Tag Archives: Three act structure

Writing is Rewriting II

Fountain pen and corrections

Rewriting II

In last week’s post, I talked about Frensham’s six areas of focus involved in arriving at the final version of your screenplay—the first stage being to increase comprehensibility. Today, we look at the second: Structure; because this website is filled with discussions of the story spine—the inciting incident, turning points, pinches, the mid point, and so on, it is not my intention to repeat this material here. Instead, I want to focus on an important aspect of structure: the structure of climaxes within the overall story context.


The climax of an Act is contained within its turning point. Because your screenplay is a composite of several stories, or subplots, supporting the main through-line, each turning point is part of the broader story sweep. One of your tasks in writing your second draft, therefore, is to ensure that each climax pitches higher than the one before it.

The climax at the end of Act II is often the most challenging. The hero needs to be (seemingly) as far away from achieving her goal as possible—having (seemingly) been, or about to be, defeated. She abandons her quest, and/or denies responsibility for her actions, and/or faces her moment of truth. If she does none of the above, then consider remedying the situation by introducing another character/subplot, an action which reveals her state of mind, a further confrontation either directly or through a flashback, or new information through an unexpected revelation.

In crafting each climax, ensure that you have seeded the possibility for it earlier in your story and allowed the audience to chew on it before unleashing it, remembering that the essential skill in constructing an effective climax is knowing what information to reveal, and when to reveal it. Examine each climax in your screenplay with this in mind and ensure the ‘what’ and ‘when’ are effectively utilised.

Lastly, ask yourself whether each climax is followed by a pause that is encapsulated within a scene or sequence which is in harmony with the pacing and rhythm of your overall script? Does each climax build from the least significant to the most significant moment by the end of the story?


Because climaxes occur towards the end of acts as part of a turning point as well as at the midpoint, they are natural attractors for the action that leads up to them, helping to shape and direct the material before them. Effective climaxes, therefore, are an indispensable part of writing successful stories.


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Dramatic Structure: The Power of Three

Three Act Structure

Three Act Structure

We often refer to classic Hollywood screenplays as having a three act structure — the arrangement of a story around three pieces of narrative real-estate — but the root of this idea lies with Aristotle, and his notion that every story has a beginning, middle, and end. This arrangement lies at the basis of almost all the traditional dramatic structure in storytelling, including the novel.

The Function of Each Act

Each act has a specific structural function to perform, which it does by organising the pace and depth of the information it releases to the reader or audience.

Act I

The function of act I is to set-up the story. It does this by establishing the main characters, time-period, and setting in which the story unfolds, and defining the goal, and the conflict which arises from the pursuit of the goal. This act, which contains the inciting incident — an event that sets it all in motion, sets the protagonist on his/her way to achieve the goal.

The act also defines the first step in examining the theme of the story. In The Matrix, for example, that question is whether human ingenuity, spiritual strength, self belief, and endurance, can defeat the seemingly impervious strength of the Machine world.

Act II

Act II is primarily concerned with developing the seeds that have been sown in the first act. This act deepens the conflict resulting from obstacles to the goal, while simultaneously developing the protagonist, and other characters, in response to these obstacles. This act is balanced by the mid-point, a moment in the story in which the protagonist considers whether or not to throw in the towel and turn back from the goal in the face of mounting difficulties. This decision is encouraged by an event which reveals a secret truth about the protagonist — some hidden strength or quality which equips him or her to face the challenges ahead with renewed resources.

The act continues to probe the thematic question, although it does not yet provide an answer to it. In The Matrix example, the answer to the final outcome of the battle between man and machine see-saws through many iterations, and remains unresolved. Act II is the longest, most intricate, and complicated part of the story.


Act III typically pays-off, and resolves, through the denouement, the questions and puzzles set up by the previous two acts. It answers the main dramatic question of whether the Hero will succeed in attaining his/her goal. The third act also settles the theme. If the theme of The Matrix is about whether or not self-sacrifice serves the greater good, the third movie in the trilogy, The Matrix Reloaded, settles it in the affirmative, as a result of the final conflict.


A three act structure allows the writer to craft a story that has a beginning, middle, and end. All three acts have their own function to perform. They collaborate to produce the theme of the story, as a result of the final conflict in the third act.


If you enjoyed this post, or have a suggestion for a future one, kindly leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday.