The function of the first act is to set up the world of the main characters and to foreshadow their conflicts, as well as to establish the protagonist’s goal. The dramatic question of the first act is: What is the protagonist’s initial situation that compels him to embark on the story goal?
The second act is defined by the dramatic context of 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 weakness, in order to achieve his goal.
The second act is typically double the length of the first act, and is orchestrated by a midpoint: the moment in which the protagonist decides on whether to give up on his goal, or press on against mounting opposition. To do so, he has to dig deep to uncover his inner strength and, perhaps, defeat hidden demons.
Paradoxically, his renewed determination inevitably results in an increase in the amount of deadly opposition he encounters along the way. The dramatic question of the second act is: How does the protagonist keep his head above water in the face of mounting obstacles and conflict.
The third act is defined by the dramatic context of climax and resolution. It contains the so-called must-have scene: the final and deadliest clash between the protagonist and antagonist. The act unswervingly builds up to this must-have scene, the outcome of which yields the theme: if the hero loses then that which defeats him becomes the theme.
In Othello, for example, jealousy leads the Moor to murder his wife, thinking that she was unfaithful to him. The theme here is: Jealousy leads to destruction. The dramatic question of this final act is: will the protagonist, and all that he stands for, carry the day, or will he be defeated by the antagonist and his world?
A story, then, breaks down into three acts, which correspond to the beginning, middle and end of the tale, each of which has a specific function to perform.
A story typically comprises of three acts. Each act answers a specific dramatic question.
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Image: Ian Sane