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