Three Act Structure

Syd Field, author of "Screenplay" and "The Screen Writer's Workbook", has outlined a paradigm that most screenplays follow. A paradigm is a conceptual scheme. This paradigm is the structure that holds screenplays together. According to Field, screenplays follow a three-act structure, meaning the standard screenplay can be divided into three parts: Setup, Confrontation, and Resolution.

Act I comprises the first quarter of the screenplay. (For a two hour movie, Act I would last approximately 30 minutes.)

What happens in Act I (Setup):
  • Exposition: The part of a story that introduces the characters, shows some of their interrelationships, and places them within a time and place. This part of the story introduces the main character, the dramatic premise, and the dramatic situation.
    • Main character: the person in the story who has a need/objective to fulfill and whose actions drive the story
    • Dramatic premise: what the story's about
    • Dramatic situation: the circumstances surrounding the action
  • Inciting Incident: an event that sets the plot of the film in motion. It occurs approximately halfway through the first act.

Act II comprises the next two quarters of the film. (For a two hour movie, Act II would last approximately 60 minutes.)

What happens in Act II (Confrontation):
  • Obstacles: In the second act, the main character encounters obstacle after obstacle that prevent him from achieving his dramatic need.
  • First Culmination: a point just before the halfway point of the film where the main character seems close to achieving his or her goal/objective. Then, everything falls apart, leading to the midpoint.
  • Midpoint: a point approximately halfway through the film where the main character reaches his/her lowest point and seems farthest from fulfilling the dramatic need or objective.

Act III comprises the final quarter of the film. (For a two hour movie, Act III would be the final 30 minutes.)

What happens in Act III (Resolution):
  • Climax (Second Culmination): The point at which the plot reaches its maximum tension and the forces in opposition confront each other at a peak of physical or emotional action.
  • Denouement: The brief period of calm at the end of a film where a state of equilibrium returns.
The "Plot Point" - According to Field, the three acts are separated by two plot points. A plot point, often called a reversal, is an event that thrusts the plot in a new direction, leading into a new act of the screenplay. Later screenplay gurus have built on Field's theory by stating that Plot Point #1, which leads into Act II, is the moment when the hero takes on the problem.

Source: Three-act Structure


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