Three act structure doesn’t exist, and yet it’s still helpful.

There are four basic elements in screenwriting. You can use them to achieve any story.

  1. Character attribution
  2. Dialogue
  3. Scene Headings
  4. Action description

There are also transitions, and parentheticals, etc. They exist, but one could also go an entire career without ever actually using one. Read here for more on this idea.

Those are the things that literally exist in screenplays. Anything beyond that isn’t reality, it’s a model of reality. This is a semantic nuance that has led to untold hours of hurt feelings and wasted time.

Acts, sequences, etc are theories, they don’t literally exist.

We might choose to see things like beats of a scene, character arcs, acts, sequences, inciting incidents, or any number of other crap, but those are all optional – models of reality, not reality of itself. Even if someone deliberately wrote a script to be a perfect model of three act structure, someone else will see it as an illustration of five act structure, two act structure, hero’s journey, or whatever else is popular.

RELATED: A basic three act structure.

Some will point out that act breaks actually exist in TV scripts, as well as character lists and a few other things. They are correct, but we’re talking about feature film scripts here. I hope no one will take it amiss if I suggest that they avoid act breaks in features because features don’t commonly have act breaks, so it looks amateurish when someone includes them.

The same script could be broken down into three, four, five or seven acts and still be be the exact same story. Even three act structure has a dozen different flavors, they all say about the same thing.

Someone might deliberately write a feature screenplay using a 2 act model. Despite this, someone who’s entrenched in a three act paradigm will find a way to break it down into three acts. Someone who’s into five act structure will do the same. When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

Use whatever works for you, but don’t be surprised if someone has a different point of view on it. Ideally, your approach is sturdy enough to help you, but flexible enough to allow you to share ideas with other people.

WAIT, IF ACTS DON’T EXIST, WHY DO YOU SPEND SO MUCH TIME TALKING ABOUT THEM?

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” – Aristotle

Though they don’t literally exist, they are useful thought structures that sometimes aid in crafting and analyzing material. Some people use them, some don’t

The three act structure is a model of reality, not reality itself. The map is not the terrain[1] . That being said, it’s a useful model.

I talk in three act structure[2] because it’s how I learned, because I like it, and because in my experience it facilitates communication more often than it hinders it. It’s an approach, one of many, good as any, better than most.

There are many good reasons to think in terms of beats and acts and the like, but like any approach there are weaknesses behind the strength. It’s always useful to remember that there is no one right way to write a screenplay, but that there are many approaches, and many of them have value.

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