Why do movies have a three-act structure?

Published by | Tuesday, August 6th, 2013


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You’ve probably heard that most feature films tell their stories with a three-act structure. So what are these three acts? The beginning, the middle, and the end?

Well … no.

Instead, let’s call them the Buildup (Act 1), the Adventure (Act 2), and the Resolution (Act 3).

Think about your favorite movies. In most cases, something big happens a quarter of the way into the story. You’ll see a change in location, a leap forward in time, or just a sense that the characters have left their comfort zones.

In Raiders of the Lost Ark, it’s when Indy and Marion arrive in Cairo. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, it’s when we meet the astronauts (and HAL) en route to Jupiter. In The Avengers, it’s when the Avengers assemble on the giant airbase. And so on.

Act 1 is the Buildup. This is where the characters receive a big piece of news that kills their routines. This news—good or bad—is an assignment for the characters to go on an adventure of sorts. So Act 1 is designed to build up the characters’ willingness to leave their comfort zones.

You don’t need more than the first quarter of a movie for this, because you’re anxious to see the adventure.

In Act 2, you get that Adventure. Here the characters know what they have to do, but there are a lot of obstacles—big, difficult challenges—standing in the way. Without obstacles, the characters would easily get what they want, and you’d have one boring movie!

That’s why Act 2 is so long—because of all the obstacles that need to be overcome, one by one.

Think back to your favorite movies. Again, in most cases, something major happens three-quarters of the way in. It’s what I call the aha moment, when the characters get some information, or win a decisive victory, that prepares them to finally resolve their conflicts.

Act 3 provides that Resolution. Here the story’s loose ends are all tied up. You enjoy seeing it all come together, but you don’t want it to drag on and on. That’s why Act 3 only takes up a quarter of the movie’s running time.

Next time you sit down for a two-hour movie, check your watch at 30 minutes, and again at 90. You’ll be amazed at the number of films that hit those act changes right on the dot!

Interested in more?

• Watch Mark’s course ‘Screenwriting Fundamentals‘ at lynda.com
• Browse all Screenwriting courses at lynda.com

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