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Understanding the Three-Act Story Structure of Feature Films

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Jon is screenwriter and playwright, currently finishing his Master's Degree in Screenwriting for Film and Television.

A simple diagram of the Three-Act Structure with the main plot points.

A simple diagram of the Three-Act Structure with the main plot points.

In today’s streaming era of Netflix and chill, films have become such a colossal part of our lives that rarely a day goes by that we don’t microwave the popcorn, turn off the lights, and press play on our TV remotes. The films that we watch all have a structure; even the ones that claim not to have one still do. One of the most popular and widely used film structures is that of a three-act story structure.

Whilst a number of filmmakers urge film industries to steer away from this structure due to the fear of films becoming too predictable, it’s impossible to do so if we don’t have a clear understanding of what this structure entails. As its name suggests, a three-act story structure is compiled of three acts: setup, confrontation, and resolution.

A breakdown of this structure can be seen in the diagram above. I will describe the structure in more detail while using the film Star Wars Episode 4: A New Hope as a reference.

Act 1 - Setup

Act one serves as the setup of the story; its purpose is to introduce us to the main character(s) and their world. It should start telling us what the story is going to be. Star Wars: A New Hope begins with Luke as a farm boy. We see where he lives, what his world conspires of, and how he’s in desperate need of an adventure. This is the beginning of act one. As we move ahead in the structure chart, we arrive at the inciting incident. This is the first story bit that gives us an idea of what the protagonist’s mission is going to be in the film. In Star Wars, the inciting incident happens when Luke and Obi-Wan Kenobi receive Princess Leia’s holographic message about being captured by the evil emperor Darth Vader. Luke is at first reluctant to join Obi-Wan in learning how to use the force, which brings us to the second thoughts part of the first act. This part is important because it shows that the protagonist does have some trepidation.

In order for the protagonist to overcome this doubtfulness, they need to see what they stand to lose if they do not move forward with this mission that has been presented to them. This moment for Luke comes when he sees the Jawas that have been slaughtered by Imperial Troops. Fearing that the same bleak fate awaits his parents as well, Luke has no choice but to go with Obi-Wan. This moment brings us to the climax of act one, the beginning of the adventure.

It’s important to note that during act one, we have been introduced to the protagonists, their mentors, and friends who will be aiding them in their journey, and most importantly, we have been introduced to the antagonist, which in this case is Darth Vader and the Empire. By having a clear understanding of who our protagonist is set against, it’s easier for the audience to perceive the dangers of this adventure and at the same time empathise with the protagonist.

Luke and Obi-Wan Kenobi listening to Princess Leia's hologram message; Inciting Incident.

Luke and Obi-Wan Kenobi listening to Princess Leia's hologram message; Inciting Incident.

Act 2 - Confrontation

When act two starts, the audience is fully invested into the story and the protagonist’s journey; they know the stakes, they know the protagonist’s aim, so now we build on that. Act two starts with the ascending action where the protagonist faces a few obstacles. However, he manages to overcome them. In Star Wars, these obstacles are present in the formation of alliance between Luke and Han Solo, then Jabba the Hut. All these take us to the most important part of act two, the point of no return.

The point of no return, or the midpoint of the movie, happens roughly midway through the film and this is when the protagonist is presented with a choice. Should he choose to go forward with that, there will be no going back. The point of no return in Star Wars happens when Luke and Han Solo are rescuing Princess Leia and they are found out by the enemy. This creates a plot twist and a point of no return since the characters now have no choice but to fight and escape. This is unlike the inciting incident and climax of act one where the protagonist has a choice.

What follows after the midpoint are more obstacles and crises, i.e., Darth Vader’s duel with Obi-Wan and Obi-Wan sacrificing himself so that the others escape. All these lead to the climax of act two. This is the highest point in the story, where the only thing left to do is confront the protagonist and antagonist. In Star Wars, this is the moment they learn from R2-D2 that the Death Star has a weak point and they know they have to destroy it. Upon learning this, we move into the final act of the film.

Obi-Wan Kenobi duelling Darth Vader.

Obi-Wan Kenobi duelling Darth Vader.

Act 3 - Resolution

Act three features the descending action and the climax of the film, AKA, the final duel between the protagonist and the antagonist. This is the battle between Luke and Darth Vader, and even though neither dies, Luke destroys the Death Star and restores peace in the galaxy. This serves as a wrap up to the first film in the trilogy.

The three-act structure offers a great planning tool for your script as it helps you build your story every step of the way. By having the big plot points mapped out, it’s then easier for you to fill the rest of the story with interesting scenes and characters.

© 2020 Jon Goani