There is no film without a script, and there is no script without a story. Writing is perhaps one of the most challenging stages of film production, precisely because without words on paper, you cannot advance with your project. There are different approaches to screenwriting, but the most universally accepted consists in dividing your story into three separate acts. This dramatic structure makes for an easy narrative to both build as a writer and follow as a spectator. Below, we describe in detail what goes into each act of your 3-act screenplay. Let’s take a look.
How to Create a 3-Act Structure
Act 1 – Introduction or exposition
Traditional dramatic structure begins with the introduction of characters and their universe. We get a good glimpse at their lives, enough to infer they are either in a comfortable place with their routines or something is troubling them in some way.
Then, the inciting incident comes into play. Also known as the conflict that the characters will have to face and eventually overcome or not, it is followed by the call to action or adventure, which the character may refuse or hesitate to answer at first, only to eventually give in and lead us into the second act.
Act 2 – Rising action and substory
Once the call has been answered, what follows is a sequence of action and character development commonly known as the “rising action” of the film. This is where the hero embarks on a journey, or starts hitting the gym, or practices a craft or ability to master it.
In some films, at this point is also where a substory gets introduced, which is basically a supporting story that will probably come into play later on. Your story will hit its midpoint right after, in which the hero realizes the stakes are higher than before and at that critical moment, something happens that makes everything start to crumble down.
Our main characters will hit their lowest point as a result, refusing to take back their leading role and just dropping all their goals and aspirations to go back to their old routines. However, a breakthrough forces or convinces them to step in once more, usually something related to the substory introduced earlier.
Act 3 – Resolution
With the characters set to finish what they started, we will eventually hit the climax of the story, which will put the hero face to face with the initial conflict in a way that will change things one way or another.
Anything can happen here, but what is certain is that our characters will come out as new, different people from having been a part of the climactic event. The hero’s routine from the start of the film cannot be the same in this new world, because now they have gained something life-defining that they didn’t have at the beginning.
How to make my story fit into this structure?
Like most creative writing processes, you can’t just shoehorn things into being. There are probably infinite ways to face the challenge, but you can start by brainstorming ideas for general story themes, or come up with very specific elements of the story.
On the other hand, if you have already defined your main characters, you can pose questions that reveal more about the potential story you will tell. Combining both methods will also help you get a more complete picture of the plot points and other elements.
As always, the most effective advice is to just start writing. Get ideas flowing, and worry about structure later. Things will fall into place, but knowing those places is really helpful when the time comes to weave everything into a story for the big screen.