Threeact Structure

For those who want to tread into the world of three-act structure, the following is a basic introduction. Three-act, or dramatic, structure is a staple of the Hollywood system, so one of the best ways to study it is to rent some mainstream films (it may be easiest to do this with popular dramatic films such as My Cousin Vinny or Legally Blonde, which are more likely to be built around a traditional three-act formula) and map them out, scene by scene, using a stopwatch or the video counter on your screen. You may not be able to really "see" the act structure until you're all the way through the film, but what you'll tend to find is that it roughly divides as follows:

Act One

The first act generally runs about one-quarter the length of the story. In this act, you introduce your characters and the problem or conflict (in other words, this act will contain most of your important exposition). Act One often contains the "inciting incident"—the event that gets everything rolling—although this event sometimes has already occurred when the story begins. There tends to be a "first turning point," which is somewhat smaller than the turning point that ends the act. By the end of Act One, the audience knows who and what your story is about and, at least initially, what's at stake. The first act drives to an emotional peak, the highest in the film so far, necessitating the action that launches the second act.

Act Two

The second act is the longest in the film, about one-half the length of the story. The stage has been set in Act One and the conflict introduced. In the second act, the story's pace increases as complications emerge, unexpected twists and reversals take place, and the stakes continue to rise. The second act can be difficult, because there is a risk that the story will bog down or become a succession of "and then this happened, and then this." You need your second act to continue to build as new information and new stakes are woven into your story. The second act drives to an emotional peak even greater than at the end of Act One, necessitating the action that launches the third act.

Act Three

The third act is usually slightly less than one-quarter the length of the story. As this act unfolds, the character is approaching defeat; he or she will reach the darkest moment just as the third act comes to a close. It's a common misperception that your third act resolves the story, but it doesn't. It intensifies it; the tension at the end of the third act should be even greater than the tension at the end of Act Two. That tension then pushes you into the resolution, those last moments where you resolve the story, tie up loose ends as necessary, and let your hero out of the tree.

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