What is Three Act Structure? By Susan Brand

Three Act Structure is the most commonly used structuring device in Western storytelling. Here are some of its characteristics:

3 parts: beginning, middle and end
Protagonist on a quest
Question posed at the top
Question answered at the end
Rising drama
Each act with major act climax
Conflict and Obstacles
Time compressed

I find European filmmakers don’t really like being told what to do, that includes using a pre-packaged film structure, especially one touted by Americans as a holy grail. This approach however, is much older than America and even older in fact than Aristotle, sometimes seen as the grandfather of Three Act Structure. Stories have been told in this way for millennia, because we like it. We like heros and heroines setting out on quests, seeking a goal. We love to see them pit themselves against life’s obstacles, get into conflicts and then succeed or not succeed. We like it because we find it very emotionally compelling. I’m not going to try to sell it to you here however, I’m going to talk about when it might be a good idea to reach for the text book or contact a Story Consultant.

A great time to swot up on Three Act Structure is when your film isn’t working. Each act has a recommended length, each act has a recommended place for the act climax. Try plotting out your film to see how far away you are from the ideal. Doing this can reveal things like these:

One act may be way to long or way too short
Your act climaxes may be badly placed
Your film may not be building dramatically
You may have made a portrait film, not a story at all

When you are editing, you still have time to rejig your material. You can often fix problems or enough of them to improve your film dramatically. It really is worth keeping back a little money for pickups. Once you have found your problem, shooting can allow you get material to solve it.

Of course, you can use this approach from when you begin your film…