The Three Act Structure For Novels And Movies

3 act structure screenplay

Good morning. I’m Chris Fox. Welcome to the third video in the outline a novel series. Today we’re going to be discussing the three-act structure and how you can apply it to your outlining.

So if you’ve watched the first two videos you know that it’s probably not the best idea to start with an outline. We begin with the premise and then we fleshed out some plot and some character arcs, a pretty good idea of who the cast of characters are in our story and sort of what they need to achieve.

Now we’re going to apply a little structure to that, so in the next segment of the video I’m going to give you a breakdown on what the three-act structure is and then the last part of the video we’re going to go through a screencast of my Scrivener document.

I’m going to show you how I use that structure to drop in the first theme placeholders so that’s how we build the skeleton of the actual outline. So the three-act structure is one of several different types of structures that people will apply to stories.

It dates back to really Aristotle, back to Greek philosophy and has been, you know, iterated over and over all the way up to present-day. Some great people, like Joseph Campbell, have discussed it at length and I would recommend making a study of the structure. It will definitely help your career.

It’s made writing so much easier for me and here’s a basic breakdown for those unfamiliar. So the first act is the beginning, the second act is the middle and the third act is the end, and you’re going to group all of your scenes into whatever area they fall into in the plot.

Each part of this structure has a few different things that are in common, usually from story to story regardless of genre. So, for example, in Act one you start with a meaning and that’s where we’re showing your hero’s everyday life. You can give them a small problem.

In fact, you should give them a small problem right away but it’s their ordinary life, you know, the world hasn’t blown up yet. Then shortly after that introduction you want to have the inciting incident and that’s where a real interruption triggers in the hero’s life. They have to deal with it this.

It’s your opportunity to sort of show them an action. There’s a wonderful book called Save the Cat. This is where you show your protagonist saving the cat. They’re doing something that makes us as the reader root for them, because it shows that they’re competent and willing to action.

As they progress through the first scene, you want to be building towards the first doorway or gateway. So each of the acts has a transition a gateway that’s going to take it into the next act and that’s the moment at which you know that their life can’t go back to what it was before.

So a great example that most people are familiar with is Star Wars. The end of the first act is when Luke pulls up in the speeder and you see that his aunt and uncle are dead. His farm has been burned, there’s no going home, literally no going home.

three act structure novel outlineIt’s been destroyed. His whole life is altered. He’s been thrust into the second act and now it’s the middle of the movie, and he has to decide what to do going forward. So you want to have a moment like that in your story structure. So the first two that I define are again the inciting incident and the first doorway.

In the second act you typically have somewhere around the midpoint of the movie, or shortly thereafter, a major crisis. Something is going to go catastrophically wrong for the protagonist. So they’re going to try something and it’s going to fail, and fail badly.

It’s going to knock them on their butt. This is the point at which things look like they are the worst for your protagonist. If you’re doing a romance, you know, things are looking terrible between, you know, the guy and girl.

It looks like they’re never going to get together. This is the worst point of the novel and you need to define that. And then they’re going to climb back up into your climax and eventually they’re going to reach a point of no return, where they enter the second gateway and it takes him into act 3.

Now they’re locked into the conflict, so act 3 in Star Wars would be the run on the Death Star. As far as average sizes for each of these acts, typically your first act is about 20% of the overall length of your novel. Your midsection is closer to about 50% and your third act is generally about 30% of it, so that can vary a little bit.

Some people prefer shorter first acts or even longer last acts depending on what they’re writing, but that’s a rule of thumb. So how we’re going to apply this, which I’ll show you the next part of the video, is just defining each of these major points of the story structure.

That allows us to kind of connect the dots. So once these are all in place it’s very easy for us to drop in every other chapter based on our character plot arcs, so that we have a fully fleshed-out plotline.

Three act structure for novelsWe’re going to go ahead and jump right into that. I’ll show you exactly how I use the story structure and once we’re done I will distribute the Scrivener document at the end of this process, so you can kind of see how it all comes together.

Okay so you can see up here I have my three act structure and this is how you’re going to find each of the things that I mentioned in the last part of the video. The inciting incident, the first doorway, the second doorway, and your crisis. I’m going to move my crisis to the correct place. There we go, because the second doorway of course is the end of Act two.

And then Act three, here we got our final confrontation, so I’m going to go back to my plot arcs and this is where I’m going to find which of these scenes fit into the inciting incident, first doorway, second doorway, crisis, etc.

So we’re going to start with the inciting incident. I’m looking at the Void Wraith agent slash main plot here, and I’ve highlighted this area here. Thisis the inciting incident. Nolan realizes that these stations are being hit and he’s found a piece of data that everyone else is missed.

So he thinks he can solve who is hitting them. So what I would then do is take this a little bit of data, copy go over to my inciting incident, paste. Now I’ll go through this and flush this out before we’re done and that’ll actually be in the fourth video.

You’ll see how I flesh out these scenes but I’m just putting it in as a placeholder. So now we’ve got our inciting incident. Now we need to find our first doorway, so go back to our plot arcs. When is the story changed? when has Nolan accepted this quest and take an action to go solve it?

When is he kind of locked in and that is when the Admiral sends Nolan with his top agent. So he’s leaving with Catherine, that’s going to be our first doorway. Paste. Now we need our crisis. When are things going to look the darkest, the worst that they can possibly look?

what is the three act structureIn this plot for Nolan and Catherine, and that’s going to be, even though they don’t know it, they will when Admiral Mendez’s turned. This is a huge huge blow. You’re taking your staunchest ally and he’s now becoming your worst enemy.

So we’ve got our huge crisis and we’re going to need to build up to this in the plot. BAM! Crisis is defined. Now we’re gonna go back to our plot arcs here. When is the second doorway? So when is Nolan locked into the final confrontation with the antagonist?

In this case Delta, and that’s going to be when they reach the final station that Delta is about to hit first, and they dig in and get ready to fight. So they’re getting to the station, they’re getting the people at this station to get ready to defend themselves, and they’re buckling down.

We’re locked in. We know the Delta is going to arrive and battle with Nolan, so that’s our second gateway. And then that entire last battle, the whole rest of the book is going to be how that plays out. So there’s our final confrontation, or act 3.

As you can see, what we’ve done here is created the major points along our story structure. And now every other scene that we’re going to drop in, all the rest of the data in each of these arcs, is other scenes that connect these together.

So if we start with our inciting incident, and that’s the beginning of our plot, the rest of what happens in act 1, we’re going to create new scenes in here that are going to show each of those. That’s going to be the subject of the fourth video, so we’ll go through, will actually create all the rest of the scenes until it’s all laid out.

When we’re done it’s going to look like this. So you’re going to see the entire plot gets written. We’ll have, like, 20 scenes by the time we’re done and I’m going to go through that process again in the next video. But for this one your homework, if you will, is just to find each of these in your own story and to define them. That’s going to be the first part of your outline.

It’s really simple to do but if you do have questions on doing that, please don’t hesitate to email me or post them in the comments, and if any part of this is unclear, just let me know and I’m happy to explain further. Hopefully, this video has been useful. If it has, please consider subscribing to either the mailing list or the channel.

The Three Act Structure Screenplay – 3 Act Structure For Movies Tips

Hi and welcome to this, ‘almost everything you need to know about structuring screenplays tutorial’. In this video we’re going to explore structure in depth and how it applies to screenplays. It also has to be said that structure applies equally to novels and short stories.

To begin, we’re going to cover the basics of act structure. We’ll then move up two key beats, sequences, themes and then finish with some general tips. If you want any of the free worksheets that accompany this video visit has more freedom than that.

Thirdly it’s not about rules. Rules would suggest a harsh consequence if you don’t follow them. In reality, the rules, if you call them that, are broken all the time, but in order to break them without detriment to your story you need to understand the part they play.

Finally. keep an open mind. It takes practice to understand structure but it’s worth the effort. Like those magic eye pictures of the 1980s, which if you don’t remember, what incoherent pictures that didn’t make any sense until you pulled your eyes out of focus.

3 act structure for movies and filmsVery painfully, as I remember, with a little practice you’ll soon see through the polished veneer of Hollywood gloss. Hopefully, without the pain, understanding the basics of structure you can then apply it to your own projects.

Structure is in everything we do. It’s in the way we tell jokes, arrange sentences or plan journeys. It’s intuitive. This is structure in its simplest form and dates back to Aristotle’s Poetics way back in 384 BC. Having a structure in stories allows the reader or viewer to be taken on a journey.

If you imagine Lord of the Rings starting with Frodo walking out to the shower with Sam Wise and explanation of the ring or the mission it would seem confusing. In story terms, this beginning, middle, and end, translate into acts, and today it’s the basis of a three-act structure.

Although there are single and five act structures still used for short films or TV, don’t get hung upon numbers. The basic mechanism of storytelling are the same in every one. So let’s look at three acts.

In the first act we establish a hero or protagonist in their normal life. The antagonist has a plan and the hero, although he doesn’t know it yet, is going to have to stop them. This is the act in which the antagonist raises a question that the protagonist has to answer. It’s often referred to as the main tension, and in structural terms carries the whole film.

The second act is often called the actual story or the main canvas. This is where the protagonist and the antagonist play cat-and-mouse and the antagonist attempts to carry out their dastardly plan and the protagonist tries to stop them.

3 act movie structure - MovieInAMonthCourse-728x90Static

The third act is referred to as the battle or the resolution. It’s really the climax of the film. The protagonist and the antagonist have their showdown and hopefully the hero prevails. At the top of the page you’ll see a timeline. Now I’ll cover more about this in a video on formatting but screenplays are generally 90 to 120 minutes long.

So if you break the acts down in simple terms, you have 30 minutes for act 1, 60 minutes for act 2 and 30 minutes for act 3. Don’t worry too much about the exact timings. At this stage it’s more of a proportion guide, so you can see whether you have too much set up and the story feels too drag or too little time is spent on the resolution and the end feels like it’s rushed.

Okay, so we now have a basic three act structure to our story. We can explore the protagonist’s journey more detail. In order to do this we need to understand the story’s key beats, which is to say, the major turning points the story will take.

3 act structure screenplayAgain this isn’t about plotting the story. It’s about understanding the extremes. The first beat is the inciting incident. The antagonist’s plan is impacted on the hero’s real world. The pair are now connected. The hero may or may not directly see exactly how are involved but the audience knows it.

Importantly, the hero refuses they do this because of a weakness or flaw. The second act threshold is the point where we interact – it’s the start of the adventure and often symbolised by a journey.

By this point the antagonist’s plan is clearly established and so to the hero’s objective. The main tension – the main tension is the objective that will carry the whole story. Beat 3 – the hero is closest to their objective and has succeeded despite their weakness or fault. It’s worth noting at this point that the first half of act 2, the audience has hope the hero will succeed.

In the second half of act two, the audience fear he or she won’t but before the hero has failed in their objective, he or she was not ready for the adventure. The reason they refused way back in act 1, that weakness, has meant the antagonist has been able to succeed.

Beat 5 is the false resolution or twist. The hero has realized they need to fix themselves and by doing so are ready to take on the antagonist. At beat 6, the climax, the hero prevails. Balance is restored and the hero is better for their adventure.

If you were able to transport them back to act 1, they would now look out of place. They have grown because of their adventure. So now let’s look in more detail about the turning points. Firstly, the start of act 2 – it’s important that the hero can’t turn back. They are moving forwards all the time.

the three act structure of film screenplaysThis is Neo being withdrawn from the matrix, or Sandra Bullock’s character drifting free in space in the film Gravity. Although the arrows are shown at the end of these acts, they should also be everywhere else.

Beats 3 & 4 are crucial to Act two. They represent the highs and lows, and create the roller-coaster ride for the audience. The audience really needs to emotionally feel these beats. Think of act 2 as a pendulum that’s constantly swinging the audience between hope and fear.

It’s not just in the key beats but in the plot that sits between them. This shouldn’t be generated artificially by plot devices but rather the drive force of the antagonist and the protagonist themselves. Okay, so let’s recap.

We now know that structure determines the beginning, middle and end of a story. We also know that the six key story beats determine the emotional roller-coaster ride for the hero and the audience. Let’s now go back and fill in the spaces between those beats with themed sequences.

Themes are really important because they focus and constrain similar events together. Like with montages, themes can convey a linked message that’s more powerful than if those events or scenes will disperse throughout the film. It also helps reduce duplication.

Sequences vary in length, depending on the screenplay. Their origins lay in the Golden Age of cinema, when theaters had to change film cans every 12 minutes. Having a complete story in one cam with a hook that kept the audience in their seats meant that viewers would wait for the next cam to be loaded.

In this graph we now see the hero’s journey plotted against that of the villain’s. This is a really important exercise to do as it demonstrates the hero and villain are opposites in the story. With the base two lines plotted together, you really get a sense that something the hero does affects the villain and vice-versa.

the three act structure for novels and moviesYou can download this full worksheet – click So life’s looking more depth at the purpose of each of these sequences and get an understanding of how they are used to fill in the space between each of the key story beats.

  1. Sequence one is the status quo. This is where we see the hero in their everyday life and establish their weakness or flaw. We also see the antagonist developing their plan. The inciting incident is the moment that this plan or threat of it is revealed to the hero. It’s often accompanied by a direct question – will you save the world? etc.
  2. Sequence two is the implication to that question. This is where the hero refuses the question based on their flaw. Refusal is hugely important because it plants a seed in a viewers mind that the hero could actually fail. It also highlights that the hero alone can stop the antagonist thus binding them to the story.
  3. Sequence three is all about assembling a team, talking through the plan, making preparations. The hero is preparing for the mission. Again, the audience is filled with hope. In Lord of the Rings, this is Frodo meeting his companions at Rivendell, agreeing a plan, getting his sword.
  4. Sequence four is the first triumph. This is the first time the hero is really tested against the antagonist’s army. Because the hero is shielded by the team. However, his flaw is not an issue. Looking at the protagonist line again, we can see that all this rising action from the hero has meant that the antagonist’s action line is falling. As a result this next turning point story beat 3 is where the antagonist turns the tables and comes back with a vengeance. In the case of the Matrix, this is where the agent convinces Regan to sell out his shipmates and the preceding sequence is about how they are all killed.
  5. Sequence 5 is about the hero’s plan unraveling. The audience fears for his mission. Everything that was built to support the hero in sequence 3 is being torn away. The hero’s flaw or weakness is now apparent and obvious.
  6. Sequence 6 is all about failure. The hero’s plan is in tatters. The villain is closer than ever to achieving their objective. In Gladiator, this is where Maximus is betrayed and Cicero and Próximo are killed. All subplots spiral to their lowest point in this sequence.
  7. Sequence 7 is about resurrection. The hero finds the strength to fight back and there is a showdown with the antagonist. We think the story ends there in horror. This is often the point where we believe the antagonist is dead, but then miraculously they come back to life.
  8. Finally, sequence 8 is about salvation. The hero realizes their flaw and becomes a changed person. They are able to use this strength to finally defeat the antagonist or save themselves. This resolution is about the hero overcoming their own personal demons. It’s what creates a happy ending.

So we know all about acts, structure, key story beats, sequences and themes. With practice, you’ll learn to recognize them in the film’s you watch and also the ones you write. Understanding structure doesn’t make a good writer bad but it can give a writer a framework upon which to build or review their story.

Understanding structure provides a framework for discussion to allow writers, editors and producers to talk with confidence about a story and make improvements. A writer who understands structure can give producers, directors and agents the confidence that they’re not just flying.

As mentioned earlier, once you’ve learnt the basics you can forget the exact timing. Once you know there needs to be an inciting incident, you don’t have to have it happen exactly 12 minutes in and you don’t need to name your sequences as indicated here.

Once you know the basics you can adapt them for your own story. If you want the structure charts used in this video and loads of other three tips for writers, visit click

The 3 act structure novels and movies PDF