Welcome to the second installment of Story Tips From the Big Screen. This monthly column (to be posted the second Monday of each month) explores screen writing techniques that will help fiction writers tell a better story.
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Did I wear you all out last month? I hope not. This month, I promise to be a bit more reasonable.
Screenwriters learn early on that most screenplays are based on three act structure, a paradigm that goes back to Aristotle’s Poetics, written in 350 B.C.
The simplest restatement of three act structure is: Beginning, Middle and End.
There’s a saying found in many screenwriting sources that is variously credited to many different people. “In Act I, you get your hero up a tree. In Act II, you throw rocks at him. In Act III, you get him out of the tree.” We’ll look in greater detail at these three steps. The rule of thumb in screenwriting, though, is that Act I is 25% of your play, Act II is 50%, and Act III is 25%.
Up a Tree:
Act I gets your reader involved with your story, with your characters. You use this section to introduce your characters, the setting, the goal and the obstacle. Halfway through Act I, your protagonist will face or take on a problem. Act I ends with the first plot point.
Plot points are defined by Syd Field (Screenwriting Workbook) as “an incident, episode, or event that ‘hooks’ into the action and spins it around into another direction. It can be anything: a shot, a speech, a scene, a sequence, an action, anything that moves the story forward.” It’s the first plot twist, the first real complication. In the movie Braveheart, it’s the moment that Murron, our hero’s wife, is murdered. Now the obstacle/problem becomes personal - it is invested with real emotion.
Act II heightens the emotional commitment to the story, both for the characters and for the reader. In Act II, you complicate everything. This section has a pattern of rising action, each complication getting more threatening to the protagonist. Along the way, our hero has more and more to lose.
Act II ends with the hero apparently defeated. This is the black moment. All is lost.
C’mon down, hero:
In Act III we start from the darkest point - where all is lost and the hero makes a last ditch effort to get to his goal. This is the final push to the climax. The showdown. Finally, the resolution brings a satisfactory end to the reader, even if it doesn’t bring the same to our hero. In romances, the hero and heroine end up together. In mystery and suspense, the good guy figures out who the bad guy is and, ultimately, defeats him.
Stuart Voytilla, in his book Myth and the Movies (closely related to Vogler’s Writer’s Journey) suggests that Acts I and III occur in the hero’s Ordinary World while Act II takes place in the Special World.
Dramatica Software’s manual describes the acts as journeys. Act I takes the hero from the starting point, City A, to City B; Act II from City B to City C; Act III from City C to the destination, City D.
These are the basics of three act structure. If I’m aiming toward a 300 page book, then I know that the first 75 pages will be Act I, pages 76 - 225 for Act II, and another 75 for the crisis and resolution. Once I have these structural definitions, it’s easier to see how many scenes I’ll need along the way.
Of course, this is just a model. It’s a tool to use, not a recipe that you have to follow exactly. I’ll leave you with one more restatement from Syd Field. He speaks of the three acts as: Setup, Confrontation and Resolution.
Next month we’ll look at the two minute movie. Until then, BICHOK (Butt in Chair, Hands on Keyboard.)
Cheers, Jax (firstname.lastname@example.org)
(This series first ran in the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers newsletter in 2004.)
About the Author: Jax Hunter is a published romance writer and freelance copywriter. She wears many hats including EMT, CPR instructor, and Grammy. She is currently working on a contemporary romance series set in ranching country Colorado and a historical romance set in 1775 Massachusetts. She lives in Colorado Springs, belongs to PPW, RMFW and is a member of the Professional Writer's Alliance.