In my last column, I wrote about the backlash against three-act structure in modern day screenwriting. In doing so, I ascribed much of the blame for that on the misguided focus on “page numbers” instead of character. I also suggested near the end of that article that there were some who object to three-act structure because it seems to emphasize plot over character.
I couldn’t disagree more. And here’s why.
They are as follows: (1) the main character; (2) the main character’s “ordinary world”; (3) the inciting incident; (4) the first act turning point; (5) the mid-point; (6) the second act turning point; (7) the nature of the final battle; and (8) the outcome of the final battle.
(One could throw a “refusal of the call” in there. And, of course, every third act needs a denouement. But I don’t believe that every three-act story has a clearly defined”refusal of the call”. Likewise, I don’t think it’s necessary to know the denouement before you start to write. It’s necessary to have one. It just doesn’t need to be decided upon before one starts to write.)
If you examine each of those eight elements closely, you’ll see just how intertwined plot and character are in a well-thought out three-act story.
The first element speaks for itself. When you come up with an idea, you have to decide on the best person/character through whom to tell the story. Meaning you have to think about and decide upon your protagonist. You don’t have to know everything about them, but you have to know who they are pretty damn well (see my columns Starting Your Script -Somebody Wants Something and Did He Go to the Prom – How Much Backstory is Too Much).
Along with that, in order to tell your story and show some transformation of that character over the course of the journey, you need to pick a starting point for them. And that starting point needs to show the world they currently live in and how it is not serving them (see my column Not So Ordinary).
Once you’ve settled on the character and their “ordinary world” – showing them to be in need of some growth and change – you have to get the story rolling with the inciting incident. This event has to completely upend the world in which that character is living. And it has to be clear to the reader/audience just how upsetting that event is to their world (see my column Screenplay Structure – Upset the Applecart).
As I hinted at above, because that event is so life-changing, it’s often followed by a period of time in which the main character refuses to act in response thereto (refusing the call). This is further character revealing because it shows just how afraid the character is to leave their “world” even though we in the audience can see clearly how it isn’t serving them (think Rocky Balboa or Will Hunting at this stage of their stories). In short, the character is in denial; the audience is not.
In my opinion, the first act turning point is almost always the main character’s reaction to that inciting incident. That event forces them to take action even though they don’t want to.
It also becomes character revealing because it tells us that deep down, the main character realizes that they must undergo some change in order to survive. There’s simply no turning back. This is where we in the audience usually begin to make our connection with the hero.
The mid-point is an element of three-act structure that has taken on much more significance in the last twenty years or so of screenwriting. Not only does it help to break up the gargantuan task of writing the second act, but it also serves a very important function in terms of character development.
Normally, it’s at this point in the second act where the protagonist realizes that utilizing his/her “old” methods of dealing with obstacles he/she faces are not going to help them achieve the goal that they take on with that first act turning point.
Therefore, they begin to change their way of doing things. This change signals growth. And when they find some success in doing so, it also helps to strengthen their resolve in pursuing their goal.
This is a very powerful story element because it also acts as a turning point in the story, along with (and driven by) character maturation. In doing so, it helps strengthen the audience’s connection with the main character because we now begin to believe that they just might be able to achieve what they are striving for.
(As a brief aside, the midpoint is often the time in the story when the main character begins to listen to the mentor – again, see Rocky and Good Will Hunting.)
The second act turning point is character-based for the simple reason that, despite their new way of doing things, the main character hasn’t yet faced the biggest obstacle in the way of achieving their goal and gaining the knowledge they must acquire by doing so.
Of course, the choice of the second act turning point is totally story dependent, based partly on the main character’s goal, as well as their inner need (something I call “the why of the want”).
In choosing this event, the writer often brings us back to the character we saw at the beginning, only now with a new outlook and some obstacles overcome successfully along the way. This represents change. But we in the audience now want to see if that change has been enough for them to achieve their goal.
That’s where the nature of the final battle comes into play. The writer must choose a “battle” that will test that newfound strength and those newly acquired skills. This event should be selected carefully to force the main character to test themselves to an extent to which they have yet to do so. Again, this is all story-dependent. And at the same time, it’s character-based, since one must fully know their main character in order to know what will best test them.
Finally, the outcome of the final battle determines whether the main character has successfully reached their stated goal. If the answer is “yes”, then we in the audience are left with no doubt that the main character has grown over the course of the journey and is a new person (back to Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey).
As I mentioned earlier, every good three-act story needs a great denouement which is the cooling off period after the outcome of the final battle. I define that element as the main character’s reaction to the outcome of the final battle (see my book The Third Act – Writing a Great Ending to Your Screenplay).
Because that is the case, it’s also character revealing since it will show the audience the sharp contrast between the main character that we first met at the beginning of the story and the one who has survived the journey and accomplished their goal (see my column Main Character Arc – First Ten, Last Five).
As I said in my previous column on three-act structure, “film” is a short form of storytelling that is most compatible with Aristotle’s Beginning-Middle-End, as well as Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey.
That said, I maintain that the problem some people are having with it these days isn’t the three acts themselves. It’s all the teaching about where the breaks should come between those acts and how long the acts should be. Again, the dreaded page numbers.
However, if you look at telling a three-act story as the growth and maturation of your main character, you can forget about where everything has to occur and ignore the “page number” issue. As long as it’s a good story, well-told, the audience won’t care about minutes or page numbers.
- More articles by Drew Yanno
- MEET THE READER: Components of Screen Storytelling – The Protagonist
- Emotional Elements of Plot