Screenplay Structure: Three Acts & Five Points

With Writer-Director Nathan Marshall

Even if you're blazing your own plot path, it never hurts to have a road map to fall back on. Which is why we asked screenwriter and filmmaker Nathan Marshall to break down the mythic three-act structure. Living and working in Hollywood, Nathan's most-recent script, Nowhereland, is currently in development at Raygun Productions. Take it away, Nathan!

You’ve heard of the one-act play. And if you’ve ever watched “Law and Order,” you’ve seen a five-act TV show. So what’s all this talk about a screenplay in three acts? Aren’t the number of acts ultimately up to the screenwriter? Well, the truth is that almost every movie you’ve ever seen was constructed in three well-delineated acts. Some filmmakers take greater pains to disguise their act breaks, but trust me, they’re there, bubbling beneath the witty banter and gravity-defying stunts. ET moves into Elliot’s house? Act break! Guido visits his mother’s grave in Fellini’s 81/2? Act break! Derek Zoolander retires from the world of professional modeling? You got it—a big old obvious act break. So what makes an act? How should screenwriters divvy up their genius into easily digestible chunks? Here are a few ideas to get you started.

ACT I: The first act of a screenplay is usually 25–35 pages long. The first 10 minutes should present the “normal world” of your film—before everything goes haywire. The end of Act I should be a “point of no return.” Usually something is taken away from your protagonist, and they can never go back to the way things were. They have no choice but to continue into Act II.

ACT II: It can be helpful to think of Act II as two parts – Act 2a and Act 2b. Act 2a is usually about 30 pages long. This is the part of the film where your protagonist is ‘reacting’ to the pressures of their changed world. Act 2b begins when your protagonist’s worst fears nearly come true. After that, they sit up and say “wait a minute! I can handle this!” They stop “reacting” and take control of the situation. Act 2b can be short: Even 15 pages long. It ends when the plot ensnares your protagonist and propels them toward a “mini-climax.” This is a high point for your protagonist. Everything’s working out as sweet as a Sunday ham…

ACT III: Reality returns at the beginning of Act III when your protagonist’s false victory is immediately undone by a huge setback. This is their “all is lost” moment. The Ghostbusters go to jail—their gig is up! But wait, what’s that you say? A call from the mayor? New York needs the boys in grey and their radioactive weaponry? You got it. After “all is lost,” your protagonist will usually receive some new information. They see the light, and will now race toward the resolution of their journey. And yours!

5 KEY POINTS

Okay, you get the three acts! But flip open any book on screenwriting, and you’ll find all sorts of other terms like “tent pole,” “galvanizing moment,” and “turning point.” These are all plot points, or specific places within your acts in which specific things usually happen. Do you have to adhere to these points? Heck no. Should you? Ask Syd Field. Here are five points, however, that I pay attention to:

1) Page 1. Most of us write scripts with the intention that someone else will one day read them. If that’s not you, skip this note! For the rest of us, page one will be some of the most important writing/revising you do. Here is your chance to capture your reader’s interest and pull them into a world of your creation. Usually, the rule of thumb is to go light. Don’t inundate your reader with too much description. Get into your characters; show us some dialogue! Give the reader no option but to flip that page.

2) Inciting Incident. Okay, this one’s important. The inciting incident is the event that sets everything in motion. If E.T. hadn’t been left on earth, the movie would have stopped right there. No Elliot, no phone home, no nothing. The inciting incident should usually happen in the first five pages of your script, and should demand resolution. That’s what your script’s about—resolving the inherent conflict of your inciting incident.

3) Page 17. Next time you watch a DVD, pause it 17 minutes into the film. Trust me—any film. What’s happening at that point in the story? Most likely, the essential character conflict has just been laid out. A teenage Indiana Jones runs to his father for help, but is shushed instead. Shaun convinces his girlfriend to trust him in Shaun of the Dead. Captain Renault asks Rick why he came to Casablanca. On page 17, your audience should realize what the film is really about. It’s not about finding the Holy Grail, Indy—it’s about learning to forgive dad!

4) Climax. The !#%& has gotta hit the fan sometime! Usually it happens two-thirds of the way into Act III. Your protagonist has just experienced an epiphany, and is now ready to confront your antagonist. It’s the big showdown! It’s mano-a-mano (or womano-a-womano)! Ghostbusters vs. Stay-Puft. This is your protagonist’s moment of truth, and when it’s all over they will have either lost or won.

5) THE END. Oh, to be there already. That special day when you pound these six letters into your computer as if it were an old-fashioned typewriter. THE END is everything it’s cracked up to be. Relief. Regret. Rejoicing. Reflection. You’ll feel it all at this crucial moment in the process.

But wait a minute. How the heck are you gonna wrap this thing up?

There is no right way to finish a script. In many ways, it’s one of the most personal and idiosyncratic parts of screenwriting. These days, the convention in America is for scripts to end with a twist—even dramas will pull the rug out in the final pages. Good endings tend to provide definitive answers to the following three questions. What those answers are, however, is up you. Here are the questions:

1) Was the inherent conflict of the inciting incident resolved? (E.T. is on the space ship!)
2) Was the essential character conflict defined on page 17 resolved? (Indy and Indy Senior ride into the sunset together)
3) How is the protagonist different now than from the beginning of the film? (“There’s more important things than male modeling—like love, and helping kids who can’t read good.”)