I’ve been studying three-act structure again and trying to get a better understanding of it as it is applied in actual stories. As a result, I’ve plotted out a number of films with the act structure called out. Before I start posting those, here is my understanding of three-act structure.
Three-act structure is the method by which most modern stories are plotted in order to produce a series of satisfying dramatic moments. There are other ways to plot a story (Shakespearean five-act structure, for example), but three acts is generally thought of as the simplest useful way, and five-act and other structures can pretty easily be mapped onto it.
One of the most obvious aspects of three-act structure is that it is really four-act structure, because the crisis at the half-way point completely changes the direction of the story. And four equal-sized acts make more sense than talking about the “first half of the second act”.
In this diagram, we see the emotional state of the hero rising and falling with triumphs and setbacks. The first act is one quarter of the length of the story (including the prolog, if there is one), the second act is half the story, and the third act is the final quarter (including the epilog, if there is one).
This is a brief, optional opening, often with action that shows how the hero and perhaps other characters got to the point where the story to be told actually starts.
This is back story, a flashback, sometimes merely a printed legend or narrated montage. If this is a murder mystery, the murder is typically committed here. If the hero features, it typically shows the hero’s life improving to where it is “today”.
Act 1 – Intro & Motivation
The introduction to the conflict and the motivation to resolve it.
We are introduced to the setting and the main characters, usually including the hero or heroes. This establishes the steady state the heroes live in.
Then villain is revealed, perhaps with action, often of a sort that the heroes witness but don’t participate in, such as seeing the aftermath in a news report.
The Conflict & Motivation
Then the central conflict is introduced: the heroes want something (money, fame, each other, just to live in peace…), but something stands in their way: a villain or circumstances. We establish the nature of the conflict and obvious complications. If there is a catch (a problem that has to be remedied before the heroes can resolve the central conflict), it may get introduced here; perhaps they don’t know who the villain is or where he is.
Often, if the heroes don’t act to resolve the conflict, there will be disaster. The heroes are often reluctant to embark on the adventure, but circumstances or rewards convince them.
Act 1 ends one quarter of the way thru the story with the heroes committed to resolving the conflict.
Act 2 – Struggle, Crisis, & Bottom
The struggle to resolve the conflict and a crisis and apparent failure.
The heroes start out with optimism to resolve the conflict. They are in a chase, but they might be the hunters or the hunted. This is a series of confrontations with heavies the villain controls and complications from things the villain doesn’t control. There may be a subplot here that introduces a secondary conflict. Secondary conflicts should be resolved before the primary conflict, but catches, by definition, must be.
During this time, the heroes may get a pointed warning or else encounter the villain’s chief henchman or even the villain himself in a social setting or as a social superior, perhaps without knowing that he or she is a heavy.
Just when things seem to be going pretty well, there is a crisis half-way thru the story that threatens to ruin the heroes’ chances. A key member of the heroes’ team may die (or appear to). The villain slips thru the heroes’ fingers. Or a catch is introduced here. Or circumstances (such as a storm or wrong-headed authority figure) constrain the heroes’ progress. If there is a subplot, both it and the central conflict should have a crisis in quick succession.
The Bitter Struggle
The heroes continue struggling with complications, plot devices, and bigger confrontations, such as multiple bad things happening at once, a betrayal, a chase, and/or a fight. Typically, a ticking clock is introduced to ratchet up the tension. It becomes an all-out race against time!
The Bottom & Turn
Things don’t go well, and the heroes are reduced to the bottom: their lowest point emotionally and perhaps physically, often with a particular moment where all seems lost.
But then there is a turn. Perhaps an expert or mentor provides some aid, or the heroes resolve the catch or secondary conflict, possibly by figuring out where the villain is or what the real villain’s identity is. Or a clue makes previously confusing pieces of the puzzle fall into place.
Note that some people consider the turn to be a separate plot point from the bottom and to be the beginning the third act, but they can occur so close together they are practically the same event (discovering a betrayal but resolving the catch of who the villain is). The bottom can last a substantial amount of in-universe time, with the heroes essentially giving up or spinning their wheels until they get a break or otherwise recommit to achieving a resolution.
Act 2 ends three-quarters of the way thru the story with the heroes at a physical and perhaps emotional low but committed to resolving the conflict once and for all.
Act 3 – Turning the Tables, the Climax, & the Resolution
The final struggle before achieving success and resolving the conflict.
Turning the Tables
The heroes turn the tables on the villain and put their (new) plan into action. There are still complications in the form of henchmen to battle or confirmation of the clues to be done, but their actions are now swift and confident.
However, there can often be a setback here, with the heroes getting captured or wounded or having to convince authorities they aren’t crazy.
The Climax & Final Challenge
At the climax, the heroes end up in a final confrontation with the villain (“So, we meet again…”) and win the day.
Often, there is one last challenge or twist before success (or failure). Here is where the heroes might have to sacrifice something to resolve a conflict or perhaps there is a betrayal, but these things have quick (if not easy) solutions.
In the end, the heroes are successful (or dead). They return triumphant (or on their shields). Either way, the conflict is resolved, and the heroes settle into a new, higher emotional state (but not as high as the climax). Any loose ends are tied up, such as the heroes getting their reward, injured characters getting aid, and bothersome authorities getting their comeuppance. This can sometimes be very brief.
A common mistake here is carrying on with story after the central conflict has been resolved because there are loose ends (subplots or mere questions) that weren’t resolved earlier and can’t be resolved quickly. It’s dull, because the audience is rapidly losing interest now that the point of the story has been reached.
The opposite is also a common mistake: “leaving the story open” or presenting an ending that is ambiguous, meaning the central conflict is never actually resolved.
Not all open or ambiguous endings are mistakes. Audiences expect certain characters to go on to further adventures, for example, and that not every ending leaves the characters entirely happy. The middle story in a trilogy, for example, typically ends with villain winning the day and the heroes mourning their loss (conflict resolved in favor of the villain); this is the end of the second act of the trilogy as a whole.
This is a brief, optional closing that shows the heroes at a new, higher emotional state, often after a substantial amount of time, demonstrating that they have improved their standing in life and do indeed live happily ever after (or are mourned).