View Full Version : SCREENWRITING: What is the three act structure?

01 January 2005, 02:35 AM
What are the core principles of the three act structure?
How does it apply to the wrting of CG Shorts?

Looking forward to your comments.

01 January 2005, 05:54 AM
There are lots of great books on screenwriting and story (Robert McKee's book is rather good), but essentially the three-act structure boils down to:

Act I (25%): Chase your character up a tree.
Act II (50%): Throw rocks at him.
Act III (25%): Get him down.

Basically, it's what Todorov said stories consist of; act i shows an equilibrium, in act ii the equilibrium is disturbed, and in act iii a new (but different) equilibrium is restored.
It's rather formulaic, but provides for satisfying stories.

01 January 2005, 06:17 AM
The 3 act story structure from what I know of it is based on Joseph Cambells mytholgy series.

It has three elements
a hero is called to an adventure
The journey
The resolution and return.

In movies it is usually

The story situation is introduced then a twist happens
the middle deals with resolving the twist which results in another twist or revelation
The 3rd act they act on the new info or situation and come to the end.

An example:

A bunch of small birds come to hang out on a wire and get in an argument about the lack of room, that is until the big dumb bird shows up
2nd act deals with them trying to ignore then avoid the big bird, which leads to a new twist as the birf come to join them
the final act they try to peck him off and get their just reward


old guy comes out to play chess in the park. sets up his pieces with no one else around. He suddenly moves the pieces and goes around the table which leads into the first twist, he is playing himself.
The second act is the game play itself ending with the king left. Suddenly he fakes a heart attack

The 3rd act which is pretty short is the board gets reversed and he wins the teeth.

Yet another

Sheep loves to bounce then a shearer comes
deals with being nude then a jackalope shows up
3rd act he realizes he doesn't have to be sad and is back bouncing.

in a movie the first twist is supposed to be 1/2 hour in, but in a short I really don't know when it should take place. The fact that there is no exact length to a short probably doesn't help. Has anyone actually measured these?

01 January 2005, 06:23 AM
I just realized that the mythological story structure is related to that used in movies but is not the same structure orther than both being 3 acts. Star wars follows the joseph mythology formula but I am not sure others do. Maybe the first matrix follows this formula since it deals with a hero answering a call goes on a long journey and returns home changed by his adventures. It also follows the standard sotry structure of it being abot a hacker with the twist being the whole world is a computer to hack the 1st twist then him realizing he is the one which is the 2nd twist. so it follows both ideas.

Maia(? not sure fo the story title) I think follows this formula

01 January 2005, 08:09 AM
The blueprints about three part story have been written in the fifties by guys like Syd Fields.But I think they are getting more and more irrelevant as we are overexposed to it.
It had it's run but new "formulas" for scriptwriting are being developped jus as the attention span and adaptability of audiences have changed greatly.
The movies that stay with me nowadays are the ones that stray from this or disguise it real well and keep me on the edge.
You can still time tits, bombs and bloodshed in a mainstream movie pretty precisely...

01 January 2005, 11:11 AM
I'd say the basic priciples of this (western) kind of story-telling date back to ancient greek dramas. Here's the three act structure that I learnt in scriptwriting class:

1. Exposition (2 sequences)
Introduces the characters and their abilities in their current, "normal" situation.
During the exposition there's a significant change to the "normal" situtation of the protagonist and the story takes off from there. At the turning point to the second act, there's no going back for the protagonist.

2. Confrontation (4-5 sequences)
Protagonist tries to achive his goal (save the world, find the murderer) while the antagonist sets out to prevent this. At the end of the second act it usually looks as bad as it can possibly get for the protagonist.

3. Solution (1-2 sequences)
Protagonist manages to get out of the bad situation and finally reaches his goal.

The Hero's Journey (see post above) presents a different approach, but the two don't really contradict each other.

For short films (cg or not) this may or may not work. Just like short stories they can be constucted quite differently and many have the trademark twist at the end.

Hope this helped.


01 January 2005, 07:25 AM
Some of my favorite films didn't follow the three-act structure. I think it's just a guideline for a storytelling structure that's the easiest to understand for the average person, and the least difficult to work with for a writer. It's a lot like how the established lighting scheme is the 3-point lighting (main, fill, rim). But it gets stale if that's all anyone ever used. Some of the best lighting in films around the world do not follow that lighting scheme.

01 January 2005, 10:14 AM
From the perspective of the audience, it might be something of:

oooh, this is relevant to me

woah, this changes everything for me

uh-oh, this was supposed to be a movie

or, if the film doesn't stretch very far:

hey, that's relevant to me and my friends

wow, so that's what they go through, what neat folks

whew, they made it

I wonder how many movies are truly great. "Hobson's Choice" was a play that ran over 50 years before being produced by David Lean as a movie, which then ran the revival houses until video. It was originally a temperance play, but then became largely a love story, and is virtually unrecognizable and probably useless as a temperance narrative now, ie, you don't quit boozing after watching it. Still, you have to admire it.

01 January 2005, 03:54 AM
Some of my favorite films didn't follow the three-act structure.
Which ones are you talking about.

Trying to think of some myself and can't think of any. Here are a few movies I enjoyed but they all seem to have a 3 act structure

True Romance
Hudsucker proxy
La fem Nakita Movie(french version)

Raising Arizona? not sure about this one as I can't remember if there is a 3rd act or if 2nd and 3rd come almost together then a long 3rd act?

Also is there an exact length to each at.

From what I remember it is 1/2 hr 1st act. 1 hr long 2nd act and then a 1/2 hr long 3rd act

01 January 2005, 09:28 AM
If you listen to the Tarantino commentary on the True Romance DVD, you'll hear that his script was initially like Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Piction and Kill Bill - with flashbacks and split narrative (essentially because he believes a chopping and changing narrative jolts the audience into paying attention more), but director Tony Scott ironed the narrative out into a linear timeline as well as changing the ending from the darker one Tarantino had written.

01 January 2005, 03:01 PM
Now I have to pickup that DVD! thanks!

01 January 2005, 01:21 AM
I was wondering if any of you know of a program that I could write a script with that will give me the right structure for it? I heard my friend talk about some but I cannot remember it off the top of my head, so if any of you have any suggestions I'll greatly appreciate it.

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