the 75 minute mark.

Turning Point 2 – The protagonist’s development should be gradually tested further. Gradually things should set up the second turning point, which is preceded usually by some kind of failure. The second turning point occurs at the end of act two, at the ninety minute mark and leads directly into the climax and should confront the protagonist with their biggest obstacle in the story. After that Act 3 begins.

Climax – This begins at and lasts for the majority of the third act. The climax should tie up the film’s loose end and build up to a final confrontation between the protagonist and the antagonist, or whatever the final confrontation in the story is intended to be. The climax should be a constant build up of tension all the way up to the end.

Final Climax – The Final Confrontation. Typically occurs in the last five minutes, beginning at the 115 minute mark. This is the one I like to take a lot of leeway with since I like to have a few extra minutes with the ending sometimes. The protagonist should face their final obstacle, whether that be the antagonist or a more external force. The main plot should be fully resolved and any transformation within the protagonist must be fully realised.

In Act 1 and Act 2 the script should be more about setting up the climax and plot points later on in the script. Over the course of the Act 3 the writer should start cashing in on these set-ups, giving the film a sense of continuity between the acts. The tension in the film should constantly build up, never relenting since. Unlike novels and other mediums, the audience can quickly get bored if there is a sudden lag in the tension or if the film’s climax doesn’t live up to the hype.

The three act structure is almost universal and I have seen variations of this structure applied other mediums as well. Concepts such as the hook, the turning points and focus points all translate well to novels and comic book scripts, and the percentage divide of quarter, half, quarter between acts can work well depending on the medium. I hope that whatever you use it for, this is a useful resource that you will use when writing. I would highly recommend picking up Ray Frensham’s Break Into Screenwriting if you wish for more detailed analysis of the three act structure in addition to other aspects of writing a screenplay.

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