Today, I'm writing about the 3-act structure. To me, this is the number 1 most important thing in filmmaking. Not necessarily the 3-act structure itself, but what it represents. It represents the art of storytelling. Before you can pick up the fancy, expensive cameras; before you get those gorgeous, cinematic shots; before you can attract big budgets and investment; before you can use cutting-edge graphics; before you do anything else in filmmaking, you have to be able to tell a good story.
When you strip everything else away, at the core of any good film is a good story. To make a film is to tell a story. The three-act structure can help guide you through this process and sharpen up your storytelling skills, helping you make better films. When it comes to making your movie storyboard, you should know this backward. In this guide, I explain exactly what the 3-act structure is, why it's important and how you can utilize it in your films.
What is the 3-act structure?
The 3-act structure is a model of storytelling that is often used in narrative fiction. It divides a story into 3 parts, or acts. These parts are called the setup, confrontation and resolution, and they directly correspond to the beginning, middle and end of a film.
Why is it important?
The three-act story structure is essential because it helps anchor your story and ensures that you don't lose sight of what you're doing with your video. If the story doesn't have any setup, the audience may lack context for the rest of the film. They may lack empathy and understanding of the characters. If the story lacks a confrontation, it may be boring and leave audience members wondering why they're watching. If there's no resolution? The audience is going to be annoyed that they wasted their time.
The 3-act structure is crucial because it's the essential foundation and framework of making a good film. It provides the various points of a story, and without it, your video will collapse. Below, let's take a look at each act in detail.
Act 1 - the setup (the beginning)
As a rule of thumb, the setup of a film will be around 20-30 minutes in length. In the setup, you're looking to establish the world your story is set in, the characters it focuses on and their goals. You also want to show the conflicts and obstacles at play, which prevent your characters from achieving their goals.
Toward the end of act one, there will be some sort of event or incident that acts as a turning point. This achieves several things, including 1) signaling the end of the first act and the beginning of the second act, 2) ensuring nothing will be the same for the main character(s) again and 3) leaving the audience with questions that they need answering and resolved.
Act 2 - the confrontation (the middle)
In act 2, you're looking to raise the stakes for your character(s). It's the main segment in your film and will therefore be the longest. It's up to you to decide how long it is. You need enough time to raise those stakes significantly, but make sure you don't bore your audience or drag it out for no good reason.
In order to resolve the turning point at the end of act 1 and achieve their goals, the character(s) are coming up against situations that are more and more challenging. Their conflict is escalated, and therefore, the audience wants to keep watching. They want to know what's going to happen next to the character(s) that they are now emotionally invested in.
Act 3 - the resolution (the end)
In the third and final act of your film, you're looking to resolve the story. You do this by tying together all of the various narrative threads and subplots. All of the tensions that have been rising throughout act 2 have been brought to their most intense point, and now, there is a finale that gives the audience the answers they have been waiting for. Whether the character(s) achieve their goals or fail and how they go about it in this final act is entirely up to you.
Three-act structure examples
Let's look at 2 very different 3-act structure examples that both made expert use of the 3 act structure.
First up, the original Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope.
- Princess Leia is captured by the villain Darth Vader
- The hero, Luke Skywalker, is introduced as a farm boy living with his aunt and uncle. He dreams about leaving but has to stay and work.
- Luke purchases R2D2 and C3PO, which connects him to the broader story of Princess Leia.
- He meets Obi-Wan and begins to learn more.
- On his return to the farm, he finds his family killed and the farm burned by stormtroopers. He commits to helping Obi-Wan, and now, the course of his story has changed.
- On a journey to the planet Alderaan, Luke begins to learn more about the force, acquiring new skills and knowledge from Obi-Wan. He meets Han Solo and other characters.
- Meanwhile, the stakes are raised as the Death Star destroys the planet of Alderaan, demonstrating the evil of The Empire. The stakes are raised dramatically.
- The stakes continue to rise, and the group encounters various problems while performing a dramatic rescue of Princess Leia on the Death Star. They are at their lowest here, facing enormous challenges.
- Spoiler alert: Obi-Wan is killed by Darth Vader, leaving Luke devastated and rudderless. He feels he is not ready for the challenges ahead without his mentor.
- The characters feel like giving up, but they need to deliver the plans they've stolen to the Rebel fighters.
- The final battle takes place with the Rebels attacking the Death Star.
- Luke Skywalker has to overcome his fears and utilize everything that he has learned throughout the story, including the ways of the force.
- His trust in this enables him to succeed in blowing up the Death Star while Darth Vader is defeated by Han Solo.
- Everyone celebrates as the villains have been destroyed, bringing about peace and harmony. There is closure for the audience.
See what I mean? That was obviously a very brief recap of an iconic film. It's not a full script breakdown, but you can see how the different narrative threads work, following the 3 act story structure, twisting and turning on the points of a story.
Next, let's look at a master of the 3 act structure - someone who's producing films slightly different from Star Wars. YouTube genius Casey Neistat.
- We're told by Casey that this vlog is "a rescue and recovery mission" straight away. He sets things up by telling the audience he's "not expecting this to be a successful rescue mission,"...but what if it is!?
- He keeps things simple, getting straight to the point. The day before, he'd lost his drone on a rooftop. He's hoping that today, he can reclaim it.
- He walks us through the various ways in which this plan could work. Can he get up through the building using an interior fire escape to gain access to the roof? Or can he go up using the normal staircase inside? Both will count as trespassing…
- Casey surveys the block of buildings where the drone is.
- The stakes and tension rise as he sneaks into the building. He fails here because he's in the wrong building.
- He locates the drone but establishes that he can't get onto that specific roof. He needs "an entirely new approach" to rescuing the drone. It looks pretty much impossible at this point.
- We see him back at the office, signifying back at square one, where the beginning of the video took place. Here, he assembles a tool that could help fix his problems. "This is a wildly different approach. This is a high-risk recovery attempt."
- He talks us through how his tool (the grappling hook) will work. He highlights that "I can think of quite a few things that could go wrong with this scenario but the one that I'm most worried about is that after I hook it and I'm pulling it up 300ft, if and when it falls... that's goodnight." The stakes could not be higher. It's all or nothing.
- In the resolution of this video, we see the rescue mission finally take place. It's full of tension and suspense as he lowers the grappling hook down toward the drone. There's definitely a "Mission Impossible" feel to this sequence!
- The scene also resembles a game you'd play in an arcade where you're trying to pick up a toy with a grappling hook. It's full of tension and suspense.
- The film is resolved, and the audience is given joy and closure as Casey successfully rescues his drone. Mission accomplished.
Wherever you look, you'll find countless 3 act structure examples being used in storytelling. Unsurprisingly, Casey's brother Van Neistat is doing the same thing, as well as plenty of other YouTubers such as Beau Miles. Next time you watch a video you enjoy or find a particularly interesting story that keeps you watching, try to analyze and identify the narrative threads built on the back of the 3-act story structure.
So, that's the importance of the three-act story structure. No matter whether you're trying to form a short film structure or pondering how to write a YouTube script, it's clear to see just how valuable and necessary this framework is. When we hit record and splice an edit, we are all telling a story, and we must understand all of those points of a story.
Of course, it's not the only way to make a film and tell your story. As any good filmmaker should, you can always experiment, play around and push boundaries. As Ryan Connolly mentioned, feel free to break these rules! But before you do so, make sure you're fully versed in this concept of the 3-act story structure and genuinely understand how to tell a story. You'll be a far better filmmaker for it.
Josh Edwards is an accomplished filmmaker, industry writing veteran, storyteller based in Indonesia (by way of the UK), and industry writer in the Blade Ronner Media Writing Collective. He's passionate about travel and documents adventures and stories through his films.