The 3-act structure is a simple model to use, when structuring your script. Not because you absolutely have to follow it, but because most other writers do and use it for reference all the time.
The 3-act structure is not a rule in any way. It's a guideline. It's not a product of one man either. It has evolved with storytelling through the years. The stories that kept on being told year after year somehow had something in common.
Some people are known for making the model visible. One of them is Syd Field. He wrote the book "Screenplay", which describes the model to use for writing screenplays. Another celebrity in the field is Robert McKee. He wrote the book "Story", which is also a good book to know as a screenwriter. McKee is both loved and hated in the industry, for being very hard and strigent concerning the guidelines in his book. There's a funny depiction of him in the Kaufmann film "Adaptation".
It can't be emphasized enough. It's not like your every screenplay should be structured like this to be good. The model has nothing to do with the art of writing. Remember that. Writing is all about great characters, exciting plots, important themes, and capturing life as we know it, spin it and play with it. It's about love, hate, crime, breaking up, success and much much more.
The 3-act structure is just a guideline that's good to know and use in some way or other to get an overview of all the stuff just mentioned, and most times it works. There is a lot of these models out there, but the 3-act structure is the most commonly known in the movie industry. Maybe because it is very simple to use and the structure in itself is very simple, which makes it flexible.
Now to the structure
The 3-act model, as the name suggests, contains 3 acts, but also a number of turning points. It looks something like this:
The 1st act
This is the introduction. This is where we meet the main characters and are introduced to their reality. Their everyday lives. If they have problems or if they're yet to come. We learn to understand the characters' functions in the lives they live, what their options are and what they have or have not got to lose. This is also where the mood and genre of the whole film is usually set up.
The 2nd act
As you can see the 2nd act is twice the size of acts 1 and 3. This is because the second act is the build-up. This is where tension rises and the characters become under pressure, and that takes some time to build. Many say if you have a good beginning and a good ending, don't worry about the middle.
People will forget. It's hard to have a good ending without a good middle though, because you absolutely need the good build-up to get people involved enough to care about the characters in the end. If they don't, it's not going to be a good ending.
There have been books written specifically on the 2nd act and there's a good reason for it. It is very hard to write a great 2nd act. You often get a lot of plots running in the 1st act and now you have to follow all of them through and at the same time hold the tension.
Meanwhile, you should have two or three surprises up your sleeve or else you're likely to bore your audience to death. Everything quickly becomes very confusing and this is where you're step-out line might come in handy (See The screenwriter's "What is?").
The 3rd act
This is the ending. The most important things here are the climax and the resolution. The climax is a word most people are familiar with. It's not really a part of the 3-act structure, but it's often mentioned and obviously in there somewhere.
The climax is where the ultimate conflict is. The hero is face to face with the villain. Now the battle is about to end and when it does, it's all about the resolution. What happens in the end? Is it a happy end or a tragedy?
The resolution sums up the entire story and is often somehow connected with the overall moral of the story. What did you really want to tell the audience? The moral of a story is often a hard thing to deal with.
It cannot be too obvious or people will think it's stupid and also, if it's too subtle, they won't get it. This is why resolutions are hard to make, but also very important, because this is the final chance to show that your movie has something real to tell. Something about life. Some overall message.
It's a well known metaphor in the industry that a good movie should be like a good fish. It starts off with a good head and a bite, then comes a solid middle and finally ends in a strong tail with a twist. Remember that and it'll be a great meal.
The 1st turning point
Now for something we haven't touched on yet, but something very, very important. The 1st turning point is also called the inciting incident in some places. The 1st turning point is where the story takes off.
This is where we're introduced to the main conflict in the story. This is also what leads us from the 1st act into the 2nd. You can see it's placed just at the end of the 1st act. The 1st turning point is very important since without it, there would be no story. You've met the characters, you know their will, you've seen their lives, their problems and their hopes and dreams - and now it's time for the real problem.
This is the beginning of the rest of the film. This is the one thing that will take your characters on a journey they will never forget. It will change their lives. They will not know right now, but they're about to find out. When you strip a movie of everything, all that's really left is a person with a problem. Will he solve it or not?
The 1st turning point is the introduction to that problem. In the action classic Die Hard this is where the receptionist is shot and the terrorists take over the Nakatomi bulding.
The Point Of No Return
The mid-point or the P.O.N.R. (Point Of No Return) is obviously placed in the middle of the movie. This is where the protagonist (the main character) accepts reality and acts accordingly - meaning that until this point the character has been fighting to get his "normal" life back without success.
This is where he accepts it's not going back normal, but onto something else - hence the point of no return. This is also a point in the story that creates a lot of excitement, if it's well done. It puts a big question mark in the heads of the audience, because where is our hero going to go now?
Most people like to be safe. To control their own lives. That's partly why we have jobs, houses, spouses, family and so on. Now the hero is putting all these things at risk and it might not even be his fault. What is he going to do? It should be very exciting.
In Die Hard, this is where John McClane puts a terrorist through the windshield of a police car, which makes them surrender the building and escalate the hostage situation and of course the drama.
The 2nd turning point
The 2nd turning point is the point that leads to the climax and after that the end of the movie. It's as simple as that. In other words, this is the point that starts the avalanche of events that results in the climax.
The climax is as mentioned where the tension peaks just before the ending. Where the hero meets the villain face to face, for example. When you watch a movie, the 2nd turning point is often a lot harder to recognize than the 1st turning point.
At this point there's a lot more going on, so it fades better into the confusion, while in the introduction of the story everything is more simple.
The 2nd turning point is often a decision made by the protagonist to finally confront the problem he's been circling around. In Die Hard this is where the business man Ellis gives up John McClane's wife to the terrorist.
This leads to the climax, which is when John McClane and Hans Gruber are finally face to face and Gruber is holding McClane's wife hostage with a gun to her head.
Can this structure be used on shorts?
Absolutely. Many shorts use it. Of course, it has to be scaled down a bit. Normally in a feature film there's about 17-20 minutes from the start until the 1st turning point occurs. In a short that's obviously much less and the rest of the structure is scaled down accordingly. The Danish short "Fish" is a good example of its use in shorts.
The 1st turning point is where the guy chokes on the first bone, the point of no return is where he's told by the woman that if he makes one more joke about it, she's leaving, and the 2nd turning point is where he chokes for the 3rd time.
The climax would be somewhere around when he's hit by the car and the resolution... He's not moving and the text on the car states "Fish has no bones".
Written by Kim Blidorf, dvoted