This month's post is a special guest post courtesy of Ben Vanaman, Story Analyst for Fox Filmed Entertainment. Ben has over two decades of experience in story analysis and can be found on twitter @benvanaman
Three act dramatic structure, which dates back to Aristotle, is still the model that Hollywood studio executives and story departments use to evaluate filmed content. And Syd Field’s 1979 book “Screenplay, the Foundations of Screenwriting” is still considered by most entertainment industry insiders to be “the Bible” of how to write a successful screenplay utilizing the three act structure.
Standard screenplay length for a two hour movie is one hundred twenty pages. This means that each page of a screenplay equals one minute of screen time. To get a sense of the story’s pace, one minute of reading time per page is perhaps desirable. Generally, Act One is the first thirty pages of a screenplay, or thirty minutes of screen time; Act Two is the next sixty pages/minutes; Act Three is the last thirty pages/minutes.
The First Act
Act One introduces the primary characters and establishes the world they live in. The first ten to fifteen pages of a screenplay may also be used to establish genre and tone (i.e. for horror and thrillers, suspense; for comedy, humor; etc.). High-energy genres like action and crime may begin with a high octane sequence meant to grab a viewer’s attention and interest. One cannot stress enough the importance of “hooking your audience” in the first five to ten pages of a screenplay. Often, busy studio executives will have decided by that point whether or not they wish to continue reading the script, and/or rely on story department analysis in helping them make a determination about whether to pass on or consider the material.
By page fifteen, the story’s premise should be clear. At this point, the protagonist is confronted with an incident that is created by a relationship to an antagonist or an unexpected or perhaps even threatening situation. The protagonist’s handling of this incident generally results in an escalation of dramatic conflict that leads to a significant turning point for the character at the end of Act One. This turning point, which will eventually determine the protagonist’s fate, is called a “reversal.” There is uncertainty at this point about how things will turn out for the protagonist, who must often undergo some form of transformation in Acts Two and Three in order to affect a desired or hoped-for outcome.
The Second Act
In Act Two, the protagonist’s effort to resolve the conflict created in Act One will be unsuccessful, leading to more problems and obstacles, some of them in the form of competing or parallel subplots. Dramatic tension created by the protagonist’s actions peaks by page sixty. Another significant reversal will likely occur at that time, one that propels the story to the end of the Act Two, at which point the protagonist, often in jeopardy, must formulate a more decisive plan of action to prevail.
The Third Act
In Act Two, the protagonist must also learn to adapt to altered circumstances. This may entail learning new skills and strategies and being able to improvise. The protagonist may have to take an opposite action, or alter the character’s essential nature, either temporarily or permanently, in order to affect a desired or hoped-for outcome. In any event, the protagonist’s life will never be the same, positively or negatively, when story conflicts are resolved following a dramatic climax in the third act that is often a showdown of one kind or another.
Case Study: Birdman
Last year’s Best Picture Oscar winner “Birdman” provides an interesting test case for three act structure because of a fluid visual style that makes the movie’s plot structure difficult to parse. The opening scenes introduce us to an actor named Riggan who once portrayed a popular superhero character in the movies and now hopes to revive his fading career by mounting a Broadway play for himself based on a short story by Raymond Carver. Plagued by self-doubt, Riggan is convinced that his lead actor Ralph is so lousy that the production will fail. The inciting incident in Act One is when Ralph is injured after a stage light crashes on his head. Although Riggan messianically thinks he caused this to happen, the production is now in jeopardy. Enter arrogant stage actor Mike Shiner at the first act break. Riggan thinks Mike’s popularity will save the show, but in fact Mike becomes Riggan’s nemesis, challenging his skill and authority to even be doing the play.
At the forty-five minute mark, Riggan and Mike confer at a bar near the theater where the play is being produced. There, Riggan shares with Mike how he decided to become an actor after Carver complimented him on his performance in a high school play. At the story’s mid-point, Riggan learns that Mike has given an interview with the “New York Times” where he’s stolen Riggan’s life story as his own. This causes Riggan to go ballistic, threatening the production. Then at seventy-five/eighty minutes in, Riggan sees Mike seeming to be intimate with his daughter Sam. This escalates Riggan’s distress, and when the “Times” critic belittles him at the end of Act Two, he decides to take decisive action: at the story’s climax, he shoots himself onstage. The result is that the play is deemed a hit, leading to an ambiguous ending.
Although Riggan has a “relationship” with his mischievous alter-ego “Birdman” in the film, and a critical emotional arc that involves his daughter Sam, Mike is clearly the story’s antagonist, the character who causes Riggan to react. So even though the fluidity of the film’s visual style may seem to eclipse its plot structure, the screenplay nonetheless adheres to the three act structure.
There are exceptions to the three act structure in the movies, and television dramas may have five acts with an epilogue. But filmed content always has a beginning and an end, and rising and falling action. Even web shorts have set-ups and payoffs. In fact, life itself contains “three acts”: youth; adulthood; senior years. Examining one’s own life is an interesting way to gain a clearer understanding of three act narrative structure. There are inciting incidents (e.g. popularity or unpopularity in school); “act one” turnarounds (e.g. choice of college, career; marriage; decision on whether or not to raise a family); “second act development” (e.g. career advancement versus being laid off or fired; marriages sustained or lost; how children turn out; handling various life achievements or disappointments); and “third act” payoffs (declining health; loss of parents or spouses; a comfortable retirement or regrets over what might have been).