So you have a story, and you love it! You’ve got characters that are just like real people, you know all the beats and plot points inside and out, and you’ve got a distinct mood and tone in mind. Now how do you structure the dang thing?
Well, sometimes I find myself wondering that too! How many acts should my script be? What are the merits of using one structure versus another? Here are some things I consider when I want to decide between a three-act versus a five-act structure for a screenplay.
3 Act Structure
What a 3 act structure looks like:
- Act 1:
The setup, we get introduced to what’s going on, the inciting incident happens.
- Act 2:
There are obstacles/challenges, the action rises, we’re raising the stakes, the midpoint happens in this act.
- Act 3:
There’s a crisis/climax, and after that falling action, the story is resolved, and things are explained.
It boils down to act 1: setup, act 2: confrontation, act 3: resolution
At its core it’s simple, it’s instinctive, all stories have a beginning, middle, and an end
It’s a very recognizable structure for an audience
Other structures are often just fancy versions of the 3 act structure with more stuff added to them
Where have I seen a 3 act structure?
Good examples of the 3 act structure are “Star Wars,” “The Goonies,” and “Die Hard.”
Why should I consider using a 3 act structure?
It works! It’s time tested, it’s the most recognizable structural form, and it’s an easy structure to work with.
5 Act Structure
What a 5 act structure looks like:
- Act 1:
The setup. What’s going on? The inciting incident occurs.
- Act 2:
Rising Action. Conflicts emerge.
- Act 3:
Everything reaches a climax.
- Act 4:
Falling Action. Loose ends are being tied up, and things are being explained.
- Act 5:
Resolution/conclusion. Can reveal where we go from here.
Commonly used in one-hour TV shows (although less now, thanks to streaming services or premium cable channels where acts aren’t a concern because of the lack of commercial breaks)
It’s really just an expanded upon version of the 3 act structure
Where have I seen the 5 act structure?
Good examples of a 5 act structure are “Sicaro,” “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” and the Breaking Bad pilot.
Why should I consider using a 5 act structure?
Like I said before, you might use it if you’re writing a TV pilot, or perhaps if you prefer thinking of a feature-length script broken down a bit further than how it is in 3 act structure.
I could get into the founders of both methods and their intentions, but you don’t need to know all of that. I strongly believe in using structures like these as a guide, not a religion. You don’t need to live and die by these formulas.
At the end of the day, what does it matter which structure you chose if you have a compelling script by the end? Getting there is incredibly individual, so it’s up to you to choose the building blocks that will get you to a great script. My advice would be not to sweat too much over which format you should be using, and focus on telling the story in the best way that you can. All that matters is that the story is exciting, compelling, memorable, and well told.