Screenwriting Blog
Posted on by Victoria Lucia

Breaking Down 3 Act and 5 Act Structures in a Traditional Screenplay

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?

With one click

Export a perfectly formatted traditional script.

Try SoCreate for free!

Write Like This...
...Export To This!

Well, sometimes I find myself wondering that too! How many acts should my script be? What is a 3 act structure in film, and how do you write a5 act structure? What is the 4 act structure and when is it used? Here are some things I consider when I want to decide between a 3 act structure versus a 5 act structure screenplay.

Breaking Down 3 Act and 5 Act Structures in a Traditional Screenplay

3 Act Structure

3 Act Structure Outline:  

  • 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.

Important Points

  • 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

3 Act Structure Examples

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

5 Act Structure Outline:

  • 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.

Important Points

  • 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

5 Act Structure Examples:

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.

Happy writing.

You may also be interested in...

How to Write a Script Without Dialogue

From shorts to features, there are entire films made today that have little to no dialogue. And the screenplays for these films are often the perfect example of what a screenplay should be, a demonstration of showing and not telling, using only visual storytelling techniques. We asked Screenwriter Doug Richardson (“Bad Boys,” “Die Hard 2,” “Hostage”) what he believes are the keys to success for storytelling without dialogue. “Oh, that’s very simple,” he told us. “How to write a screenplay with little or no dialogue, and how to keep the reader engaged? It’s a very simple thing. Tell a story that makes the reader ...

New York Times Bestseller Jonathan Maberry Tells You How to Write the Perfect First Page

Sometimes the thought of writing something terrible prevents me from writing anything at all. But the feeling doesn’t last, A) because I’ve trained myself to break through that barrier, and B) because I don’t get paid if I don’t write! The latter is very motivating, but not something that most screenwriters can rely on regularly. No, your inspiration must come from yourself. So, what do you do when you can’t seem to get past your screenplay’s title page? New York Times Bestseller Jonathan Maberry has some advice for how to start a screenplay and write the perfect first page, and it begins with ...

Use Capitalization in Traditional Screenwriting

6 things to capitalize in your screenplay

How To Use Capitalization In Traditional Screenwriting

Unlike some of the other rules of traditional screenplay formatting, the rules of capitalization are not written in stone. While each writer's unique style will influence their individual use of capitalization, there are 6 general things that you should capitalize in your screenplay. The first time that a character is introduced. Character names above their dialogue. Scene headings and slug lines. Character extensions for "voice-over" and "off-screen." Transitions, including FADE IN, CUT TO, INTERCUT, FADE OUT. Integral sounds, visual effects, or props that need to be captured in a scene. NOTE: Capitalization...