Following on from my video ‘Screenplay 3 Act Structure – The 5 Plot Points’ I thought I would breakdown in detail the 3 Act Structure with some film examples.
For an an in-depth breakdown and explanation of the 3 Act Structure and the 4-5 Plot Points please watch this video on it.
Remember it is crucial for you to nail your structure so your screenplay works as a compelling story.
Here’s a quick overview of the 3 Act Structure.
It is the classic story telling mode of
Act 1 – Beginning
Act 2 – Middle
Act 3 – End
Act 1 – Set Up
Act 2 – Confrontation
Act 3 – Resolution
The 3 Acts are created and defined by 4-5 Plot Points which are:
- Inciting Incident
- 1st Act Climax
- Midpoint (optional)
- 2nd Act Climax
These Plot Points vary greatly and come in different intensities, contexts and forms depending on the story. These Plot Points need to appear on screen and for the overwhelming majority of stories the protagonist must experience them as they happen.
The event that throws the protagonists world out of balance. It comes in many forms including:
- Call To Adventure
- An Offer
- An Attack
- Life Changing Moment
- The End Of Something
- An Arrival
- A Departure
- The Discovery Of A Crime
Act 1 Climax
This is the 2nd major event in the story, it propels the protagonist into the confrontation and they struggle to achieve their goal. These scenes include:
- Point Of No Return
- Commitment To The Goal
- Major Set Back
- Major Victory
- Ticking Clock Begins
- Journey Commences
It’s also referred to as the Mid Act Climax of the story. Not all screenplays have this Plot Point but if they do it technically makes the story 4 Acts. In this moment the game changes for the protagonist and the stakes in the story are increased. Midpoints include:
- Major Loss
- Major Set Back
- New Plan
Act 2 Climax (Act 3 Climax in 4 Act Story)
The Protagonist has struggled and tried different methods for achieving their goal but they still haven’t achieved it so they will need a new plan or they will cross a final threshold into direct and full confrontation. This Plot Point includes:
- All Is Lost
- Protagonist At Their Lowest Point
- A Breakthrough
- The End Of Training
- Act 2 Plan Fails
Also referred to as The Final Confrontation and in this moment the protagonist either achieves their goal (up ending) or fails (down ending). Common Climaxes are:
- Win The Battle
- Solve The Mystery
- Defeat The Villain
- Retrieve The Item
- Deliver The Item
- Apprehend The Killer
- Right The Wrong
- Win The Court Case
‘Misery’ and ‘Jaws’ both employ the 3 Act Structure and dramatise the Plot Points in very different but memorable ways.
When a famous author crashes his car he is rescued by a fan of his novels, but he comes to realise the care he is receiving is only the beginning of a nightmare of captivity and abuse.
After completing his latest novel Paul Sheldon leaves his mountain retreat for the city. He drives his car erratically on a mountain road when a snow storm hits. Losing control he plows off the road and dies. A mysterious stranger jimmy’s the car door open, resuscitates Paul and carries him away. His rescuer is Annie, his number one fan (A Life Changing Moment). Paul’s goal is ‘To survive’.
Act 1 Climax
In the middle of the night Paul is woken by a furious Annie. She has just read his latest novel in the Misery series and Paul has killed off her beloved Misery. He tries to explain the reason but she flies into a rage breaking furniture and coldly tells him he is her prisoner then drives away. Paul painfully falls out of bed and crawls the length of the room to discover the door is locked. He slumps defeated ( A Realisation). Paul’s goal is now ‘To escape’.
For a deep dive into Act 1 of Misery read my blog post titled “[Part 1] The 45 Elements of the 3 Act Structure”.
Misery doesn’t have a Midpoint.
Act 2 Climax
This is Misery’s famous hobbling scene.
Paul is wakened in the middle of the night startled by Annie standing over him. She injects him with a drug and he falls asleep. A groggy and confused Paul regains consciousness to discover Annie has tied him to the bed. She tells him she knows he’s been out of the room. Paul denies it but Annie produces the hair clip he’s been using to unlock the door and her porcelain penguin, that he knocked off the table, was facing the wrong way. She says he just needs more time to accept he’s going to be living with her forever and breaks both of his ankles with a sledge hammer. As he writhes in pain she says “God I love you” (All Is Lost – he is back at square one, physically broken and bed ridden).
Paul completes the new Misery novel but sets it on fire before Annie finds out how it ends. Panicked Annie lunges and tries to salvage the manuscript but Paul smashes her over the head with the typewriter. A fight to death ensues where Annie shoots Paul in the shoulder but he trips her and she falls down hitting her head on the typewriter and falls unconscious. Paul crawls from the room and suddenly Annie jumps on him, the fight continues and Paul smashes her in the face with her pig statue killing her. (Paul wins The Battle and achieves his goal by Escaping).
A new to town chief must stop a marauding shark from eating summer vacationers!
Chief Brody discovers the dead body of the woman on the beach, who was eaten by a shark. He wants to close the beaches whilst an investigation is undertaken and to stop further deaths (An Attack) Brody’s goal is ‘To stop summer vacationers from being eaten’.
Act 1 Climax
Despite his efforts to have the beaches closed they remain open. Tragically and right in front of his eyes, a young boy is eaten by the shark. The next day the mourning mother approaches Brody, slaps him across the face and blames him for her sons death. It’s a very powerful scene and a character defining moment where Brody feels that he as failed and accepts responsibility (A Major Set Back – The First Plan Failed).
This Plot Point happens across two scenes. The first is when Chief Brody and the coast guard are distracted by a hoax shark fin and the real shark swims into an unguarded harbour. Brody realises his son Michael is sailing a boat there with friends. The shark knocks another sailor out of a boat and eats him in front of Michael, who falls into shock. It is now personal for Brody and he realises patrolling the beach won’t work.
The second scene of the Midpoint Brody realises he must kill the shark and to do that he must face his fear of the water. He boards a fishing boat with gruff working class fisherman Quint and marine biologist Hooper. The three men head off into the ocean and take the battle to the shark in its domain (A New Plan).
Act 2 Climax
After a quiet night where the three men bond the Shark returns at dawn and starts destroying the boat. Everything they have tried has failed to this point. Hooper decides their only option is for him to assemble the shark cage, get lowered into the water and inject poison into the sharks mouth via a dart on a pole. Though risky the three men commit to the plan and put it into action (A Tough Decision & Dangerous New Plan).
Act 3 of Jaws is a climactic battle. A ferocious onslaught from the shark sees Hooper attacked in the cage, Quint eaten feet first and the boat all but destroyed. Brody stuffs an oxygen tank in the sharks mouth then climbs up the mast. The boat starts to sink leaving Brody dangling precariously above the water armed only with a rifle. The shark zeroes in on Brody who desperately fires the gun at the oxygen tank still lodged in the sharks mouth. Just as the shark is baring down on Brody he focuses, pulls the trigger and hits the oxygen tank blowing up the shark (Brody achieves his goal and Wins The Battle by Killing The Monster). The beach is safe again…well for as long as it took them to make the sequel!
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