SCREENWRITING INTENSIVE: ASSIGNMENT 2: THE THREE ACT STRUCTURE

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Hi everyone,

This week’s assignment has three parts:

  1. First watch the video below
  2. Then read the article (it’s a long one, but should clarify the elements of a three act structure)
  3. Then go through the screenplay you’re working on, and –– if you haven’t done so yet –– keep breaking down into scenes (and making sure you know which act each scene goes into). One trick is to imagine ten stills or photos from your movie, highlighting key events.  What are they?  Which act would they be in? And which scene? For any given scene, see if can come up with one central image, one key things that happens in that scene that is totally necessary to move the story forward. If you can’t find one, get rid of that scene
  4. Then — the fun part — write the next 10 pages of your screenplay. Write at least a rough draft. If you’d like to workshop it and get feedback on it, send me a PDF and we can go over it in class.

 

ABOUT FORM AND STRUCTURE:

FORM is one consideration when writing any kind of story; STRUCTURE is another.   Stories may be told in any number of forms. Some common forms include:

  1. Verse and poetry (as in epic poems)
  2. Songs and ballads
  3. Prose (short stories, novellas and novels)
  4. Monologue and dialogue (stage plays, radio plays and screenplays)
  5. Interpretive dance
  6. Sequential images (comic strips, comic books, graphic novels, storyboards)

FOR EXAMPLE:

  • “Romeo and Juliet” has been told as a stage play; a movie set in Verona; a movie set in a trailer park; an opera; a ballet; a musical stage production, with singing and dancing; a movie musical called West Side Story; and a graphic novel.  
  • The FORM in each case was different (a movie isn’t a stage play.) And sometimes the characters’ names were even different (Romeo and Juliet became Tony and Maria in West Side Story.) But the basic underlying STORY is the same.

Most stories follow along these general lines:

1) The set-up, in which the author establishes the status quo.  (Who are your characters before the action starts?  Where do they live?  What are their lives like?  What do we need to know about them, to make the story meaningful?)


2) The inciting incident (sometimes called the precipitating incident).  After the set-up, an event occurs which disturbs the status quo and results in conflicts or contradictions that need to be resolved.  The inciting incident throws things out of kilter and leads to a series of actions culminating in the story’s climax, which leads to a resolution of the tension, and the conclusion.  In some screenplays, the inciting incident is on the bottom of the first page.  In others, it might not happen for nine or ten pages  The usual advice for new screenwriters is, the shorter the setup, the faster the inciting incident, the better.

In a screenplay the inciting incident always occurs in Act 1. It’s usually toward the beginning. For new screenwriters it’s recommended that it come in the first five pages at the latest.

The inciting incident doesn’t have earthshaking.  It can be as small as someone stopping to pet a dog on the way to work, dropping an envelope, shoplifting a pack of cigarettes, smiling at a stranger on the street, or falling asleep on a bus. Any of these events can be an inciting incident as long as they change the direction of the main character’s life.

In the movie version of THE WIZARD OF OZ, we start out by learning about Dorothy’s dreary life with her aunt and uncle on a farm in Kansas (the status quo).  Then her dog toto bites a mean-tempered neighbor, who threatens to have Toto destroyed. 

To save Toto, Dorothy runs away.  This means that she’s not home in time to get into the safety of the storm cellar when a tornado appears. She runs runs into the house, which is carried off to Oz — at which point, she realizes how much she loves Kansas and spends the rest of the movie trying to get home. 

The dog biting Miss Gulch is the precipitating incident.  If it hadn’t happened, she would never have run away, and would had made it into the storm cellar, she’s never get to Oz, and we wouldn’t have a story. 

In the movie ALIEN, a freighter is moving through deep space en route to earth with its inhabitants in suspended animation.  Then a signal is picked up by the ship’s computer, which sends the freighter to an uncharted planet to investigate what appears to be a distress call.  Without the signal, and the automated decision to respond to it, the freighter would have continued its uneventful trip to earth, and again, there would be no story.

In MY BEST FRIEND’S WEDDING, we start by getting to know a bit about the lead female, a food critic, and her relationship problems.  We learn everything we need to about her life from watching her have dinner with a gay male friend. 

Their conversation may seem random at first, but we learn from it that she is listless, isolated, can’t keep a boyfriend, and doesn’t have a clue about real intimacy. 

Then her ex-boyfriend calls out of the blue to tell her that he’s marrying another woman. The phone call (the precipitating incident) sends her into action, and she spends the rest of the movie trying to stop the wedding. 

In STAR WARS (the original, made back in the 1970s), we learn in the first few minutes of the movie that a conflict is brewing between rebel forces and an oppressive government in deep space, while the protagonist, Luke Skywalker lives a quiet, meaningless life on a farm planet with his aunt and uncle.  (This is our setup, or backdrop, for the action.)

Then Princess Leah, who’s running from Darth Vader, sends a message to the planet Luke is living on, asking Obi Wan Kinobe for help. 

The message is intercepted by Luke, and the action starts.  This action on Leah’s part sets all of the other key events in the movie in motion.

In Disney’s THE LITTLE MERMAID, the set-up is a peaceful but boring world under the sea where mer-people keep their distance from the surface world and have no contact with humans.  The inciting incident is a young mermaid’s decision to defy her father and swim to the surface, where she spots the human being she falls in love with.

In AMERICAN BEAUTY, we meet the protagonist, who’s living a vacuous life and is dead inside — then his wife takes him to their daughter’s cheerleader practice, where he meets a teenaged girl he feels a strong attraction toward.   Meeting her shakes him out of his “dead space” and changes his life, for better or worse.

Structurally, a screenplay may be based around a single incident or a series of incidents.  But in a story that follows the traditional model, there is always one key incident that sets up the contradictions or conflicts that begin the action, which it’s the author’s job to resolve. 

Again, I’m not saying the inciting incident has to be earth-shaking.  It may be as simple as a character  getting on the wrong bus, or walking through the right doorway at the wrong time.  (Or missing a bus or subway, as in the movie Sliding Doors.)  Or it can be as extreme as a character dying, blowing up a building, or stealing a nuclear weapon.


3) After the inciting incident, events in the story lead to complications, which in turn lead to a climax…


4) …which ends in a resolution of one sort or another.   The resolution may be uplifting or depressing.  It may solve the characters’ problems or leave them in a deeper morass.  But it does need to resolve the tensions in the story, one way or another.

In MY BEST FRIEND’S WEDDING, the woman who has been trying to break up her ex- boyfriend’s wedding in various hidden, secretive ways, finally confronts him, tells him she loves him and asks him to choose her instead of the woman he is planning on marrying.

In THE WIZARD OF OZ, Dorothy and her companions kill the wicked witch of the west, then Dorothy processes what she’s learned, and realizes she has always had the power to go home. (As Glynda says, she couldn’t have just told Dorothy, she had to learn it for herself.)

In ALIEN, Sigourney Weaver’s character has her final, climactic battle with the alien trying to destroy her, then flushes it out of the airlock and vaporizes it.


Being aware of this traditional structure can help when you’re having difficulties with your story.  You may feel that something’s wrong with it, that  it’s not going where you want it to, but not be sure where the problem is.  Common problems include:

1) Screenplays that ramble on in an endless set-up, exploring characters and situations, without going anywhere (i.e., there is no precipitating incident, so the story never gets off the ground.)

2) The set-up may take us off into issues or characters who have no importance in the resolution of the key problem).

3)  Your set-up may be good, but be overly long, losing the viewer’s interest. In a screenplay, the set-up is a small portion of Act 1.

4) Your set-up may be too short for us to connect with your characters and feel involved with them, before you come in with the inciting incident. 

5) Your set-up and inciting incident may be fine, but the story may drag on for too long after the resolution, leaving the reader with the sense that another story is beginning which is never completed.


DOES YOUR CHARACTER CHANGE? (The answer HAS to be “yes.”)

One definition of a lead character is, the one who suffers the most, and is most changed by events in your story. 

  • In STAR WARS, Luke goes through hell, and changes from a listless teenager into a Jedi Knight. 
  • In THE LITTLE MERMAID, the mermaid Aerial goes through a hell of sorts, after which she is transformed (in stages) into a human being. 
  • In ALIENS, Sigourney Weaver’s character goes through various hells en route to being transformed from a frightened “victim,”  afraid to go back into space, into a warrior who kicks butt and takes no prisoners.
  • In AMERICAN BEAUTY, the lead character starts out “dead inside”… comes back to life, and radically changes his lifestyle, when he starts lusting after a teenaged girl…. then goes through a moral transformation at the end, changing from (basically) a sexual predator into a father figure, acting protective toward her instead of trying to seduce her, when he realizes how crazy he’s been acting.

NOT SURE IF YOU HAVE A SCREENPLAY? TRY ASKING:

  • What is my character like at the beginning?   
  • What is she or he like at the end? 
  • How do the events in the story change him or her? 
  • The character not only has to change, but has to be changed by rising to the challenge he or she is faced with in the movie. If they’re not changed, audiences will tend to ask ––– what was the point of the movie?

THE THREE ACT STRUCTURE

  • The above elements are common to almost all stories and virtually all movies.
  • In movies and stage plays, they are broken down into three broad ACTS.
  • Each ACT has a purpose, which is to tell a separate part of the story.
  • Act 1 is usually around 25 pages.
  • Act 2 is around 50 pages, or minutes.
  • Act 3 is around 20 pages (usually a little shorter than act 1.)
  • Each act usually contains several different SCENES. (Each time you change the time of day or location, it becomes a new scene.)
  • A screenplay typically has three acts.  This is different from a teleplay, which has four acts (plus a TEASER and a TAG).  But both screenplays and teleplays can have dozens of scenes.

ABOUT ACT 1

  • ACT 1 contains the SETUP and INCITING INCIDENT.
  • It launches your protagonist into his or her story.
  • Introduces main character (who’s about to face a challenge)
  • Choose a real challenge, that will matter to your character and to the viewers.
  • Coming through the challenge should transform character’s life. If it doesn’t do this in a natural and unforced way, your story may have a basic structural problem.
  • By the end of act 1, the hero has decided to accept their challenge and has crossed the THRESHOLD between their familiar world and the world they’ll have to deal with in the rest of the movie.
  • ACT 1 can be broken down into several smaller sections:

PAGES 1-10

Introduce Your Main Character. What are their strengths? What are their weaknesses?  (The weaknesses aren’t random, they’re what he or she will need to overcome as the story moves along.) What is their normal everyday life like?

Don’t have other characters talk about these traits “Gee, Bob is such a loner…”), show them (i.e., write a scene revealing that Bob lives and works alone). We need to see hints of their strengths and weaknesses in these introductory pages. Both will play a role later in the story.

Establish the location. Where does your character live? Take us inside her home or workplace. Again, don’t just tell us about it (“Oh, that’s Mary, she’s the manager of a bank…” show us (write a short scene in which we see Mary at work in the bank she manages)

Reveal the genre. We should know by page 10 at the very latest if your movie is science fiction, fantasy, horror, or a relationship drama. (For new screenwriters, let us know by page 3).

Lock in the Premise. What’s your story about? What’s the heart of the conflict or situation your main character will have to deal with and need to resolve? We should know by the end of page 10.

Show us the Inciting Incident
The inciting incident throws your character’s world into disequilibrium. It may reveal hidden, evil things about what we (and your character) thought was a peaceful community of people.

For example: Your protagonist is a kindly middle-aged man who lives with his three dogs and a cat and his elderly mother. He gets up every morning to take a walk before Mother gets up, to begin his day. We establish this in the set-up. Then one day, he goes out for a walk and witnesses a murder. And the murderers see him. He runs home, but realizes that they saw him.  Witnessing the murder is the inciting incident that will present him with a terrible challenge and change the course of his life.

Near the end of Act 1 (page 25 or thereabouts): something happens that throws your character off kilter, and tests your character’s resolve. (For example, in Star Wars, Obiwan Kinobe dies.) This is called Plot point 1. It changes the direction of your story. (Luke suddenly has to grow up, not just follow Obiwan around doing whatever his mentor asks him to do.)


ABOUT ACT 2

ACT 2 is the heart of the story. The hero starts on his or her quest. He or she may appear to be succeeding briefly, but then crashes and burns somewhere around the middle of Act 2.

Act 2 is the longest act in the script.  It equates with what Joseph Campbell called the path of trials, in the Hero’s Journey: one step forward, two steps back… each challenge leading to another, more intense than the one your protagonist just survived…. the stakes getting higher and the danger greater, if the hero fails, with each step.

For example: Intent on saving a village, your character slays the dragon that had been menacing the villagers — then realizes the dragon laid some eggs which are hatching, and now she is faced with five dragons, which are angry that she murdered their mother and want to destroy, not just the village, but all human villages.

Middle of act 2 (midpoint of the script): Turning Point.  An important character is introduced, or dies, changing the direction of the story, and again, upping the stakes for your protagonist (death of Obi Wan Kinobe in Star Wars). 

END OF ACT 2/START OF ACT 3:

Plot Point 2: Towards the end of Act II and the beginning of Act III we come to a crisis point, Plot Point II. At this point, your protagonist has had enough. She’s sick and tired of all the obstacles being thrown in her way. Life looks hopeless. She can barely go on. Plot Point 2 should:

1. Force your main character to take action.

2. Make the character (and audience) fully aware of the urgency of the situation: Time is running out for your main character to finish the job. (The bomb’s about to go off that will destroy the city… in fact, it’s ticking faster now.)

3. Focus your character on his ultimate goal, surmount his doubts, and refocus with determination on the goal.


ABOUT ACT 3

In Act 3, the hero has learned his or her lesson, fixed the problems that kept them from succeeding in Act 2, and makes one more attempt ––– which almost always, at the very very very last minute, with everything at stake, against great odds ––- finally succeeds. The Death Star is about to destroy the rebellion, but at the last possible instant, Luke flies his ship into the Death Star, blowing it to smithereens.

The Climax The big finale… the final battle between good (your character) and evil (his/her antagonist).


If you write a movie that comes from your heart, and feels right to you on a gut-level, it’ll generally have a good structure. (We all grew up watching movies with three act structures, so many of us write them without consciously thinking about it.) But if you’re unhappy with it, taking a look at the structure can help solve any problems. 

Here’s are some common visualizations of the three act structure, one simple, the other more detailed:

 

 

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