Monday, August 9, 2010

Three Act Structure for Beginners

Everybody else is having a go - laws, rules, theories, paradigms, tips, tweets and blogs relating to the craft of screenwriting - so I've jumped on the bandwagon!

Here now, my model for the aspiring screenwriter on how to understand and handle the three act structure:

Act 1 - Full of inspiration & energy

Congratulations! You've decided to write a feature script. Surely your ideas are better than that old tosh you saw at the megaplex the other night and/or your award winning short is wowing them on the festival circuit. Should be a snap to dash off your masterpiece. Inspiration - check; energy - check; self belief - off the charts.

Important things to remember:

Set-up: Have you got a really good laptop. I mean the sort that will draw envious glances from patrons of the upmarket cafe you intend to frequent? Screenwriting software - optional.

Character: Beret mandatory, scarf desirable, cocky attitude essential.

Theme: Does the screensaver of said laptop scream tortured artistic genius?

About halfway through the first act you should come to the Inciting Incident. This is usually where you tell your mum/partner/secret crush you are writing a feature script and she smothers you with (well deserved) praise.

This kicks you along to another important milestone --

The First Act Turning Point

This is often described as the page number past the length of your longest short film script. It signifies you have crossed the threshold into the special world of the feature script! Yes, it's really happening - you're writing a feature!

Act 2 - Wandering in the wilderness but still certain of success

Now you've crossed into this magical world you will discover vast tracts of barren pages waiting to be filled. This is where you need to be really carefully as a variety of archetypes lie in wait. Some of the common ones - procrastination, self-doubt, apathy, bewilderment and vacillation.

They will set increasingly difficult obstacles for you to traverse. Here you will come to embrace Allies such as caffeine, nicotine, red wine and, as you approach the midpoint of this desert, various illicit substances.

Be mindful though of shadow characters like Research that will appear to occupy you in useful activity but ultimately lead you away from your goal of adding tendrils of blackness to the whiteness of your life. Research has powerful vassals - Internet, Video store and X-Box whose siren calls may become irresistable. Stay alert!

Once you have navigated these treacherous parts the midpoint appears like an oasis. It is common at this time for your want to write a feature screenplay to be replaced by a need to --

- find gainful employment to pay the rent; or
- reintroduce yourself to loved ones; or
- start taking Vitamin D tablets.

It's all downhill from here - the slippery slide to death point and impending Second Act Turning Point. Everything turns to quicksand as you flail around desperately for character arcs, plot developments and heightened stakes. All seems lost - dreams of red carpet premieres. Imagined discussions on the chat show circuit. Yachts at Cannes. Big breasted starlets. Astronomical bank balances. All fading fast.

Never fear, such suffering is an essential part of the process. Wide-eyed and impotent in front of the keyboard at three in the morning, lost. Stakes are high. You really shouldn't have told your boss to [censored] during your First Act bliss. There's no turning back - you have to finish the damn thing!

Like a miracle, a helping hand will arrive to prod you into action and energise you for the final assault. Perhaps your mother/partner/secret crush will remind you of your undoubted potential for genius. Maybe one of your many allies finally kicks in before the paramedics arrive.

Act 3 - Mad Panic and dash to the finish

As the danger of mockery and being ostracised grows, you plunge head first into the final challenge where you ultimately overcome your flaw. Okay, maybe you did underestimate how hard this screenwriting lark was but damn it, you're determined to slay the dragon, sieze the sword and win the day.

Flush with new purpose you rise to the challenge and fingers fly over the keys. None of it makes any sense but that's not going to bother you until you get to peck out Fade to Black as you pass out unconscious on your laptop.

Well done. You have finished!

But WAIT... what's this nagging voice that whispers in your ear - "all writing is rewriting".

Bleary eyed you lift your head, untangle that tattered scarf and let out a feral bellow.

If you dare revisit the mess you have made, struggle to make it better, persist through every setback then you really will have crossed the threshold into a special world...that of being a screenwriter.


  1. Thank you Cei. Hey, how's my time-travelling taxi story coming along? :-)

  2. A very funny take on the angst of true committment - putting ourselves out in the big wide world loosely hung on a screenplay structure...

  3. Thank you Frances. Damned if it don't feel accurate sometimes! lol