The Myth of Three Act Screenplay Structure (or, “Why Am I Lost In My Second Act?”)
By Jacob Krueger
For about as long as there have been screenwriting books, young writers have been taught that movies have a three act structure. Each act is viewed as 30 to 60 page chunk of the plot and when they’re all assembled together, they provide a beginning, middle, and an end for your story. Countless script doctors, critics, teachers, and producers have used this structure to break down great movies, and analyze how they are put together.
But while this may be a great way of looking at a finished script from a critical perspective, it’s not particularly useful to screenwriters. When you’re beginning a new project, it’s not exactly groundbreaking news that your story is going to need a beginning, middle and an end. The real challenge is figuring out how to structure your story in a way that captures the essence of your character’s journey.
Trying to use three act structure to create the story of your movie is like trying to sprint through a marathon. You may start off strong, but by the time you hit the middle of the story, you’ll most likely be running out of steam. The plot starts to feel external, manufactured, predictable or diffuse. The ideas just aren’t coming anymore. Or you find yourself spinning off in all kinds of directions that take you away from your main character and the story you were telling. This is a common malady. It’s called “getting lost in the second act.” And it’s killed more good screenplays than any Hollywood bigshot.
That’s why I came up with Seven Act Structure.
Seven Act Structure is not for producers. It’s not for critics, or professors, or development executives. Seven Act Structure is for writers. To understand Seven Act Structure, you need to start by understanding the idea of an act.
An act is not just about plot.
That’s because great movies are about much more than plot. They’re about interesting characters going on profound journeys that change them forever. Think about any movie you’ve loved and you’ll know this is true. The details of the plot get fuzzy with time, but those powerful moments stay with you forever. So rather than thinking of an act as something you “fill” with plot, I’d like to encourage you to think of it as a way of tracking the journey your character is undertaking, and the way that journey is forever changing your character.
Each act is just a step in your character’s change.
People don’t change easily, and your character shouldn’t either. Take a moment to think about what it would take to make you completely change your own life, how many fears you’d have to overcome, and how many challenges you’d have to face, and you’ll have a taste of the kind of resistance your character is fighting. Structure evolves as a way of pushing your character toward a profound change– whether he or she wants it or not.
So as you develop your structure, you can think of each act as one small step in the radical change your character is undergoing. When you begin to think of an act in this way, one thing will jump out at you pretty quickly. Trying to use three act structure to create a film means you are trying to take a character through the most profound journey in his or her life in only THREE STEPS. That’s 30-60 pages per step. And that’s a lot of pages!
No wonder writers tend to get lost in the second act!
Seven Act Structure is a new way of looking at structure from a character’s perspective, allowing you to break down the character’s change into manageable chunks, and to give yourself a structure you can actually use. Because of the unique “engine” built into the structure, it’s impossible to run out of steam. It keeps your focus where it should be, on your main character. And best of all, it lines up perfectly with a studio’s “three act” expectations, so the Hollywood big shots will never know the difference.
If you’d like to learn more about Seven Act Structure, I invite you to check out one of my upcoming classes.