Three Act Structure

Three act structure
Syd Field was a big proponent of the three act structure

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IN his book The Screen Writer’s Workbook, Syd Field points out that each act in a three act structure story performs a specific function and answers a dramatic question.

The three act structure

The first act establishes the world of the protagonist and foreshadows his conflicts, as well as determining his purpose in the story world. The dramatic question of the first act is: What is the protagonist’s initial challenge that compels him to embark on a struggle to achieve the story goal?

The second act is characterised by mounting conflict. This act pits the protagonist against the antagonist by placing both in a situation of mounting attrition, forcing the protagonist to adapt his skills and face his inner weaknesses.

The second act is typically double the length of the first, and is propped up by a midpoint—the moment in which the protagonist decides on whether to give up on his goal, or press on against mounting obstacles. To go forward he has to dig deep to find his inner strength.

Ironically, the protagonist’s dogged determination to attain the goal in the second act increases the deadly opposition against him. The dramatic question of this act is: How does the protagonist keep his head above water in a rising tide of obstacles?

The third act is characterised by the story climax and resolution. It contains the must-have scene: The final clash between the protagonist and antagonist. The outcome of this clash yields the theme of the story.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, Benjamin’s encounter with the ghosts of his past who represent the secret knowledge rooted in his subconscious gives rise to the perfect inner storm. His realisation about who he truly is changes his life forever. The dramatic question of the third act is: Will Benjamin discover the truth about his past. The theme is: Seek, persist, and you shall find.

Summary

A story typically comprises of a three act structure. Each act answers a specific dramatic question.

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Stavros Halvatzis

I'm a writer, teacher, and story consultant.

2 thoughts on “Three Act Structure”

  1. Thanks for the comment, Gerhard. Yes, indeed, Structure is important to the success of a story, but of course, there are many other factors. Structure is like the bottle that holds great wine. The wine has still to be skillfully fermented.

  2. Syd Field. His name is really synonymous when it comes to screen writing as Shakespeare is to English literature.

    And Like Shakespeare’s work films that follow the guidelines of this structure will become timeless.
    The work of Martin Scorsese are really textbook examples of what happens when filmmakers and screen writers come together and make magic. The one film that tics every box of the Syd Field’s structure has to be Good Fellas. I would recommend Good Fellas to every aspiring screen writer because :
    The first time we hear the protagonist speak the world of the protagonist and foreshadows his conflicts are firmly established : ” As long as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster.”

    Summary : The first line of your script can predetermine if your script sees the light of day or the bottom half of a dust bin.

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