A Basic Three Act Structure

FEATURES: Single protagonist, clear-cut theme, strong character arc, a happy ending.
CAUTIONS: It’s not about the idea, it’s about the execution. Any idiot can fill out a formula, the people who get hired are the ones who can fill out this formula in a way that is fresh and emotionally involving.

ACT ONE: Setup the world, the premise, the problem, and what the hero is lacking that prevents him from achieving the goal of the story.

ACT TWO: Explore what you’ve set up. This isn’t the time to add crazy new ideas, it’s time to explore the craziness created by the events of act one. The world is explored in the form of 4-8 memorable set pieces, cool visual ideas that you’d see in a trailer. Along the way, the main character grows and changes thanks to the machinations of the villains, the traits of the love interest, and lessons from a mentor. The hero appears to make progress, but there’s a final test at the end of act two and the hero falls short of the goal, seemingly further from it than ever before.

ACT THREE: The hero realizes that he only had 90% of the tools he needed to achieve the end. He gains the final realization and so embodies the theme of the story. So armed, he goes and saves the day, achieving the goal of the story in a big, climactic setpiece. In a story like this, you can’t go wrong with a happy ending. If you must use a downer ending, make sure it makes sense considering your theme.

* One final note – obviously this isn’t the only way to tell a story, but it is one of the major ways. If your idea can’t organically fit in this paradigm, you need to consider if its really an idea that would be best explored in a spec screenplay from an unknown writer.

Published by Matt Lazarus

WGA screenwriter offering in-depth writing instruction, notes, critique, and assistance.

2 thoughts on “A Basic Three Act Structure

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: