Act Structure Demystified Part III – The Third Act Crunch

This article and its two sisters are a ”reprint” of articles that I first read some time around 1999. Since then, Mining have become and these articles have disappeared. Recently I found them on Internet Archive, but they deserve a more prominent spot. Now, I don’t claim any ownership of these, and want to make sure that everybody knows that the writer of these articles is Allen White.

Here’s part 3:

Act Structure Demystified Part III – The Third Act Crunch

Dateline:  6/19/98

The second act is finished.

Your hero is plummeting toward an uncertain confrontation with forces they don’t quite understand, and under circumstances that are not completely under their control.

What now?

Third acts tend to be short, because if a story has been carefully constructed, and character motivations are clear, then there remain but few things left to accomplish.   Yet you have very little space in which to accomplish the resolution of every conflict and idea contained within the story – hence the ”Crunch”.

Essentially, the entire reason for the story’s existence is to lay the groundwork for all involved forces and persons to come together for the defining confrontational peak in Act Three.  All indicators should point toward an inevitable, shattering climax.  And your main character has no choice but to see it through to the end.   Now you, the writer, are ready to yank away the final curtain and show us why we sat through the last hour-and-a-half.

Is your ending a big enough payoff to justify telling the story?  Does the story logically progress to its natural climax?

One way to diagnose the health of your screenplay’s last act, is to check for the Three Keys to Act Three.

  • A New Tactic
  • The Demon is Confronted
  • The End of the Road

A New Tactic

In Act Three, the main character’s entire methodology changes.  They struggled and battled their way through Act Two, and all they got for their troubles was either pain, unhappiness, or the realization that what they did get, they now don’t want.  This not just a new understanding, but a radical re-evaluation of their entire approach, philosophy, or goal.

It’s time for a change of tactics.

Let’s look at how this works on a few films.

Realization:  Hunting the alien down as a crew failed.  Destroying the ship and fleeing failed.
New Tactic:  Ripley must become the predator, and fight the alien one-on-one.

Clockwork Orange
  Alex sees that his old way of life is gone.
New Tactic:
  Unable to commit violent acts because of the Ludovico Treatment, he must now adopt the role of the victim, rather than the aggressor.

Jerry Maguire
Jerry and Tidwell realize they need each other’s friendship.
New Tactic:
They will stay with each other no matter what.
Subplot Realization:
  Dorothy and Jerry both realize that they are unhappy without the other.
Subplot New Tactic: 
They must somehow make their relationship work again.

As you can see in the above examples, the change that occurs is a shift in point of view that enables the characters to engage their world on different terms.  The character has come to believe that their old approach is ineffective, and they now see the necessity to try new methods.

It often happens that the new approach is worse that the old!  This can often occur because the character is driven to extremes by the events of the story, and they react in an extreme way.  A great example is how Carl, Billy Bob Thornton’s character in Sling Blade, deals with his circumstances.  In the beginning of the film, when a reporter asks him if he could kill again, he replies, ”I reckon I ain’t got no reason to kill nobody.”  Yet by the third act, he does have a reason.  By our standards, this choice may not be wise, noble, or the best solution to the film’s dramatic problem.  But to Carl, from a purely practical standpoint, murder becomes an inarguable necessity.

This perspective of acting from necessity is exactly what a main character should face at the end of the third act.  Their experiences lead them to decide on a course of action that they must do, because no other choice seems available.

The Demon is Confronted

The ”Demon” in question is not necessarily literal, but represents a problem that the character has wrestled with during the course of the story.   In a layered story, this Demon typically has two components – outer and inner.   The outer component, or  external conflict is represented by the physical obstacles to the character’s goal.  The inner component, or internal conflict is the emotional or psychological obstacle that could not only prevent the character from reaching the goal, but also often hinders them from achieving any real satisfaction.

In the examples below, note that both the Inner and Outer Demons are simultaneously confronted when the story has a single plot, but that in a plot/subplot story such as Jerry Maguire, they are typically separately confronted – in this case the plot addresses the outer conflict, the subplot the inner.

The Outer Demon:  The alien.
The Inner Demon:  Ripley fears loss of control.
The Confrontation:  Ripley must give herself over to instinct – i.e. lose control –  and simply react, fighting the alien head-on.

Clockwork Orange
The Outer Demon:
  All those who Alex previously wronged – notably the Writer.
The Inner Demon:
  Society’s attempt to make Alex realize the moral consequences of his actions – literally embodied by the Ludovico Treatment.
The Confrontation:   Alex has been conditioned not only against violence, but inadvertently against the music of Beethoven.  The Writer subjects Alex to Beethoven’s music, greatly amplified, and the effects of the Treatment force Alex to attempt suicide rather than hear it. 

Jerry Maguire
The Outer (Plot) Demon:  Jerry’s struggle to get a big-money contract for Tidwell.
The Confrontation:  Because of Jerry’s words, Tidwell gives his all in a grueling Monday Night Football game, and he is knocked out.
The Inner (Subplot) Demon:  Jerry’s inability to give his all to Dorothy.
The Confrontation:  Jerry rushes home to Dorothy, and gives a moving speech before Dorothy and her sister’s women’s group, in which he tells her he needs and loves her. 

Jerry Maguire bends convention, which makes it such a wonderful film.  Every element in the film is tied to every other.   Jerry’s outer conflict has subplot-like components.  This is because Jerry’s self-doubt, amplified by Tidwell’s lack of heart makes his efforts to win Tidwell a better contract more difficult.

If you always think of the main character as having both outer and inner conflicts, you will never be short of material.  This lesson is especially important to remember in the second act, where the inner conflict is given time to grow.   First and third acts are usually so packed with information, it can be difficult to spend time on developing character.

The End of the Road

Is your story a comedy?  A tragedy?   A drama?  Your ending is determined not only by considerations of circumstance, genre, or target audience, but most importantly, by what you have to say as a writer.

In simplistic terms, what is the ”moral” of the story?  What point are you trying to make about the attitude or behavior of the characters, especially the main character?

If the main character is heroic or noble, and your story is about their struggle to overcome a villain or right a wrong, then your outcome will possibly be that they succeed at reaching their goal.  Did they learn from their experiences?  Conquer their fears?  Are they a better person for having lived through it?

If you are trying to say that the main character’s behavior is somehow unacceptable, or needs to change, then one possibility is that they fail to reach their goal, and instead get a result they hadn’t bargained for.   This result can be positive, such as newfound self-respect, or the discovery of an inner strength they had previously lacked.  Or, the result can be tragic, because the main character either didn’t learn their lesson and paid heavily for it, or learned it too late to change the resulting unhappy circumstances.

Another possibility is ambiguity.   Great drama, like life, often does not provide easy answers, especially when the issue at hand is not clear-cut.  Sometimes life isn’t fair.  Sometimes the Bad Guys win.  Sometimes the hero does not triumph, nor the villain get their due.  However, well-written ambiguity can be difficult to pull off.  And if you are trying to break into the mainstream, Hollywood doesn’t like endings that are not clear-cut.

Here are the results of our films under discussion, framed in terms of what the main characters actually got from their experiences.  Again, note the inner and outer components of these results:

Result:  Ripley kills the alien, and conquers her fears.

Alien could not be more straightforward in terms of its agenda.  At its basic level, it is about slaying a dragon.  And, as in the dragon quest tales of yore, the story functions as a metaphor for conquering what is bad within ourselves.

Clockwork Orange
  In the hospital, Alex discovers that his injuries have removed the treatment’s conditioning.  His parents apologize, and a government representative offers him financial restitution for his ordeal.   Thus, not only does he beat the attempt to impose morality upon him, but he is rewarded for it!

The story here is that of the morality play turned on its head.   Instead of a sinner getting his comeuppance at the end, here it is society who is in the wrong, and which must make restitution to the criminal.

Jerry Maguire
Plot Result:
  When Tidwell gloriously rebounds after his hard tackle, both he and Jerry see that the game, and life, are about having heart
– which Jerry had really known all along as evidenced by his Mission Statement.  Because Tidwell conquers his own Inner Demon, he is rewarded with the 10 million-dollar contract he wanted.
Subplot Result: Jerry, Dorothy, and her son Ray are now the real family which they all had lacked.

Although on the surface, the plot is about Jerry’s fight to solo as a agent, the plot is really about having strength of conviction, and ends by proving the main character right.  The subplot says that a person is incomplete without family.   I think that what makes Jerry Maguire such an interesting film is that is very successfully combines two very different, if not opposite genres; the subplot is a Romantic Comedy (a ”chick flick”), and the plot is a Sports ”Triumph of the Underdog” Story (a ”guy flick”).  This makes it a greatly entertaining film with something for everybody.  Its emphasis on deep character development also makes it a longer than average film (138 minutes).

With these three articles, I have given you the basic layout of screenplay structure according to mainstream, Hollywood-style convention. Once you grasp basic structure, you will begin to see it in almost every mainstream film you watch.

Such structure might seem paint-by-numbers at first – not only simplistic, but limiting.   Yet when learning screenwriting, understanding and using conventional structure can only help you become a better screenwriter.  Once you have mastered it, you will know when it is appropriate or desirable to bend, twist, or break with standard form.

Note that a film such as Pulp Fiction, which seems to break convention, merely uses the same conventions on a smaller scale.  Instead of being one long story, Pulp Fiction is simply several short stories with overlapping characters.  And each of these stories has the same Act Keys as a regular long-format story.

My terminology and methods of analyzing screenplays are not by any means meant to be definitive.  There are an infinite number of ways to look at story structure.   To succeed as a screenwriter, it is absolutely imperative to find your own unique way; a way that works for you.

Neither are my ideas are not wholly original, but based instead upon the digestion and application of principles learned as a dramatist, director, and actor from many different teachers and authors.  My purpose here is to introduce you to standards and methods of discussion that others in the field utilize.  There is a common language that screenwriters, directors, and actors share – in other words, a dramatic tongue.  To know and understand this language is to learn to perceive stories and their structure in functional, practical terms.  This enables you to approach your writing with a strong, step-by-step process that will help you produce polished, tightly written work.   An understanding of structure is also essential to diagnosing problems within your own writing, and the writing of others.

Once you learn to use and apply dramatic structure, your screenwriting efforts will be much more directed, concise, and entertaining.

For further information on the films discussed here, see their Internet Movie Database entries:

Clockwork Orange
Jerry Maguire

Keep writing!

Act Structure Demystified, Part I – The First Act

This article and its two sequels are a ”reprint” of articles that I first read some time around 1999. Since then, Mining have become and these articles have disappeared. Recently I found them on Internet Archive, but they deserve a more prominent spot. Now, I don’t claim any ownership of these, and want to make sure that everybody knows that the writer of these articles is Allen White.

Here’s part 1:

Act Structure Demystified Part I – The First Act

Dateline:  5/25/98

What are acts for, and how can you best utilize them to tell your story?

It can be argued (as many have done) that all stories have three acts: a Beginning, a Middle, and an End.  Yet what does that tell you, the potential screenwriter, about the structure of storytelling?

Firstly, to define an act:

  • act  –  A finite block of story action, its conclusion leading either a new direction for the story’s conflict, or to a resolution. 

An act is like a story all unto itself.  It too has a beginning, middle, and end.  Acts should be treated not just as part of a larger whole, but also as separate entities with their own internal structure and rhythm.

The ”Hollywood paradigm,” as espoused by Syd Field and others, is that Act One is the first 25% of the script, Act Two is the middle 50%, and Act Three the final 25%.  Screenplays are timed using a rule-of-thumb which estimates one page equals one minute of onscreen time.  Thus, a 120 page script would be a two-hour film.  Therefore Act One is roughly 30 pages (or 1/2 hour), Act Two 60 pages (or one hour), and Act Three, the final 30.  There are many films that break this form, but for the purposes of this discussion, we’ll stick to this traditional, mainstream style.

If you think of drama as being about the building and releasing of tension, then it helps to see act structure as the rails upon which the oncoming train of conflict rides.   In other words, act structure guides the direction, flow, and acceleration of dramatic action.

If Act One is the Beginning, then what does a beginning entail?  What do we need to know as a viewer in order to understand the story and its purpose?  Several important elements are character introductions, a sense of place and time, any background or history necessary to follow the present story action, and a direction for the characters and story to travel.  Act One, then, is about laying a foundation.

As first acts tend to be short (and Hollywood currently leans toward ever shorter first acts), how can you convey the necessary information to get a story off the ground, without becoming bogged down in exposition, or without short-changing the story or characterizations?  One way to look at it, is that once you have a skeleton of essential structural information, you have a clearly visible form upon which to add the remaining flesh to bring it to life.  It is the skeleton which will suggest to you which elements are absolutely necessary, and which are merely decorative or excessive.   And in a screenplay, you must cut anything unnecessary!

There are three keys to a first act structure – the first supporting ”bones” in your screenplay’s skeleton.  Each of these keys is typically present in every story, whether a screenplay or not.  Understanding the function and placement of these keys will help you create a smoothly running launch-pad for the rest of your screenplay.

The three keys are:

  • The Initiating Event
  • The Call to Action
  • The Commitment to Act

The Initiating Event

A screenplay needs to begin with an initiating event. This is the incident or action that sets the plot in motion.

Here are several examples if Initiating Events, each with an example of their resulting effect on the story.  The title links are to copies of the screenplays discussed.

Event:  The ore-carrier Nostromo receives an apparent distress signal from a dead planet.
Result: The ship’s computer, Mother, awakens the crew to investigate.

Clockwork Orange
Event:  Dim insults a woman singing Beethoven’s 9th in the Korova Milk Bar, & Alex whacks him with his cane.
Result:  Dim challenges him to a fight, then backs down.

Jerry Maguire
Event:  Jerry has a revelation about his work as a sports agent.
He writes a radical ”Mission Statement”.

Star Wars
Event:  The Empire boards the Rebel blockade runner.
Result:  Princess Leia hides the Death Star plans in R2-D2’s memory.

You see how neatly the Initiating Event causes the next event in the story.  This is exactly the kind of inevitable chain of events you are trying to create in your screenplay.  Notice also, that it is the characters that determine how events are to proceed, and that their unique psychology dictates exactly what will happen next (their next action) based upon their personal goals.

The Call To Action

Following the Initiating Event, there will be a period of time during which the characters, especially the main character, need to orient themselves in light of the information presented to them by the initiating event.  Here they will question and explore. Their world and their place in it are shown, and often, a reason is given as to why the main character doesn’t quite fit into that world.

The Initiating Event has a special resonance for the main character, although they may not yet realize it, because the Initiating Event signals to them that a fundamental shift has taken place in their lives, and that new, major change is in the wind. Where this shift is keenly felt and realized by the main character comes at the Call To Action.

The Call To Action is like the horn blown to signal the beginning of the hunt.   The main character, depending on their goals and temperament, may or may not respond.  Dramatically, it is often better to either have the character refuse to join the action (due to internal conflict), or be prevented from joining (due to external conflict).  Time-wise, the Call To Action typically takes place between pages 15 and 20 of a screenplay.

Here are some examples of Calls To Action in same three films as cited before, and the main character’s reactions to them:

  The crew lands on the planet, only to find a wrecked alien spacecraft.
  The crew expores the derelict craft, finding alien eggs kept in storage.

Clockwork Orange
  Asserting himself to Alex, Georgie proposes that the gang should pull a real heist.
Response:  In sharp refusal of their plan, Alex attacks Georgie and Dim to show them who’s boss.

Jerry Maguire
Jerry puts the Mission Statement in the mailbox of everyone at the agency, but has second thoughts.
The Mission statement is publicily lauded; privately, all at the agency think Jerry is doomed.

Star Wars
Luke sees Leia’s holographic cry for help.
When asked by Ben Kenobi to join a rescue attempt, Luke refuses.

Following the Call, a period of reflection takes place, in which the characters absorb the implications of the Call, and/or of their refusal or inability to act upon it.   During this brief moment, events transpire to drag the character into the thick of the conflict.  Often it happens that the enemy (who already know what they want!) have regrouped and make their move.

The Commitment To Act

At this point, something happens that forces the main character to join the story.   They can no longer refuse for one or more reasons.  The reasons may be moral (the enemy has violated the main character’s code of conduct), intellectual (the main character is now convinced they must act because they believe inaction will be worse), or physical (if the main character doesn’t motivate, he/she will suffer or die). The more reasons, the higher the stakes will be, thus the greater the drama.

This commitment usually happens somewhere between page 25 and page 30 in a screenplay.

Here are several examples of Commitments To Act, preceded by their motivating situations:

An alien larva attaches itself to crew-member Kane’s face. 
Ripley refuses to let the crew bring Kane aboard, citing contamination procedures. (Note this late use of her refusal of the Call).  She is overidden by science officer Ash, who lets the crew and larva inside.

Clockwork Orange
During the heist, Alex kills a woman, then Dim smashes his face with a bottle, leaving him helpless as police arrive.
Commitment:  Alex goes to prison.

Jerry Maguire
Jerry is fired by his former pupil, Bob Sugar.
  Jerry vows to steal all of Bob’s clients away from the agency and go into business for himself.

Star Wars
  Luke finds his Uncle and Aunt dead, killed by Imperial Stormtroopers.
Commitment:  Luke no longer has a reason to stay on Tatooine, and he wholeheartedly decides to join Ben Kenobi on his rescue mission.

Next time you watch a film, try and pinpoint these first act structural elements.  Seeing how they are applied will increase your own understanding of how to use them in your own screenwriting work.

Next Column:  Act Structure Demystified Part II – Unlocking the Second Act

And don’t forget to check out this list on Internet Archive.