A Story, In Three Acts

Every great story is told in three acts. In a single movie, it’s compacted into a space of 90 minutes to three hours. In a series—television or feature film serial—it’s layered. Each piece is its own three-act play, with an overarching set of acts that spans the entirety of the sequences. That’s one reason that the trilogy is so common. The same story-telling vehicle applies to books, thus the “three book deal.”

According to famed screenwriting teacher, Syd Field, and popular novelist, Angela Hunt, and many others, any great story can be deconstructed into the basic three acts. Field has a few books on screenwriting that even contain detailed diagrams to illustrate his point. I’m going to break these acts down in easy terms, so that even the youngest film (story) lover can enjoy a bit of analysis.

Act One is the Set-Up. This is the first 20-30 pages of a novel, the first 20 minutes of a movie, the first episode of a TV series. This is where we learn who our main character is, and what will motivate his or her actions for the rest of the tale. We discover both the main and sub plots here. We find out what our hero will do—or never do—to save the day. We know what he’s up against, even if we do not know the true identity of the villain.

Then along comes Plot Point One—the thing that starts it all. This is the deed that pushes our hero into action. This is Luke Skywalker finding his aunt and uncle murdered by Imperial Storm troopers. This is Andy receiving a Buzz Lightyear action figure. Act Two begins.

Act Two is the Action. This is the longest act, because this is where everything happens. A short way into Act Two is a “pinch” where the main plot and sub-plot intersect, and the protagonist knows that both his heart and his life depend on him saving the day. Halfway through Act Two there will be a major confrontation. This is the point of no return. Buzz and Woody are trapped in the neighbor’s house and Buzz discovers he’s not “real.” They must go forward because the only other option is destruction. One more “pinch” or plot intersection comes along—usually to remind the hero what he’s fighting for, and then…

Plot Point Two happens. This is the climax, the thing that ends it all. It’s that place in the story where the big battle takes place. Do or die time; no bathroom breaks here. This is where Luke and Han rescue Leia from the Death Star and Luke must become a warrior. He’s lost his mentor, but he must face Darth Vader. With the tactical help of Han Solo and the spiritual help of Obi Wan, he defeats the enemy and saves the galaxy.

On to Act Three, the Resolution. This is where the world is set right again—not always back to the way it was, but some form of happily ever after. There are no loose ends that won’t be addressed in a later film. Yes, Vader is still alive, but his power is gone, temporarily. The audience can breathe again.

Next time you watch a movie, try to dissect the pieces into acts. If it’s a really great film, you won’t have time while watching to think about the diagram of it, because the story will have you captivated.

That’s a wrap for this Toast to Cinema. Thanks for reading.

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