Screenwriting! Understanding Three-Act Structure

14 Jun

by Julie Eshbaugh

It has been said that a movie is a story told with pictures.  So, it only follows that a screenplay is nothing more than that “picture story” written out in words – the dialogue, setting, sometimes camera angles – a simple translation onto the page of the images that will tell the movie’s story.

Easy, right?

If only that were true!  Screenwriting, like any other writing, is a craft.   And like all crafts, it has rules.  These rules weren’t written before the first screenplay, but instead they have evolved as quality screenwriting has been analyzed and studied over the decades.  In other words, these rules didn’t create the first great screenplays.  In fact, the opposite is true.   Great screenplays created these rules.  Scholars of film simply observed what characteristics these screenplays had in common, and wrote down what they learned.  One person, in particular, translated what he observed into a structure that has become Hollywood’s most trusted tool for testing a screenplay’s viability and potential for success.

Who is this mythical man, you may ask, who has had such wide-reaching impact on how a screenplay is judged?  His name is Syd Field, and his watershed work on screenwriting is a little book called Screenplay.

Before I say more about screenplay structure, let me repeat that Syd Field didn’t “invent” the ideas he describes in Screenplay and his subsequent books. He simply observed and articulated what has become known as the paradigm of three-act structure.

Here’s what Field’s paradigm looks like:

Field’s theory of screenplay structure is easy to understand, once you’ve familiarized yourself with the paradigm. Basically, Field proposes that in the most successful screenplays (and by that I don’t mean “box-office success”; I mean that the screenplay can most successfully be translated into a vivid on-screen story) share certain characteristics.

In Field’s structure, the film’s “Set-up” (Act One) must be established within the first twenty to thirty minutes before the protagonist experiences a “plot point” that gives him or her a goal that must be achieved. About half of the film’s running time begins at this first “plot point” and must then be taken up with the protagonist’s struggle to achieve his or her goal. This middle fifty percent of the script is known as the “Confrontation” (Act Two.)  Field also refers to the “Midpoint,” a more subtle turning point that happens in the middle of Act Two, which generally has a profound impact on the protagonist’s path. Sometimes a new character is introduced at the midpoint; sometimes a subplot is introduced or heats up. The final quarter of the film, the “Resolution” (Act Three,) depicts a climactic struggle by the protagonist to finally achieve (or not achieve) his or her goal and the aftermath of this struggle.

If before reading this post you were completely unfamiliar with Syd Field and his impact on the film industry, you may be cursing him at this moment, blaming him for introducing “formula” to the wonderful world of cinema and destroying creativity. As a writer who has attempted to write within this structure, I must admit it can be very daunting. But keep in mind that Syd Field’s structure is just that – a structure. It’s like a wash line. It gives support, but it doesn’t limit the variety of what you can hang on it.

If you doubt Field’s influence, here’s a challenge. Choose one of your favorite movies. Take the total running time of the film, divide it according to the structure laid out in the diagram above, and then look for the turning points that Field denotes in his paradigm. Let me know if you find a modern Hollywood film that departs drastically from the paradigm. I’m sure there are a few out there. For my part, I’ve tried it with Chinatown, Like Water for Chocolate, and Say Anything. They all fit. And, in my opinion, they are all well-structured films.

Whether you write screenplays, novels, or poetry, most writers have strong opinions about structure and RULES!  I look forward to reading your comments – both positive and negative!


Julie Eshbaugh is represented by Natalie Fischer of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency. You can follow her on LiveJournal here and on Twitter here.



19 Responses to “Screenwriting! Understanding Three-Act Structure”

  1. Julie Eshbaugh June 14, 2010 at 10:19 AM #

    Feel free to comment whether you write for the screen or not. I’m sure MOST writers would have an opinion about such a strict structure being imposed on their writing! 🙂 For my part, let me just say this – I attempted to write screenplays for several years, and although I wrote the scripts for my two short films, I NEVER managed to complete a full length screenplay. No matter how hard I tried, I COULD NEVER FINISH ONE. I think I found the tight structure far too intimidating!!! 🙂
    How do you feel about RULES in writing? Can you follow the rules of a sonnet in iambic pentameter? Or do you (like me) draw the line at haiku?

  2. Savannah J. Foley June 14, 2010 at 10:28 AM #

    Ahh, the classic ‘rising action, climax, falling action’. I remember hating having to plot that stuff out when I was in school, but now that I’m older I see the benefit of charting out novels so that your pacing stays on track. Thanks for the article, Julie!

    • Julie Eshbaugh June 14, 2010 at 10:45 AM #

      Hey Savannah! I agree; as much as the word “structure” can come across as cringe-worthy, it does help a writer out! Thanks for the comment! 🙂

  3. Vanessa June 14, 2010 at 11:26 AM #

    I’m terrible with structure. I can do it, sure, but I always find myself falling out of love with something once I’ve plotted it out so strictly. I tend to just use generalized ideas. I agree with Field’s paradigm, but in a much looser sense. One should never have to feel restricted like that in writing, especially since it is an art form. But, if you’re trying to appeal to the masses, it would be hard to not follow a formula much like his.

    And I could NEVER write poetry in iambic pentameter or anything like that. I’m a free-verse kinda gal. I suppose I just find it too restricting! I like letting the words flow, ahaha! (Sorry… I couldn’t resist :p)

    But great article Julie! I have a cousin who writes screenplays, so I’ll be sure to tell her about this post! 😀

    • Julie Eshbaugh June 14, 2010 at 12:41 PM #

      Hey Vanessa! I’m with you on poetry; I’ve tried to write sonnets in proper sonnet style, but I feel so shackled. I think with screenplays, I just could never get used to the rules. I wonder if I’d just written, and then gone back and checked, would I have hit the right spots anyway, just because they’re so ingrained? I notice when I look at my novel manuscript, a lot of these “plot points” take place approximately where they do in Field’s paradigm…
      Thanks for the comment!

  4. jenn fitzgerald June 14, 2010 at 12:22 PM #

    Just reading about screenwriting structure, it doesn’t seem that restrictive, but then I guess I’m not getting into all the little details and I’ve never tried to write a screenplay!

    I also tend to like things that are structured. I don’t have the patience to write sonnets (or other poetry for that matter) but I like them

    • Julie Eshbaugh June 14, 2010 at 12:43 PM #

      Hey Jenn! I agree; I enjoy structure when it’s done well. I LOVE Shakespeare’s sonnets. But I think part of what makes me love them is knowing how difficult it is to do, let alone to do well. 🙂 Thanks for commenting!

  5. elle_strauss June 14, 2010 at 7:47 PM #

    Hi Julie,

    I’ve studied screenwriting, too and read a lot of Syd Field. I believe studying three act structure and plot points has helped me as a novel writer.

    Great post.

    • Julie Eshbaugh June 14, 2010 at 9:10 PM #

      Hey Elle!

      Thanks for the comment! I completely agree that the many books out there about screenwriting will help a writer to create a well-structured novel. (Even though somehow I never quite learned to write a well-structured screenplay.) 🙂

  6. Praya June 15, 2010 at 12:54 AM #

    Hey Julie!

    Thanks for the insight into the screen-writing world. While I don’t think writing should ever be formulaic- it just leaves the reader/audience feeling underwhelmed- I think Field’s providing an easy way to make sure you surprise. And the point of a surprise is that it ISN’T formulaic- there’s something in it to shock you. I tend to think of novels as beginning-conflict-resolution, but I can see how throwing in a curve ball in the middle makes your story stronger. I mean, where would Harry Potter be without Harry uncovering the prophecy in book five? (Haha, Harry Potter, always a useful reference ;))

    • Julie Eshbaugh June 15, 2010 at 6:46 AM #

      ! Your Harry Potter reference is dead-on! When it comes to screenplays, I own the script to Say Anything (Wow, I am SUCH a child of the 80s!) and on the exact middle page the IRS agents show up at their door, starting the entire subplot with the father. Without that subplot, Say Anything is just another teen romance. (For those of you who have never seen Say Anything, go watch it! I LOVE Lloyd Dobler!!!) Thanks for the comment. 🙂

  7. Vahini June 16, 2010 at 7:11 PM #

    Great post on structure, Julie! I think I tend to not pay attention to stuff like this because it paralyses me, but then I try and edit a structure in to second and third drafts.

    Like you and V I can’t write poetry that isn’t free verse either 🙂 (Although I’ve tried…Multiple times, haha).

    • Julie Eshbaugh June 16, 2010 at 7:25 PM #

      Hey Vahini! It’s so funny how you say you try to edit a structure into later drafts. I usually look at the pacing after I finish the first draft. The first “plot point” almost always comes too late. So then the first edits are all about tightening the “set-up.” I guess that’s why we edit!!! 🙂

  8. alchemme June 17, 2010 at 7:25 PM #

    Thanks Julie. It is amazing how structure can liberate you once your have embraced it. Writing screenplays really is more like writing a sonnet than anything. It can be exhilarating for the audience and the writer when it works! I admire you prose writers – I often find the lack of apparent structure daunting. Too many choices when I could be reading my “Hey Soul Classics”!

    • Julie Eshbaugh June 17, 2010 at 10:48 PM #

      Wow!!! An awesome comment topped off with an awesome Say Anything reference. You are now my idol. 🙂
      Thanks for commenting!!!

  9. Steve Kelly October 7, 2010 at 9:08 AM #

    Syd Field has held sway for a long time but I read that in the early days of film making his 3 act structure was not used. Instead,stories were written cinematically based on 8 sequences.

    I use this method overlayed onto the Syd Field plan as the mid point of point coincides, (approx 15 pages per sequence)

    It is also useful for writers who struggle with the second act as breaking it down this way avoids the problem.

    The way it work is this:

    1-15 Set up
    16-30 catalyst
    31-45 first turning pint
    46-59 post first turning point
    60 midpoint
    61-75 post midpoint
    76-90 second turning point
    91-105 pre-climax
    106-120 climax

    Hope this helps anyone

    • Julie Eshbaugh October 7, 2010 at 12:32 PM #

      Wow, I like that breakdown, Steve! Thanks for posting it. This post gets a lot of hits and I’m sure there are a lot of writers out there who will appreciated this. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

  10. Martin July 8, 2011 at 2:08 PM #

    To me, structure is very, very important to a screenplay. Writing one is a craft and so like any craft, the technical must me mastered to serve the exposition of the artistic intention fully. Simple as that. It ‘s true for any art form. Would you rather listen to Segovia playing Bach, or Sid Vicious?! I guess that’s a matter of taste, but taste is a funny thing; with life experience it changes. If enough work and humility are bought to the practice of a craft, the results are going to be better whatever the fashionable opinion of the day might be. Truth is self evident to those who can see clearly and accept difficulties as part of life.

    • Julie Eshbaugh July 9, 2011 at 1:43 PM #

      Martin, great observations! Thanks for the comment. 🙂

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